Well, where do you start, a sailor knows that some things need to be done, its not a case that certain things can wait, its a case of do it right, do it now, and do it fast, and this was certainly one of those situations.
I had been mulling over our weather window to leave Antarctica after a grand voyage along the white continent coasts line. This trip in February had dealt us a very mixed selection of weather, which also made it that much harder topic the perfect time to leave, too early and we miss precious time in this special white play ground, and too late and the plans,flights and future of everyone on board becomes a messy chess game.
The day of the 24th presented itself with an opportunity, any later would be dicey, and the only thing that was a question mark was the 35 knots of wind forecast for the first night out.
We headed up the Gerlach Strait, with sails flying, a following wind with clear sunny breaks. North of Brabant Island we turned and met with the ocean swell and the promise of a relatively quick but not too bumpy re-crossing of the Drake.
Being my 26th time of crossing the drake I am certainly used to its peculiarities and its temperament, something that no sailor here in the south would ever, ever take for granted, drop your guard for a moment and it will kick your ass so hard you will have nightmares about it for years.
We knew we were expecting wind, a good direction, but as February days are so much shorter now one has to take the lack of visibility and light into account carefully. Audrey and I were on the first of the night watches and we had already reefed down the main sail to 4 tucks, the head sails were virtually non existent as we saw the tell tail signs of a fast changing low pressure system sliding directly over the top of Xplore.
The barometer had been dropping all day and now was 20 millibars lower than what we started, at 958, we knew that it was going to change, probably fast and from a totally different direction, and that it did !
Within minutes of the wind grinding to a holt, as if someone had closed the front door of the house, the back door swung open, and a right feral monster was waiting out the back. 20 30 then 40 knots the winds started blowing, 50 and then 60, shit this is wild !
The winds were not from the West / South West as proposed but from the direct SOUTH, and in Antarctica every one learns very fast that anything from the south is COLD, very cold.
The decision to stop and hove too didn't take long to make, from a skippers perspective I am sure you can see what I mean, boat speed is 9 to 10 knots, visibility doesn't exist as its pitch black, and even if there was some light, the strength of the wind mixed with ice and snow means you cant look at anything anyway. Couple that with the fact that you have a boat which is your life line to the world with 12 people on board and there is a great potential that there are ice bergs around.
Stop and stop fast !
Having too is a traditional mariners way of virtually stopping the boat whilst at sea, it brings calm to the boat if positioned correctly to the seas, not often able to be used on modern fast and fancy plastic boats these days, but here in the south this is something that we regularly use when the going gets just a tad too tough........ like now!
Instead of being a comforting smooth stopped motion by hoving too, Xplore and my fine bunch of feather friends (as I quite often call them) had been whacked onto spin mode in the washing machine. For myself, Audrey and Julie the key crew we are all quite used to this, but the stomachs started to turn pretty fast for the fathered bunch.
But situations like these need concentration and as boss I wasn't concerned about what was happening in the boat, but what was happening outside of the boat !
Southerly strong blows in Antarctic if they are fed with a moist air stream from the ocean means lots of snow and ice in the winds, and this is exactly what we were getting, and for a mariner we call this "Icing" yep a bit like a cake top.
Icing looks really pretty, but on a boat if it happens, and has a lot of snow, then the weight of the snow can if this continues for longer periods dramatically effect the stability of the boat, so you can understand that from my perspective, I didn't really care if anyone was sea sick at the moment, whether their pillows weren't fluffed up, but I certainly was very conscious ad cautious about what and where we were, and what was likely to happen ?
We knew that this Low pressure cell was going to move over us fast, and the barometer was already moving up fast, but a fast rise is a bad as a fast drop, and the 65 knots that we were currently experiencing I was hoping that we weren't going to see any stronger.
We all know the saying that "Every day is a different one" and for sailor we definitely agree with this, it just that for sailors we measure a day by each of the watches that we do, one 4 hour period can be horrendous, and then after a sleep the next can be like a bed of roses, calm sunny and tranquil.
I was woken by the ON watch to be told that the winds had dropped, I had already felt it in my snug bunk that I refer to as the "Cave" positioned back aft on the boat we really feel the swell and the movement when things change. I slipped up on deck and confirmed that our hove too position needed to be change, we had to get under sail, and stop playing around like a cork in the ocean.
We beared away and flopped the head sail over to the correct side so that we could gain boat speed, the winds were still 30 to 35 knots, but gusting 40, really quite calm compared to what we had during the bleak hours of darkness !
As we started to make speed the ice and snow that had built up in the mast,spreaders and rigging began clanging down on the deck and our heads,luckily most of it had already turned soft from the wintry sunny morning.
