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Around the World with Catherine Nurrsaw

April 5, 2006

[NB This is a rather tediously long one and could probably benefit from editing, or possibly even deleting. Summarised version for those with, you know, actual lives to get on with and no time to read this nonsense - I'm here in China, the race was hard and tiring but we made it in 3rd place, we're off again on Saturday for a month of racing and I'm exhausted just thinking about that....]

Howdy folks, or as they say here, Nin Hao! I'm not quite sure how they say it, though - the pronunciation guide says something about a tone that starts low, dips to the bottom then rises towards the top - which actually sounds rather like our voyage.

And it wasn't always on a slow boat - sometimes it was very fast indeed, though at other times we got stuck in windholes and wallowed around going nowhere for ages.

In fact, the whole race was filled with contrasts. For the first few days it was so hot that we had to wear sandles on deck or burn our feet, while sleeping below decks was almost impossible even at night because of the heat. Within 24 hours the water temperature had dropped by over 10 degrees (from just over 30 degrees C to below 9 - in another 24 hours it had gone down to 6 degrees), and with the wind chill factor in the gale force winds it was well below freezing during the night watches. We went from t-shirts and shorts even at night on deck, to full thermals and foul weather gear, in the space of one day. I can't imagine what it would have been like if we'd been doing this two months ago, as we were meant to, when presumably it would have been even colder!

Our position in the race also went from one extreme to the other. We started the race very well and were in first place for a while. Then we stayed close inshore overnight, expecting to get the usual land breeze, but instead found ourselves drifting without wind for most of the night while the majority of the fleet, further out to sea, sailed right on by. The next night we naturally stayed further out at sea, but this time the perverse land breeze did kick in as it usually does, and several boats further in made up even more distance on us.

We'd gone from first place to ninth overnight, and spent the rest of the race clawing our way back up the ratings. An exhausting business, with only 11 crew plus the skipper to handle the boat. (Given that one person from each watch is on Mother Watch each day, that doesn't leave many on deck to actually work the boat.) In fact, after one night in rough conditions and gale force winds, we were down to only 10 working crew, as my watch leader, John, slipped and fell on the wet deck just as we were coming off watch and fractured a rib. The poor guy was in terrible pain for several days and considerable discomfort after that, unable even to sleep properly because he was always having to brace himself against the movement of the boat. At this stage, we still don't know whether he is going to come with us on the next stage of the race.

Back to this leg of the race - one night was particularly interesting, in the old Chinese curse sort of way. We'd had a really good run on our 6 - 10pm watch, making great progress with the midweight spinnaker up and the wind behind us, averaging around 11 knots VMG (can't remember if I've explained that one before? anyway, it's Velocity Made Good - ie the speed you're going in the right direction).

With the wind strengthening, Craig decided to drop the midweight and put up the heavyweight spinnaker at the change of watch, as with us so short-handed it's best to do that sort of thing with both watches up. That went fine, and I had retired to my bunk when all hell seemed to break loose on deck, with lots of confused shouting and loud noises of winches etc. They didn't call for all hands, though, so I stayed in my bunk for a while, but when this went on and on I got up and dressed in my foul weather gear again and went up on deck.

Turned out we were totally surrounded by fishing boats and nets, spreading out as far as you could see in every direction. They'd had to drop the spinnaker really fast to avoid running into nets, and it had gone into the water and they'd had to cut the spinnaker halyard to bring it back in.

Much chaos and confusion.

Anyway, I made myself useful by bringing everyone drinks, then all my watch finally went back to bed at about midnight. The other watch very generously stayed on for an extra hour at the end of their watch, so we got to sleep on until nearly 3am, then we were on watch again. We were finally reaching the end of the fishing boats, so Craig decided to put up the spinnaker again - it turned into a bit of an epic production in the dark and the pouring rain, with the anti-wrap wrapping itself about everything and the spinnaker halyward getting totally jammed up the mast.

In the end I had to go up the mast to find where it was caught up and untangle it - fortunately that turned out to be fairly easy. With all of that, it wasn't all that long before the end of our watch at 6am that we were able to make decent progress again under the spinnaker.

