Monsters in the night

And so here I am, screaming my way through the north Atlantic, racing an IMOCA double handed to Brazil. My whole year has led me to this point. I have followed my critical path, taken next step after next step and all of a sudden it is eleven months down the line and I have been let loose with the big boys.

Superbigou is starting to feel like home. I know she is strong, I know she is stubborn and I am learning how to make to best of her with every accumulated mile. There have been many moments on this race where I know we learned something significant and were able to move our game forward. The most significant occurrence however was a few days ago in the north Atlantic it was my first full on wipe out. 

I’ve had run ins with the old girl before, and she’s growled at me, I’ve lost a bit of skin or fractured a finger but walked away from it relatively unscathed. But this moment was the first when I completely lost control.

We had been trying to get the right balance with our sail plan all day, the boat needs to be driven hard to get speed but also needs to be controllable enough that the pilot can take over. After a bit of playing we plumped for a reef in the mainsail and our second largest spinnaker; the fractional VMG running kite. The breeze built during the day and by the evening there were some lovely large rolling seas and wind speeds in the high 20s. 

Helming was fun, out of this world, you would drive the boat to the crest of a wave, momentarily the bow would hang in the air while the wave broke underneath it then Superb would leap ahead surfing down the face. Water breaks over the bow and runs in a solid wave of its own down the deck. If you are lucky it simply fills your lap then drains away through the cockpit. If unlucky it will body slam you reaching face and neck height finding any gap in a zip or collar and making its way inside your waterproofs. But don’t let the water distract you from the game. A gentle push away of the helm brings the apparent wind back forwards, the accelerated boat speed from surfing the wave lifts the bow into the air and nimbly this 60 fter jumps onto the back of another wave to start the process again. We sat for hours, mesmerized by the wave patterns ahead of the bow, pushing Superb regularly over 20 knots of boat speed. It felt epic, fun, exciting, right.

As night fell with the breeze still building we talked about when was the right time to take the kite down. You need to set limits based on wind strength, conditions, light, fatigue. Both agreeing to make the most the speed while we could we see  the kite in the early evening moon then go for a quick drop before it got dark, checking lines where ready to run, ensuring we would know which snuffer line to pull in the dark and trying eliminate any easy to make errors.

By the light of the moon we steered Superbigou on. The focus required to keep the boat in track in the dark is immense, you develop almost tunnel vision; locked into position, using every sense to pre-empt the next action. Hearing tells you of waves approaching or breaking from behind or to the side, feeling of the wind on your neck and ears lets you know the wind angle, sight to watch the silvery outline of the spinnaker and the breaking crests of waves ahead.  We rotated through helming one hour on one off, resting where possible though down below can be a brutal environment when Superb is flying.

Eventually the moon disappeared, the wind was regularly over 30 knots and the angel on my shoulder started whispering I should quit while I was ahead. I had been below decks, not sleeping, just furtively watching the numbers. Addicted to the displays, willing the boat speed to stay up and the wind speed down. Every time I tried to close my eyes we would start a surf, the acceleration could through you across the cabin, the rumbling along the hull grows louder as does the hum of the dagger board. Then there is no sleep. You have to look at the numbers to know just how close to the sun you are flying.

I came up on deck with the idea if was time to call it quits, but the night got a hold of me; just like and addict in denial I was convincing myself, just one last play on the helm, one more hour of fast sailing and we will call it a day. We discussed the drop, agreed it would happen in an hour then I took my place on the side deck, ready to helm. The pilot had been driving during the handover and had been doing a fine job. Literally as I reached to take the helm a huge wave, came from the side, rolled Superb over in the opposite direction and it was more than the pilot could take. It tried, had no response so just let go and we spun out in a flash.

For a moment we just lay there. Monster boat on its side, three hundred square metres of spinnaker flapping uncontrollably, mainsail dragging in the water. I was on the high side, ys on the low. I had my legs wrapped around a winch to stop me from falling down onto him. It was a good four metre fall to the other side of the cockpit and I intended to stay where I was with the helm.

 I think I stopped breathing and thought, ‘so this is what it’s like to completely lose control’. I imagined the scene viewed from above, a dark sea with relentless marching waves. A huge boat lying prone, flapping and noisy, two tiny people expecting to sort all of that out. It seemed like the limit but oddly I was not scared. I remembered what Miranda Merron, one of my fellow competitors had said to me before the start of my first solo race. ‘if you wipe out and you can’t get it back, don’t panic,’ she said, ‘the boat Is really strong, just leave it and wait. It will come up eventually something will change.’ 

With this thought in my mind I found I was not scared, of course my heart was thumping out of my chest, I was worried we would break something and still daunted to be so out of control. But calling to each other above the cacophony of noise, we eased first the spinnaker sheet, then the main, then I tried to pull the tiller and one, two, three pumps later and we were back on our feet and flying into the black night again.

Suffice to say we got away with that one. The kite came down, was replaced with a much more sleep conducive gennaker and our we whooped to our success and high fived the great escape.

We are busy racing, full on in the moment of this race but when I look back at my year so far I realise how much of a novice I still am. These lessons are so valuable and there are still so many to learn. This race has boosted my ability and my confidence no end; it’s shown me things about my boat and myself I only could have learned by pushing myself in a race environment. It’s just perfect that I am able to share this learning with Ys as well. Knowing there is another head and more hands to think through the problems and correct the mistakes is invaluable at this stage in the game.

So my Superbigou showed me who was the boss. I heard you lady… next time a smaller kite?

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