We settled the boat onto a beam reach (winds 90 degrees to our heading) and I decided to put out just a small amount of the second larger head sail called the yankee to give us a little more speed and stability. Crew at the ready on deck we slowly eased the lines and winched in the sheets to control it, but at that moment we were hit with another 40 knots or so of wind. Within seconds the lazy sheet that sits idle on the opposite side of the boat started snaking in the air, and with enough slack in it, it started whipping like a demon, crack crack at everything in its way. Seconds can seem like hours, but seconds it took and the proud and strong No 2 yankee was torn completely in half.
With team speed and reaction we turned off the pilot and headed down wind to reduce the pressure on the sail, to furl it there and then was the only option. I was gob smacked and shocked, speechless and angry $%#%#&&^%(^&*()&%& came from my mouth like someone had used me as some type of a ventriloquist act on TV.
We gathered our self's and not a lot was said, we were only just off the Antarctic coast and had a long way back to South America and one of our most important sails was in tatters. There's not a lot you can do with a blown head sail in 35 plus knots of wind, I hadn't slept for nearly 24 hours but the show had to go on. We turned on the main engine to give us the extra speed needed to controllably move through the large 4 meter swells that had built during the night, nothing much else I could really do.
Exhausted and devastated I asked the watch to wake me in a couple of hours, maybe my soft pillow would give me comfort and some idea's.
My pillow was comfortable but my dreams weren't, a few hours can make a big difference though and I climbed up on deck with a hot cup of tea and consumed at least 3 cigarettes before the plan unfolded, we had 600 nautical miles (about 1,100 Kms) to get to Ushuaia an we need to do it pretty quickly. The Drake doesn't let people or boats sit around for long in one place before reminding them who's boss.
The head sail had to come down so we at first turned down wind, to unfurl it and then ease the halyard which holds it up, slowly slowly doe it weeased the lines and watched to ripped remains flap and wiggle in the winds, bit by bit it unwound until................ shit ! Where the tear from leech to luff horizontally across the sail 2/3rds up our towering mast the internal rope call the leech line had broken and wrapped it self around the forestay and the top section of the sail ##^%$%^%(*^(&)&(& God this language seems to be the basis of my day !
We refurled the sail again, and I once again sat and smoked another 3 cigarettes. The dread of what I knew needed to be done was all too apparent, before we could do anything to salvage this sail we had to get it down, and that was impossible here in deck. I also knew that if we motor sailed all the way back to Ushuaia that what remained of the sail up the mast would most likely look nothing like a sail after 4 or 5 more days at sea. The other factor that had to be taken was if we didn't get this sail down then we couldn't hoist another sail to replace it, and then that would mean a very slow trip back with everyone on board missing their flights back to the other corners of the world.
Dread and a healthy dose of Dutch Courage, I sat down and explained to
Audrey and the team what needed to be done and our options, well there
wasn't really any option, it had to come down, and the forecast was
for increasing winds later in the day, this moment was probably going to
be the only chance to get the sail down and replaced if there ever was
going to be
So there we are, swinging around like a koala bear clutching to a gum tree in a storm 2/3rds the way up the forestay, knowing that if I let go at any moment then my brains would be cracked in pieces by the forestay or the inner forestay, well at least if I passed out I wouldn't feel too much pain.
The long side of the story is good, I did get up to the cut point of the sail and cut away the leech line that was stopping us from unfurling the sail so it could be lowered. I am not ashamed to say that I screamed a bit towards the end of being up there, as the blood streams in my brain were about to explode.
I am so proud of Audrey, Nigel and Justin who worked side by side with me on deck and made sure that I did get down in one piece, along with the sail.
I lay on my back still in my climbing harness for at least 10 minutes, I couldn't move. With a bit of time I found some energy and lifted myself from the deck, I didn't smoke 3 cigarettes at once (that's how bad I was feeling ) but we tidied the deck and put the sad and twisted No 2 yankee to bed.
But the job wasn't finished, we had won the first part of the battle and the confidence to win again was strong, the replacement sail had to go up. We woke the rest of the sailing team on board Julie, Assaf and Sami and within a hour we were sailing again.
I write this for you all, so that you know some of the different sides of being a sailor, its not always easy or a champagne cursing that we do down here, but also for myself, because I have found that every time that I have a tough, difficult or traumatic experience writing it down is some what therapeutic.
Now we are 100 nautical miles exactly from our eastern way point to enter the Beagle Channel, 26 crossings of the Drake meant that this was my 13 expedition to Antarctica............... God I am lucky.