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Ocean Racing

After cycling from England to Cape Town I needed to find a way to get to South America. Racing across the Atlantic Ocean in the Cape2Rio yacht race seemed like a good way to do it. I hitched a lift aboard ‘Maiden’ and prepared to race. Below is my account.

“As the spectator boats gradually turned for home the racing fleet was left alone to contemplate 4000 miles of ocean. As my first night at sea approached and ‘Maiden’ pushed on through the waves I felt a basic thrill to be travelling again, to be on the move just for the sheer hell of it. I turned away from the fading Table Mountain and Africa towards the sunset and South America. Every new beginning comes from some other new beginning’s end.

To my immodest glee a newspaper in Cape Town had labelled me an ‘intrepid young British adventurer.’ But on that first night at sea I was brought brutally back down to size as I hung over the side of the boat retching my guts out. Lasagne (“how on earth did I manage to fit so much inside myself?” I marvelled) reappeared with gusto, my eyes streamed and the damnable prospect of three weeks of this awfulness added to my misery. In my cycling clothes and shoes I was soaking wet and cold. Pride comes before a hurl.

Once recovered I joined in the steady routine of racing across the Atlantic. The crew was split into two watches for the rotating routine of duties. Midnight to 0400 (“the biscuit watch” when a packet of biscuits was eagerly shared), 0400 to 0800, 0800 to 1400, 1400 to 2000 and 2000 to 2359 was how the days broke down. When off duty people try to sleep in the airless, sweaty bunks. Helming duties rotated and occasional frenzies of activity were needed when gybing or changing sails, but generally there was not a lot to do except admire the view, read, crave beer (and cigarettes… and salad… and ice cream… and chicas…), talk rubbish and try to hide from the sun.

When waking the other watch (who incidentally did not appreciate being woken by guitar, shouting, singing or hunting horn) they were handed a cup of tea before climbing bleary eyed up on deck. We would then jump into their empty bunks for a welcome four hours’ sleep.

24 days is a long time. Think how many people you talk to, miles you drive and phone calls you make in 24 normal days. Weeks in the office, weekends at home. Ever changing horizons. Hours of television, reams of newspapers. For us it was a disc of blue water, 58ft of boat and 14 other people who were complete strangers on day 1. Yet I was not bored. Once away from the African coast we were barefoot, in T-shirts and shorts 24 hours a day. The days blazed beneath a pale blue sky and above an incredibly clear blue ocean streaked deep down with shafts of white light.

Sunsets brought relief from the furnace, leaving the world to darkness, us and the comforting glow of the GPS and compass. We began the race with a fat cream moon in a golden halo. Small clouds of black and silver shone as we cruised down the yellow carpet of moonlight. The helmsman heaves on the wheel as we surf down the heavy, fast black waves. It is eternal motion, racing ever onwards towards Rio. As the weeks passed the moon waned, filling the utterly black sky with so many stars and shooting stars that they spill over into the ocaen, showers of amazing phosphorescent sparks streaming in our wake, a wake of white water stretching back to Africa and the end of two thin tyre tracks.

Behind the boat morning catches us, the sea a purple mauve as the sky begins to turn orange and then blue. Only the strong stars survive. Eventually even Venus fades. Dawn reinvigorates you after the long night and thoughts turn towards breakfast, waking the next watch and then bed.

Small events break up the hours and days. A torn sail or Alberto being winched up the mast to make repairs. John’s 40th birthday party (and the only bottle of beer on board), Pete being smacked in the head by a passing flying fish in the dead of night and then exacting his revenge by frying the 14 we had on deck for breakfast.

We fell becalmed for several days. I felt so small, so alone, so utterly at the mercy of the wind. It was an impressive experience. I realised then just how vast the Atlantic is. Dorados swam around the boat and refused to nibble our lines. We covered ourselves in shampoo and leaped overboard, with 6km of water below us and thousands of miles to shore. We tried everything to regain favour with the wind gods- singing, wind dances, sacrifices to Neptune (toothpaste, a lone sock, a spoonful of my supper), eating lentils and, bizarrely, scratching the mast. Eventually one of them must have worked as the wind returned.

Crossing the Greenwich Meridian was a big moment for me: the next time I crossed it I would be back in London. Only 360 degrees still to go. I was on my way home at last. The waves thumped, sluiced and fizzed on the hull as I lay in my bunk. Come on wind, take me homewards.

We crossed the finish line in the dead of night, beneath the outline of Sugarloaf mountain and the vast Christ the Redeemer statue gleaming white and appearing to hang in the sky. We had crossed the Atlantic and I had a new continent to cycle across.”

You can read more in Thunder and Sunshine.

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