In his New Year diary, Conrad Humphreys reflects on the most challenging sailing of his life

It’s just before midnight (UK) and whilst it’s daylight here some 11 hours ahead and my champagne bottle now lies empty, I feel like celebrating again and I’m sure my team who will be in various watering holes dancing the New Year in won’t mind. What a great start to 2005!

On the 19th December, feeling a touch blue, I needed to re-focus and set out a milestone plan for motivating myself through the Indian Ocean. I plotted the positions of the 2000 race winner Michael Desjoyeaux through to the New Year and set myself the target of catching up the fleet to 12th place (ahead of Max Havelaar). I was then 15 miles behind last place, 1,778 miles behind Skandia in 7th place and 3900 miles behind the race leader, PRB (Vincent Riou) I was also seven days behind Mich Des’s time four year earlier on PRB.

During the Global Challenge in 2000/1, I would break the Southern Ocean legs into chunks giving everyone onboard a longitude waypoint east to west. With 17 crew, it meant that every two or three days we would pass the day of a new crewmember and depending upon our position in the fleet, celebrate (or mercilessly take the piss out of the individual which was often just as fun!)

That tactic helped us through the South Pacific. With no landmarks to pass and 4,000 miles of ocean to cross it was difficult to see the end point in Wellington. If I remember correctly we also ended up playing a game of ‘winner stays on’ where the crewmember whose day coincided with us leading the fleet could stay on top. Tim Ballantyne, I recall was on top for days as we headed the fleet for the first week after passing Cape Horn.

It was much easier then to stay upbeat (and certainly more important to show it) than it has been during some of the dark days spent alone at the back of this fleet this time round. When I passed Benefic, I felt my spirits rise tenfold at no longer being last and relieved at having a boat behind me for safety reasons.

Progress against Mich’s time in 2000 was good and by Christmas I had gained a day back. I was also up slightly on the leaders and had gained another two boats, Akena and Roxy. I was winning in small stages and I felt on a roll.

The storm that brewed over Christmas focused my mind in a different way, and I spent many hours thinking only about finishing this race. In fact my obsession with now completing the course led me to write the word FINISH above the bulkhead. I checked the boat over and over again, devised faster ways of reefing and changing sails and kept a closer eye on any suspect chafe. Max Havelaar, the next boat ahead was still 300 miles away, and I put him to the back of my mind, as I concentrated on staying ahead of the cold front in the warmer, fresh north-westerlies.

The week between Christmas and the New Year was some of the best and most challenging sailing I have ever lived through. Hour after hour, Hellomoto surfed the crests and spray and Southern Ocean waves covered the boat from bow to stern. Together we hit 30 knots on the fast-moving, powerful swell that steamed ahead of the storm and in over five days sailed a staggering 1,700 miles.

I gained another day on Mich and the leaders were down to 3,600 miles. Max Havelaar passed quickly by and Ocean Planet was down to under 500 miles ahead. The conditions were fantastic: fast reaching with full main and gennaker, switching to the genoa as the breeze gusted over 30 knots.

The high pressure to the north over Tasmania was killing the boats ahead and whilst I made good ground, their progress looked painful as they made the transition across the Tasman Sea. VM Materiaux (Patrice Carpentier) headed into Storm Bay, Tasmania to repair his broken boom and yesterday after weeks of signalling he had problems with his rig, Marc Thiercelin (Pro-Form) astonished everyone by announcing his retirement from the race. Marc is a fierce competitor and this is his third Vendee Globe. The race has lost a great entrant and one that at the start was, to my mind, a real threat for the title.

And so to the New Year, still just under half way around the planet to go – it’s crazy! I’ve had enough excitement, thrills, dark days and adventure to last me a lifetime and we still have 12,000 miles to sail. Ahead lies an iceberg field that stretches south from Campbell Island and then 4,000 miles of South Pacific ocean to the last of the three great Capes, Cape Horn.

The leaders will be around and heading north to warmer waters as Hellomoto and I cross the international dateline and enter the Pacific. I cannot let my mind focus on their race as it is a very different race from mine. I will stick to racing Mich’s previous track and keep Hellomoto in great shape for the challenges that will surely lie ahead.

I have a personal deadline of reaching Les Sable before my birthday and that in itself will be a massive task. Between then and now is half a globe and first I have to finish.

Cheers and Happy New Year. Grab 2005 with both hands, it will be over as quickly as 2004!

Cheers, Conrad 02:19GMT, 1 Jan 05