WEATHER WIND 280@30-45kts, Sea Rough 2m, Swell W 5m, Sky O/C, Cl, Baro 1012. It had already been a long wet and cold race across the North Pacific for Gold Coast Australia. We were two weeks into the race and in the lead but had our fair share of problems. Four crew members were confined below, one with a suspected leg fracture, one suspected head injury, one with a bad knee, and others feeling very poorly due the exhaustion and cold of the weeks before. We were in the lead but only just hanging on. Racing was at the back of our minds and survival and the thoughts of warm showers, dry beds and hot food was keeping us motivated.
As I write we are sailing down the coast of Mexico. The sun is shining, wind almost perfect and I am warm and dry. It is hard to imagine only a few weeks ago we were sailing through some of the roughest seas I have ever encountered. Ocean racing through the North Pacific in winter is just like every person imagines Ocean racing to be like. Wet, Cold, Exhausting and hard. Of course, it is a fantastic experience, but one that is best kept for a few days at a time.. not weeks one end!
Two weeks ago the day started with a secondary front bringing more wind than we already had. We had not seen a day under 30kts for over a week and now it was again gusting 45-55kts and we were surrounded by mountainous seas. The increase in wind and constant strain on the boat bought with it a myriad of problems that would take Team Gold Coast Australia most of the morning to sort out.
As the wind shifted we set up to pole out the Y3 headsail using our repaired “small pole” (we had snapped our spinnaker pole in the previous week and since repaired it), however, unknown to us at the time the pole track had been damaged earlier in the race when we had a round up on the Japanese coast. This resulted in us being unable to hoist the pole to its usual height. Annelise Nelson headed up the mast with screw driver and hammer to straighten things out, and by sunrise we were almost ready to pole out the headsail. As the wind continued to veer it also increased in intensity. Not only was the wind increasing but the swell and sea were rising as fast and the the barometer began to drop like a bombshell. After putting in a quick gybe, Gold Coast had its second problem for the morning – reefing the mainsail. Our mainsail track had also been ripped off during the previous weeks when we were changing to the trisail, so now we had a missing section of track that we had to get the mainsail luff cars across.
While we had experimented with our new systems putting reefs in and shaking reefs out while the wind was moderate (less than 30kts), we had not yet trialled the system in over 30kts of wind. Sean Fuller went up the mast to try to resolve the issue but was unsuccessful, and consequently we were unable to keep some of the cars in the track in the desired fashion. We were able to reef by utilising our emergency drop systems that I had developed, a complicated array of lines that go up the back of the mast to support the luff of the sail.
The wind remained variable resulting in numerous sail changes from Y2 to storm jib and back to Y3. Gold Coast Australia now ran with the wind with a polled out Y3 making good speeds towards Oakland California. Running repairs were required on the sails after each drop to fix hanks that were broken due to the high winds and stresses on the sails.
An interesting part of sailing in the North pacific is the amount of Flotsam and Jetsam. The next morning as we surfed down the waves in the dark Gold Coast Australia collided with an unknown object. The hull was checked for damage and there is none noticeable, however to be sure we monitored bilge levels every hour until midday when we were able to put a GoPro video camera over the side to survey for any damage. There are rumours of massive pacific grave yards where so much of the worlds ocean garbage is naturally collected in a big whirl pool. While we have not yet seen the infamous whirl pool, disused nets, fishing floats, polystyrene, water bottles that stand out in bleak contrast to the occasional black footed albatross, sei whales and various species of dolphin that demonstrate the beauty and life of our winds swept environment.
Gold Coast Australia continued to charge down wind with mainsail and polled out Y3 head sail for the next few days in some strong but variable winds and large sea and swell. At times the wind would abate to 25 kts and it felt like we were in a big lull and there is no wind at all. It would be easy to mistake such a lull as the weather completely abating and it is very tempting to hoist a spinnaker, however, with a barometer falling 1mb/hr for the last day, we know that it is just the calm before another storm and utilise the time of lighter winds to check sails and fix any repairs (such as broken hanks) as required before the next session on wind.
With a large low moving to the north of us the swell began to has pick up to about 7m, and on top of this the wind creates a sea of about 3m. Occasionally a set of waves will come through that can only be described as massive, and if you are unlucky enough for one of these waves to break over the boat the situation can get quite messy. One such wave broke over the boat that day without warning. A huge crest of foamy water covered the deck as the boat broached and was knocked over. Thankfully there was no damage to the boat, and only a few bumps and bruises suffered by crew members who were briefly suspended in mid air as they fell from one side of the boat to the other. Later in the race we would hear that another yacht in the fleet Geraldton Western Australia would not be so lucky as they were pooped by a massive wave that injured four crew members and swept away their steering pedestal, wheel and cage. A large US Coast Guard operation was executed to MEDIVAC two of the crew who suffered severe internal injuries. Geraldton Western Australia managed to limp into port days after us with reduced numbers of crew using their emergency steering, a true testimony to the skipper Juan Cortez seamanship and leadership.
