Bermudes 1000 - Fighting for Vendee Globe Qualification
The last 24hrs has been a reminder of how big all of this, the ocean, the boat, all of the elements that need to be in balance to successfully race this boat. The tiniest things can trip you up, for me it's a bolt.
After the gentle but slow first couple of days racing, the morning of day three promised breezy conditions. I'd been enjoying a private race with Miranda Merron, also racing her boat for the first time and I was quite enjoying our proximity through the previous night. The breeze started to pick up in the morning and I let Superbigou power up enjoying the flat water and the taste of absolute speed, knowing that I would need to throttle back soon in the building wind.
As it got light I walked the deck, checking for anything that seemed amiss or could potentially lead to problems. When I got to the mast I looked down and noticed the goose neck pin – a large diameter pin which joins the boom to the mast allowing the mainsail to hinge in and out – had worked it's way out of place.
I lay flat on my belly on the deck and looked underneath the fitting and realised the retaining nut was no longer joined to the pin and the pin has almost worked through the bottom bracket of the gooseneck. A matter of millimeters more and the pin would have been out with the potential for the boom to be flailing around the deck unrestrained. I was able to remove the retaining nut from under the bracket and realised the thread has been completely stripped. It's a custom machined part, I have not substitute I could use on board. The pin, with some effort, should locate back into the bolt but the bolt will not be able to hold the pin in place.
Needless to say this is bad, its very very bad. My immediate reaction was first to depower the mainsail, I let the sheet go and dropped the halyard to two reefs leaving the boat to power along on jib alone.
One of the major skills I have learned solo ocean racing is to react to the big problems is a measured way. Acknowledge, take actions to stop it getting worse, make a plan, get ready, execute the plan. The largest part of this process is simply accepting you have a problem then getting on to find the solution. A fly on the wall may be intrigued by the total lack of emotion, or sometimes action when watching me deal with problems afloat and may be surprised by what priorities I make first.
With the mainsail eased and dropped I went below and changed into my new Helly Hansen dry suit. The wind was going to build rapidly, I could be on the deck for a number of hours so I need to be wearing the best kit and a dry suit, in my experience, is like a suit of armour, add to that a lifejacket and tether and I was good to go.
The job was more complicated than I had hoped, the mast on Superbigou was originally designed to rotate and so sits off the deck on a ball joint. The goose neck pin not only provides the function of joining mast to boom but also locating the mast foot on the deck to stop it rotating. I needed to get that pin back in.
I rigged a strop around the gooseneck fitting then led that out to the toe rail and back to a cockpit winch and was able to pull the fitting back into line over the bracket so the pin could go back in place. Tapping with a hammer and winding on the winch I managed to get the pin back down then tried to place a lashing over the top to stop it lifting again. I also lashed the boom to the mast as a fail-safe measure. I decided to check the fitting every hour to look for movement.
After an hour the pin had risen again, the lashing was simply not able to hold the pin in place. I decreased sail again and considered sailing under jib alone. The wind had got up during the morning and was now gusting 30 knots. My trips to the mast were made on hands and knees and while I was working the boat was bucking underneath me and I was being constantly soaked by walls of water coming down the deck.
Eventually, I have found a happy medium. I am sailing with three reefs in the main and the sail undersheeted for conditions. The boat is going slowly but still making progress around the course. Every hour I let out the mainsheet, make my way to the mast with my hammer and tap the pin back home again. In these conditions – its's still 30 knots and a big sea – there is nothing else I can do. If necessary I will have to sail the remaining 1400 miles of the course like this, tapping the pin every hour to secure my Vendee qualification miles. I can't afford to miss a tap so I have multiple alarms set and will need to make sure even when I am wet and cold I still go forward and tap the pin in the night. My racing is over, I can't push the boat hard without a solution to this problem but I can still finish the course and qualify.
As the wind died and the sun rose this morning, I was knackered. It’s been a never ending slog this morning. Just one thing after another. I wanted it to get light before I started doing stuff and I’ve pretty much on the go since then.
We’re up again and got a bit of pace on, which is really nice. This morning, quite amazingly, I saw a whale. Which was fantastic. I’m pretty sure it was a whale, or a deformed enormous dolphin, if it wasn’t a whale! It was in the distance, just rolling gently through a wave, which is really special. I’m just really enjoying being out here and hoping that today, I can just have a day of plain sailing. But the main thing is that sometimes I just look at the boat. I’d just hoisted up the full main and sort of going to-and-fro, checking everything was alright and we started going off. The boat heels over, we go off at pace, and I just thought “Blimey! I’m sailing this thing on my own!”. It’s the most incredible feeling. She’s a big boat, enormous. You get so absorbed in the task, you’re head down, you’re focused on completing a task and actually, when you stop, and you actually look up, you look around and I look at how far I’ve come – both literally and metaphorically – you know, I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. It’s my first ever race and it’s quite and extraordinary feeling that I’m actually doing something like this. It’s amazing.
Of course I am disappointed but I am also determined to work around this problem and make it back in one piece. Now that the wind has died I’m going to try and find a more permanent solution to keeping the pin in place and start pushing again. But for now on the hour, every hour I am fighting for my Vendee Globe qualification. This won't be my only problem I am sure. I have one week left of sailing, the weather is challenging and this is the first time Superbigou has done this many miles in quite a while. I just need to take every issue on the chin, work with what I have got and stay entirely focused on the goal, which is a finish line in Brest what ever position.