I must have drunk a boat-load of South African wine when I committed to writing a blog post a week while racing a yacht 4,800 miles across the Southern Ocean to Australia. But it’s easy to make commitments like that when you’re on dry, forgiving land.
Now, one week into the race, I’m throwing that plan out the window. Because it’s bananas out here.
Fighting a relentless stream of 100-foot waves and 50-knot winds for days on end has its way of wringing out the last dregs of my energy, leaving me incapable of staying awake long enough to write two sentences, let alone a whole blog post.
Though that doesn’t stop me from trying. Which means the crew on board Henri Lloyd continue to find me curled up in the corner of the salon fast asleep, hugging my laptop to my chest like a teddy bear.
You see, after four hours of changing sails and helming in squalls blowing gusts of up to 70 knots, all I can do when I come off watch is peel off my crusty, salt-soaked layers and fold my damp, frozen self into a tilted bunk to pass out for a few hours before crawling back up on deck again to take part in the madness once again.
And it occurs to me, sailing the Southern Ocean is nothing like sailing the Atlantic.
The differences between the two races have struck me hard, like an icy wave slapping me in the face, reminding me that I must be a special kind of crazy to be out here in the middle of this terrifying body of water.
But, then again, what’s crazier? To be racing across the Southern Ocean…or to be loving it?
Let me count the ways in which the Atlantic Ocean and the Southern Ocean races differ and you tell me…
1. The Pace (In it to win it)
“There are two possibilities I can see playing out in this race,” Eric says at the Henri Lloyd team meeting in Cape Town a few days before race start. “We can push to the front straight away and force the other boats to chase us. Or we can be patient and let the other boats push ahead while we bide our time and wait for an opportunity to move ahead, like we did in the race to Rio.”
When the cannon fires, calling the race start, it soon becomes clear that we are going for the first option. We leap through the start line in first place, luffing up OneDLL as they try to overtake us with their spinnaker flying.
And we hold nothing back when it comes to changing sails for every fickle wind shift the first 48 hours out of Cape Town until, before long, we are screaming along at speeds of 25 to 30 knots in 48 knots of wind, holding on tight and ducking waves that drench us in the cockpit, splay us across the foredeck and knock us sideways on the helm.
As Table Mountain fades out of view like a distant memory of warm, solid ground, I take a moment to stretch my arms up over my head and give my muscles a good, hard tug. Because it’s going to be a long, grueling marathon ahead.
2. The Weather (Relentless SOB)
Unlike our Atlantic crossing, where we had a reprieve from high winds during the day, allowing us to rest up for the hairy conditions at night, the wind and seas here on the Indian and Southern Ocean can only be described as relentless. Whether it’s day or night, every time I pop my head up through the hatch before watch changeover to check the weather, I’m immediately drenched by waves breaking over the cockpit, dumping ice-cold water down my neck.
But when hail and snow start pelting me in the eyes at the helm, that’s when I think, “Are you f&%$ing KIDDING me?!”
Like a cruel joke, when I’m cold and wet at the helm, memories surface of sailing across the Equator in shorts and a T-shirt and standing at the helm in a bucket of water to keep my feet cool.
Now, on Leg 3, I am gripping the helm with wet, heavy gloves that are freezing around my already stiff fingers.
I’ve sailed in wet conditions before and I’ve sailed in cold conditions. But this, here, is a new and fresh hell, sailing in wet and freezing conditions.
My mind wanders back to the two frigid years I spent living in the Russian Far East as a Peace Corps volunteer and I realize this moment right now on the Southern Ocean tops those Siberian winters as the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.
3. The Clothing (Water-logged)
Let’s just say I’m calling “bullshit” on any outerwear company that has ever branded their products “waterproof.”
I understand Sperry, SealSkinz and Gill may not have had the opportunity to beta-test their products on the Southern Ocean under a non-stop deluge for weeks on end. And, sure, their products probably weren’t even designed for such extreme conditions.
But “waterproof” feels like a definite misnomer when my boots, gloves and socks have completely soaked through just four hours into this race, and with little chance of drying out again until Australia.
The only part of me that is remotely dry is what is covered by my Henri Lloyd foul-weather jacket and bibs. But, at best, the rest of my gear could be described as “water resistant so long as it isn’t raining, there aren’t waves crashing overhead and you don’t find yourself standing in a cockpit full of water for twenty-four hours straight.”
If anyone out there knows of an actual waterproof product invented by NASA or anyone else I would LOVE to read your suggestions. Because I would trade a kidney for dry hands and feet right now.
4. The Speed (Holy sh**!”)
When we broke the Clipper speed record with 30.7 knots just off Cape Finisterre on Leg 1, we wondered what the Southern Ocean would dish out on Leg 3.
And now that I’m here, staring down a 100-foot cliff of water, bracing myself at the helm as I hit 30 knots with the wake blasting over the side of the boat so heavily that I can’t even see the digital instruments through my ski goggles, I know it’s just a matter of time before we smash our own record. My shoulders are taut, my knees are bent and my back is dug into the helming frame as I tighten my core against the roaring pull of the boat, fighting to surf this wave as long and straight as my strength will allow.
Sure enough, within a few hours of my 30-knot surf, “Hurricane George” –whose dad taught him to helm as a kid in a hurricane — hits 33.9 knots surfing down a mammoth wave in 60 knots of wind, drenching everyone on board in a wake so enveloping that we have to replay the CCTV footage of it over and over again just to confirm it really did happen.
5. The Fun (it’s all relative)
“Tash, you should have done Leg 2 instead of Leg 3,” says a regretful-looking John, an experienced sailor who’s signed up for Legs 1-4.
“Then you could’ve just said you sailed the Southern Ocean without having to actually sail the whole damned thing,” says John.
“But I don’t want to say I sailed the Southern Ocean,” I say. “I want to actually sail it. Are you not having a blast?”
John shakes his head. He looks slightly nauseous as saltwater streams off his hood and washes over the pained expression on his face.
But after two hours on the helm, I’ve forgotten how cold and wet I am. My neck is warm and sweaty from fighting the helm under control as I surf down waves in 50-knot winds. And my adrenalin is pumping as my body balances fear with excitement while my mind tries to comprehend the magnitude of this adventure.
Meanwhile, Hurricane George comes up on deck, ready to relieve me of my watch on the helm. But, instead of taking the wheel right away, he stands and watches for a minute. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” George says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
I smile and brace myself as the sound of an approaching wave roars behind me on the helm, signifying another big surf ahead. Rain pelts the ocean crests, creating a kind of pocked mountain surface unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And through the icy blue haze, even with frozen eyes, I can see a strange beauty in this alien environment.
I smile because I know what George says is true. To be driving a 70-foot racing yacht like it’s my own mammoth surfboard is, in fact, an extraordinary opportunity.
So, as the stern lifts once more and the bowsprit pierces another wave, splashing the surface as the boat points down into a canyon of water, I tighten my grip on the wheel and hang on for another wild ride.
“This is what I came here for,” I think to myself. And, though this experience may not be for everyone, sure as hell, the Southern Ocean does not disappoint.
Tasha and Ryan both raced in Leg 1 of the Clipper Race from London to Rio de Janeiro and Leg 3 from Cape Town, South Africa to Albany, Australia. Tasha competed on CV21 Henri Lloyd – ahem, the winning boat — with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan competed on CV28 PSP Logistics – ahem, NOT the winning boat — with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew