The Wrong Way Round - Part 3

A salty tale of sailing round the world - as told by John van der Hoff




This sprint across the Tasman Sea had been identified as "the Chairman's leg", a chance for executives from the boat sponsoring companies to shine. And so it was that we shipped a senior executive of Heath as our token sailor. He embarked with a valise full of clothing and personal effects, most of which was promptly disembarked. Not a bad chap though, once he got over the shock of not having his own en-suite with hot and cold running. We set off on 9th February 1997 in 30 knots of wind and rain. In spite of the fourteen 42 tonne yachts jostling for position around the four harbour marks, we passed unscathed past Barretts reef and into the Cook Strait. The rolling three hour watch was reinstated on this leg, and I must say that having a meal without doing tumble turns, followed by a decent wash and a good kip in a dry bunk was absolute bliss. Normal service was resumed in the galley and we enjoyed the luxury of freshly baked bread and scones every day.  The generator and watermaker were working overtime and for a change we were all daisy fresh.  

This leg presented the fleet with an opportunity to race, rather than just trying to survive, and we all pushed very hard. Spinnakers were being shredded all around in the blustery conditions, but we overcame this problem by flying a poled out No.1 Genoa. The boat was massively overpowered with this rig. The rigging was "singing" under the strain, producing a high pitched resonance and the wake was kicking up quite a respectable wave at the stern. Whereas a spinnaker is relatively easy to trip and douse quickly when matters get out of hand, a poled out headsail is a bit more cumbersome. We were very much on the edge and in danger of broaching at any moment. In keen anticipation of this I was poised over the guy winch, ready to let go. Sure enough, I felt the stern starting to lift and the bows digging in. I whipped a couple of turns of the winch and let go. The pressure on the guy was such that smoke was pouring off it as the remaining turns snaked round the winch. The pole flew forward uncontrolled and smacked the forestay, putting a crease in the pole. Not ideal, but trying to control the guy could very easily have resulted in the loss of a few fingers. By this stage the bows were well dug in and the boat yawed over on its starboard side but popped back up without suffering a full on broach. The only complaints were from the crew below decks who were either pitched out of their bunks or had their dinner ruined (again). One of the highlights of this leg was sailing under Sydney Harbour bridge in glorious sunshine on 16th February. The fleet was moored in the spectacular surroundings of Darling Harbour and BT again laid on a feast fit for kings and a firework display which easily matched Sydney's traditional New Year display.

This 22 day stop over was very much intended as a PR show case for BT and the individual boat sponsors to entertain clients and other guests. Travellers went travelling but the crew remaining in Sydney were required to mingle, almost daily, with our sponsors and their guests.. The crew's shore kit was transported between stopovers in shipping containers and those of us on corporate entertainment duty were expected to wear No. 1's consisting of navy blue double breasted blazer, white shirt, tie, chinos and black loafers, washed, cut and combed hair, clean fingernails and a civil tongue. Although this presented us with an opportunity to dine in Sydney's finest restaurants, Nigel (my partner in crime on shore leave) and I soon tired of having to behave and respond to quite frankly daft questions about our adventure with diplomacy and a smile. So we invented the most fabulous excuses for the absolute and unavoidable need of our presence elsewhere, and rapidly made our way to our favourite watering holes for light refreshments.  On one such occasion we obviously refreshed ourselves a tad too much as we woke up early the following day in a roll top wheelie bin behind a bar and in a totally unfamiliar part of Sydney.



My personal log contains only one entry for this leg: “28 consecutive days of gale force winds. Maximum recorded wind speed 69 knots (Hurricane). One knock down.”

So, more Southern Ocean tomfoolery then. The added value ingredients were icebergs, and growlers rattling down the sides of the hull. Growlers are chunks of ice which have become detached from an iceberg or glacier. The sting in the tail of this leg is the Agulhas Current which, opposed by the continuous southwesterly gales, produces mountainous waves topped with wild foaming crests. They are formed by one wave climbing on the back of another and then break with a force that has caused numerous ships in this area to simply disappear without trace.  Heath Insured, like most of the yachts, left without her full complement of crew as quite a few souls had jumped ship, unable to face another lively leg.   Well, that sets the scene.  We set off from Sydney on 2nd March 1997. The first squally spinnaker shredding week took us past Tasmania to Stbd and into the Southern Ocean. After we rounded the southern coast of Tasmania the weather changed from temperate to atrocious in less than 24 hours, and I wore my survival suit from then on until a few days out from Cape Town. It’s now almost 20 years after this leg took place and I must question whether my recollection of events has become embellished by the passing of time, so as a reality check here is an extract from the diary of a crew member on “Courtaulds International”:

“ By the middle of the second week we were 1000 Nm into the Southern Ocean and entering the area where Tony Bullimore and some of the other participants on the Vendee Globe race came to grief. The first major storm occurred on the 13th March; one of a series of fronts centered on a low pressure system of 940mb. The wind was 35-40 kn gusting 50kn.   Not unmanageable but made very difficult with the swell arriving from several directions in a very confused pattern, creating waves of 10m or more. We have a custom that the helmsman shouts a warning to the cockpit crew if he thinks that a wave might break over the boat. On this occasion, as we rode over the top of a wave I could see the crest of a significantly higher wave coming towards us. It was easy to spot both by its size and by its white foaming crest. As we cleared the top of the last wave, I started to call a warning to my colleagues - Hold on! Hold on! By the time we reached the bottom of the trough we were staring up at a 14m wall of water ahead of us. The bows lifted higher and higher up the wave until it felt as though the boat would almost stand on its stern, and you know that the boat will never climb over the wave’s foaming crest. At the last second you duck down, gripping the wheel tightly, just as the cockpit blackens and a great wall of water engulfs the boat. As the water drains from the cockpit you scramble to your feet, thankful that the rigging is still standing. A quick headcount confirms that the rest of the cockpit crew is still present, if not always 100% intact.”

