Leg 5, Race 7 Day 20, 20th March (again!)

The winds continue to blow today as the low hovers over us. The waves are building in size and strength all the time and after last night's crash gybe, Brendan isn't taking any chances and we've gone down to a few 'heavy-weather helmers' per watch and only two people on deck at any one time – a helm and a wing-man – someone to spot the really huge waves and also a back-up should the helm get knocked off his or her feet! There is also a third role - “Step watch”! This person is below deck but watching the helm from the companionway to a) be there if anything is required from the on-deck duo and b) check they are ok and still there after every big wave that washes over!

It's cold and wet on deck and half an hour is just about enough for the arms, as you are constantly fighting the waves to hold a course and also keep the right angle to the wind to minimise the chances of either a crash gybe or worse still a knock down. Today was a day of two worlds. The below deck world which was by no means warm – or dry but was where the rest of the on-watch huddled in a comparative haven while waiting for their turn to brave the elements in rotation. The on-deck world was an awesome seascape of mountainous peaks and troughs, which from a distance, must have looked like an impossible passage for such a comparatively small and insignificant boat. It seemed a pretty inhospitable place from below deck but once in multiple layers, oilies, hats and gloves and on-deck, it became an exciting challenge – the ultimate ride of your life – surfing down an avalanche of water one minute and then holding on for dear life as a wave hits full force from the side, knocking you off balance and making a swimming pool of the deck and companion way below. Half an hour of helming at a time was more than enough. My arms were complaining loudly about the workout they were getting and the concentration required was exhausting. The overall feeling was exhilaration though. And one of disbelief. I still couldn't quite believe little ole me, was here, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at the helm of a 68ft Ocean Racing Yacht battling through conditions not too dissimilar to those in Perfect Storm! Blimey!

Having made it through the day, the dark, dark night added another dimension to the roller coaster ride. In some ways it was better not to see the terrifying walls of water as they loomed over you – you just had to keep focused, braced and balanced with flexible knees. Not unlike skiing a mogul field in a white-out, only with somewhat larger ups and downs and considerably longer skis!

I had three helming sessions last night – the first is what I would describe as a “”whoo hoo” and “Yee ha” session  - slightly hairy in an exciting fairground kind of way. The second session, the wind was really gusting up, was more of a struggle to keep the boat right and I seemed to develop a bad case of turettes for my half hour wrestle with the helm!  By the time the last session came along it was getting light, the waves were easier to read and it was back to my Pacific rodeo-come-surf ride – wild, fast and furious and the most exciting thing since Cadbury's Dairy Milk! I was right in just thinking how great it was to be alive when Arthur, my wing-man called “wave” and a huge slam-dunker came and slam-dunked us under it's enormous crest – just as we were surfacing a monster wave came straight off the back of it, the force of which pulled the boat right up to port and just kept turning the bow despite my best efforts and entire body weight trying to counter turn it and stick the stern into the wave. In a flash we were hurtling higher and higher up the underside of the wave and the boat was leaning over the mast getting nearer and nearer the water. I could tell we were dangerously close to a knock down and at the same time as shouting to Arthur to give me a hand with the helm, gave one last almighty pull at the wheel and the bow spun round and down the wave as it came crashing down over around us. At the same time as the boat lurched around my left shoulder also lurched – out of its socket and straight back in again. I knew it had happened but didn't feel anything other than the blood pumping round every inch of my body for the next 5 minutes. Every nerve was on edge and although still driving, the only thing going through my mind was what a narrow escape we'd just had. As the blood slowed the rain arrived like an express train
and pretty quickly I was calling for the next helm to take over asap!

It was slightly weird, an hour or so later to be lining up a very similar cocktail of pills that I had been dishing out to our skipper 10 days ago. It took a couple of hours for them to start kicking in and by the afternoon I was nodding off in the saloon, my arm in a sling, feeling suitably sorry for myself!