Beating: Sailing to windward.
‘We were on the beat’, ‘ I was beating to Poole’ ‘it’s a beat’ – one of those nautical terms that just makes no sense if overheard in a conversation by a non-sailor. But as Phorty drops of the crest of another wave with a bone shattering slam ‘beating’ is exactly the word to conjure up our trip back across the Atlantic from Bermuda.
We are currently 300 miles off the west coast of Ireland having been pushed all the way north by persistent and strong Easterly winds making entry through the Western approaches to the English Channel anything but easy going. Since departing Bermuda some 13 days ago we have been battling our way into headwinds for pretty much the entire time.
Down below we move around like foul weather clad orangutans, the constant heeling and bucking of the boat on the waves makes standing up without holding on an impossibility so we hang off ropes secured to the cabin top, walking our way forward or aft using arms not legs to keep us steady. One handed tea making has become a refined skill amongst our delivery crew of three, as well as dressing, washing and any other daily tasks you could imagine, which become a major mission when you can’t stand up. The rigid structure of Phorty’s hull transfers energy directly to the interior so badly stacked sail bags and sleeping people slowly bounce out of there allocated spaces and end up in a heap on the leeward side of the boat. A wave caught on the outside of the hull can be felt like a kidney punch to the person sleeping on the inside. But sleep still comes if you are tired enough.
On deck the waves pour constantly down the deck though sitting inside the cuddy we are kept safe from the elements. The autopilot does not care for our comfort and will drive Phorty straight off the face of waves mercilessly following instructions to the letter. A human hand on the helm produces a more gentle ride and I have spent hours now mesmerised by the form of the waves, the oncoming gusts and keeping a steady and smooth course. Occasionally we will scuttle up to the mast and put a reef in as the heel on the boat becomes too much, only to drop it out a few hours later always searching for a better speed.
We were given some respite from this sheeted in, heeled over state by the passage of a little low pressure system mid Altantic, which snuck up behind to blow us on our way. This time sails were eased to half way, we reached across messy seas with gusts up to 40 knots and our mainsail reefed down to the max. In these conditions the autopilots sadistic approach was too much to bear so we took it in turns to hand steer picking our way through the onslaught of waves approaching from different directions. Being on the helm then, sitting out on the very side of the boat, was like being jetted with a fire hose for hours and hours on end. The half-height combing behind the helming position stopped us from being washed off the deck but at the end of a watch my torso felt like it had been beaten and my right eye was red from the constant barrage of salt water that had been directed at it.
My new drysuit is without a doubt my current favourite thing. When I am wearing it I feel invincible. Yes I will go onto the foredeck and pull that sail down, or tidy those ropes – you can’t get me waves! No more soggy trouser bottoms from crawling on a wave drenched deck.
It has been a tough delivery that is for sure but Phorty has coped with the conditions well and as always I have learned a huge amount. I am sure it sounds horrendous to some (ok maybe to most) but to sail this boat is a real privilege for me. In order to achieve performance sacrifices must be made, the boat is built to race, to be strong, to be light and were comfort is important you will find it (such as in the helming position) but nowhere else. For me this is no problem, I will never complain about conditions on board because this boat is made to race and if I want to experience what it can do then I must embrace all that it is.
So beating does not seem such a jibberish word all in all. We have been given a beating all the way across the Altantic. My rough and calloused hands, the ribs starting to show through my skin and weary back an shoulders all profess to that; but we are not beaten. We have snuck around the top of these easterly winds and tonight will drop down from the north with a following wind to make Lands End by Tuesday.