The Doldrums turn out to be an enigma as everything panned out the wrong way round! We had no wind as we approached them and as we entered the Doldrums on our way up to Sanya from Australia the wind came up and we could have made a fair pace under sail. But having decided to accept the option of using our engine to cross the Doldrums we had to do so and then, as we turned it off, full of hope of a fair wind to drive us onward, everything died and we went back into yet another wind hole!
Oh the frustration!
But it is not all like this and, in reality, the majority of time is spent sailing in just about every strength of wind you can imagine and I thought you might like to hear a little about why we are actually here – the sailing!
I have just come off the 3am to 7am watch and in practice it was a perfect way to spend the graveyard hours. We now have the benefits of the famous Trade Winds and we had a steady 20 knots of wind coming almost on our beam. It had been like this for the last 24 hours and we were making our way to the next mark some 200 miles to the north east. We had to helm very accurately as the spot we were aiming for was the centre of a four mile gap between shallows which we had to avoid. We were experiencing slight seas with a gentle current across the bows so the rolling was not too bad. We were flying the Mainsail, Yankee 1 and the Staysail and this combination drove us along at a steady 11 knots! Progress at last!
Because the conditions were so good we were able to run this course and sail combination for the whole watch (and the 2 before and one after – 20 hours!) without change and this meant the crew had little to do apart from the helmsmen who are, obviously always on duty. When this happens job lists are agreed and with daylight a great deal can be sorted out and the the hours pass quite quickly as you make new strops or sail ties or shimmy up the mast to do routine inspections, or thoroughly clean all the floor boards in and around the galley. But at night it is different and the pit crew are able to catch up on some well earned rest.
This is the easy stuff – champagne sailing with no sail changes as you glide through relatively calm seas in sailing perfect conditions with the sun (or moon!) shining and only a little spray coming over the decks.
As you might imagine it is not all like this so you might like to compare it to a rather different watch!
There are 8 crew members in a watch, one is ‘mother’ so unavailable to assist with sailing except in an emergency, another is on ‘Nav’ duty so spends most of their time below maintaining the log, monitoring the radar for squalls, proving information on local marine traffic we must stay clear of, cleaning and general engine checks. We always have a helmsman and a check helm to ensure we steer the boat directly at the next mark – concentration is easily lost when helming and our 30 minute rotation policy and check helm greatly help to keep us on the right track. Another is either the Skipper or the Mate who generally act in a strategic/safety role rather than handling sail evolutions. So in practice we have 4 crew to manage the actual sails – the pit crew.
On this particular watch the winds were very light, varying from 1 knot to 8 and this gave us a real problem in choice of which sails to use. As we started the watch we had the main, stay and yankee sails flying but it soon became apparent that this combination was not working. ‘Windseeker’ came the cry! Two crew went down into the sail locker to pass it up through the hatch to the other two crew waiting above. This sail is made of very light material and designed to do exactly as its name suggests – harness every ounce of energy from very light winds. Up went the new sail and as soon as it was flying we took down the yankee and stay sails securing them safely on deck with sail ties. Five minutes later, before we had had a chance to catch our breath or grab a drink, the wind came back and the cry of ‘yankee’ boomed across the deck! Down came the windseeker and up went the yankee and stay sails! Two crew go downstairs to repack the windseeker which can take 15 minutes to do.
That is 6 full sail evolutions and they all went beautifully to plan with little complication in some 70 minutes! We were very pleased with ourselves as you might imagine! Compare this to the reported maximum number of sail evolution on a Clipper boat in previous races of 37 in a 24 hour period and you get the idea! Luckily the wind stayed steady for the rest of the watch.
On that watch the sun was shining but the poor unfortunate crew on the previous watch had a similar experience but with rain lashing down continuously. Getting wet on watch in the tropics is, in itself, not a problem as generally the winds will quickly dry you off. However, when you are still wet at the end of a watch it is devilishly difficult to get yourself dry to get into bed and nigh on impossible to dry your kit before going onto your next watch. There is a little devil lurking out here and oh too often we have a soaking around 20 minutes from the end of a watch and thus no time to get dry again! There is nothing worse than putting on wet clothes at the start of a watch! However, you soon learn to just get on with it as you are very probably going to get wet once more as soon as you get up on deck again! I have yet to experience this type of sailing in colder climes – Qingdao will sort that out as the average temperature up there in March is a chilly 6 degrees with the likelihood of snow! Am I ready for this?
So what do the pit crew do? In practice the role splits into two – those that happily go up beyond the mast to man-handle sails as they go up and down and those that stay in the pit to manage all the ropes and winches – that’s what I do.
When we are sailing with the wind in front of the beam then we will be flying yankee, stay and main sails with the option of the windseeker as discussed above. The pit crew, once the sails are up, have relatively little to do – that is until we need to tack or gybe, then their musings are rudely interrupted and they spring into action working with the helm to move the sails to the other side of the boat. Then everything settles back down again until the next turn.
This not quite the case when the wind is coming from behind the beam – then we will be flying spinnakers and these require much closer attention from the pit crew. One is constantly holding the active sheet and another ready on the grinder to adjust the angle of the spinnaker. Sometimes this might be required every few minutes and at other times every half hour or so – but because things happen so fast when you have a sail up half the size of a tennis court you have to be on your toes the whole time. Another member of the pit crew has to be ready on the Vang ready to take the pressure off the mainsail if the boat heels over and the boom dips into the water – no relaxation when flying a spinnaker!
We have three different sized yankees and three spinnakers – in practice these are rather like a car’s gearbox but each accommodates a specific range of wind speeds. As I mentioned above if the wind changes frequently then we have frequent sail changes and out here we are quite busy and only in this way can we get the most out of the wind in terms of speed and be competitive within the fleet. Yankees are relatively easy to hoist, take down and pack but the spinnakers involve the whole watch and anyone else that is lurking around below deck not pretending to be asleep! Manhandling these beasts, especially in higher winds, is an exhausting exercise and just to drop one and get it below can take 6 – 8 people. Before it can be used again it has to be very carefully packed up and put back into its bag which measures around 5’ x 3’ x 3’ and takes three people to lift! This can take some 25 minutes with three people.
Sailing one of these beasts can be fun, it can be frustrating, invigorating and exhausting. You boil in the sun, get soaked by the rain or your own sweat. We might moan like mad about the relentless watch cycle and living in a sauna but the watch is a real team and we are always there for one another and constantly ready to catch the down moments of our comrades. I hope other watches and boats are as lucky we are.
Without that life would be very difficult!