Lia Ditton with a gripping account of last night's Route du Rhum storm aboard Open 40 9/11/06
I am typing with pink rubber gloves on – the dishwashing type with the textured palms, for better grip on the crockery. I am wearing an HPX drysuit with neoprene dinghy boots and a lifejacket. Underneath the suit are all the layers that I have brought with me that are still dry or dry enough. My hair is wet. I am still shaking from my second wipe out in 25 knots, gusting 35 knots of breeze. This evenings forecast is for gusts up to 50.
The seas are huge and breaking and loud. The wind roars through the rigging, ascending in pitch as the boat attempts to round up and is brought down by the pilot. ‘Fight her down, fight her down,’ cries a nervous voice in my head. My dilemma is what to do next: drop the main entirely? Exchange the half a Solent for the storm jib? Will that be enough to drive her through the mountainous waves? Prostrate, I watch the scene from the chart table window and burn nervous energy. It is captivating. This evening it will be dark and I won’t be able to watch the bow skew across a wave. I won’t be able to see what’s coming.
The run-up to the system has been intense. When I last wrote, I faced utter exhaustion from changing sails in order to get the boat moving. I was in an area above the Azores high and I was battling with fickle and light winds. By the following morning, yesterday, I was tracking north-west with whatever breeze that had arrived, waiting desperately for it to shift back from west to south, so that I could tack over and make miles in the right direction. Frontal clouds littered the sky and I was beginning to become wary of ominous grey squall lines about. Eventually, the wind shift materialised, but by late afternoon, what I had seen as my window of opportunity to snatch back some miles on the class leader, was demoralised as I witnessed for the umpteenth poll, the gap between ‘Roaring Forty’ and myself, increase in span.
Then the rain came, hour after hour of torrential downpour drumming through the night on the cabin top, swirling silver beads running down the decks and tumbling into the cockpit. By the light of my head torch, I began to reef, choosing the lull in wind and a good soaking as the safest opportunity to slide the length of the boom and feed the second reefing line into fourth reef. Wrestling the breeze to join the reefing line with its spectra webbing boom strop, the boom yanked against the mainsheet pounding my head into the folded battens. I needed food. I needed sleep. I needed to recover. I had threaded the fourth reef in and dropped the mainsail to that level, just in time. The wind began to build. Our passage into the gale was official, its edge-winds propelling the boat on her side and drowning the cabin top with the occasional wave that slopped ill-timed against the side of the hull.