The Argonauts: An Exploration of Life

Rounding The Horn

The names Michael Dick, commonly known on the race as Moby. I’m 34 and come from Scotland although I’ve been living south of the border for over six years now.

I took part in the BT Global Challenge 2000-2001, ‘The World’s toughest Yacht race’. A 36,000 nautical mile circumnavigation of the globe against prevailing winds and currents. Twelve teams took part setting off from Southampton on September 10th 2000 heading across the Atlantic for Boston. Then onto Buenos Aires, Wellington, Sydney, Cape Town, La Rochelle, and finally back home to good old Blighty, finishing June 31st 2001 completing our seven leg yacht race around the world.

The 12 identical yachts, 72′ long, made from steel and each carrying a professional skipper and 17 amateur crew paying over £25,000 for the privilege of a once in a lifetime adventure. I was just one of the crew – bowmen and watch leader onboard the Olympic Group yacht that completed the race.

The crews were made up from all kinds of people, personalities and from all walks of life. Policemen, students, doctors even professors, male and female from twenty years old to sixty, all with huge variations in sailing ability and knowledge.

I came with no sailing experience whatsoever prior to joining the Challenge until I started my training in November 1997. I have kept a diary of my adventures – prior, during and post Challenge and here for your delectation is just one account from the many hundreds. Leg 3 – the Southern Ocean and my extracts of rounding Cape Horn.

I hope I convey just a little of what it was really like on a truly incredible voyage.

Aye yours Moby

BTGC 2000-2001 leg 3, Buenos Aires, Argentina – Wellington, New Zealand.

Rounding the Horn!

Sunday 17th December 2000 – Position at 12.00 midday 52° 59′.45S 065° 09′.1W

Time to change the skidders (technical name for pants) I think after a week at sea, they’ve passed the scratch and sniff test and surprisingly smelling fresher than I had imagined and could easily go that bit further at a push. We’re only supposed to have two pairs for the entire 6 week leg but I took the liberty of smuggling an extra couple onboard so I don’t have to wash them on the way, just Ôsnap off and go!’ I have two thermal tops and bottoms to last me the trip and they certainly wont be washed until the far side.

There’s now a huge temperature difference once passed the toasty snug and warm galley area through the door forward of the mast to the freezing miserably wet conditions in Narnia – my living quarters and bunk! The galley and saloon are kept warm by heat from the nav station, generator, oven, gas hobs and a little body radiation! But within two feet of the door separating the two areas its like stepping from the tropics into a meat freezer and this is where I live!

I sleep in my damp thermals, two pairs of socks and hat, cocooned in a double fleece lined sleeping bag, protective Pertex outer shell and twin hood zipped to my nose – sometimes this is still not enough to keep me warm in the wee small hours.

Clothing kept in my carver box is steadily getting damper as is my bunk which is starting to act more as a sponge than a bed.

We’ve delayed firing up the heaters until we really get into the cold stuff and can feel the benefit – I vote we turn them on now!

From my bunk my warm exhaling breath is clearly defined, hanging in the chilling air condensing like a lone cloud back lit by a red night light in the companion way.

A special treat for this leg is fresh coffee reserved and served on a Sunday. We bought a batch in Buenos Aires with an espresso maker, just a small comfort that makes a big difference to moral especially on this leg where any home comforts are a bonus.

Land Ho! We approach Estrecho de le Mair between mainland Argentina and Isla de Los Estados on our way to the Horn. The gateway to the Southern Ocean and the lands end of South America lies before our very eyes.

The straits are about fifteen miles wide with a vicious current running through at over eight knots so if we don’t get it right and have wind against current we could be in for a right shit kicking. Our best time to pass through with tide is at 01.00 but with only a few miles to the entrance the wind dies from thirty knots to zero where we’re virtually becalmed. The surrounding sea is quickly becoming a parking lot as the fleet bunches together for a bottleneck waiting for the plug to be pulled. Our surroundings are looking rather more menacing than before, we stare out to the mainland for the last time listening to the boom wallowing, flogging side to side gasping for the illusive wind on a millpond of an ocean.

However, things don’t tend to last for long down here with the weather systems changing rapidly, soon there are black ominous clouds on the horizon spelling trouble for us in the not too distant future. Both the island and mainland take on a magical, mysterious appearance – Barren, desolate, snow covered craggy mountain peaks, no sign of trees to stand the force of the unstoppable relentless wind.

The sea is unusually calm, a menacing black in colour reflecting the clouds and land surrounding us, almost lulling us into a false sense of security. *Tesco and I used the time to reorganise the sail locker, stow and secure the spinnakers, genoa, sheets and guys so they don’t come loose in the anticipated battering seas. The crew use the quiet time to fit personal EPIRB’s to life jackets – more for the psychological reassurance than actual physical help in the event the unthinkable happens!

The wind suddenly builds from zero to over thirty-five knots in less than two minutes, lasts for an hour then drops back to zero.

Can you believe it, after all the hard work Tesco and I put in sorting out the sail locker, organising, securing, lashing down anything that could move we end up having to pull it to bits and get the fucking 1.5 out. Of course it was at the bottom of the pile, underneath every sail known to man. We never envisaged using the mid weight spinnaker it in the Southern Ocean!