The barometer finally began to rise and, the wind began to back and ease back to 30kts as promised by the forecast and Gold Coast Australia was able to shake out a reef and put in a gybe to make our final approach to the Golden Gate Bridge that marks the finish line only 700nm away. Amazingly later that day the sun came out for the first time in three weeks.
As we neared the US coast a couple of days later Gold Coast Australia had our first entourage of supporters as we were escorted towards the Californian coast by a pod of Sei whales and a sooty Albatross. As we sailed further south the temperature has warmed up slightly making life a lot more enjoyable. Full thermal gear was still required to face the elements, particularly throughout the night where crew find life on deck and down below still bitterly cold.
The wind maintained its strength alomst all the way to San Fransisco Bay allowing us to make some good speed down the Californian coast. We were hoping to finish under the Golden Gate Bridge in the afternoon, but the wind began dropping out. Finally just before sunset Gold Coast Australia coasted across the finish line with our medium weight branded Gold Coast Australia spinnaker up just before sunset in first place. We had covered 6000nm in just 27 days in cold wet and hard conditions. Prior to the start as we slipped the dock in Qingdao China Robin Knox-Johnston had said to me “Dont worry Richard, its only the equivalent to 10 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Races”, My reply had been “How hard could it be.. what could possibly go wrong”. Only an ocean racer can know the feeling of elation that one gets after crossing the line after a hard race, and this race had been a hard race. Thankfully we had two weeks to recover and repair the boat docked in Oakland California before the start of race 10.
A sunny day in on San Francisco Harbour was a perfect location for the start of the next race of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race off the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Race 10 stared with a good tussle at the start with some of the skippers forgetting we were racing 68 foot yachts as opposed to Laser dinghy’s. Gold Coast was pushed over the line along with two other boats with seconds to go. At 40 seconds to go I realised there was no way I was going to manoeuvre the yacht back down to the start line so I bit the bullet and got away from the commotion to manoeuvre Gold Coast around the pin end to re start and quickly catch the other yachts as we sailed up the southern side of the bay towards the bridge.
By the time we rounded Mile Rocks we were back up to third place, and set a course slightly seaward of the other yachts who one hour later were a mile or two inshore and were being affected by the tide. At sunset we hoisted our heavy weight spinnaker and set a more southerly course. There was the occasional gust of 30kts which makes life a bit more exciting but on the whole we had fantastic running conditions down the coast.
The fleet remained relatively close we were battling it out for first place amongst a number of other yachts. It was fantastic to be in eyesight and VHF range as we all charged down the coast towards Panama. This race had some interesting tactics ahead, and it will be interesting to see who plays the shore and who heads to sea as the information from local sailors shows advantages at different times to support each theory.
In the first light of the morning the next day Gold Coast Australia peeled from the heavy weight spinnaker to the heavily repaired medium weight and then put in a gybe to the east to remain in the wind belt that was situated down off the US coast. It was hoped the other yachts in our pack would continue south, however they were soon to follow our tactic and also gybed to the east.
Our speed through the morning was poor promoting me to utilise my GoPro camera to do a bit of an underwater survey of the hull for weed or fishing lines that may have wrapped themselves around the underwater appendages. After viewing the video on the computer we found the hull to be clear, and with some more fine tuning managed to get the boat back up to speed. For the remainder of the day we were running in beautiful sunny conditions at similar speeds to the boats surround us and also managed to make a couple of miles on the leaders Visit Finland.
The wind gradually increased throughout the day and in the evening watch we peeled back to the trusty heavy weight spinnaker, which is slightly smaller than the medium weight but basically indestructible which is a wise choice for dark nights with a random following sea. Later that evening we gybed away from the rest of the fleet to make some ground to the south with the aim of staying in the belt of wind that is funnelling offshore.
The next morning we gybed back towards the shore and it was a nice surprise to get the morning sked and see that we had gained on the leading boats and were now the furthest boat to the south placing us in an extremely good tactical position. Later that day I went up the rig of Gold Coast Australia to check that everything was in order and took the time to sit at the head of the medium weight spinnaker and enjoy life at 30m above the ocean with the birds.
The wind eased throughout the day we and Gold Coast Australia changed to our light weight spinnaker and appeared to make some good ground on the rest of the fleet. It was light wind sailing at its best as the crew made the most of the sunshine and nature, enjoying the performance of dolphins swimming past. At sunset the wind picked back up and we are now sailing along on port gybe towards the rhumb line and the Island of Guadalupe with the rest of the fleet to our north. We now have some fantastic wind which should stay with us throughout the night and hopefully give us some more miles on the rest of the fleet and take us Gold Coast Australia into first position.