In total, we must have lost about 7 hours of fast sailing that night.

The following night we continued the trend with another spinnaker change and pack at the end of my 6-10pm watch, meaning we got to bed at about 11pm, then at midnight there was a lot of commotion on deck and the call went up for all hands on deck. This involves clambering into as much warm gear as you can find in about 2 minutes, then racing up on deck - where we found that the midweight spinnaker had been trashed again. The poor thing is now more repairs than original fabric! We wrestled it below decks, put up the staysail and headed back to our bunks for a short nap before our 2-6am watch, during which we were playing dodge the fishing boats again, this time in mist and very low visibility! Craig has made a solemn vow never to sail these seas again...

On the last day before the race ended I was on Mother Watch (for the third time in 8 days - another disadvantage of having so few crew!). I'd finished my work and was about to head to bed when Craig asked if I could come and help with a spinnaker drop - then I was helping out with hoisting the headsails and so on, so by the time I eventually got to bed it was about 11 pm. Since I'd had no sleep all day I then fell very soundly asleep and was only woken by a shout that we were about to cross the finishing line.

Since we'd been firmly in 4th place when I went to bed, with no realistic prospect of catching up the first three, I was astonished to learn when I came on deck that we'd just finished in 3rd place, only 10 minutes after the boat in 1st place! I learned that at the 1am schedule we'd heard that the first three boats were all stranded with no wind just before one end of the finishing line, so we made all speed for the other end of the line and were just able to keep a bit of wind to get us across it just behind Liverpool and Victoria and ahead of Singapore.

It was very hard luck on Singapore, who sailed a great race and looked certain to get their first podium position, but we were delighted to get our 4th podium place in 6 races.

Amazingly, Western Australia, who have had a podium place in every other leg so far, came in 9th on this occasion. It wan't have helped that they had a new skipper who'd had no time to get to know these boats before the race, and that they were taking on a fair bit of water - one night they were hove to and pumping water out with the fire hose! So - very hard luck on WA also, but it's certainly opened up the whole race. They are still in first place overall, but only by a few points now, Liverpool is in 2nd place but only about half a point ahead of us.

We had some amazing sights on this leg of the race, particularly on night watch. I will never forget the sight of dolphins gliding along beside the boat, outlined in phosphorescence. There would be a burst of light when they leaped out of the water, then a glowing trail as they dived under again. On another, rougher night, when we were huddled on deck with our backs to the crashing waves, flecks of phosphorescence would fly across the deck like bright sparks from a fire, sometimes landing on the deck or on us and glowing bright blue-white for a few moments before dying away.

Other news from the race - Mark, the skipper of Jersey, resigned on the day we left Subic Bay - so that's 3 skippers out of 10 who have resigned in this race so far! And Ewan, the skipper of Victoria, twisted both of his knees when he was helping with a headsail change one night and was washed off his feet by a big wave, landing on one side of the inner forestay with his legs twisted around the other side. He's limping about at the moment with one leg in a big brace - again, at this point, it's not certain whether he'll be able to continue on the next leg, which would be a terrible shame for him as it's the race to his home port.

Anyway, now we're in China, but sadly have no time to actually see any of it as we're frantically working to get the boats provisioned and ready to sail again on Saturday. The next leg is going to be a very hard one - a whole month in what are likely to be cold and rough conditions most of the time. The provisioners are going quietly, or not so quietly, insane as they try to work out what kinds of meals they can lay in for us given the somewhat restricted choices on offer here. And having been exhausted when we left Subic Bay, after a week of working flat out just to get the boats ready to sail, we have arrived here even more exhausted and are having no time to rest before we set off again.

Ho hum. Nobody said it was all going to be easy. At least there will be more of us on the next leg, as we have been joined by 4 new crew members here, and in spite of an undeniable temptation to look into the price of a flight to Victoria, there's sure to be a great sense of satisfaction in actually finishing the next leg via boat rather than plane.

Sorry to have maundered on for so long. Please accept the usual apologies to anyone who has written to me and not yet got an individual reply - and please keep writing!

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