First, let me say, my thoughts go out to the people on the boat Geraldton Western Australia, who were caught by a monster wave that injured 4 crew and wiped out their steering 400 miles from San Francisco. It is a stark reminder of the storms and waves that are a regular part of the North Pacific and how lucky we were at times on Singapore. Seeing a townhouse-size wave breaking beside your boat as you’re surfing at +25 knots, or feeling the stern of a 32-ton boat being picked up and dropped whilly-nilly at the whim of the waves is a sobering experience (you realize that you are at the mercy of Mother Nature in all her moods.)
Having said that, sailing across the Pacific Ocean – and finishing second – was a wonderful, if difficult and at times harrowing experience. After 27 days at sea in some of the worst storms the North Pacific could throw at us, the sight of land appearing out of the early morning mist and rain was exhilarating. And, when the Golden Gate Bridge slowly appeared in the distance, it was very moving, very emotional. At that point, we realized that we did it! We actually sailed 6,000 miles across one of the toughest oceans on the planet, and not just crossed, but managed to do so in a grueling ocean race, living – and surviving – in conditions that at their best could be called spartan.
At times, it was days of trying to catch an hour of sleep every 10-12 hours. Curling up on wet sails because you’re too tired to take all the wet layers off, or there’s not enough time. Your clothes soaked through from the countless waves that washed over the deck, with no hope of drying them until you reach shore in the distant future or hoping the sun appears for an extended period (it didn’t). Nights of biting cold on deck, no moon, no stars, just darkness, so dark. The wind howling through the rigging and the thunderous sounds of waves crashing around you that you cannot see. And down below, watching your breath form little clouds in the cold dampness as you struggle out of your kit (foulies and layers) in a tumbling “washing machine” before climbing into your bunk, tired and exhausted. Getting up again all too quick, to go back up on deck in a sleep-deprived fog, your body stiff and sore from being thrown across the boat the watch before (or was it the previous watch as you lose track of time). Struggling to drop a madly flogging headsail and raise a smaller sail as the wind intensifies. Working a winch when suddenly a wave slams into your chest washing you down the boat. This time stopped by another winch that you violently slam into. Your back and tailbone screaming in protest.
But, there were wonderful moments as well. Watching a humpback whale majestically rise out of the water, turn and crash on its side, breaching only 200 yards away. Albatrosses gracefully riding the winds, skimming the waves with wings outstretched and only the hint of a beat here and there. The water in our wake, or the foam from breaking waves, sparkling at night from phosphorescent plankton. Feeling the boat accelerate from 10 to almost 30 knots in a matter of seconds, as you surf down a wave that keeps rising behind you. Or rising to the top of a huge wave and being able to see far off into the distance, and just, being.
Coming into San Francisco, we had a debrief discussing highlights and lowlights and whether we met our personal goals on the race. By and large everyone was happy to achieve such a monumental challenge, but few would every consider repeating the experience. We can understand now why more people have climbed Mt. Everest then raced or sailed across the North Pacific Ocean. Nearly a month of being battered by storm after violent Pacific storm, surviving on snippets of sleep here and there is a harrowing and draining experience. For myself, I have to say that despite the injuries (which were a low point) the experience was one that I will cherish (now that I’ve finally dried out on shore!) for the rest of my life, and consider myself fortunate to have had this opportunity.
As far as achieving my personal goals, I not only sailed across an ocean, a dream/goal I have wanted to do since my dad and I had talked about the Victoria-Maui race decades earlier, but I did it under racing conditions over the toughest ocean on the planet. One disappointment was that I had hoped to be able to helm and surf some of the huge waves we had experienced, but alas, my back injury prevented me from doing that. Nevertheless, I was still able to do a considerable amount of helming over the 6,000 miles. One of my other goals was to learn from the more experienced sailors in order to become a better sailor. That I did thanks to several people I had the pleasure of spending the last month with. Sailing and working closely with Will Parbury, Willie Ilife and Graeme Pettyfer, the round-the-worlders on my watch, as well as Ben Bowley, our skipper, was a fantastic experience that I am very grateful for. They have been great teachers who have exhibited great patience with me and have taught me much in the month that it took to cross the Pacific Ocean.
One of my major highlights and lowlights occurred within seconds of each other. Working on the bow under what can only be described as challenging conditions several hundred miles off of Japan and feeling Graeme’s weight suddenly disappear off of me as a wave swept him overboard was a serious low point. My heart dropped into my stomach as I thought how difficult it would be to find him in the middle of a pitch dark, storm-tossed sea with waves that were easily 20-25 ft high. Just as that was a low point, looking over the side and seeing him dangling there at the end of his safety tether was a definite high point!
The only other wish I had, was that my mom was still alive to follow the race. She was really looking forward to it, if a tad nervous for me. Unfortunately that was not to be. Six months ago today she passed away from liver failure associated with auto immune hepatitis. Fortunately, I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with her in her last days, and we had a truly wonderful time together. And, for the time I spent with her, I would like to thank my employer, the Bates Group as well as my clients (including Kessel Young and Logan who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for several years) for their gracious understanding during that time. Mom this journey was for you. 🙂