It wasn’t fear.
It was a growing realization that I have made a challenge to something very powerful and that it was going to show up in its best shape. Now the question was – was I up to it?
One of the things I really love about going for an adventure is the preparation part. I mean, I hate running and weights and everything, otherwise I would always be in shape, but that prolonged feeling of being on a mission really resonates with me. Going for that extra swim, thinking “if you can’t do this now, how do you think you’ll be able to put a reef in a sail after not having slept for two nights?”. Adding another 20lb to the weights, thinking, “if you can’t lift that, how will you lift your backpack on the icy ascent to Mont Blanc?”. Using every moment of physical torture as a build-up for the mind, practicing never to accept the thought of giving up.
I ran, I swam, I winched, I lifted weights, I sailed, I climbed, all the time envisioning what the challenge would be when the time comes. And now, it was right in front of me. I loved it.
* * *
Once we cleared Melchior Islands, there was nothing to hold back the wind. It was blowing from west, north-west with speeds of around 35 knots and picking up. The sea was swelling, but still manageable. Knowing things would get worse before they get better, we decided to ride as high on the wind as we could manage, knowing that later any course but the running one (with winds coming primarily from astern) would be impossible and that we had to make good going west.
This made for a bumpy ride, as going mostly against the waves results in many hard collisions between the hull and the water.
We put a second reef in, reduced the gib area and let it fly.
* * *
Antarctica was cold, but there is no cold like the one you get when sailing.
Santa Maria Australis was a boat made for these waters and one of the perks was the heating installed. It pumped the sea water in, heated it and distributed around the cabins. There was one problem, though – the water pumps were on the port side of the boat, and we were going to be on a port tack until we reached land, with winds so strong that our boat will be too inclined for the pumps to get any water.
There would be no heating on this trip.
* * *
The winds picked up, and we put a third reef in. Adrien and I went to the bow and it took us at least fifteen minutes to do it. If you have never put a reef on a sail (it is the manner to reduce the area of the main sail) – it is normally a rather tough thing to do. You only go for a reef if the weather is so bad that sailing with the full sail area would be too dangerous. So, you only do it in shitty circumstances.
You have to pull on the ropes, tense the cloth, hook the eyes; all while maintaining balance on a bow that crushes ten to twenty feet up or down with every wave, with wind noise that makes the communication almost impossible, with tons of water often sweeping across deck, with fingers that are freezing. Of course, you hook yourself to the lifeline, or the mast itself, but still you can be swept over board if you make a mistake. Just holding tight enough not to go flying when the next wave hits you can rob you of strength, not to mention trying to actually achieve something.
We finally got it done, but we both knew that soon enough the winds would pick up even more, and that we would have to get rid of the main sail completely.
* * *
Another specific of sailing in the Drake is not only that the air temperature is low, but also that the sea temperature is.
Which makes every move, every action and every possible mistake different – because there are consequences. As harsh as it might sound, if someone went over board, I was probably not even gonna try to turn the boat around. With water temperatures of around 2 degrees Celsius, the survival time was measured in minutes, and very, very few of them. Not enough time to make a maneuver back to the man over board — even if he were to be found in the increasing foam — while endangering the whole crew. Everybody knew that, but you could slowly get the sense that some were understanding the implications for the first time.
* * *
This time we were better prepared. I diced everything needed for a strong broth before leaving, and after some 12 hours a new minestrone was a great shot in the arm. Hanging around the stove was not all that bad either.
* * *
Normally, a watch goes for four hours and the watch members take turn on the helm. Martin came up and asked me if I was good to go for the whole duration of our watch. I said I was.
Steering a boat during a storm is physically strenuous. Now, Santa Maria Australis helped. It was heavy, with a good keel. Also it had the deck house that at first I hated, because I love feeling the wind around my ears when I sail, especially at night, as it helps me to know how to best position the sails to it. But now, I didn’t even want to imagine how much more difficult everything would be without it. You could stand or sit in a chair while being on helm, making it easier to mix it up, avoiding the numbness that always comes after long time steering.
Still, the strain on the arms and shoulders constantly trying to move the rudder against the raging sea was real.
It was a great time to remember all the effort put in preparing for the trip and to feel good about it.
