Earlier this week, we asked the Global Challenge skippers to tell it how it really is. James Allen reports on huge seas off Tasmania and a terrifying man overboard

This leg of the Global challenge has always been known as the toughest. As we all prepared for the departure from Sydney the main topic of conversation was how bad it would be. As crews said their goodbyes on the pontoon the message was: “Let’s get this one over with.”

It wasn’t however until we came to actually leave the pontoon that I realised just how nervous the crew of Me to You actually were. On every other departure they had been excited, jumping around and shouting messages to their loved ones and supporters. This time it was very different. From the back of the boat where I stood by the wheel I hardly heard a thing out of any of them and there certainly wasn’t much jumping or waving.

Luckily the start was fairly eventless and we sailed out of the harbour in 3rd place. It wasn’t long before we were sailing down the East coast of Australia in flat waters and good winds. The fleet was flying and with good close racing it was an exciting few days. As we passed the Bass Strait conditions got even better as the wind swung around behind us, the kite went up and we had a day or so of fast downwind sailing in flat water. All this helped to settle the crew down into a rhythm and their nerves started to ease.

We were all aware that as we rounded Tasmania the conditions would change. We had, by this time, been tracking a big low pressure system as it came across the Southern Ocean; it’s timing was going to be spot on. As we turned the corner and entered the Southern Ocean the winds began to build.

We were all hoping, of course, that maybe we wouldn’t see the full 50 knots that was forecast at the centre of the storm. As the winds built we changed down through the sail wardrobe, each sail change getting tougher and tougher as the waves built. The seas were big, steep and confused at times huge waves would come at you from all directions and engulf the boat from the front and the side. If you could find a moment to stand back and look at them it was a truly awesome sight.

The crew were unable to sit on the rail as it just wasn’t safe. Some were sitting right down in the cockpit getting shelter from the wind and rain they however then found themselves up to their armpits in water with every wave that crashed over the boat. By this time I had one crewmember in her bunk with a bad back and about three bedridden with seasickness so we were starting to get shorthanded.

The wind continued to build. We unfortunately left the change to the yankee No 3 a little late and ended up changing it in about 40 knots of wind. The foredeck crew went forwards to get the old sail down. It has to be one of the worst feelings as a skipper, standing at the back and sending your crew forward in horrendous conditions to change a sail.

There was water everywhere. By the time the crew had got to the front of the boat some of them had already been washed down the deck several times. Each time a wave hits, you desperately search for the crew counting heads as you go with the full impact of a man overboard very clear in your mind. The boat is crashing from one wave to the next, and as it falls off the bigger waves the crew become weightless until the boat crashes down with a huge bang, shakes and the crew land heavily on the deck.

Everything shakes again. I count the heads on the foredeck, they are all there. I shout forward: “Is everyone all right?” No response. I shout again and eventually I get a thumbs up from one of them. It’s a big relief.

As the sail starts to come down, the boat crashes through a big wave – a really big one this time. The front half of the boat just disappeared. I couldn’t see the mast. Even the guy in the snake pit is knocked from his feet. Again I stand there waiting for the water to clear, fearing the worst. It seems to take an eternity. I start counting heads again and a distraught shout comes from the foredeck: “Heave to, heave to!”

Still not knowing exactly what has happened, we heave to. M y heart is pounding. “What’s wrong?” I shout as I start to make my way forward. Driller (David Storey) has fallen over the side, The crew had been picked up by the wave and Driller had come back down on the wrong side of the guard wires.

Driller is hanging by his lifeline over the side of the boat. Each wave is smashing him against the hull. “Get me back in,” he shouts. The rest of the crew are grabbing him and hauling him back on board. He is a little shaken but physically ok. The half-dropped sail is flogging away throughout and the crew get straight back to the drop.

I go back to the back of the boat trying to put thoughts of what might have happened out of my mind. We are all so aware that the chances of getting someone back from the water down here is pretty remote, let alone in these conditions.

As the conditions continue to build it was becoming apparent that we needed to drop the main sail. The watch on deck were exhausted after their difficult sail changes so I decided to wait until the new watch came on deck about half an hour later. By this time the wind had built to around 50 knots and conditions were horrendous.

As the new watch emerged they too were exhausted as the conditions simply didn’t allow you to sleep – with every wave you would be thrown across your bunk or as the boat dropped off a big wave you would become airborne before crashing back down.

But we had to get the main down so the whole watch went forward to the mast. We all knew that this was going to be a nightmare. As the halyard was released we tried to pull the main down one slider at a time. We ended up putting sail ties around the sliders and hauling them down. At one point Bungle (Mark Dolton), an ex semi-pro rugby player and one of our biggest crew members was lifted up the mast several feet as he clung unto the sail. Unfortunately this injured his shoulder and he had to be taken below.

After about half an hour of struggling with the main sail it was decided that it simply wasn’t coming down so we winched up the halyard and rode the storm out with it up.

The storm peaked later that night with a top wind speed of 69 knots. It is difficult to judge the wave heights but they could easily have been 35 to 45ft. I found myself with four crew injured, none seriously, but they had to be restricted to bed rest for a day or so. We also had four people incapacitated by seasickness so the functioning crew were down to 10, who simply knuckled down and rode out the storm.

In hindsight it was an awesome 36 hours that I will never forget. But at the time I think I would have preferred to be somewhere else!

James Allen, skipper, Me to You