Brian Thompson and team aboard Doha 2006 wave goodbye to Cyclone Hennie

It has been a bumpy 24 hours for the crew on Doha 2006 as they skirt around the edge Tropical Cyclone Hennie. The Qatari catamaran is sailing close-hauled on a north north-easterly course making reasonable speed. At the 0700 GMT poll on Saturday morning the boat was sailing at a steady 12.5 knots just south of the latitude of Mauritius.

More importantly they are abeam of the centre of the storm and with Hennie tracking south-east and Doha 2006 sailing north-east they are on a diverging course for the first time in four days. It may have been a lot of extra miles to sail, but as Brian Thompson said a few days ago: “It would be silly to break the boat now.”

The decision to leave the cyclone to the west caused some sharp debate on board the boat. One school of thought, with some merit, thought that the option of leaving the centre of the system to starboard would make more sense. They would be closer to the cyclone, but sailing with gale force winds from astern. It would also be a more direct course for the finish and the winds would slingshot them up over the equator with a forward momentum that would last until the Gulf of Oman. The problem with that thinking was that if the cyclone did not track as forecast it may close out the option of rounding Mauritius, a requisite mark of the course. In hindsight they would have been fine, but who knew? Instead they chose the longer, tougher and more nerve-wracking ride to the east pounding uphill, the least favourite point of sail. Paul Larsen looks back on the last few days in his log.

“After 48 or so days at sea you become pretty sensitive to the motion of the boat,” he wrote. “So it was a couple of days ago whilst lying off-watch in my bunk at night that I felt the first ever-so-subtle little shudder run through Doha 2006. This is how it always starts. Barely perceptible, but different nonetheless. We are in open ocean here with no headlands, shallows or even passing ships to create a disturbance. This was the first sign of a new sea state, and for the remaining couple of hours I lay there semi-conscious in the dark thinking about it. Pondering what was fuelling it and what scenarios might be waiting up the course.

“The shudders became more regular and noticeable. A decision hadn’t yet been made as to what course we were going to take, but either way our smooth hayride was over. If we decide to go and dance with the cyclone then anything could happen. It’s very tempting to think we could get a free, fast ride around the western side which would whip us up the Indian Ocean to a fast finish. On the other hand it could see us being rescued off a smashed up boat in a huge storm looking back and remembering that first little shudder we felt in our bunks. This is not trying to talk it up, it’s what can happen and has happened to me before. [On board the innovative multihull Team Philips that broke up and sank in the North Atlantic in 2000].

“Such situations don’t happen totally by accident but come at the end of a long sequence of decisions where the little ones made in relative comfort at the beginning prove to be the critical ones. Cyclones are volatile and this is a very real scenario. As mentioned, anything was possible. The long bash option which looked more likely, and is now occurring, was not to be looked forward to.”

When a giant cat powers to windward, the motion below defies description. The noise is like two freight trains colliding at an intersection and the motion is not much different from a decent day at the Calgary Stampede. Add to the misery the fact that the hatches are all battened and life below becomes a hot, stuffy torture box reminiscent of that scene from the movie Pappion although the Steve McQueen and his companion did not have to suffer the indignity of the violent motion. Larsen’s log continues: “Sleeping is a very broken affair. It could be likened to lying in a couch with people constantly kicking it along from the end that your head is at. Once every minute someone shoves it hard. This is accompanied by the regular up and down motion. Needless to say, you have to be pretty tired to sleep through that. Quite often you don’t. So on we go, living every wave.”

At the same 0700 GMT poll Tony Bullimore and his team were precisely on the Greenwich Meridian about to bounce back into the Eastern Hemisphere. They have been making excellent progress across the South Atlantic and are less than 800 miles from the longitude of Cape Town. Instant boat speed readings have been in the low 20s as Tony and company relish the fast pace and look forward to entering the Indian Ocean and making tracks back to the finish in Qatar.