Steering a boat during a storm is also mentally strenuous. You can’t lose your rhythm, you have to climb each menacing wave, and run down it gently, all the time having your eyes open for the freak wave that could come out from any direction. A bad decision could lead to capsizing, and while most mono-hulls (unlike trimarans and catamarans) turn back around by themselves sooner or later, it would be quite disastrous.
Paco came with a warm cup of minestrone that tasted like heaven.
* * *
The wind gusts were touching 50 kn by this time, and we had to have one more trip to the bow. I have no idea how long Adrien and I were out there getting rid of the main sail, I just know that we could barely raise our arms for a high five when we came back.
Time to rest.
Being on deck of a boat going through a storm is unpleasant. Being under the deck is fucking horrible.
First, your senses are completely out of sync. Your eyes tell you that everything is still, as the cabin moves with you. Your stomach tells you that you are in a washing machine.
Second, the noises are just maddening. Everything sounds so much louder down there, and the screams of the tensed ropes and relentless blows of water against the hull make it seem as the boat is about to drown all the time.
Third, there was no way I could sleep. I was cold, I was wet and the only way to stay in one place was to push with my feet against one wall and my shoulders against the other with all the strength I had. A few good places on the floor, between the bench and the table in the main cabin, were already taken.
I’d be back on helm in three hours.
I laid down on the floor, nailing myself between the cabin door and the bunk. I thought about all the good food I would eat once I touch land. I thought about a nice, warm, comfortable bed. About a nice, long, warm shower, the first one in weeks. About my wife. About playing baseball again. About more food. Much more food.
The time passed. Or so I thought. I checked my watch, and it showed that only seven minutes went by. Fuck.
* * *
Funnily, nobody had to throw up on the way back. It was that the guys already got their sea legs under them, but also that people rarely throw up in the real storm. I always thought that the worst situation to be was after strong winds, when the waves were still high but there was not enough wind to easily steer the boat.
And tonight, not having enough wind was definitely not on our list of problems.
* * *
It was finally my turn to take the helm again.
Wind was still picking up. We recorded a gust of over 60 knots and then the anemometer died on us. The good news was, we were really fast. With less cloth up than Pavarotti uses for a handkerchief, we were still making over 15 kn, basically running on the rigging itself.
This was going to be over soon, one way or the other.
* * *
Cape Horn is a mythical place. Sailors used to wear an earring honoring the first time in their lives they would cross it. I don’t know of any sailing adventurer who doesn’t dream of sailing there at least once.
But it is also a very practical piece of land, providing some shield from the wind once you pass it.
We reached it after a bit more than 40 hours, making our return almost a full day faster then the first crossing. And, almost digitally, as we’ve passed it, the winds completely died down and the sea leveled. The feeling that I helped guide the boat into the same safety, as some of the greatest sailors ever did before me, was tremendously rewarding.
And a very short one. Just after docking in Puerto Toro, I stumbled to my bunk and felt my eyes closing on me, not really knowing whether I was falling asleep or waking up from a dream.
* * *
1. Trying to fight the cold and wetness
2. Would you buy a car from these guys?
3. Adrien and I contemplating the best way about putting the 3rd reef in
4. Execution somewhat deviated from the plan
5. Some of the waves pictures. As it got really rough, nobody was taking pictures anymore, and not even these are really good, but you might get the general idea
9. A view from the inside
10. After we woke up in Puerto Toro, we realized we got tangled into some ropes when we docked the night before. Someone had to go and cut through the mess. I remember calling my wife once I made it to Buenos Aires and telling her about it, how one of us had to go down and cut it. She said, “Honey, I know it was you, spare me the introduction”. The sea was cold, around 8C, and what I have on my arms is not a neoprene, but a normal shirt. I did the final cuts by lodging the knife between the axis and the ropes and moving my whole body, because I couldn’t move my arms anymore.
11. Of course, I had full moral support of my mates
12. Upon inspecting the boat, we realized that the wooden platform from the stern got torn apart during the crossing.
13. One of the first smaller waves to hit us on our way back
14. Preparing for the trip. Yes, I’m aware it is totally vane to even posses something like this, let alone to show it to people, but I’m forty, and this is what men in midlife crisis do
15. Adam’s movie of the barfing on our first crossing. When the weather got worse, during our second crossing, I guess nobody felt like leaning over the railing anymore
17-100 The photographs of myself completely stoned during our second visit to Micalvi bar. I rarely got that blasted and I raise a glass to Adam and Adrien never finding this blog and contributing