By the 14th March the wind speed was gusting 69 knots and it was then that Heath Insured suffered a knock down. I was off watch at the time, but fully kitted up on standby, and lying in my bunk.  I got an inkling that matters were not quite right when a torrent of water poured from the ventilation shaft above my head and a second later I was pitched out of my bunk. Oh well, no breakfast in bed today. I crawled and climbed my way on to deck as quickly as possible to find the boat lying on its side with the mast almost touching the water. Fortunately we were flying a jury rigged storm jib as a substitute main (the mainsail and trysails having long since been destroyed) so there was no water laden main holding us down. After what seemed like an eternity the boat came up on an even keel to reveal that:

The  VHF aerial and masthead lights had gone, as had the lenses on the bow and stern lights and most of the winch handles. The stanchions on the stbd side had either snapped or were bent flat.

The compass had been wrenched from its binnacle and was never seen again. The EPIRB was activated, having been washed of the stern rail but miraculously still attached to the boat by its lanyard. Both lap top computers had been destroyed by water gushing from the ventilation shafts in the nav/comms station. So no more weather routing/synoptic charts, email or fax.

Conditions below decks were equally chaotic as anything not nailed down was strewn across the boat or floating in the river flowing along the gangway.

It took a while to establish contact with Portishead Radio via our HF radio to cancel the EPIRB distress alert which had caused some anxious moments back in Blighty. Falmouth Coast Guard had received EPIRB alerts from several of the yachts and was busy liaising with the authorities in Australia to launch a major rescue effort which fortunately was not required and they were stood down. Still, the spectacle of the Aurora Australis lighting up the sky and reflecting off icebergs was a sight I will never forget. Over the next few days the weather changed daily as a succession of fronts passed through. Continuous sail changing was the order of the day; hoisting a kite for maybe 30 minutes  and then battling to hoist a headsail. By the 20th March the ambient temperature had fallen below zero and the wind chill factor was such that the deck watch was reduced to 10 minutes with the members of crew still capable of standing a watch, or standing at all,  rotating as described in Part 1. Well of course the weather eventually moderated but before we wave a fond farewell to the Southern Ocean, here is a summary of events as described by the Race Director after completion of the leg:

“The wind was gale force or more for 28 of the 42 days they were at sea. It exceeded 60 knots on 12 days, and reached 76 knots. Typically, the wind doubled in speed from 25 or 35 knots in less than 3 minutes. Crews conducted up to 13 separate sail changes in 12 hour spells when they were beating to windward in temperatures which, when the wind chill was taken into account, were as low as minus 30 degrees  Centigrade. Six yachts suffered sufficiently severe knockdowns to damage their radar domes , which stand twelve meters above the waterline. There was no significant rigging damage, but stanchions were bent by the force of the water, and three compasses were wrenched off their binnacles. The hull of Global Teamwork was scarred by growlers, often the size of a semi-detached house, which are the silent assassins of the sea.  When the boats reached Cape Town, 101 sails of the total inventory of 168 had to be repaired or replaced”
A few days out from Cape Town we had to face up to the fact that the crew were now a considerable bio-hazard, so in deference to the citizens of South Africa the water maker was fired up for showering.  We had again suffered problems with the holding tank which was overcome by some judicious rearrangement of the plumbing and diverter valves for the heads, wash basins and shower sumps. The sequence of operating the valves had changed from the previous arrangement to make it all work, and showering for the off watches commenced. Nigel, my partner in crime, duly took his turn and having completed the task seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to pump out the sump. Much swearing and an ever louder hissing noise was heard coming from the heads and in due course an explosion, whereupon Nigel staggered out of the heads covered from head to foot in effluent. We washed him down on deck with buckets of water before  he was “requested” to clean out the heads. A subsequent board of enquiry determined that he had used the wrong diverter valve, and sufficiently pressured the system to blow a hose off the loo.

We eventually limped into Cape Town with a few rags of sail remaining on 12th April 1997. The amount of weight loss we had all suffered on this leg was such that food and sleep took priority over “refreshments” for the next few days but in due course I recovered sufficiently to generously sample the excellent South African wines.

During yet another spectacular party laid on by BT I was presented with the Peter Vroon Memorial Trophy for the best Sail Repair of the Fleet on the Sydney to Cape Town leg by HRH Prince Michael of Kent.  (main sail). Peter was the chief sail designer at Hood Sails. He had hurriedly  flown out to Rio when we were there with a supply of sail repair material to supervise and assist with repairs in the somewhat basic local sail lofts. He had not had sufficient time before flying out to get the appropriate vaccinations and tragically succumbed to Meningitis within a few days of arrival.

To be continued……

We hope you enjoyed reading Part 3, watch out for part 4 coming soon.