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Atlantic Report

On a floating coffin

 

July 8 2004

Six days into the Pink Lady's ocean bid, our correspondent reports on 12 of the longest hours of his life

THIS IS the end of day six, and I am exhausted. There’s still a long way to go but things are looking good from this point. In the past 12 hours we have gone from exhausted despair to energised elation. An hour ago we had our daily link-up with Lee Bruce, who is a “weather router” in the US. He guides racing yachts around the world and tells them how to make the most of the prevailing weather conditions. He gives us very accurate bad news, and we have had a lot of that.
But we’ve just had an excellent forecast from him: for the first time since we set off we are receiving westerly winds which are pushing us towards England. Now we are racking up speeds in excess of three knots. We’ve been hard pressed to keep in the twos over the last few days crossing the Grand Banks, where the Titanic sank. They have a tough reputation — for ice, fog and rough seas coming from all sorts of directions, all of which we’ve had and we ’ve really struggled through here.

What we’ve been trying to do for the last six days is to shake the grip of the Grand Banks. If the doldrums are a sailor’s worst nightmare, the Grand Banks are the rower’s. We were quite relaxed until day three, when the fog came in very quickly, without warning, and refused to dissipate. When you are rowing through fog you are totally defenseless and are reliant on people seeing you on radar. We did see a ship on day three that emerged out of the fog and passed very close to us. Luckily we haven’t had to set off any warning flares as yet.

It was a drama leaving on day one — we discovered our battery was flat and had to delay leaving for three and a half hours. And we saw a Norwegian trawler in port that gave us pause for thought: it came in with its bows completely stove in after a collision with an iceberg.

Day one and two we had mileages of 50, but the Grand Banks never let you through unscathed. The third day we fought against headwinds to make progress — three men on at a time instead of two on, two off. But you can’t keep that up for too long as no one gets a proper rest. The normal procedure is row for two hours and rest for two. We were doing row for three, rest for one. We were shattered by the end of that day and went on to the sea anchor for the first time. It’s like a parachute at the end of a very long line and helps to hold the bow of the boat into the wind, which makes it more comfortable to sit there and stops you losing too much ground. We set off at 10 o’clock at night and rowed until four in the morning.

Our weather router then told us we were getting a storm, and it was a hell of a battering. Worse than any of us has ever experienced. There was fog everywhere, it was a tremendous storm and we had to batten down. We had three guys in the cabin at the back and I was in the front on my own. Ten-foot waves were smashing us around, and you felt as if you were in a coffin, not a cabin. Your mind played tricks on you, huge waves smashed into the side of you and water went everywhere — it was very, very scary, and went on for 12 of the longest hours of my life. You felt you were in the wildest place on earth. I just lay there, trying to sleep, which was impossible.

Now we’re heading just north of east. Spirits are up. The following westerly wind, should build over night to about force four. That is what the boat’s designed for: driving down waves and being pursued by wind.

The worst is by no means over. Any number of weather systems can come through behind us, but we have two to three days in our favour and we are making the most of it — rowing hard and getting on.

Last night we were making very slow progress on eerie, flat-calm water. There was fog right up to the edge of the boat, you couldn’t see anything and all you could hear were very strange noises. It was very weird, the temperature kept dropping and we were very wary of icebergs. The only light was a small white one on the top of the boat, which cast a very strange light around. I was rowing with my back to the bow, knowing that whatever comes behind would hit me first. I spent most of the night looking over my shoulder, staring into this fog bank, wondering what was coming.

We had a little show from some dolphins which cheered us all up, and we’ve taken that as a good sign: the last time we saw any was during training in Poole harbour.

The daily routine is obviously very fixed. You can start at any point of the day you like. John Wills and I are in one watch, and Pete Bray and the skipper Mark Stubbs are in the other: we run from midnight to 2am, they do two to four, and so on. In daylight hours somebody gets up half an hour early on each watch to make tea and food for those coming off and that’s how we work it every day.

We try to clean ourselves every day, and the toiletry on board is very basic. There’s no privacy. When you go to the loo you sit on a potty in front of two guys rowing. You can imagine there’s all sorts of ribald humour!

You get given one tissue a day and two baby wipes — there is no washing in water at all — to clean your face, armpits, etc. It’s important to keep your bottom clean as it’s very easy to get salt water sores and boils while rowing. We slap our bottoms with Sudocrem — nappy cream for babies. We have got only four changes of kit, so we’ll change quarter way through the journey and chuck the old stuff. We’re lucky having Mark keeping things ship-shape. If you get woken to go on your watch you have to know where everything is, otherwise the others won’t be very happy.

We’re all in good humour — with a crew of four, it’s not possible to be down for very long because no one would let you. Camaraderie is very high. There’s too much going on and we’re achieving and making ground. Even when we were getting battered we knew we’d get through it. That can happen again, so we are aiming for a 50-mile daily total which will compensate for those days we don’t cover so much ground. We can’t get too pessimistic, or too optimistic.

Nothing ever goes to plan, and of course you never know what’s coming, but as much as it can do the first six days have been great, especially now we have been given the go-ahead to head east. We’ve got a hell of a long way to go, but it feels as if we’re heading home.

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