Robin Knox-Johnston describes his latest activities in the Southern Ocean aboard Open 60 Saga Insurance 8/12/06

Log time 0730 GMT Friday 8th December 2006
Position Latitude 47 09S, Longitude 028 12E
Miles To Fremantle 3,961 nm
Average Speed in 24 Hours 9.93 knots
Distance in 24 Hours 238.3 nm

I could be forgiven for wondering whether I was in the Southern Hemisphere this past night. Saga Insurance is roughly the equivalent position relative to the equator as Nantes in France, but we have had snow and hail for most of the night accompanied by wind squalls exceeding 40 knots.

The first arrived just after midnight and flung us over. The autopilot tried but could not hold her and she gybed with a frightening crash. The damaged battens that hold the mainsail’s shape were divided into even smaller pieces.

I struggled to the mast and let go the main halyard, but a section of batten had caught round a runner and the sail would not come down. It took more than an hour to deal with that. I took in the jib and for a while kept under main alone as the squalls came at about hourly intervals.

You cannot race seriously in these conditions because you cannot keep the boat at her best performance. You have to reduce sail for the extreme gusts but this means you are short of power between the squalls. It takes about 15 minutes to put in or take out a reef if it goes smoothly so it is not a question of doing it every time the wind eases when squalls are coming though at hourly or less intervals.

With Saga Insurance comfortable, I made some tea. I put the cup on the step inside the hatch a and wrote the logbook. I could hear the slight hissing rattle that heavy rain makes on the coach roof, but when I looked round I could see hail coming in through the hatch and into my cup. We ended up with a light covering of hail and snow all over the boat, quite bizarre this close to midsummer down here, but the wind was a south-westerly so coming in from Antarctica.

An hour ago we had another vicious squall and I decided to take the 3rd reef. I eased the halyard again, but once more the sail would not drop. This time a slider had come off the track and jammed behind the lazy jacks that hold up the boom. This took more than an hour to clear during which we had another white visitation and it was cooooold! I don’t wear gloves on deck as they can be dangerous, but the good thing about that is my hands do adjust and seem to get more blood to themselves as compensation, which means I do not suffer as much as glove wearers would if they removed them.

So we are now running before a gale with 3 reefs in the mainsail and the Solent set. Speed varies between 8 and 18 knots depending on the squall situation, but our average will be down. If it gets worse though the mainsail is now clear to drop completely and I have the storm jib ready on deck to replace the Solent, but I don’t expect it will. We’ll just go on having these squalls for some time which means I cannot get any proper rest.

When things ease I am going to have to deal with the batten problem, as it is dangerous to have so much sail that cannot be removed in a hurry. But I do not have enough material to replace or even repair all the battens, so only two or three can be fixed. It is probably the best part of an eight-hour job so speed will suffer whilst I attend to the problem. If I had been in this situation in the South Atlantic I probably would have headed for Cape Town for new battens because the poor mainsail is not able to function properly without them and is just getting unnecessarily damaged.

However, we are where we are, so the only choice is to press on.

I sat in the hatchway with another cup of tea just now, watching the next squall approach and could not help wondering what on earth I was doing going through this hard labour accompanied by sleep deprivation and realised that once the boat is comfortable and moving along at a good pace, I really am quite content. I am beginning to wonder why though! That’s a solid nine hours of work so far today and the day is only nine hours old.

For those interested. I was able to make water whilst anchored to the fishing line last Monday evening, and was able to top up yesterday evening after a rainsquall, from rainwater collected in the bunt of the sail. I had consumed 3 litres since Monday evening and I am not rationing myself.