I should start by telling you how much I hate the cold. Growing up in Atlanta, we don’t have much cold. Sure, it dips below freezing on winter mornings and there’s the occasional ice storm, but the weather is mostly alright. I’ve never wanted to be around cold (skiiing for a holiday? snow? you must be joking) and . never enjoyed anything cold. Yet here I was, in the middle of the North Pacific on an unheated boat. I wore two pairs of thermals (both tops and bottoms), a lightweight midlayer jacket, heavyweight midlayer salopettes and jacket, two buffs, a hat, my drysuit, gloves. Sometimes a balaclava. Sometimes another fleece. Enough clothing to look like a bright yellow marshmallow and lose some of the ability to bend. Still cold. During off-watches I usually slept in thermals and part-midlayers, inside an incredibly heavy sleeping bag (Ocean Sleepwear - love it) and in the warmest bunk on the boat (there are perks to being chief-of-staff and doing the bunk allocation). There were still plenty of times I would be too cold to sleep (it could take up to an hour for me to warm up enough to stop shaking and fall asleep).
The thing that made the cold even worse was the wet - it was everywhere. Life on deck was always wet with waves breaking over the boat. Consequently outer layers (drysuit, foulies) were always wet. If you weren’t wearing them they were hung in one of two wet lockers, surrounded by more wet kit and managing to get damp on the inside as well (if you hadn’t already taken waves down the neck and up the arms/legs). Boots were soaked, and consequently so were socks - people regularly wore plastic bags over socks in an attempt to keep things a bit drier. Water seeped into the boat itself from various chain plates (where the big bits of rigging attach to the deck), stanchion bases, and toe rails. We stopped being able to dry off. You’d have to sleep in (or on) wet kit so that at least it would be warm and wet, instead of absolutely freezing. I think the worst moment for me personally was the realization one morning that even my thermals were damp. How does that happen? I constantly had layer after layer of water-resistant and waterproof kit on top. The damp just set it.
So here you have us cold and wet. The other half of the equation? Exhausted and starving.
Heavy weather sailing is incredibly phsyical work. Heavy weather sailing with a short-handed crew is even worse. We had a crew of 14 for this race. It’s not the shortest we’ve ever been, but it still doesn’t make things easy compared to boats with 18 or 20. 14 means two watches of seven, with two people on mother duty at any one point in time. You’ll effectively have a maximum of six on deck at any one time. A heavy weather headsail change needs a minimum of eight - one driving, one or two in the cockpit, and five up front (three forward of the inner forestay). We’ve done it with less, but it’s going to take a bare minimum of half an hour to drag a sail down when you’ve got 20+ knots. And it will destroy every single person on the bow.
We worked with a standby system to make sure we had enough crew on deck but also protect the off-watch. If we had made an all-hands call for every headsail change, there would’ve been days where nobody had more than an hour or two of sleep. The way standby worked was that the two mothers would be on standby from 0600-1800. If the on-watch crew needed a hand, mothers would stop what they were doing, kit up, and help. Then they had the entire night to sleep, barring an all-hands call. From 1800-0600 two of the off-watch would be on standby. If the on-watch needed help, they would wake the standbys first (and give them some of the easier deck jobs). Once you had been called up on standby, you’d be off it until everyone else on your watch had taken a turn. There were times where we wouldn’t call standbys for a week, and then times where we’d call them every single watch. You never knew what you were going to get, how much sleep you’d miss, or when you’d be woken. On the whole though, it worked out really well as a system.
Standby helped with the exhaustion, but it couldn’t prevent it. One of the most tiring things for me personally was helming. Beyond keeping your balance, heavy-weather driving uses your entire upper body to both turn the helm and keep it in place. There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve actually had to cling to the wheel with my entire body as it tries to rip itself out of my grip. We always keep a secondary helm (a spotter) nearby in case things get out of control. Upwind my greatest concern is usually being bounced off as the boat slams down a wave. Downwind it’s a combination of being taken out by a wave and not being able to stop a vicious round-up into the breeze. My watch had two of us who could drive in the worst of the worst and another two who were fine in bad weather. We’d swap out every 30 or 40 minutes, for both a physical and mental break. I always ended up slumped next to the helm afterward.
The biggest factor in my exhaustion was more than that though - it was my job as watchleader. It’s the constant watching - what’s the wind speed/direction? what’s our course (both the aim and what the helm is actually steering)? do we have the right sail plan? etc. It’s heading downstairs regularly to check the chart, the AIS, and our data spreadsheet to see averages (course and speed) and make the calls on sail plan from there. More than that though is watching the crew - how do they feel? what do they want? what can I do better? have we rotated the tough jobs enough? who is next on standby? etc. We’d go for a tough evolution and I’d try to have a tea break or snack break afterwards, situation permitting. Inevitably this meant I’d come back from doing some job, exhausted, and swap into another job, usually driving, to give that person a break. Then it was onto some other job. It was a rare watch when I’d have a tea break and actually have the chance to have a hot drink.
I vividly remember a moment after two incredibly tough days where I sat down briefly after an evolution, slumped over and staring into space. One of the guys came up to me and asked what was wrong. All I could say was, “I’m just so tired.” He sat down, gave me a hug, and said, “you don’t always have to be Wonder Woman, doing everything.” I looked at him - “yes I do. If I don’t lead the way when we all feel like this, then nobody will follow.”
And I’ll stick to that belief. As much as I hurt, I’m still 25, in relatively good shape, and very comfortable with my sailing ability in those sorts of conditions. There were several people on the boat that had joined for Leg 6 and never experienced these things. The great majority of the boat was also older than me - and bounced back more slowly from the various bumps, bruises, and basic muscle pain. I can take a bigger beating and recover more quickly. On top of that I’m not afraid of the heavy stuff, at least in terms of my own personal safety. Maybe it’s just the arrogance of youth, but I know I will be fine no matter what. That can’t be said for all the crew members. When I’m scared for the boat or for my watch, I can’t let the fear show because it scares other people. Fear is seriously contagious. The fact remains that I am a leader on board and I need to set an example of what I expect from crew. I firmly believe that if I wouldn’t do a job myself then I have no right to ask anybody else to do it either. When Matt calls for a job to be done, now (usually on the bow), I am one of a small group of people that will always be there first, without complaining. Stepping back because I’m exhausted simply isn’t an option.
The last factor, the one that compounded the exhaustion, was the hunger. We had overspent our victualling budget (3.50pounds per person per day) in Australia and consequently had a shortage in China. We ended up not really having enough food. Meals were all small portions - no seconds. You had to fight for an extra spoonful or two. Seasickness was great for the rest of us as it meant an extra portion to divy up. We hardly had any snacks either. As silly as it sounds, they’re a really important part of the sailing. Not only do they give us a bit when we’re hungry in between meals, but they also provide a huge morale boost. But this trip we only had a packet of crackers or biscuits to share between the watches every other day or so and occasionally a Snickers bar each after a really terrible watch. I can’t fault the victuallers (it’s certainly not a job I would ever want to do), but it was really tough. You just never had enough food to repair muscles. Everyone arrived in San Francisco having lost a ton of weight. The boys looked skeletal. Most of the girls looked a really good thin (the exception being Claire, who looked scary-thin).
It’s that combination - cold, wet, exhausted, hungry - that made the Pacific constantly difficult. It just wears you down so quickly and there’s no such thing as recovery in that kind of environment.