The fleet is back on the wind in 50-60 knots. Tim Thomas describes difficult conditions

Tim Thomas comes up for air:

‘The New Year calm did not last. The forecast was for the wind to fill in from the west, and fill in it has. Last night we had a steady 48 knots true, with gusts over the deck into the 60s. Luckily we had reefed down early, so were not caught unawares.

‘This morning we still have speeds over the deck in the 40s, and we have stuck with our overnight sailplan: triple-reefed main, No 3 yankee and storm staysail.

‘The low pressure giving us these winds is deeper than first thought, hence the relative violence of the breeze. The sea is steep and high, slamming the boat, washing people off the decks, and sending sheets of spray into the helmsman’s eyes and beyond the boat. Every now and then, a call warning of a big wave can be heard, but these are generally not too bad – it is the monsters that catch you unaware that send the boat flying through space and tons of water over the deck that we don’t like.

‘Last night, when the wind was at its strongest, was one of the worst moments of helming I have experienced so far: gusts into the high 50s and low 60s, a night as black as pitch; no idea what the seas are doing or where they are coming from. All you can do is fight the wheel and try to stay within 20° of the allotted wind angle – in our case, 35-40°.

‘Bear away on a wave and the speed accelerates, the yacht leans over on her ear, sending stinging spray from leeward into your eyes and making recovery extremely difficult. It is blind sailing – too dark for goggles, too wet to keep your eyes open. It is also incredibly physical. You just hang on and hope.

‘Not being able to see the waves adds another twist to the tale. At one point on starboard tack, the seas were coming in at an atrocious angle. One wave took me by surprise, a huge, white breaking head rearing up on the quarter and hitting before I had time to open my mouth. It washed several people off the sidedeck and washed me off the helm. I surfaced, gasping and gagging from swallowing a gallon of salt water, and desperately tried to bring the boat back on the wind before the next one hit. That time, we got away with it.

‘We tacked shortly after and on port the seas seem a little kinder, although the sickening drops, jarring side-slams and whoosh of waves over the deck, often accompanied by gargled swearing, still happen every four or five minutes. We are back to the Southern Ocean proper, but hopefully this will be its parting shot before we climb north towards New Zealand. The forecast says these winds should last until the weekend.

‘We are also close to meeting the leaders of the Vendée Globe. We believe that the leader has neither radar nor nav lights, thanks to an engine problem, which should make for an interesting night watch. However, in a fight betwseen 72ft of steel and 60ft of carbon fibre, I know which horse I would back.’