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.


beating beating

Foul winds, Foul Fuel

The route back from the Caribbean is seldom simple; it is a question of planning a strategy to dodge around weather systems, avoiding the headwinds, skirting around the windless holes then waiting for the perfect low pressure system to sweep you east without beating you up on the way. We left Antigua with a grand plan in mind; to head north out of the easterlies and then motor directly through the centre of a high pressure system above us. Once this was cleared we would hook into a low and ride our way home. Simple but effective. Like all great plans, it didn’t turn out that way and somewhere on day 4 of our trip things took an unusual turn and the last week has been poles apart from what I had hoped. Objectives for yacht deliveries are completely different to racing. My main aims for this passage are naturally to keep my crew safe, then to minimise wear, tear and damage to the boat and sails then finally to get back to the UK as quickly as I can. When I look at the weather I am not only looking for a quick route but also an easy one, I will avoid excessive wind and waves and aim to motor through areas of calm as much as fuel supplies will allow. For this trip Phorty is using old sails which is also limiting our performance – I have only a small jib and small spinnaker available to use. The good new ones are kept for racing best. At times deliveries can be painfully slow, especially if you know just how much potential the boat has to go faster; I find it quite hard and have to mentally sit on my hands to stop them from searching out big spinnakers or shaking out reefs when actually we are going fast enough already. So.. back to day 4 of our delivery and we are making our way north, under motor with a blistering hot sun baking down on the deck. And then all of a sudden we are not. With a faltering put putting, the engine grinds to a halt and we are left wallowing – a heavily laden boat with small delivery sails in a big sloppy and windless ocean. Somewhere along the lines we must have picked up some dirty fuel and the engine could no longer be relied upon to either charge our batteries or fire up in an emergency situation such as man overboard. There was only one solution available, which was to sail to Bermuda some 400 miles to the North West then drain our tank, change the fuel filters and start the trip over again. The biggest hurdle being actually getting to Bermuda from the wind hole we were firmly stuck in. It took three days of trying, of hoping every time a ripple appeared on the horizon that this would be the breeze filling in then the disappointment as the boat slapped and slammed and the sails hung loose when the wind fizzled out to nothing again. To make matters worse we were due to make our Bermuda landfall just after sunset on a Saturday night so the hope of getting professional help on the island on a Sunday was limited and we would need to spend the night stooging around outside the island in the dark, as to sail between the reefs with no engine at night would not have been a smart idea. In an effort to try and organise some help for a quick turn around, back in the UK Ash started to ring around various contacts to find out where was the best place to go in Bermuda to sort our problems out and if there was anyone who might be able to help out on a Sunday. After a great flurry of contact – many thanks to everyone who offered advice – we came back with the answer that Bermuda is basically closed on a Sunday. No one could even think about whether they could help us until Monday morning. As the sun rose on Sunday we came to the realisation we were on our own, rolled up our sleeves and decided to nail this problem. With the help and guidance of the Duty Officer at the wonderful Bermuda Harbour Radio we sailed in through Town Cut to St Georges harbour then picked up a tow from a passing fisherman and finally we made it to the shore. The mission would now begin and I had a problem solving ace crew for the job. I pulled apart the stern locker to find an oil extraction pump and some old garden hose which was then duly cobbled together to drain the tank. Diane led a mission to find a disposal place for the old fuel and a garage to get some new stuff. After two hours of pumping, rinsing, cleaning and walking backwards and forwards with jerry cans the engine started again and we left it purring away for a couple of hours, watching from a quayside restaurant while inhaling a burger and chips that was long overdue. And so that evening we once more set off to sail back to England. The forecast is slightly different and we are one crew down as Poppy flew home from Bermuda, but three days into the next leg of our trip and I am pleased to report there is nothing to report. The worlds of racing and deliveries require different temperaments – to mix them up would bring failure on both counts. However there is one stand out attribute that is required across the board when ocean sailing and that is to take adversity on the chin. Things go wrong, sometimes fault can be attributed, and sometimes it just happens. For every problem that gets thrown into your path a solution must be found, circumstances must be endured or embraced, there is seldom time for self-pity or lamentation and rarely anyone else to play the fairy godmother and make your problems go away. If you can do all this and still find the time to enjoy a stint on the helm or marvel at a beautiful sunset then life cannot be bad at all.

And Breathe…..

I am a bit of a yes woman.
I like to say yes to most things, whether they are invitations to dinner or crazy endurance challenges. Saying yes feeds my appetite for experience and also guards against that nagging feeling that somewhere along the line I might miss out. Saying yes pushes me along, it encourages me to use my time as productively as I can, to work, to learn, to experience and to spend time with the people I love. However, packing so much in just before heading off on a Trans-Atlantic crossing can result in one crazy Pip, ricocheting between countries and activities, trying desperately hard to keep all of those balls from crashing down around me. In the last couple of weeks I have managed to pack in a lifejacket test for Yachting World magazine, a snowboarding trip, a pit stop in Sweden to review the new Hallberg-Rassy 44 and an all-day running and biking event – all the while planning provisions, spares and repairs for the delivery of Phorty back across the Atlantic. I arrived in Antigua with delivery crew on the 28th and since then we have worked and prepared in a suffocating humidity to make sure we and the boat would be ready for whatever the ocean throws at us in the next couple of weeks. My crew settled in quickly and it has been wonderful to team up with fellow mini sailor Diane Reid, who I have not really spent any time with since our 2013 race; as well as Charles who is my co-skipper for the upcoming double handed attempt at the 3 Peaks Yacht Race and his daughter Poppy. When we finally cast off the lines and sailed out of Falmouth harbour to start our 3500 mile journey back to the UK the cool breeze was a welcome to us all. Immediately the frenzied activity of the past few weeks has been caught up on a warm Caribbean wind, my shoulders are relaxing and my gaze is on the wonderful empty ocean that lies ahead. I love sailing across oceans, this will be my 11th trans-Atlantic and I felt just as excited and nervous when leaving the dock as I did on the first. Not only will I have time ahead to indulge in sailing this wonderful boat (every day is a school day on board) but also to reset the pace of life, to focus on just one thing and start to breathe again.