Almost as soon as we left Hong Kong, it was cold and grey. On the way in to Hong Kong we had just about been able to get away with sailing in summer attire, maybe with one added layer, and foulie bottoms at night. That was no longer the case. Out came the merino wool layers, the mid-layers, the sailing boots, all to be covered at the start of every watch by foulie bottoms and jacket. The shorts and sunhat were put away. The sleeping bag with all its layers was retrieved.
We had to motor to the position where the first boats to leave Hong Kong had found wind. A day later than these others, the weather had changed as Eric expected, and we were left motoring through a gale. Very early on, Eric advised those of us who need seasickness medication to start taking it. For the most part, it worked.
For me the journey to Qingdao can be divided into three distinct parts, although I found each of them difficult. I did not write a single blog post, and more to the point did not take a single photograph.
The Taiwan Strait
We entered the Taiwan Strait shortly after starting racing. It is a relatively narrow band of water. We needed to sail northeast up this band of water. The wind was coming from the northeast. The wind was blowing at about 20 knots faster than forecast. The sea was being funnelled along the strait by its narrowness and the wind. This is the section of the journey with which I struggled the most for several reasons:
Time taken to get on and off watch
When off-watch you are in your sleeping bag wearing base layers. To get from this to all of the warm layers including boots then foulies and lifejacket took me longer than the time from the wake-up call to the start of the watch. Some of the crew made this look easy but it wasn’t. In the first few days, by the time I’d got everything on I may have been feeling queasy from being below and upright for too long.
Likewise I found it hard to get the jacket off, frequently getting lost in it and hoping that another crew member, often Herb, would notice and help. Eventually I asked Chris how he gets his off so quickly. He told me he makes sure all the seals are undone, including the one round the bottom, and then pulls over his head from the collar. Wish I’d asked him on the first day!
As the wind was coming from where we needed to go, we had to sail upwind. In general this means that the boat is crashing into the waves rather than running with them. This makes for a rather uncomfortable journey. The boat mounts some waves leaving the bow unsupported. There is a moment of weightlessness before the bow crashes with a bang back down into the sea. During this moment everyone’s stomach churns and if possible they hold on to something. I groan or swear too. It can be worse or better depending on who is helming. At night though this makes no difference as the helmsman cannot see the waves coming.
Because of the banging there were times when I did not feel safe on deck. The weightlessness is enough to lift me up and put me down somewhere else. So one day while trying to get into my “safe spot” with my legs around a winch I was repositioned with my legs by the winch and my hands on the deck, as if I were playing a childhood game of wheelbarrows! I jarred my shoulder but it could have been my abdomen.
As the wind was so strong, 60 knots at times, it was difficult to make any forward progress. At times we were using just the storm jib and triple reefed mainsail. This sail plan made it hard to point the boat into the wind, so we spent most of the time going sideways. So this part of the race felt like it was never going to end. Small assurances that we were actually making progress helped.
Even after the first few days, when I was generally feeling well and being below decks didn’t bother me, there were occasions when I became certain that I would be sick. I had no way of predicting when this was going to happen, though they were all below deck.
The first time it happened I had just come off watch and struggled out of my foulies. There was no way I had time to put all of them or even just the lifejacket back on. So I asked Nico, who was mother that day, for the galley bucket. He didn’t understand. The rest of the people below did, and the urgency of my request. He tried to pass the bucket up on to deck. By the time it got to me, I did not need it any more as thankfully the urge had passed.
The second time I had been cleaning the heads and in a moment of weightlessness as we went over a wave been thrown from the doorway to the back wall. Sitting in the galley recovering from this, I asked James for the bucket and used it. Then got sent to bed. Thanks Herb for looking after me and finishing my cleaning duty.
Thankfully (for me and you) it only happened three times. The last time in the same sentence I asked Ryan for the bucket. And then my bowl of porridge!
Not eating or drinking enough
For most of the Taiwan Strait the only thing I could do on deck was be there. I couldn’t helm. My watch leader knew better than to ask me to go on the foredeck. I wasn’t even much use as a lookout. I couldn’t eat or drink.
In the previous parts of the race, to Singapore and to Hong Kong, we had brought snacks on deck and passed them around. Each of us had our water bottle and drank from it frequently. Now there were either no snacks or it was more than I could do to get to them. It was easier to say I didn’t want any. Once I realised this I started having seconds if there was enough food, or two bowls of porridge, or more bread if the mothers had been good enough to make any.
More serious was the dehydration. One day towards the end of the Taiwan Strait, I was trying to get on watch but had been struggling against a headache since the night before. It was getting worse, not better. I had mentioned it to Herb (a retired gynaecologist) who thought it might be dehydration. He had been suffering the same thing. Kevin, the Henri Lloyd medic, took my temperature to make sure I wasn’t fighting an infection. I went to my bunk for three watches, drank plenty of water and came out the other side feeling much much better.
South China Sea
The wind abated a little, still stronger than forecast, and we came in to the South China Sea. Now that the sea was no longer being funnelled it stopped being quite so rough. The sun even ventured out from behind the clouds occasionally. This turned being on deck from a world of grey – sea and sky – to one with the odd bit of silver and sometimes even a chink of blue sky. I don’t think the difference a little sun can make can be underestimated.
We even saw the odd little bit of wildlife – a couple of sea snakes!
Race shortened – once more
The race was shortened by about 200 miles so that the overall race schedule was not affected too much. It meant that we finished racing near Shanghai and had to motor the rest of the way. At times we were sailing to conserve fuel.
Even with the race shortened, we arrived into Qingdao a day after the revised crew changeover date. There was a bit of joking among us leggers about no longer working as our contract was up, but of course we did. We are a crew, and leggers are a vital part of that crew. Without us working together, and the short moments of kindness I wouldn’t have got through this part of the leg.
The last day in particular was extremely cold. Being on deck even with all layers was an unpleasant experience. It felt as though the cold was gnawing at any exposed flesh, which was really as little of your face as possible. And your fingers if they had to come out of pockets or gloves for any reason.
On that morning we weren’t even sure we’d get to Qingdao that day. I had woken up to hear Eric liaising with Old Pulteney about a rendezvous as we did not have enough fuel on board to get us there. None of us wanted to spend yet another night at sea in this cold
If being on deck was so unpleasant, does that mean that being below deck conducting what we could of a deep clean while motorsailing at an angle to conserve fuel was an improvement? No, it was just a different challenge. The improvement was arriving.
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