Hurricane Gustav passed over the Challenge Transat fleet last night. BP skipper Alex Johnson on surviving 78 knots of true wind and 35ft seas

This report was sent today by Alex Johnston, skipper of Challenge Transat yacht BP Explorer, en route from Southampton to Boston but now retired from the race:

‘We are alive and still sailing hard. Spirits are flying high after our extreme adventure with Hurricane Gustav.The facts are: max sustained wind speed: 78 knots of true wind, average wind speed 55-65 knots of true wind, 40-45ft seas, pressure 968mb, length of time in storm approx 10hrs.Sails up: trysail and storm staysail.

‘Supper last night was a sombre affair before we got ready for the storm. A storm watch was drawn up by Alfie [skipper Alex Johnston] consisting of three on, three off and the rest of the crew retired to their bunks and lashed themselves in.

‘At first we could see in the dying light the hurricanne approaching and the wind slowly started to build. Suddenly it was upon us like an express train. The wind went from 30 to 50knts in a matter of minutes and within 15 minutes a huge sea was running. The wind howled through the rig like a living animal while BP Explorer was constantly lashed by huge waves breaking and smashing across the yacht.

‘For the first couple of hours we ran south-west trying to keep the wind on our beam as the hurricane intensified and the centre moved closer to us (approx 120 nm away). I had never seen anything like it. Helming the yacht was hard work, although the weather helm was minimal. We were averaging 7- 8knts of yacht speed.

‘Amazing considering the sea state and wind. Then suddenly the wind and sea direction changed as we moved into a different sector. It was time to tack. Rene and Dave, who were on deck with me, got the sheets and runners ready and then we were committed.

‘The waves were so large and the wind so strong that the yacht would not tack, so we bore away running with the waves behind us and then at the appropriate moment I gybed the yacht and off we went. Almost straight away the yacht was more comfortable ad the boat speed increased to 9 knots plus. At one time we were doing 11.5 knots along the edge of this huge wave in 60 knots of wind – amazing.

‘We were now running south away from the centre, as it moved away from us to the north-east. Again huge seas, the yacht was knocked down but came right back up again. Jan, Patrick, Mike and Keith all were completely underwater at some time and I was physically knocked over at least six times behind the helm, once only being held by my lifeline – a good lesson to have reinforced. Dawn broke to see the system moving away and the stars came out to reveal a fantastic sky.

‘I for one was really glad to see it, as well as the sun coming up this morning Well done to all the crew for handling a very difficult and demanding night, especially James for handling all the comms and weather updates below decks. No easy task. I am proud of them all.

‘We are still in a full on gale as a strong north-westerly wind rushes in to fill the void left by Gustav. Good riddance and no rest for BP Explorer – 46 tons of steel and determination.’