SPIRIT OF ATHENA THROUGH A SCOTSMANTuesday 22nd March 2011
Well when the invite from John Duffy arrived on my email I said to myself ‘let’s give it a whirl’ for at my advanced age – at 67 I was probably the oldest basic bog standard crew man taking part – these opportunities don’t happen so much more. Anyway somebody had to be aboard to polish John’s shoes at each watch change so why not me. So armed with a shoe brush and some lightweight golf waterproofs I jumped aboard. I was a bit worried about seasickness which I used to suffer badly from in my youth which is why this was my very first offshore race. So I was immediately demoted to navigator/tactician and kept out of the way as much as possible. Not good for the ego as I had thought I would be the best helmsman on the boat – but that illusion quickly shattered as I discovered myself alongside Martin Kirkenterp, Olympic gold medalist from 2008, and about four other hot shot sailors. Yahoo, whenever in my life well I ever even speak to a gold medalist, let alone spend four days – or 97.6 hrs. to be precise – on the same boat.
So the motley crew set off for sea – in a beautiful pea green boat (a little 40.7) – with captain Duffy our wise owl and dipsy Liz our prize pussycat. And what a pussycat – lazy is not a word in her vocabulary, foredeck, mast, trim, galley, pump, everywhere. She worked her rear end off – oops wrong expression, for a gal, even an Oz. And also in the pea green boat was Angsar, a dour German with a sense of humour (oxymoron !!!) and a seriously good offshore sailor, young Jon who took over the seasick duties from me to my surprise (but never once let it stop him from his duties as bowman), and Alan, a cop, who threatened to lock anyone in the head for minor infringements (like parking the boat – he kept imagining he was seeing double yellow lines everywhere) and assured captain John he had brought his handcuffs in his seabag. And there was Jacqui, an English rose, who kept us all cheerful as well as running the pit like a seasoned pony. And Martin who did everything – a powerhouse, steered, trimmed, bailed, fixed, hoisted, dropped, peeled, everything. And of course James McKenzie, (an English Scotsman?) who is usually my Streaker crew and a top flight ocean sailor. And me.
Well we got a good start, first over the line, yahoo. And then it got windy, and then it got dark, and then it got cold, and then it got wet, very very wet. Golf overalls are not the right clothing I can tell you. So I put on my shoes, and I put on my scarf and I put on my lifejacket – yes our ‘polisman’ Alan made sure all laws were obeyed – even suggested that Olympian Martin should attend for his mandatory drug test to ensure he wasn’t popping uppers on the windward rail. So we charged along behind the others – covering from behind in the words of our captain – and out came my nav. tools, a simple old handheld GPS as, to our dismay, ALL the ships electrics failed including the chart plotter and compass light. We somehow found the North Sails mark dead on but then missed Nevis by 10 miles; claimed it must have been moved by those nasty RORC guys who set the course. (That was our public position although secretly I thought we just didn’t point towards it.) And so to Saba and the lee of the islands and a chance to warm up a bit. Our planned super close-in rounding went to Hell when an outside headsail peel took us half an hour. I kept hoping Martin would produce a nice juicy orange with all his talk of peeling but alas, just more water over the deck and cold again. Our rivals “Coyote” – also a 40.7 – showed just what a sneaky animal those wolves are when he sneaked around inside us and had the impertinence to pass us up the long beat to St. Barths. You could even smell the hopps coming from his boat when our captain told us he had left the beer at home. Then a couple of crash gybes as we ran too deep to St. Maarten and deciding that Anguilla was really St. Maarten as we again sailed wide around the corner; nearly ran into blowing rock but discovered it was actually a whale blowing off steam. However our brilliant team soon got it together again and on the long slide to Guadeloupe the wolf was left well astern as we approached the lee of Dominica. At last a few hours not to be cold and wet – I even changed my shirt and successfully had my only crap of the voyage and we considered putting up our protest flag when we heard Sojana crew were having three hot showers a day. Captain Duffy had to crack the whip big time to avoid serious crew mutiny over that one I can tell you. But our clever navigator had faith that the wind would eventually fill from the east so we stayed inside and lo and behold it suddenly did and the sneaky wolf was left for dead (we thought).
