Before I’m fully awake, I hear it: rushing water. It’s very, very close and when I open my eyes I realize that we’re heeled well to starboard. A layer of fiberglass is all that separates me from the cold, dark North Atlantic. The bottom of the skipper’s berth is about eight inches from my face, and as I listen to the sounds of the watch changing, I wonder how I’m going to get out of bed gracefully.
This is just one example of what sets me apart from the rest of the crew: The amateur sailors of the Clipper Round the World Race aboard WesternAustralia2011.com dispensed with the idea of grace a long time ago. There are nineteen of us crewing this no-frills 68-footer and the idea of any kind of elegance is, well, absurd. I hear the new watch now, sleepily shuffling through the small intersection where the galley, heads, and companionway meet, pulling on their “foulies,” brushing their teeth, mumbling their special requests for toast. Peanut butter with honey is Beck’s, Marmite is Jack’s, but at this point-ten months and seven legs into the circumnavigation-Billie, who is the crew’s self-appointed cook, knows their druthers by heart.
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This groggy group is the same one that had the midnight to 4 a.m. watch last night. I could hear them on deck, winches whirling, sails snapping, rain lashing, and though I could barely sleep, I was grateful not to be up there. They changed the sails a half-dozen times and are still totally exhausted as they head back up for the 0800-1400 watch.
I roll onto my stomach, throw one leg over the side, and haul myself uphill to the edge of my suspended bunk. Then I slide over the edge, simultaneously grabbing the upper berth and pivoting my lower half so that my feet find the floor. It’s not pretty but I’m upright and ready for Day Three of Race 12, from New York to Halifax.
To say that WesternAustralia hasn’t had the easiest trip is a massive understatement. Dismasted in the Pacific, they were forced to take last place in two races and though they’ve been to the podium a few times, they haven’t had a first-place finish yet. On this race, the entire fleet of ten got off to a slow start with light winds and fog, and we’ve been moving as a slow pack ever since.
After I’ve splashed some water on my face and rubbed myself down with wet wipes (the ocean racer’s best friend), I grab a cup of “builder’s white, one sugar” and join skipper Martin Silk at the navigation station. He looks bleary-eyed. Our radar isn’t working and we’ve been sailing through intermittent fog in one of the world’s busiest commercial fishing grounds, so he spent last night dozing in the nav station. With his torso on the seat and his legs stretched out into the narrow path that separates his cabin and the generator from the companionway, he knew he’d hear the VHF if any fishing vessels tried to contact us. Now we sit together looking at the GRIB files overlaid on the electronic chart, talking about our next move, and waiting for the 0800 call-ins, when the entire fleet reports their lat and lon. The crew’s mood is subdued by fatigue but still hopeful that we made some gains overnight. Right now, though there’s patchy fog, there’s not a clipper in sight, which could mean we’re out in front-or bringing up the rear.
“We really need to break away from the pack,” says Martin. “So, I’m thinking we’ll head west, closer to the shoals, which everyone else will probably avoid. It’s riskier, especially without the radar, but it’s worth a try.” He zooms in on the shoals and we look at the depths. Our draft is 3 meters and there are parts of the shoal that are marked 3 1⁄2. If this chart is marked in meters, it’ll be impossible to cross directly over Georges Shoal. We zoom into the upper left-hand corner of the chart and double check. Fathoms! That gives us the extra assurance we need and when the 0800 report indicates that we’ve taken a small lead, Martin decides we’re going for it. The good news that we’ve pulled ahead after a tough night raises everyone’s spirits, and there’s a distinct uptick in crew energy. We are racing and it’s on baby, it’s on.
When the weather clears, the radar comes down and is disassembled. Hours later, when the finest mechanical minds of WesternAustralia have given it their best and the fog has moved back in, it’s still not working and we’re resigned to keeping a constant watch on the bow. An array of horns are dragged up on deck and doublechecked. We’re as ready as we’ll be. The 2000 report shows we’re still in front, though our lead has narrowed. The race authorities decide that because of the slow start, the finish will be called at 1200 GMT on Friday-in twelve hours-and be based on who’s closest to the gate.
I go to bed early, but long before Day Four dawns, I am in my foulweather gear and on deck. “How are we?” I ask, after I’m greeted by a chorus of tired but happy g’d mornin’s. “We were still ahead at 0200 but we won’t really know until the reports.”
As the sun comes up, the horizon is almost empty. There’s one lone clipper, way to our east and well behind us. No one is cocky yet but we’re feeling good. We have to believe that no one could have caught us overnight. The stereo goes on and all hands are on deck as 0800 approaches.
“Hey, Martin, do you mind if I take the helm as we cross the finish line?” I ask. He looks stricken but says sure. “I’m joking,” I assure him. Yeah, they’ve come thousands of miles, through storms, a dismasting, icing off China, and I’ve been aboard for four days and think I deserve the helm. “Oh, good,” says Martin. “I was going to say you’ll have to fight me for it,” he grins. “But take it for a few minutes while I have a cigarette.”
It’s the first time I’ve had the helm and I feel bliss. The sails are full, the sun’s sparkling on the sea, and the energy is ebullient. WesternAustralia is minutes away from winning their first race. But the skipper is taking his time with that cigarette. “Okay, Martin, we’re close. You take it.” He shakes his head and smiles. “Seriously,” I say “I don’t want it. It’s not fair. Someone else should take it.” A chorus of cheerful disagreement goes up. “No single one of us could take it,” someone points out. “It doesn’t matter who has the helm because it’s all of our win, so you keep it.” And Pommey Pete, as we call one of the two Peters aboard, says “You’re one of us now, anyway” in his distinctively Liverpudlian accent. I feel panicky and dismayed but come up with a quick solution. “Okay, so let’s ALL hold the wheel as we cross the line.” “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” shouts John Boy. “Oi oi oi!” shouts the entire team in unison.
And everyone but Judy puts a hand on the helm as she snaps the photo I will always cherish of WesternAustralia winning Race 12.
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