Blogs from the Sea – “Elnenio”

Upon reaching Qingdao as a RTWer, a half circumnavigation and 18000nm under my belt, I have had many a reflective and pondering night watch to question our predicament at sea, the phenomenon that is the weather and would not go amiss to say I have felt a little cheated to have not experienced anything near to the wild and treacherous conditions you read about in maritime novels new and old.  To think of our journey thus far, we have passaged the Atlantic and South Atlantic and notoriously hostile Southern Oceans in relative ease.  As our voyage took us north to Singapore, we never really incurred any fierce weather and as I questioned again, why not?, further investigation emerged that we were experiencing the “elnenio effect”.  And so I had an explanation, but still felt like my ocean yachting experience had been unnaturally kind.  The tides started to turn as we passaged from Singapore to Qingdao and for the first time experienced seas and conditions more usual for the time of year and closely matched to the grib files.  Now as we find ourselves mid-Pacific, the old adage “be careful what you wish for”, comes to the forefront of my mind.  Perhaps “elnenio” ended on the 2nd March 2010; that I cannot be sure, however the mighty Pacific has certainly provided one hell of a ride.

I can now comfortably say I’ve felt so cold at sea, that four layers of moreno wool thermals, a hat, neck gaiter and two hot water bottles buried beneath my ocean sleepwear bag has still left me feeling decidedly chilly and borderline shivering.  I’ve been so utterly soaked through from hours of bow waves crashing over the cockpit and cold, icey rain continually beating down, that when down below and stripping down, I am wet through to my base layers.  Note, nothing at sea is waterproof!  I have surfed 120ft waves in brilliant sunshine, felt ecstatic by day and close to terrified in the darkness of night.  I’ve experienced Force 10 gales and 50+ knots of wind.  I’ve felt humbled by the wind’s raw power, incredibly vulnerable by its strength and seen first hand how easily it can break boats.  I’ve helmed through a knock down in the doldrums and through a freak 50+ knot gust that rounded us so much that forcing the wheel hard to starboard as far as she would turn, did nothing to stop the power of the wind chewing her up, spitting her out and snapping the spinnaker pole like a matchstick between its fingers.  In essence, it has been an incredible journey and the throng of experiences just keep pouring in thick and fast from every angle.

In racing terms it has been like no other competition I have ever experienced.  I would consider myself an experienced sportswoman, having participated in a multitude of fields over the years, specializing in one or two, namely rowing and until now I would have said that golf was up there amongst the most frustrating.  That has been quickly stamped down to second place and superceded by the extraordinarily frustrating world of sailing.  The first thing to fathom, once you have got to grips with the whole new language that is sailing jargon is to resign yourself to the unmistakable fact that your engine is the wind and in the year of “elnenio” when the grib files, synoptic charts and every other weather document suggests you have winds of significantly differing strengths and directions to those which actually exist, this is a difficult predicament to accept that you are at her mercy.  Therein describes our first 5 months of this race.  Then, by some divine intervention or perhaps the end of “elnenio?” the grib files run true and for the first time we have the weather we are forecast, we can properly prepare our sail plans and we can really push.  And push we did, into second place and sailing strong, working cohesively harder and better than ever before, elated that our hard graft from the last 5months and steep learning curve was finally paying dividends.  In an instant, BANG!  It was over and we were beaten.

In my years as a sportswoman and former athlete, I’ve had my fair share of success and equal share of failure and I know how it feels to be beaten.  However, there are definitely two strands to this end.  It is one thing to be beaten, when you have pushed as hard as you can, given it everything until you are so empty there is nothing left to give and your competitors were just fitter, stronger, harder, better on that day.  You suffer disappointment, but take comfort in the knowledge you gave it everything, but that was just not good enough on the day.  You go home, reflect, collect, form a plan to train harder, train smarter, prepare better and get it right next time.  These are factors you can control.  To be beaten by your equipment failing is beyond your control and frustrating does not nearly describe the feeling this creates.  Whilst initially soul destroying, as time passes by, it has certainly proved to be soul strengthening.

Watching our position gradually diminish and falter to 8th place has been hard enough to swallow and whilst our odyssey is now about safety and survival in the world’s biggest ocean and I fully support the conservative and preserving sail plan we are adhering to, this is how it feels.  Two nights ago, Spirit of Australia and Hull and Humber both passed in succession within a stone’s throw away.  To watch them silkily sail by averaging 5+ more knots of boat speed and under considerably more canvas felt akin to how it must be in the saddle of a race horse, chomping on the bit.  All around you the other horses are galloping by, but you’re hard on the reigns, confining the powerful beast between your thighs to a trot.  All you want to do is craic the whip, unleash the canvas and sail hard to the wind, but you can’t.  To push now, is to risk a hairline fracture becoming a full blown break – a lame horse and the end of the road for EIC.  And so I remind myself, there is no such thing as chance in this life, and whilst I am still struggling to understand the lesson, I am growing ever closer to accepting it and our predicament and am ultimately still enjoying myself.  If that is the lesson, then I already feel like a winner.  Perhaps the lesson is that life is like the wind.  We cannot control it, we cannot always harness it, but whatever blows it throws at us, we must live with it.

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