Thursday, 29 January 2009

VOR: GREEN DRAGON LEG FOUR DAY 11 QFB: received 28.01.09 0321 GMT

Green Dragon changes to storm sails in rough weather on leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Singapore to Qingdao, China. Image copyright Guo Chuan/Green Dragon Racing/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Ian Walker

After three or four days of hellish conditions, we are at last feeling a break. The wind is down below 20-knots and at last the waves are such that we can sail near to 100% (or we could, if we hadn't broken our forestay which stops us flying our J3 and genoas!). Speed is crucial for us to outrun the next system coming towards us in two days.

For the first time since leaving Luzon, we are stacking the sails and trying to optimise speed. Last night was the worst yet, as we were in 25-knots of wind against tide, and large breaking waves. The helmsmen had speed limits of seven knots on starboard and eight on port to try and reduce the slamming of the bow.

Even with the keel in the centre and only a storm jib and double reefed mainsail, the boat was hard to handle. Twice we have been knocked backwards by waves and once the whole cockpit swamped by a wave breaking over the boat. This was our worst moment yet, especially for those down below as Budgie (Ian Budgen/GBR) was asleep and sat up shouting 'the mast has come down'. My heart sank until I realised we were still moving and heeled over - he was asleep and having a nightmare!

In truth it was a nightmare. For those on deck it was pitch black and wave after wave just barrelled down onto us. The helmsman had a near impossible task to try and steer around waves he couldn't see, but could maybe sense or feel.

For those down below, they had to listen to the crashing and banging and endure the terrible moments when you feel the boat go up in the air and you are waiting to see how hard to lands. Lying in a bunk is hard enough, sleeping is next to impossible.

I couldn't rest, spending much of my time up in the bow monitoring the repair and any flexing of the bow panels. This has been my biggest challenge ever as a skipper. The responsibility of the boat, the programme, the sponsors and of course, potentially the lives of those on board rest in the hands of my decisions...

Should we stop and let conditions abate? Should we press on? How fast should we go? What is the wind and waves going to do? Which route should we take to get most shelter? How much punishment can the boat take? Are we doing the right thing? I am lucky to have a great crew, who share in the decisions and have never wavered from the task in hand.

So far, what we have done seems good, but we still have 600 miles in a wounded boat to go. Having said all this, we are now going faster towards Qingdao than at anytime in the leg. We feel like we have escaped the worst, but must not rest on our laurels. The boat could be damaged in ways we do not know and there is a big 'cold push' (gales from the North) due in two days.

I feel for the teams that have had to stop in Taiwan and for Telefónica Black. Twice we were nearly faced with this reality, and I am sure we were only ever one boat-breaking wave away. Thank goodness they are all safe and well. Leg four is certainly living up to the tag line 'Life at the Extreme' and I for one will be very relieved to see the back of these last 600 miles – as everybody onboard loves to say at this stage 'we have one Fastnet Race (605 miles) to go'.

Volvo Ocean Race

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