The last couple of weeks have been by far the most difficult for me of the entire race. Smack dab in the middle of the Southern Indian Ocean, i’ve begun having repeated gear failures, one after another that have forced me to make running repairs and throttle back out of caution. Alone in one of the most remote and inhospitable patches of water on planet earth, i’ve had to fix multiple tears in my mainsail, all above the third reef. Keep in mind that i’ve been on my backup autopilot since day 1, some seven weeks and more than 10,000 miles ago. This is in addition to a number of other challenges onboard, and as a result i’m limping across the Indian Ocean towards an Australian pit-stop and certainly losing a bit of the sporting element of the race. The race has, for now, become secondary to just keeping the boat together and getting to port for some much needed repairs and maintenance. Obviously, this affects morale and mental disposition onboard. This race is proving to be very challenging on many fronts, something I expected and did not shy away from. But exactly as the brochure described!
A bit over a week ago, while sailing downwind in a depression that had breeze in the upper 30s gusting to 50, I dropped the mainsail and went downwind on just the staysail. This is a tactic i’ve used many times on Shipyard Brewing, and on other boats too when faced with huge breeze from behind. After all, you can’t crash gybe the main across the boat in 40 or 50 knots if you’re under a headsail alone. For the most part, the boat keeps rumbling along, albeit at a reduced pace, but still plenty fast as you’re sailing downwind in heavy breeze and big waves. This race is largely about maintaining a consistently quick average and getting around the world in one piece more than it is pushing hard and trying to sail close to your polars at all times, especially in big conditions. I’m always trying to baby the boat and the autopilot and all associated systems when it’s rough, so if I can just tip-toe through the heavy weather, hopefully I can keep the boat together. That’s the goal at least.
So it was with much disappointment that I re-hoisted a triple-reefed main the following morning and discovered that my mainsail had two large rips in it, both above the third reef. I had also just repaired another tear in the main just before this incident, and have had to make a 4th repair just a few days ago. So 4 mainsail repairs in the span of 8 days, each one involving dropping the main on deck and stitching, patching, taping, etc has been very tiring and stressful, and have added new levels of anxiety to a portion of the race where I already feel very exposed and vulnerable. Almost all of these issues, in my assessment are due to chafe against the rig and all could have been better and further addressed with more time to prepare for this race. Or different decision making. I did my best, but there are details that got missed and under-addressed in preparing for this race.
So you can understand my mounting frustration when i’m being handicapped in this race in many ways, due to somewhat under tested systems and suboptimal aspects of the boat that could have been greatly improved with more time, resources and development. Most of my challenges are very simple things, in hindsight – minor details – that are coming back to bite me. With better preparation, I could be at 100% strength and pushing right now, and possibly leading. Instead i’m limping around in 3rd place at the moment, not bad, but a frustratingly large gap to if the boat were more optimized. My primary autopilot for example, was installed in Maine and we had very few chances to sea-trial it and work out some kinks. When it had an issue very early on the delivery to Spain, I switched over to the backup autopilot (that’s driving now), but then figured out the issue and swapped back to the #1 before the start of the race. Virtually un-tested in the ocean, it failed on night #1 and i’ve been on the #2 since then. #2 has worked well enough to get me to where I am, but it has still forced me to sail more conservatively, since literally day number one of this race. There was precious little time for actual sea trials after major re-fits of the boat. It was straight into a delivery to the race, that had it’s own challenges, and then straight into a frenzy to be ready to start on October 28.
The sea state down here has been everything from appalling to impressive to sublime, and then back to appalling. Particularly bad can be when the NW front shifts abruptly to a SW front. When the North and NW swell mixes with the SW swell, and the ever-present westerly swell and even some south, the seas can become a washing machine. A lot of times you have to make sure to gybe right at the shift because otherwise you are pointed north, sailing on the southwesterly breeze on a port gybe, and then you are launching over the NW swells in a very scary fashion. I had one front in particular, I think three depressions ago that was one of the most scary moments I’ve ever had while sailing. The breeze switched 90 degrees or more in an instant, and the boat was just launching off swells in every direction. It was at that moment that I came up on deck and nearly got hit in the face by something black and plastic flying off the boat. I couldn’t figure it out for a moment and then I looked aloft. It was the windex flying off the mast. Fortunately, my masthead wind instrument is still working fine. I hope to come back down to the South at some point when I have a boat I can push harder, because there is some fantastic downwind sailing to be had. Shipyard Brewing is very old-school in the fact that she’s a single rudder boat that is pretty skinny, whereas the newer Class 40s and Open 50 im racing against are comparatively beamier and have twin rudders. Perhaps one day i’ll come back down here in a more modern design that is more optimized and able to be pushed.
The bird life down here continues to be fantastic. I’m constantly surprised how at how many birds there are, and of how many different types. Every time I step outside there is bird life. A few days ago, I had nice conditions for a drone shot, so I put the drone up and sure enough, had some close bird encounters. Always stressful to fly the drone near birds, but it made for a cool photo and video! A few days ago, Shipyard Brewing and I passed north of the Kerguelen Islands. The Kerguelens are a French scientific outpost and Wikipedia says that they have a seasonal population of 50-120 people down there in the main port of Port Aux Francais. The Kerguelens would probably be a fantastic place to visit on a big expedition cruising boat one day.
A pit stop is now guaranteed. There is no way i’m pushing on towards Cape Horn in current scenario, so a stop in Hobart, Tasmania is now beginning to be planned. I’ll probably be there in the first week of the new year. This will be right after the famous Sydney – Hobart race comes through town. I’ve been down there twice for the Sydney – Hobart race, and it’s one of the coolest places on earth during that time. Boats start leaving pretty quickly after the race, so I should be able to seamlessly find a place to berth the boat and then access some marine resources like a sail loft and the chandlery, and then evaluate what my best option is. My partner Marisa will be coming down with autopilot spares as well.
As always, I want to extend a huge thanks to all of my sponsors, friends and supporters who have been especially encouraging through some difficult times onboard. There have been a lot of messages of encouragement and ‘you got this’ that i’ve received in the past couple of weeks, and they have truly lifted my spirits and been encouraging. Thank you.
About 2,300 miles to Hobart, so I anticipate being there in 12 days or two weeks, sometime very shortly after the new year. Happy Wednesday from Shipyard Brewing at 47*25 South by 92*40 East.
Special shout out to my partner Marisa who bought me some heated socks, gloves and a vest before the race. (They are powered by rechargeable batteries). I don’t know why I waited until It got really cold to use these things. As I write this, my feet are toasty warm!