Wednesday, 4 December 2013

High Times on the Cruel Sea - (Sunday Tribune, 15 April 1990)

Came across this when tidying up some old files. An interesting reminder of when I was a part-time sailing journalist ...

The Sunday Tribune's Gerry Byrne has spent a month aboard NCB Ireland, on the fifth leg of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Here, in an exclusive report, he describes the hazards of life on an ocean racer.

I had almost forgotten there were trees. The high rise buildings of Fort Lauderdale and Miami were visible from about 15 miles off the Florida coast as NCB Ireland weaved among the outward bound Bahamas Island cruise ships on the last day of our 5,500-mile voyage from Uruguay. But the trees were not visible until we passed the finishing line, the crack of the finishing gun ringing in our ears. So green, really green. So tall.

Seeing a tree again was not one of the hundreds of fantasies we shared aloud to while away the long tedium of a nightwatch in the light winds of the Doldrums or the even lighter winds of the trade wind belt which failed to deliver the windpower we needed, to speed us towards a loved one or a cold beer, or fresh bread and butter, roast pork, a Big Mac ... Twenty-four hours later I was still glancing out windows, checking on the trees.

The Whitbread (now called the Volvo Race) Round the World Race is to yacht racing what the Tour de France is to cycling, the Le Mans 24-hour is to motor racing. It is a test of endurance, of skill but more than all comparisons it is an exercise in deprivation.

The 23 yachts in the race sailed 6,300 miles to Punta Del Este in Uruguay through gales off Spain and intolerable heat in the Doldrums. At the end of October they set sail again, this time bound on a lonely 7,650 mile trek south across the bottom of the world, skirting Antarctica and dodging icebergs as they hitched rides on the back of storms that would send most other yachts scurrying for shelter. This is the shortest route to Freemantle, Australia, but you must trace it on a globe, not a flat map, to understand why.

After a few weeks' rest in Australia the Whitbread circus set off again, 3,500 miles to Auckland. Then back under the world to Punta del Este, via Cape Horn at the Southern tip of South America. They faced a further 5,500 mile trek north to Florida and a 3,800 mile dash across the Atlantic to the finish at Portsmouth. A total of 33,000 miles driven by the wind and the puny efforts of man to harness it.

By the time the race had reached Punta del Este for the second time it had claimed three lives, destroyed one yacht and inflicted millions of pounds worth of damage to hulls, masts, booms and sails. A Swedish crewman died in a road accident during the first stopover in Punta del Este. Alexis Gryshenko, co-skipper of the Russian entry, Fazisi, hanged himself during the same stopover, his fatigued mind unable to accept the loss of control he had to surrender to his American co-skipper, Skip Novak, a far more experienced yachtsman. A few weeks later a cruel Atlantic wave swept Tony Phillips to his death from the deck of the British yacht Creightons Naturally.

A collision with a spectator boat ripped the aft or mizzen mast out of the Swedish ketch, The Card, in Auckland. Four days later the small Belgian entry Rucanor Sport was battling to stay afloat after a fatal collision with a whale. Her crew nursed her back to Auckland for emergency repairs.

Aboard NCB Ireland the boom broke three times. Sixteen escaped with their lives when the keel dropped off the Finnish yacht Martela and she capsized two hundred miles off the Argentinian coast.


That was the scenario when this unfit reporter arrived at the Punta del Este dockside ten days before the start of the fifth leg. A dinghy sailor, not an offshore yachtsman, my sailing skills were nowhere near good enough to match the requirements of this giant yacht. But unless I pulled my weight I would have difficulties being accepted by the crew, several of whom had given two years of their lives to preparing Ireland's first ever entry in this race.

Some of the crew were less than lukewarm about the idea of having a journalist aboard. Irish media were quick to run bad news about the boat, slow to praise the crew's heroism. New Zealander Peter Warren was fuming about one story which falsely reported he had become engaged to a crew-member aboard the all-woman British entry Maiden.

New crewman Johnny Le Bon, brother of pop singer Simon Le Bon, was no stranger to the manipulations of the Fleet Street tabloids forever seeking 'sex-and-drugs' scandals involving the stars. Phil Barrett recalled being besieged by reporters after he and Johnny barely escaped with their lives from the capsized Drum when it lost its keel at the start of the 1985 Fastnet Race.

Dubliner Kieran Tarbett, one of Ireland's most experienced racing sailors, was puzzled by the kind of stories he had read. Like the columnist who acidly wrote that NCB, the name of the boat's main sponsor, really stood for Never Coming Back or, perhaps, Nice Cruising Boat.

There was a time when almost all of the news had been bad, he recalled one night as he took his turn on the helm off the Brazilian coast. The first skipper, Bobby Campbell, had been fired; a rule change by the race organisers left NCB seriously disadvantaged; major modifications were needed to correct defects in the yacht's sailing performance; NCB had come in two days behind the leaders in a transatlantic race last summer.

"Here I am, an Irishman, sailing on the first Irish boat ever to race around the world. I think that's great, my fellow crewmen think it's great, but it doesn't seem to matter so much to everybody else."

