“I really struggled with that and you made it look so easy,” Jon, the assistant watch leader, says to me after I’ve finished helming through a gusty night of 25-30 knot winds. “I mean, really. You made me look like a twat.”
I shrugged and smirked, not really sure what sort of response Jon was looking for. Is that a compliment, or is he just airing his frustrations?
Since we started the race in Brest, most of the night helming on my watch has been done by the watch leader, Nick, and the assistant watch leader, Jon, while the other crew have rotated on and off the helm during daylight hours so everyone could get comfortable helming in the dark. Especially since the pattern of the Tropics seems to be champagne sailing by day, and unpredictable squalls by night.
On this particularly windy night, with swells lifting the boat and rolling us from side to side as we sailed downwind, Jon grunted loudly as the boat pulled him hard upwind while he pulled away with all his might to keep the boat on a steady course. But by throwing the wheel over to fight the wind, he found himself too far off course and having to throw the wheel back the other way, setting off a pendulum effect that swung the boat to and fro uncomfortably.
As Jon gritted his teeth, I could see he was struggling to balance the boat and suspected he might be steering to the digital instruments, which showed the true wind angles lit up on the mast. Except the instruments had a 3-second delay in registering changes, meaning they didn’t so much tell you where you were, but rather where you’d just been.
When the Skipper called me up to the helm to give it a try, I tried to keep in mind what I knew about the wind, the instruments and the boat heel, and tried to ignore the fact that the skipper was standing right beside me, overseeing all my mistakes.
The thing I’ve discovered about helming these 70-footers – which is obviously different to sailing my little Catalina 34, whose top speed is about 5.5 knots — is that if you get them on the right heel with the right sail trim, they just glide and surf at speeds that nearly match the wind speeds, if not exceed them. And from what I’ve seen so far, that can be as fast as 30 knots on the right wave with the right winds.
But there are so many signals to read from the boat — the wind on the sails, the tension in the rigging, whether the boat is heeling or flattening out, the feel of the rudder when it’s in the middle and the lift of the stern right before it starts to ride out a wave. And on top of that, there is always an ideal course over ground (COG) to maintain which, in the race to Brazil, is pretty much 180 degrees due south. Which may or may not be attainable, depending on the wind angle.
But when all the elements come together perfectly – like when the boat’s stern is lifted with 20 knots of wind in the spinnaker and I’m surfing down a wave at 18 knots — I am grinning like a kid on a go-cart track. That feeling of riding a wave as far and long as it will take me brings on an adrenalin rush that reminds me of the long, fast turns I used to slice through the snow when downhill ski racing, a sport I’m much more familiar with.
When racing downhill on snow, my skis are like an extension of my body and I can feel in my core when I have to lean hard to counterbalance the speed of the skis coming around a turn. Which feels similar to the moment I feel the boat lift up and tilt away from the wind just before it rides down a wave. The instant heel of the boat brings on a momentary twinge of uncertainty in my gut, but once the boat starts to glide, my shoulders relax and I enjoy the ride while I work at the rudder to keep the surf going as long as possible.
With ski racing, my goal is always to trust in my training, my experience and my equipment, as well as to lower my inhibitions and let the skis ride out at the speeds they were designed to do. Which is not so different from the feeling of helming during a squall. If I trust the sail configuration and I know the speeds the boat can do, then I just need to take a deep breath, trust in myself and the boat, and ride the waves to the height of their speed. The goal in racing – both in skiing and sailing — is to push for speed as long as possible without prematurely putting on the brakes or damaging any equipment.
I was in a world of my own — thinking about yacht racing vs. ski racing while nudging the wheel back and forth with the hundreds of small wrist movements needed to keep the helm steady — when the skipper popped up beside me and said, “Tasha, you’re a natural.”
The compliment took me by surprise. So, rather than say thank-you, I brushed it off with, “I don’t know about that. I’m working quite hard!” Which was true — I was sweating so much I wished I had worn less clothing. But, perhaps I was more surprised to find that I might have found my niche on the boat.
When I signed up for the Clipper Race, my expectations of myself were quite low in that I wanted only to survive without injury and learn a little more about sailing. But to be good at something? That was rather unexpected.
Of all the jobs on board the Clipper yachts, helming was one that I was sure I would avoid. It seemed like such a great deal of responsibility to take on for such a large boat and crew. And having had no experience racing big, fast yachts, it seemed to me that the helm was a position for a much more experienced sailor. Plus, I loved being the go-to person for grinding, sweating up sails, trimming, working the bow, or doing any of the jobs required of me on deck.
But it’s amazing what a vote of confidence and some experience can do to develop one’s skill. Now, the crew has to practically pry my fingers off the wheel to get me off the helm. And the hairier the weather, the bigger the buzz I get from helming. Every squall poses a new challenge with unpredictable winds and rolling waves that often come with speed and an adrenalin surge.
There’s no doubt I have a lot more to learn about helming a racing yacht. And, for sure, the Southern Ocean has a few tough lessons in store for me. But, there’s no point in doubting myself now; I just have to keep learning.
Like other sports in my life, there comes a time when I just have to trust in my training, my experience and my equipment. And once I’ve done that, I can just let ‘er rip.
Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew