Global Challenge skipper Paul Kelly recalls a Southern Ocean storm and its effect on crew
When the going gets tough the tough grin and bear it! It has been a tough couple of weeks down here in the Southern Ocean, with relentless condition that have ground away at our resolve. The wind finally dropped off about three days ago and the brief respite it has given us could not have come at a better time. It has given us a chance to get some hatches open, make some water, bask in a two-minute hot shower and converse with each other, things we take for granted in everyday life but are far from the norm down here.
About a week ago I was woken up for watch and after the cursory profanities about how cold, wet and tired I was, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bunk having enormous difficulty getting my sea boots on. The reason, as I soon discovered, was that I was putting the wrong boot on the wrong foot. I looked over at one of the other guys getting ready and we just grinned.
It was like looking in a mirror. The tired, strained look on the face summed up all of our feelings. You just know what everyone is thinking: “How long can this possibly go on for?”
When we are in survival conditions it is almost like we live in two different worlds. Down below is our semi-comfort zone where routine goes on regardless and although we are living life at an angle it is a relief to be down there. On sliding back the hatch another world greets you. You quite literally step into a hostile, merciless environment, far removed from the one you just stepped out of.
The wind howls through the rigging like angry souls screaming at you, the seascape is just amazing – huge waves, with the crests breaking, bearing down on you in an endless onslaught. The wind down here whips the sea into a frenzy in such a short space of time that the transformation is incredible. All the curious wildlife disappears as if it knows exactly what is coming and then the build-up starts.
Before you know it we have minimal sail up and racing mode turns to survival mode. As the wind and sea abate it is like a huge weight is lifted of our shoulders. Looking around at the crew, expressions of relief replace looks of fear. A self-congratulatory air fills the boat. We are safe, the boat is fine. We’ve survived another battering. A sense of normality returns and the miles have been very slowly ticked off the board.
The most common question now is “When is it going to start again?'” We do end up running on autopilot for a lot of the time, metaphorically speaking. Sitting and thinking about the conditions is no use because there is absolutely nothing one can do about it. You have to accept what you’ve got and get on with it.
Unless you’ve done this race you’ll have no idea what it is about. That is what makes it so unique. The only people who know what they’ve gone through are the crew. Everyday life does not let you experience the emotions felt down here or on the race as a whole. You learn an awful lot about human emotion, about each other and yourself. You are able to dig deep, deeper than you ever thought you could or would. When you do, it is an amazing feeling and when you see it in other people you wonder what they are feeling. People surprise themselves and you see confidence go through the roof.
Critics will always criticise, so let them. This race is more than silverware on the mantlepiece. To be able to commentate I feel you have to have experienced what the Global Challenge is, what it involves and what it stands for. How many people have seen grown men weeping and saying that they can’t take any more? How many people have had to ask an exhausted crew to go through another sail change at the risk of injury in storm force conditions? The answer is not many.
The burden of responsibility that lies on us skipper’s shoulders is huge, far greater than anything that any of us will have to shoulder again but the rewards are great. Leading and being followed, motivating and being motivated are all part of the complex matrix that forms the Global Challenge. One word sums the whole experience up….amazing!
Paul Kelly, skipper Team Save the Children