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Times Online

Atlantic Report

Star turn

 

July 22 2004

Finding magic moments in the mid-Atlantic

LAST WEDNESDAY, after a warning from our weather man, we found ourselves in the grip of a two-knot, 40-mile wide current heading north. To complicate matters, the wind was coming from the north east at force four or five. Caught between these two, we had no choice, as Stubbsy says, but to siege it, one man rowing at a time because our oars were clashing in the short, sharp seas.
Miraculously though, as we battled through we found another current branching off that one, and were able to return to our regular rowing pattern. As always, however, when we mess with our shifts, we were exhausted for days.


As the wind died away and darkness descended we realised that for once we were not accompanied by the usual blanket of fog. Now we could see a sky full of stars and a sea that at times seemed to boil with phosphorescence.

Then came the moment that best answers why we are doing this. During the 4 to 6am shift John and I spotted what we took to be another ship looming on the black horizon to the east. However, what should have been a white top light appeared to be burning red. As it grew bigger I remembered a phenomenon that caught me out in the southern Atlantic. This was no ship bearing down on us but a fiery morning star shooting into the sky, dappling its light on to the sea like the moon.

Within minutes a small vivid rent appeared in the sky. A fingernail moon, beautiful. And then the brightest, whitest, biggest shooting star I have ever seen suddenly appeared, split into two pieces and disappeared. Quite remarkable and almost worth all the pain of getting here.

We are being followed by a personal volley of storm petrels. Low-flying aerobatic spitfires, souped-up swallows, slicing through the waves and circling us expectantly. Quite what they expect from us, I donít know. Where do they sleep? What do they eat? If anyone has any idea please let us know.

I donít know what you did on Saturday night, but we had an almost spiritual experience. We rode a rollercoaster current through incredible conditions, like the classic Nantucket sleigh ride where a whaling boat was pulled through the water at incredible speeds by a harpooned whale. No matter what we did the boat would carry on in its way. We didnít touch the helm, dagger board or the oars. We kept our shift system, sat on deck and went along for the ride. It was very Styxian.

But I should have known better than to think positively about our progress. From the high of reaching the quarter distance mark to the bloodiest battle yet with this filthy sea, and the lowest Iíve felt yet. Itís our fault because we have been thinking that we could be home within three weeks.

On Monday night, having battled our way south to dodge a strong north-south current, we were told by our weather router that it had changed its pattern and to make our way north. This proved impossible against the wind however, so all we could do was aim southeast, knowing that from now we have about 48 hours to get about 60 miles north to avoid the worst of the weather.

There is no doubt that you suffer doing this kind of thing. I have boils on my bottom now, cracked hands, sore back muscles, hurt wrists and tendons and painful shins. But I know that these will go the second we set foot on dry land. What will stay with us for ever is the satisfaction. I am here to expunge that feeling of disappointment that has never let go of me since the last failed attempt, and then get on with the rest of my life. Whatever that may be.
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