The beat to Desiderade was “brutal” – pitch dark, no lights at all (except for jury rigged nav. RORC take note), cold and very wet. 40.7’s are not designed for 55 miles to windward in force 7. And then the boat leaked. We had had long crew discussions before the start as to how much water we needed (JD was right) but we hadn’t counted on 250 additional gallons of the Caribbean in our forepeak. Martin and Liz, our two workhorses, got down on hands and knees beside each other on the saloon floor – for a moment I thought it was some sort of mating game and being a good old fashion Scottish prude was quite shocked – but it turned into a bucket brigade and soon – with the help of an empty coke bottle as a bailer, Martin had the ship dry again. The last thing I wanted was a dry ship. Captain Duffy had promised a beer a day as a crew recruitment sweetener. Sneaky bugger reneged on that promise pretty quick. So we rounded Desiderade after three days and spirits rose as we reached towards Antigua. James decided he could see Barbuda from seventy miles away so Alan had to test him for hallucinatory substances just to ensure he hadn’t really lost his rocker altogether. But James proved himself to be the best helmsman on the boat (to my secret dismay I must say, considering it is me not him who steers on Streaker).
So with our final GPS batteries poached from my camera we again, amazingly, found the North Sails mark. It baffles me how that silly little piece of electronics seems to always know where it is. I guess the next move in human engineering is to build one into our brain – would seriously help all my friends who lost the plot years ago, but maybe just quitting drinking would have the same effect. Downhill again and a bit of crew dissension as we dropped the chute and steered for the mark. We actually found Redonda – RORC hadn’t moved it as was the rumour. And the beat home against the wolf who had sneaked up to us in the night. And what a final race home – we had our time on him at the rock but he was just that bit faster upwind. Martin (nickname ‘orange peel’ after about our tenth outside peel hoist) doing everything in his Olympic book of tricks and James steering a storm – and I even got to trim – and the rest of the crew ‘thinking heavy’ on the rail (although both young John and Alan were actually thinking of women) . Angsar slipped and broke his ankle and couldn’t sit on the rail – I was all for dumping him over the side but captain Duffy told me were not allowed to discharge garbage at sea so Angsar was nursed home with the rest of us. So we beat Coyote by about 15 minutes in a 97 hour race but alas they were a sneaky wolf to the end and somehow their lower handicap meant we had to give them 30 minutes so alas they corrected out on us. Boo McHoo – life’s not fair.
And the greet team on the shore and cold beers were there to meet us – B’s smile lit up the dock and after four alcohol-free days (I think that must be a record for my 35 years in the Caribbean), those cold Caribs just slid down. And our poor old boat – she looked a bit forlorn: broken pole end, broken vang, broken toilet, broken table, leaking bow hatch, sad winches and clutches and full of garbage. I think the Ondeck maintenance staff looked even more forlorn as they realized that tomorrow’s day off was cancelled for them.
So that was it – over, 97.6 hours of pain.
Did I enjoy it – yes. On day one I decided I was crazy but as the race wore on my spirits rose and by the end I was elated. But it was certainly one of the toughest things I’ve ever done – and I wasn’t seasick at all.
Would I do it again – yes, but probably in a slightly bigger boat. I guess about 50 – 55 footer is the ideal for this race.
Would I plan differently – yes. I’d print a big sign in the saloon which read “KEEP IT SIMPLE”. And If the race was 605 miles I’d try to sail 605 miles. Get around the corners and steer the rhumb lines as much as possible.
What would I do differently – well get some proper oilskins for a start – with a zipper for us old guys pee a bit more than you youngsters.
Will this race grow – I sincerely hope so. It is a classic already. And the Caribbean isn’t just about sunshine – it BLOWS here. 25 knots all the bloody time. But the race must not be allowed to become a super maxi grand prix event. We need the little guys. Probably Athena and Coyote had the best actually race in the whole fleet – we each passed the other at least twice and were constantly in sight. OK the big guys whizzed around the course with their hot showers, but we knew we had done a race.
So well done RORC, well done AYC, well done John Duffy for throwing together a scratch team at a moments notice. And well done SM for making it. There’s life in the old dog yet.
Article by Sandy Mair. Photo compliments of John Duffy.
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