Emma Richards talked to us today about coming through the big storm. Read this and just imagine the skill and guts it took...
Here’s a story of tremendous seamanship. All hail to Emma Richards. Today, she is sailing west of the Canary Islands under gennaker and mainsail in 14 knots of true windspeed. It sounds lovely. When pressed, though, she admits that she is still exhausted after spending the best part of four days racing through the immense storm that skewered the Around Alone fleet off the coast of Portugal.
Note that I’ve written ‘racing’ rather than ‘sailing’. This storm was 1,000 miles from end to end and at times produced winds of more than 70 knots and wickedly confused seas, but Emma’s fighting survival pushed Pindar up to 2nd place.
Lighter winds have brought a new form of stress, yet despite all this she handsteered for nearly an hour today so that she could talk to us on the phone and tell us what she has been through. What follows is her amazingly understated account. Before you read it, just bear in mind a telling fact that Emma didn’t try to advertise: the only bit of damage she had throughout was one crushed halyard block for the storm jib, which she managed to replace.
When she saw the storm coming, did she ever think of bailing out? “No. When the first couple of Open 40s went into Spain and Brad [Van Liew] wrote me an e-mail saying he was going to stop, I was thinking: I’ve been through 60-plus knots before and I knew I was in a safe boat. I started preparing.
“It was interesting because at the press conference in Brixham, Thierry [Dubois] had said about Biscay: ‘First we’ve got to be seamen, then we can start racing,’ and you could see Bernard [Stamm] thinking: “You can be a seaman, but I’m racing!” And from the very first moment, Bernard went straight there [towards the centre of the depression] and didn’t falter, whereas Thierry seemed to change his mind and headed south, and that was my opportunity.
“I made a decision early on to go for it and I wanted to get west of Thierry. I knew I’d got the position.
“My weather charts said I’d have 50 knots and not more than 60. But when I got to the first ring that was supposed to be 30 and it was already 45 knots I knew it was going to be pretty bad. So I reefed down 12 knots earlier than I would have done.
“At 40 knots I had three reefs and the staysail. When it hit 55 knots I took down the mainsail. I had the storm jib alone three times during the storm. The next time it increased I took it down at 65 knots, because without the main you’re doing three knots instead of nine. But it’s a balance, because if you break something – like a car – we’ve got 6,000 miles to go and it’s a nightmare.
“For the first part, I was on the wind, then close reaching to get close to the centre. Tactically, you want to go to the centre and go fast out the other side, but it went north so I tacked earlier.
“I was absolutely soaked even though I was wearing my survival suit the whole time. Every time you stepped on deck you could hardly breathe for the wind and the spume flying. There was white water everywhere. The waves were flattened by the wind and it was blowing the tops off them. You couldn’t see anything but white and streaks of white down the waves. I saw 72 knots. It gets to the stage where there’s so much water everywhere I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference if it went beyond that.
“The seas were really confused. It changed from southerly to westerly winds and by doing that it confused the swells. About a third of the time I was on deck and a lot of the time I was handsteering. You don’t want to be right on the wind because the boat slams too hard. You’re trying to find the best angle, not reaching across the waves because you’re losing miles. You’re trying to minimise the damage and point as high as possible. The autopilot can’t anticipate waves, so you just wedge yourself in and steer. It’s exhausting, but you can’t avoid it.
“The worst thing was when the boat slammed and it would shudder for ages. You can feel the mast and the keel shaking until it comes to rest. You know that every wave, every slam is going to do something.”
Below deck, the scene sounds hellish. Diesel had seeped from a new tank and from jerrycans, mixed with bilge water and sloshed or been walked round the cabin. One of the aft bunk cords broke and carefully stowed items came out. “Things were flying around and breaking. My log went in the bilges and my two hats. Everything was swilling with diesel. Navigating was a pain because the computer kept crashing down on the chart table, so it was a case of checking up every four hours.”
Apart from a few naps, sleeping was impossible. “Mainly I lay on my bunk and held on,” she says. “You just have to pull the bunk up so there there’s just a small gap to slither in so you don’t get thrown out and you have to make sure that your feet are on the bulkhead because every time the boat hits a wave you get pushed forward.
“When you’re in something like that you’ve got to anticipate problems, you can’t let anything major happen. When you go through daily life you can forget some things; it doesn’t matter. But if you forget to do things here, it normally ends up in something major. For example, if you put the hanks on the storm jib and you forget the tack, it goes up the stay. Everything you do has got to be organised. And I think we are more careful purely for the name of what we’re doing.
“You can’t sleep through an alarm, even after 20 minutes when you’d love some more sleep. It might be the radar alarm or a squall or for battery charging and if you don’t get up you could be run down by a ship or your autopilot will shut down. Each one of them could end up in a major. It’s not just a routine; it’s a life routine.
The next stage of Around Alone will be tough in a completely different way. Soon Emma will pick up the tradewinds and the following section of the course will be about straight line speed.
“We’re now at the stage where we have to get south as fast as possible. This is point where my experience is so minimal compared with the others. I’ve just got to be able to keep up. It’s a shame. I’d prefer more tactics, but from now on it’s all downwind.”