Oh, how quickly things change. I was all set to write in my journal how today was just another dull day in the Doldrums when suddenly it wasn’t.
All afternoon we sit around willing the wind to pick up, blistering in the sun and complaining about the heat. Where normally I’m happiest at the helm, today it is hard to stay focused when boat speeds are fluctuating from a pathetic .5 knots to 1.5 knots.
During the lull in activity, I do my crew a favor by taking my first shower on the stern using our sun shower to simultaneously soap up and cool down, making me a much more pleasant person to be around. But other than a few whale sightings at sunset, nothing much happens except the fleet starts to threaten our first-place position as we sit here with our sails flapping helplessly.
Then, as I report on deck for my 8 o’clock watch, everything changes.
Within minutes of putting my coffee down to take the helm, the assistant watch leader comes up from the nav station to announce there are several squalls ahead on the radar. Which is nothing new since we seem to hit a squall or two every few nights out here in the Tropics.
We are flying our lightweight A1 spinnaker with our full mainsail up since we only have about 9 knots of wind and we’re struggling just to keep that.
When the first squall hits us dead on the bow, I am bracing myself at the helm as the boat dips, touching the rails to the water. I yell for someone to stand by on the vang, ready to release it in the event the boom hits the water. I must look visibly stressed because the skipper jokes, “I love it – Tasha’s got white knuckles in 10 knots of wind. That’s a sign this boat hasn’t moved in a while.”
I look at the wind gauge and laugh, though this 10 knots doesn’t feel like any 10 knots I’ve experienced before. As the sky turns black, erasing the stars, the moon and the horizon, I feel like I’m sailing in a vacuum as the wind seems to punch us with gusts from the side, throwing the boat over in what I know are theoretically light winds. “What the hell would this be like in 30 knots?” I think.
After half an hour, I realize 15 knots is probably the most we’ll see so I start to relax and do my thing. I use the wind gusts to get the boat to a nice heel so we can surf on south as quickly as possible. After all, this is a race, so we need to use the wind for all the speed we can get. With the wind coming from behind at a 130-degree angle, the boat glides along at speeds of 10-11 knots in 11-12 knot winds. Which is a welcome change to sitting still in the water watching the rest of the boats creep up on us on the AIS.
This is just my kind of helming. It’s a game to stay ahead of the wind and predict the changes before they happen and it keeps me 100% present in my mind and body as I focus on reacting quickly to the boat’s movements. Despite having to abandon my coffee to grip the wheel tightly, I am wide awake with my adrenalin pumping, enjoying the storm’s onslaught.
Three and a half hours later, I am still at the helm after three converging squalls have collided directly above us, spinning us around to the west, then to the north at one point, then vaguely moving us in a favorable southwest direction. We need to head due south to get to Brazil, but after sitting in a wind hole in the Doldrums for the last two days, this mayhem of three combined squalls is surprisingly welcome.
What is crazy, though, is what happens when we finally hit the tail of the squalls as they depart. Eric tries to warn me that the wind might get a little weird, but I don’t fully understand until I find myself completely out of control at the helm.
The moment the squall stops, the wind seems to both die and spin us around in circles simultaneously. I try desperately to yank the wheel over to keep up with the spinning wind, but in the pitch dark, this has the effect of making me feel like we are literally spinning the boat in circles like some kind of fairground ride.
I must have whimpered a panicked noise in Eric’s direction because he tells me to look up at the windex to ground myself. At that moment, I realize the boat isn’t actually spinning. It’s like the boat is on some kind of treadmill – as I throw the wheel around to starboard, the wind pushes us just as strongly in the opposite direction, giving the effect that we’re spinning in circles when really the boat is practically standing still.
In the end, the squalls have taken us for a four-hour ride, somewhat in the wrong direction but mostly in the right direction, the final punctuation mark being a drastic surge in wind speed to 25 knots, causing the skipper to call for a spinnaker drop.
“KITE IN THE WATER! ALL HANDS ON DECK!”
As soon as we drop the kite, the wind pulls the boat around and blows the kite into the water. Then, an instant later, it pushes back on the kite, pushing it under the boat. As a sleepy crew emerge to panicked shouting, they quickly read the signs to pull the spinnaker in however they can. And as they pull, the spinnaker catches on the stanchions, causing two small tears. But we’re relieved to have recovered the kite in relatively good shape.
When the spinnaker panic dies down, the sky opens up and we are instantaneously drenched in a downpour. Which, from the skipper’s relaxed stance, seems to signify the end of the squall.
As my heart rate starts to lower, I wipe the salty rain from my eyes and hand over the helm to another crew member so I can stretch out my tense shoulders and stumble down below for a drink of water. I would take a whiskey on the rocks if I could but, alas, water it is.
I find the skipper in the galley shoveling leftovers into his mouth with a wild-eyed look and a slight grin that says he took as much of an adrenalin hit as I did. “Nice job on the helm,” Eric says.
“Thanks,” I exhale, feeling a little stunned.
I am tempted to blurt out with a giggle that I am having the time of my life, but considering the situation, the words sound a little crazy in my head. So, instead, I wipe the rain out of my eyes, pull my foul-weather jacket over my head and go back up on deck.
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/