Big wipe-outs for Steve White as he struggles in a real epic to fix his faulty autopilots

I had an email from a friend a few days ago telling me I really should write more blogs – everyone else was doing more than me and I must keep them coming. I promsed I would, but every time I thought I was going to be able to do one something happened. It has been pretty eventful here just recently as you will see.

It is old news now I suspect, but I experienced my first major Southern Ocean blow. It was at the time the most uncomfortable 24 hours I had spent at sea. I was ready and waiting for it, batteries charged, lots of water made, gear stowed and the fourth reef prepared. I had the storm jib in the cockpit ready for use, and waited.

The barometer dropped more quickly than I have ever seen, and then stopped. Then it blew. Not the most wind that I have ever been in by a long way, but still very strong: 57 knots at the height, and steadily over 50 for a long time.

The sea state became very large very quickly, and then began to even and become regular just in time for the shift when it all went haywire again. It was pretty entertaining to gybe in a big cross sea and 50 knots, but I took my time and the boat behaved impeccably.

On the other gybe the sea was suddenly much easier again, and we had some fantastic boatspeeds: 29 knots on the GPS on one surf as I sat clutching the chart table, holding on for dear life and wondering how it would end!

The noise and motion are terrific at those speeds, more akin to a bobsled than a boat I would imagine as you sway and bang through what feels like a tube of water all around you, and the water comes down the deck with enough force to take your legs from underneath you and then fills the cockpit.

Periodically I went on deck to have a look around and check everything, but also to observe the power of the environment, which was breathtaking: mountainous seas the colour of lapis lazuli topped with brilliant white crests that were blowing off, towering up near the second spreaders. Occasionally the sun would shine turquoise through a wave crest just before it broke.

Sometimes we would perch on top of a wave and then drop down into the trough with the boat pointing down at an angle of about 30 degrees and plough straight into the one in front. The first time I saw it happen I thought we were going to pitchpole, but as always up came the bow, solid bow wave down each side and over the deck.

But always, most importantly, that bow came up as a Finot design should, and it gave me even more confidence in the boat; it is a very seaworthy hull shape.

Down here the seas are always large, and you are a long way away from home and help. That sense of isolation is tangible and adds to the suspense and the experience, which is what makes it different to a blow in the Atlantic or anywhere else I think – how you perceive it.

We had just got through that when I started having other troubles. I was trundling along quite happily when suddenly the pilot stopped working. I am used to that happening, because it has done it periodically for as long as I can recall – it did it in the Atlantic on the way down with a spinnaker up, if you remember.

Anyway, it was doing it more regularly now, and in 30-40 knots of breeze it was getting pretty unfunny! Each time the boat would stop steering but lock the helm, and crash tack, leaving you with the boat laid flat, pinned down by your sails and the water ballast on the wrong side, the boom held above you by the vang but waiting for the vang to break as it did the first time, and for the boom to come crashing across the boat with huge force into the runners, breaking the battens and possibly many other things too. Initially, switching the pilot off and on would get it going, but then I got error codes and things became more serious.

I think I had eight or ten wipe outs, and each time any loose gear would fly across the cabin, I would fall out of bed or if I was up, my sleeping bag would go on the floor or once into the engine compartment, all of which are wet because of the various leaks. I would go on deck, take the weight off the vang with the mainsheet, put the new runner on, take the old one off, and then I could ease the main and bring the boat more upright, but up until that point the boat is on it’ side with the top guardwires underwater at an angle of about 50 degrees!

Then I would have to roll away the solent with a winch handle rather than the grinder because you can’t use a grinder with the boat at that angle, which takes ages and is really hard work as the waves are lapping into the cockpit and you have to hold on with one hand, and also the sail is full of wind and you daren’t let it flog.

Then, when the boat is level (ish!), you can drain the ballast, put in the third reef and the boat will lie with the bow up into the waves slightly but rolling like a pig whilst you go and sort ot the problem.

At the finish, I had replaced the port rudder reference unit, then rewired the starboard ram all through the boat using the wires I stole from the wind generator. I ran the port pilot with the starboard ram and rudder reference unit until that stopped working, whereupon I used the starboard ram and the new port rudder reference unit.

Still it kept stopping though, and I would have to lie under the chart table joining little tiny wires, or be in a wet, cold lazarette wedged in a corner fiddling with the same small wires or trying to solder the heavy cables that feed the rams all with he boat rolling violently. I filled the cabin and the sink and covered the floor with black dust because I removed two of the hydraulic motors and serviced them in the galley.

The media centre phoned up at one point and said would I be OK to do an interview. I was filthy dirty, wet, I had just burnt myself with the soldering iron, and was sailing towards India at three knots. I explained this and said no, and he said “Can we call you back in two minutes?” I explained that wasn’t an option, try tomorrow! I was not happy…

After my final wipe out at about 0330 GMT yesterday, I got the boat going again but slowed right down as a front was coming through, and I just didn’t want any more wipeouts with lots of sail up.

When it calmed down I fitted a new autopilot control unit, a new rudder reference unit on the starboard side, put a resistor in the starboard instruments which fixed them and wired up everything as it was supposed to be, and recommissioned the pilots. The back-up pilot worked, and I steered with this for a couple of hours – hooray!

But the main, port pilot would not work, and it just said ‘NO PILOT’ and I lost the rag in a minor way and nearly put my fist through the chart table as I had enough by this point. Then I remembered there was a cable I hadn’t plugged in – I commissioned it and it hasn’t missed a beat in nearly 24 hours!

After a couple of proper meals and some sleep it all seems like a distant memory now. I think the tension of always waiting to wipe out coupled with the fear of what might break when you did, plus the several hours it took each time to get the boat going again really wore me down, but I’m OK now. The next blogs will come more regularly I promise!