Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Sea Change, Ian Dicken's tale of his Clipper Round the World Race adventure where he formed lifelong bonds with his crew members
When a person is hit by the call of the sea – a wild call which, as Masefield observed, cannot be denied – today’s world offers many options. Varied they may be, but the one thing they all have in common is that to break free of a safe life ashore demands total commitment. The obstacles can seem insurmountable, but for the few who make the break under sail, the rewards transcend those garnered by gazing on the wonders of nature from the security of a cruise ship.
One route that has come available through the vision of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is the biennial Clipper Race, which gives amateur crews the chance to race around the world using the prevailing currents and conditions under the leadership of a professional skipper.
When it came to commitment, Ian Dickens was very much a case in point when he signed on to the yacht London for the 2000 event. A successful marketing executive with a fine home and what he describes as ‘a flash car’ in the drive, he pulled up stumps and, with his family’s backing and no job prospects for his return, went to sea on what can only be described as a wing and a prayer. His frankly written book Sea Change sums up the ethos of the event perfectly.
We join Ian and his skipper Stuart Gibson on the final night of a frowsy run into Cape Town on the old sailing ship route from the far east. It’s a grand tale in the true spirit of the spar-cracking exploits of the tea clippers themselves, but the beating heart of the passage lies in his reflections when it’s all over. The sea can teach us far more than how to steer a yacht.
Extract from Sea Change
For the first time, I was frightened silly. As the Cape of Good Hope crept ever closer on our last night at sea, the wind started to get up and the sea grew in size. There was no moon to light the way and a thick bank of cloud meant we were screaming along at 15 knots in complete darkness.
With no horizon to position the boat against, helming in the wild seas became a real challenge and with 30 knots of wind filling the kite (10 more than its limit) not getting driven up into wind was proving a real challenge. Time after time I had my entire body weight hanging off the wheel, forcing the bow back on to its trimmed course and after half an hour shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers all ached from the exertion.
There was way too much sail for the conditions and while the foredeck team prepared for a drop, I struggled on as the wind grew in strength. The bow was getting whipped around and there was nothing I could do to stop it. For several agonising seconds the boat was driving me, rather than the other way round, and as sails flapped, sheets flogged and the spinnaker pole rattled itself silly, I feared for the safety of my colleagues up at the bow. If the pole snapped– perfectly possible given the punishment I was unintentionally giving it – then it would scythe over the deck and take out the crew like skittles in a bowling alley.
Time and again I fought the wild ride, and time and again it beat me. And then into the equation came a large container ship, right on our starboard bow. I could see from the steaming lights that it was coming our way and the 20°-30° of course variation that my out-of-control steering was giving, put us first one side of it and then the other. Stuart was shouting back to me to ensure it passed us down the starboard side, but such finesse was easier said than done. As I frantically fought to keep London on a more even course, I looked up and saw both the red and green navigation lights of the giant ship, which meant that it was heading straight for us.
I could hear its engine above the scream of the wind and the thrashing sails. Its bow wave, lit by bright sodium deck lights, revealed the tormented sea spuming over its bow. It remained pointing straight at us and I fought the wheel with a new-found frenzied energy.
Stuart continued to shout from the foredeck, the sails continued to thrash and the bow bucked and reared like an untamed stallion. With a distance of less than half a mile now separating the two boats, I was finally able to get things on more of an even keel and we watched as the giant steel bow sliced past through the waves. It had never varied from its course and I wondered if we had even been noticed by the bored watch keeper, half asleep in his warm, dry bridge. It had been horribly close and for the first time in eight months I had experienced one of those moments when the sea proves it is way mightier and way stronger than man’s feeble efforts to tame it.
Despite Stuart’s reassurances that I had done a decent job in the conditions, I sat exhausted and dejected at the end of the watch. The crew at the bow had come under risk, we had narrowly avoided a collision and the boat had driven me for several out-of-control moments. Sleep, when it came to me in my sopping-wet sleeping bag, was confused and unpleasant, and when we woke and prepared to do battle with the three oceans that swirl together off the Cape of Good Hope just three damp, tossing and turning hours later, I felt unprepared and lacking in confidence for the task ahead.
The Southern Ocean kicked up from Antarctica and smashed into the South Atlantic driving in from the west, which in turn entwined itself around the Indian Ocean driving smartly in from the east. With the dawn came a grey, dank light as a heavy sea spray of mist concealed both the sun and the fabled headland.
The ocean surface was alive with streaming, breaking, spume-filled wave crests that rode in on top of a giant swell and a wind in excess of 40 knots howled its way through the rigging. The spinnaker had been replaced with a much more controllable poled-out headsail. Despite the breeze, we selected the biggest one in our wardrobe and hung on as it hurled us ever closer to the African coast.
