Leaving the haven of peace that is Port Elizabeth on 1st September, after 36 hours sitting it out barepoled, the boat was white with salt. The water, pulverised by the violent gusts from Sunday 31st August, had deposited its sodium crystals in a succession of layers, across the whole deck, making all the moving systems seize up and all the warps stiff. We had to rinse down the mainsail traveller and jib tracks with freshwater, before hoisting the sails and heading out on the attack of the Agulhas Cape in reasonable winds and an imposing residual swell. The winter being here, a new low was waiting along our route, strong but ‘practicable' with just 50 knot winds, prior to a rotation to the south-west synonymous with a direct course towards the Atlantic. The forecast didn't lie…
During the course of Tuesday afternoon, reducing sail area to its minimum, three reefs in the mainsail and without a jib, we battled with an increasingly strong wind, picking up a 7 metre swell and decapitating the wave crests in blasts of wind at over 50 knots.
Gitana 13 didn't enjoy the roller coaster ride. The speed was reduced as much as possible as we waited for the wind shift to enable us to make westing on port tack, beam on to the waves. Under the amused eye of the Cape fritillaries and other puffins, which were wheeling about in our wake, the nasty waves coming at us one after the other, transforming our ‘little' vessel into a derisory cork. One of them was more hollow, more vertical and taller than the rest and left the helmsman no chance. In an impressive ascent, it lifted the two bows heavenwards. Sensing something exceptional, each of us just had time to ensure our supports were firm, both hands gripping them tightly and contracting all our muscles. In a strained silence, the state of weightlessness was to last a second or two. The drop was endless. The scoundrel left only a gaping 7 to 8 metre hole behind it… into which the bows crashed down in an awful racket! That hurt. It all proved too much for our solid thoroughbred which was unable to come off scot free from this one-sided boxing match.
Lionel, who knows his animal inside out, is concerned, pulling on his foulies and examining, with his constructor's eyes, the Achilles tendon of the manhandled ‘carcass'. It was well done! An 80 cm crack on the deck, level with the central beam, doesn't escape him. Change of programme.
After expert appraisal, we study all the solutions: return to Port Elizabeth or make headway to Cape Town to make repairs? With their infinite tact, the guys don't dare to speak. Or almost. Joking replaces the massive disappointment: “we're going to end up seeing the giraffes and buying jam!” The watch systems, working like clockwork up till then, become disrupted and chat under the hoods.
In the meantime, the waves are enraged. And overnight, keeping yourself in your bunk is a permanent battle. “Tomorrow the day will dawn and the seas will ease”!
Yesterday morning, after 16 hours hove to, we get the machine rolling again at a reduced speed. The seas are finally tiring and the wind is losing its breath. The injury reveals all in the light of day and the blackest scenarios are chased away. All manner of whispered solutions fly about but Lionel, who is stopped by nothing, has his own ideas: “we're going to round the cape and we'll make repairs at sea!”
In the companionways, hope reigns; because stopping is paramount to disqualification and an end to the course… a delivery. Not terribly exciting for the ‘sheet munchers' that we are. Our record is barely hanging by a thread then, just daring: a technical challenge for Goldfinger.
In order to win a race, you first have to finish…