From pressure-drop.us, the Clipper Round the World race meets a powerfull storm in the Southern Ocean.
Dear Readers, I feel I owe you a full explanation of the previous day’s storm activities, so here goes, let’s go back to 16 November.
All signs (fleet reports, Clipper Race weatherman Simon Rowell’s weather predictions and my pigtails) were that the front would hit us sometime mid to late afternoon, local time.
Mid-morning we had dropped our other headsail which meant a loss in speed as it was great surfing but prudent given the incoming weather forecast. We were now running with just the storm jib and the third reefed mainsail.
I scoured the barometer readings and wind instruments over lunch, which were showing well established gale strength conditions and shortly afterwards, donned my Henri Lloyd ocean jacket and ski goggles and prepared for a good few hours on deck helming us through the front. The wind shifts that come with these fronts can be very severe and it pays to have an experienced sailor on the helm at these times to try and avoid an accidental gybe or knockdown, not that this is always possible in these extreme circumstances. Still, I looked the part!
The team on deck were doing a great job at guiding ‘Heidi’ (the nickname for our boat) through the type of sea state that can only be conjured up by either a vicious Southern Ocean low pressure system or my three nieces at bath time.
Once on the wheel, Heidi was a delight but a handful if not watched carefully! The spray driving off the waves was filling the air but it was the waves that provided the most drama. Huge breakers coming from two different directions would crash on to her side decks, rolling across the cockpit barely missing the boom and sweep anything it could find with it.
The few crew on deck were huddled in the base of the cockpit, clipped on with their safety lines fastened in two places to keep them put. Unlike the previous two bits of bad weather, this one we were taking on the nose, it was time to run off downwind. So with this, the course was altered and the surfing began again. This time the waves were still finding themselves on board. One tried to share the space at the wheel with me but I held my breath and held on, water swirling at the lenses of my goggles.
One curling wave engulfed the bow of the boat from the side, picked up our headsail that the crew had lashed down earlier, ripped it from the deck and promptly bounced it over the side railings. The ties started coming loose as the sail was being dragged along by the surf. We had seconds before the destruction it would do to itself and the boat would be significant.
The crew in the cockpit came to life in a nanosecond at the call for “heave too.” The preventer and backstays were released and Heidi was persuaded to come through the wind.
‘Heaving too’ is a technique of effectively stopping the boat and is a great option in really bad conditions if you need to take stock, (though it is not great for racing!) It also has the advantage that the rogue sail was now out of the water and on the high side of the boat.
A party of crew was called for to go forward and secure the sail which was rapidly making its way towards the sea again. Now, nothing ever happens in sequence and it was at this moment that the roar and screaming of the wind changed pitch to an eerie whipping tone and the sea took on a magical haze as the weather front descended, marking its arrival with a dense pelting of hail stones.
With the helm now lashed to windward, I looked at the crew, hesitating before venturing towards the flailing beast on the foredeck and decided this was one of those times you needed to lead from the front.
I left the lashed wheel in the hands of one of the watch leaders, Leg 3 and 6 crew member Johnny Holst, and scuttled up to the bow, closely followed by our bowmen and fearless foredeck crew who I reckon could challenge the best in the business at their game.
The sail was retrieved from the sea and sail ties wrapped around before it was unhanked and slid tug by tug by the icy fingers of the whole team, down the deck and secured below. Wave after wave washed over the boat threatening to take us and the sail with it, as Heidi sat nose towards the swell bobbing up and down as the wind kept its grip on the small sails flying hard backed against it.
Whilst some of the other skippers had a bird’s eye view of the passing of this epic front, I can only report that from the bow of a Clipper 70, being repeatedly dunked in the ocean then pelted with hail stones, whilst grabbing at a sail on a suicide mission meant I missed some of the details but Johnny assures me it was an awesome sight! To be here in the Southern Ocean and to witness this moment of awesome nature is a one off, but to witnesses this moment of great teamwork, determination and skill of my crew, that was priceless.
‘Until tomorrow folks,
With love from a very lucky skipper of Switzerland.