Astern of London, the giant surfs picked up our hull and set us off on a crazy ride. As the huge wave picked up the stern, the bow pointed down at an ever steeper angle. The hull teetered on the brink of the precipice, like a roller coaster at the top of its slow climb, and then started a suicidal plunge downwards. Thirty tons of boat weight helped the acceleration, as did the hard-blowing wind in the sails. The trick on the helm was to pick up the wave and surf it. As soon as the boat was being carried, the driver concentrated on keeping the balance straight and then hung on to enjoy the wild ride.
As the boat speed increased, the hull started to hum and vibrate madly as London began to tramp through the water. Astern, it looked like we were in a Formula 1 powerboat and as 20 knots came and went the ride seemed destined to end in disaster. Finally, though, the wave moved on, but before the helm could gather his thoughts another towering monster was tapping at our stern and the whole crazy process started all over again.
It was hairy, scary but huge fun and the confidence-denting insecurities of the night were soon replaced by an intense elation, fuelled by the energy all around us. Stuart and I took turns at the wheel and we were romping towards the finish, going around one of the most dangerous points on earth. This was our Everest and we were doing it on the sort of day that could never be described as ‘easy’ or ‘lucky’.
I should have known better. We gybed in the wild seas and as the mainsail slammed on to the other tack, a thick steel U-bolt that held the main sheet block in place snapped clean in two. It meant the sail and the boom were now being kept in check by just one fragile line. Because of that, it was impossible to sheet the sail in to sort out the problem, but with the boom potentially out of control, the problem had to be fixed, and fixed fast.
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The only solution was to keep everything exactly as it was and take the risk of sending someone out along the thick aluminium spar in order to attach a jury rig to its end.
In the rolling sea, the boom was constantly dipping deep into the waves and having someone on the end of it was a huge risk. The predicament, when it came down to it, was not really a predicament at all. Quite simply, the precarious high-wire act was our only solution.
Stuart was adamant that he should attempt the hazardous job, although, typically, Anna was quick to volunteer. Preparing himself by the mast, he asked me to take the wheel, adding that there could be no repeat of the previous night’s loss of control. Allowing the boat to roll to the point where the boom dipped deep meant he’d be plucked off and swept away into the wild, foaming surface. Although he had a safety line, getting him back on board would be hazardous and very probably damaging. And that was assuming the safety line held in the fast-flowing waters roaring past.
Our skipper gave the thumbs up and began the cautious crawl away from the safety of the hull, as he edged out along the broad Clipper Ventures-branded spar, set 90° to the mast. Once he’d started the journey, I whispered urgent words to Ali and Alan and had them standing by the emergency dan buoy and the man-overboard button, just in case the worst happened. I decided not to tell Stuart of my plans as I reckoned he had quite enough on his plate already.
For the next 10 minutes my mind, heart and soul focused on every nuance, every shift, every little kick and spin of the ocean as I concentrated like never before to give the smoothest possible ride. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Stu attaching the Spectra cords that would give us control over the mainsail, and I could sense the uneasy shifting from Ali as his fingers closed around the dan-buoy.
And all the while, the vast waves rolled in from behind and again and again the roller coaster hurled itself over the precipice and the boat speed rocketed up into the 20s, irrespective of the fragile repair taking place.
Eventually the job was done and Stuart eased himself back along the boom and down to the relative safety of the deck. He looked back down the boat and as our wide eyes met, he gave a simple thumbs up of thanks. I have to confess that I was glad to be wearing dark glasses. My eyes stung with sharp pin pricks as the barely concealed emotion showed signs of bursting forth. I managed a single nod in return to the thumb and was humbled for the second time in a few hours.
The levels of trust and faith demonstrated an exceptional bond. All of the lives on board were well and truly in the hands of our crewmates, time after time.
And so we roared on. The brooding mist lifted a little and there, in the gloom was the fabled Cape. What a moment of intense achievement, and as Africa drew closer and the sun started to break through, we left the intensity of our experience just beyond the horizon and prepared to be part of a shore-based life once more.
An hour later, as Table Mountain soared above us, we could hear police sirens, were able to look into homes along Camp’s Bay, could identify cars driving along the coast road and watched as the high-rises of Cape Town grew in size. The secret world back at the wave-strewn Cape was ours and while we waved at the crowds and got dressed in our Clipper uniform to play the corporate game, we were all still lost in an intense 24 hours of raw sailing adventure that will live with each of us forever.
Surrounded by the warm hospitality of the Royal Cape Yacht Club, the crew could not settle. Despite our being on dry land with a beer and a plate of good food, our thoughts were still out in the wildness of the previous night. At some point after 0100 I sat on the carpeted floor, my back resting on the flower-patterned wall next to Stuart. He told me that his trip out to the end of the boom had relied implicitly on the helm keeping things balanced and the fact that we were in Cape Town, safe and secure, confirmed his extraordinary level of trust.
Without being melodramatic, he had literally handed over his life to my care for 10 precious minutes. The emotional bond that it created was profound.
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