Emma Richards grapples with autopilot problems between the squalls


As Emma Richards makes her move south, joining leader Bernard Stamm and 2nd placed Thierry Dubois, she sends this report:

‘An interesting night to say the least. Averaging 30 knots wind, comfortable downwind surfing with three reefs and staysail. Then add the 38 knot squall, just holding nicely when handsteering, good speeds, better watch carefully for those squalls coming!

‘When the big one came with 46 knots it was a white knuckle ride, made worse by those little white knuckles holding firmly to a carbon tiller of a carbon boat with an 80-plus foott carbon stick, and the most intense lightning storm you’ve seen or heard! The thunder claps almost the same time as the light, so it was right above me, no forks fortunately, just an intense flash that leaves you blind for a few seconds!

‘When that squall finished, and my heart rate returned to normal and I handed steering responsibility back to the autopilot, the boat was still static (electric certainly not still) so everytime I touched anything I got that little shock!

‘Back to a steadier 30 knots, maybe time to get some naps in, we should have two more days of this weather – just about to lie down, some warm soup inside me (because its gone cold now, probably almost as cold as UK), and the pilot starts playing up, skewing towards the wind, and consequently tipping the boat on its side. The reading on the pilot has a totally different course than I had set, I believed it was my error, so corrected it and turned for a moment to pick up what was thrown into the bilges, and the same happened again!

‘Now, when you are travelling at 20-plus knots and the wind is between 30 and 40, you don’t want to have to change over to a back-up pilot as this means nothing is steering the boat for a short period of time. Ie impossible in this situation, so I sat at the chart table with a remote control in hand and watched the pilot course, it seemed to jump 10deg every so often until it was about to put the boat on its side again, so each time I saw that, I countered it by going 10deg the other way.

‘This was happening every couple of minutes so took nearly my full attention, and at 0300 GMT no-one in UK was going to be up (not on a Wednesday night anyway), and ‘The Wylster’ who fits/mends the electronics onboard was still on his flight home from Cape Town til 0700, so after an hour or so at the chart table, not being able to move out of reach of this remote control, I spoke to Sharon in NZ (who i have raced with on Royal SunAlliance and Maiden 2). I knew she would be up, mid afternoon and would be able to laugh at my predicament with me and catch up on chat, essential communications – it is quite funny that we purposefully put ourselves in ridiculous situations (firstly by opting to sail singlehandedly around the world), then by not making the position any easier ie by slowing down, reducing sail etc – well I am racing – and thirdly that we can find this funny!

‘Mark (the Wylster) has called back and is working on a solution, while I have disconnected a potential problem, we’ll see soon enough what the problem really is! Better concentrate again, still surfing at silly speeds.

‘Emma xxx’