Monday 18th December 2000 – Position at 12.00 midday 52° 32′.0S 066° 02′.6W

When I came on watch shortly after midnight the tide was just starting to turn in our favour. The wind was now too shy for the spinnaker so down she came and up went the genoa, twenty minutes later the genoa was dropped for the No.1, just in time as we rounded the headland to hang a right at the bottom of the world. The wind and sea start to kick up and I could feel the freezing chill of the biting wind cut through my clothing to the core.

One of the few advantages of heading into the Southern Ocean this time of year (if there is any!) is the long daylight hours. Remaining light until 23.00 then darkness for a few short hours until lighting up time again at 03.00. So even when it is shitty it doesn’t seem half as bad if there’s light (that’s my theory any way)! As we went off watch at 04.00 I hung around on deck to admire the view and raw beauty of the incredible coastline and found myself transfixed by its magnetism. I felt so proud to be heading into the world’s toughest ocean following ghosts ships through the centuries. We are now living the dream, the legends and the myths we had all heard and read about, we were experiencing first hand what its like to round Cape Horn.

It didn’t take long for the wind and seas to pick up to over forty knots, some of the waves were mountainous, rolling breaking crests and huge troughs opening up on the other side. On some waves we simply rolled off the top, on others we weren’t so lucky. The bow piercing the crest, the boat taking off like a bucking bronco then the bow free falling, smashing into the sea below sending violent shock waves through the entire boat to the very keel bolts.

The wind is a steady forty-five knots, gusting over fifty. We had the No.3 staysail and three reefs in the main but still we’re overpowered. Tesco, **Jungle and myself went up the foredeck to do battle changing the staysail for the storm stay which required mammoth effort both physically and mentally in extreme conditions. We come back buzzing but exhausted, collapsing in the cockpit while someone goes below to put on a well earned warming brew.

Large respect goes to my dry suit – it provides greater protection, comfort, movement and warmth from the elements than the standard two piece wet weather gear. My hands are kept warm by thick rubber water proof gloves, however because they are so thick there is no sense of feeling and are no good for grappling with small objects which is often very frustrating. My head is protected and kept insulated by a brilliant wind proof facemask keeping exposed skin to a minimum.

The heaters are fired up for the first time and I’m glad to say they work a treat – comfort and warmth at last – lovely.

There’s no sign of the wind abating so we drop the main and lash it to the boom hoisting the trysail in its place which took the entire crew over an hour to complete the arduous task.

We passed within a couple of miles off Deceit island, a (often mistaken for Cape Horn as we did in these typically freezing stormy and foggy conditions) massive barren rock appeared and disappeared behind an illusive screen of mist, mountainous seas and rain.

There are now eleven boats within thirteen miles of each other after sixteen hundred miles of racing, battling it out rounding the Horn – how close is that!

CAPE HORN at last reveals her self to us and I was the fortunate one to see her first through the roaring seas and mist at around 21.00. What a truly awesome sight, not only physically impressive but also mentally fascinating and forbidding, surrounded in countless sea tales, intrigue and mystery, it lives and breathes legends from centuries of sailors who have made the perilous journey before us. Now here she was, dead ahead, the rock looming up from the raging seas. How appropriate to be rounding the Horn in a storm – an initiation if ever there was one.

There are huge breaking waves all around us, some explode over the bow momentarily stopping the boat dead sending tones of water crashing over the decks. The wind hits the water with such force it peels the top surface like a layer of skin, the sea boiling white with pain. The boat, just like a champagne cork miraculously carries on up and over mountainous walls of water with very little effort, but I realise just how vulnerable we are out here with no immediate rescue if anything goes wrong. Stand beside this boat in harbour and she looks very impressive, solid and reliable, look at it from the middle of an ocean and you get a whole new perspective of scales! The boat relentlessly pounds through the waves time after time, I wonder when something is going to give, snap, rip or break. Surely the boat can’t survive this amount of torture for another five weeks, as can we!

I’m feeling exposed, vulnerable and somewhat nervous up on deck, the adrenaline pumping through my veins with an increased heart rate, turbo charged from an injection of anxiety. I sit high on the windward rail looking out at the unforgiving sea, my mind is playing wild and crazy scenarios through my head of being hit by a massive wave and sent to the bottom of the sea. A nervous excited grin is transfixed to my face disguising the fear. Every time we come up from a trough to a peak, if the mist is clear I catch another momentary illusive glimpse of the Horn before a valley opens up on the other side and we are swallowed back down.

My toes and hands are freezing, numb from the wind chill that constantly blasts us, I try to wriggle life back into the extremities which for a brief time also helps to distract my mind from how cold it really is.

It feels very strange being out here rounding the Horn, camera in hand recording this most awesome life experience to the mind, body and soul, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be down this neck of the woods again but at least I’ll have the pictures to prove I’ve done it!

The colour of the sea is now a deep cold grey, the crests, especially breaking waves turn an incredible glacial ice blue before collapsing and merging back into its self.

The Horn disappears from view for the last time, the howling wind, rain, mist and mountainous rolling waves devouring her from sight. The next land ho won’t be for another 6,000 miles when we pop up on another continent and say a triumphant hello to Wellington.

* Tesco AKA Richard Keeling

** Jungle Bob AKA Bob Abraham

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