Well, we did it, we reached the Big Apple in one piece… sort of. My faithful Mach 40 Imerys and I raced a total of 3798nm from Plymouth to New York. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of a journey to hell and back. The weather gods turned particularly aggressive and really did everything possible to stop us reaching New York. Out there in the hostile North Atlantic we faced some horrendous conditions that were without doubt the toughest of my sailing career. Nothing could have prepared us for how much of a relentless kicking we would actually get throughout this race.
The first major hurdle the Class 40 fleet had to encounter was a mid-Atlantic low after just a few days of racing. This was only forecast to be small when we set off, but it quickly deepened into a serious depression and was set to consume nearly the entire North Atlantic. There was no way around, we had no choice but to go straight through the eye of the storm and then reach through one of the windiest sectors offering a sustained 40 to 50 knots, gusting 60. The power of this was quite incredible. Once the storm hit, I hoisted my storm jib, a little bigger than a pocket handkerchief, and within 30 seconds I was launched down a wave to hit 24 knots on the log. The night continued like this over and over again – it was a nightmare roller coaster. I was very anxious about the integrity of the boat throughout this time, concerned it would get damaged crashing off waves at such speed. At one point I actually tried to slow the boat down by dragging ropes out of the back… the change wasn’t particularly noticeable!
Imerys pulled through the storm like a hardened polar bear breaking through an arctic winter! but now with a 20 mile lead, I was kindly notified by the race organisers that I had been awarded a six hour stop-go penalty… I had accidentally cut the corner of a traffic separation zone on the first night of the race, hammer. It was out of bounds unbeknown to me and my “detailed race briefing”. Six hours! I couldn’t believe it, I was raging. Everyone knows that skipper briefings exist because no one reads their race instructions thoroughly, and I was no exception – apart from the fact I had to miss the pre-race briefing in order to collect my US visa in London, but it wasn’t all bad luck.
As it turned out, the penalty had its benefits. Exhausted, I made use of what turned out to be a valuable six hours as I found my rudder fittings had worked loose in several places, which could have easily been a show stopper! Luckily for me I was also able to make other repairs that were near impossible to do whilst sailing. So maybe I was meant to cross that out of bounds zone…!
Sitting like a floating duck for six hours, watching boats pass by had me vexed. By the time I had finished the penalty I was energised with the power of a bull ready to get back what I had lost. As the front two boats were now 40 miles ahead, and 4th place was virtually next to me within sight, I had to get out of there, and quickly. With the bit between my teeth I fought like mad over the next couple of days to make up the ground. After 36 hours I had overtaken Thibault the eventual winner, and soon recovered back into 1st place in front of Isabelle Josche, a Figaro sailor who I’ve raced against ever since my first transatlantic 11 years ago.
Soon the game changed and we were hit by more extreme weather near the Ice Gate, south of Newfoundland. Isabelle, Thibaut and I found ourselves reaching at high speed directly into a nasty steep sea which made the motion onboard absolutely appalling. It was an agonising time as I anxiously pushed hard almost waiting for something to break.
Soon I heard that Isabelle had taken on some serious structural damage, suffering a bulkhead failure and a crack in the side of the boat. Literally an hour later my jib deck furler completely exploded. This resulted in my foresail getting blown back into the rigging of the boat, significantly damaging the sail. I had to quickly recover, repair, and lash it directly to the deck to then rehoist it downwind. This cost me a lot of time, during which I was forced to give up my lead once again. It didn’t end there.