I had some sympathy with his viewpoint. Trying to report objectively on the Whitbread Race is a bit like a soccer reporter following Roy Keane around the World Cup series but being prevented from seeing a single match.

When NCB broke its boom in Antarctic waters during the second leg there were no reporters, no TV cameras to show us how they engineered a repair during a gale-driven snowstorm. Nobody saw crewman Killian Bushe being swept off his feet by a rogue wave and smashed senseless against a winch pedestal.

There was more drama in a stormy Whitbread day at sea than in the most exciting of cup finals. But media reaction was perhaps best summed up in a headline in a Whitbread report in the six million circulation national daily USA Today when we reached Fort Lauderdale:

"Stopover allows sailors to drink beer, tell tales."


We sailed from Punta del Este, our faces painted green, on St Patrick's Day. We had slept our last night in a comfortable bed, drunk our last cold beer, seen our last blade of grass for more than three weeks. Not to mention the trees. From now on our world extended no further than the blue horizon, no deeper than the ocean, no higher than the sky.

Our home measured 80 feet long, 20 feet at the widest, but less than half was living space for the 16 crew. The bow section, up front, was a large hollow section containing only a tiny toilet cubicle. It is deliberately kept empty to reduce weight and prevent the yacht from burying its nose in waves. The second section, from the mast aft to about halfway along the boat's length, is occupied by the engine and generator, by sails, tools and food stores.

The galley and navigation desk took up a large part of the sleeping section. We hotbunked, sleeping on barely cushioned bunks stacked three high like bread trays. Hotbunking is the yachtsman's term for sharing; when you went on deck for your watch a crewman coming off duty took your bunk.

There is no table; meals are eaten from a bowl squatting on a sailbag or standing leaning against a bulkhead. Only the barest essentials may be taken on board by the crew, enough clothing will fit into a shoebox sized locker, a Walkman and little else apart from a few books.

For recreation you mostly sleep. Blue water racing is conducive to sleeping. A typical day might start with a four-hour duty on deck starting at 2.00 am. Breakfast is at 6.00 am. After six hours off you stand another watch, from noon to 6.00 pm. Four hours off until 10.00 pm. On deck until 2.00 am.

The longest period available for sleeping is six hours, during the daytime when it is hardest to sleep. There was never enough sleep at night. I staggered on deck blinking in the darkness for about 15 minutes, then counted every second of the last ten minutes before going below again. Too often a precious sleep was rudely shattered by the thumping sound of a tightly coiled rope being released from a winch.

To save weight, cook Richard Gibson prepared meals from vacuum-packed dehydrated mixtures designed for mountaineers for whom weight is an absolute premium. Despite his best efforts they were mostly unpalatable.

The water was desalinated sea water which Gibson flavoured with more mountaineering powder which gave it the taste of weak orange squash. We called it backwash.

To add to the deprivation, NCB was cut off from the outside world. On earlier legs the crew arrived in port to discover that the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, Ceaucescu executed or Nelson Mandela released while they had been at sea. Clare Frances, a famous British yachtswoman who skippered a boat in the 1977-'78 race, once said how remarkable it was that nothing much had happened during her long months at sea. For the crew of NCB the whole world had changed.

Seasickness struck when I stopped taking a drug to keep it at bay. For three days I was violently ill.


Most of the 5,500 miles between Punta del Este and For Lauderdale were spent sailing in relatively light conditions. sometimes the Trade Winds were so steady we flew the same spinnaker for days, hardly needing to adjust its trim.

In the Tropics the sun was merciless, but its worst effect was below decks where temperatures regularly hit 35 degrees Centigrade. Sleep was difficult and I often awoke bathed in perspiration., my thin bunk cushion soaked through.

But perhaps the most difficult thing to accept was NCB's peculiar sailing characteristics. When ploughing to windward it was one of the fastest boats in the fleet. On the first day we reached second place and later held fifth place for several days, the boat's best placing ever. But once the wind angle increased, NCB fell back.

The Whitbread Round the World Race sails a course which has the wind coming mainly from astern or else roughly at right angles to the boat's direction of sailing. Yacht designers shape their hulls to go faster in those conditions. Ron Holland, the Cork-based New Zealand designer of NCB, produced a hull shape which goes faster upwind - a point of sailing for only some 10 percent of the distance, and slower when the wind is freer. We finished the leg in eighth place, NCB's best ever but one which still belittled the efforts and abilities of her crew.

The hardships and the disappointments were more than outweighed by the good times. Sharing watches and long conversations with some of the world's most talented yachtsmen. Seeing dolphins gracefully arch their way through one of the world's last wildernesses. Staring at constellations through the clearest skies on earth and watching The Plough rise higher in the sky as we moved northwards. Some nights there were shooting stars like fireworks. The thrill of feeling the boat accelerate down waves and hear it sing a weird three-note harmony whenever the winds were favourable and strong.

There were flying fishes and fantastic cloud formations but in the end a feeling of tremendous satisfaction and achievement.

We sailed into Fort Lauderdale accompanied by a small flotilla of welcoming boats and the spell was broken. There had been an unusual spirituality out there on the ocean which will take a long time for me to understand.

Even longer to forget.


No comments:

Post a Comment