"Character Building" - That's what my fourth form English teacher used to say, in response to our collective groan after being handed some hideous essay to write. As far as I'm concerned, "Character Building" has become a euphemism for "Bloody Awful". I write this, because the ANZ Auckland to Fiji Race was becoming quite the test of character...
The first three days were something of a Groundhog Day, with the wind on the nose, steadily building. By the end of Day 2, we were down to two reefs and a #4 Jib. The wind was coming from the N/E with Fiji at N/NE so it wasn't pretty, but we were making reasonable progress and all was well on board.
Those watching the tracker would probably have seen that we made a conscious decision to push west of the rhumbline. This was so we could free up a bit and keep the boat moving, plus one of the many conflicting weather reports suggested that the wind would eventually come from there.
So, well into day three and we're still on the nose, with the wind increasing to 30+ knots and not showing much sign of changing for the next 24 hours. That night, the wind picked up to 40+ knots several times, with rain squalls that sting your face and make it exceptionally difficult to see anything, so sense of humours were definately wearing thin by that stage. I was therefore somewhat pleasantly surprised when I got woken up around 0300 on the morning of day 4 to say that the wind had headed a lot and if we tacked we'd be pointing at Fiji. This earned a round of Three Cheers and lots of Hurrah's, so we promptly tacked over.
Sure enough, we were pointing in the direction we wanted to go, but we were still on the wind, and any joy I felt by changing direction was quicky snuffed out when I face planted the deck, when the boat fell off a wave as I was on the foredeck changing a jib sheet. I then twisted my knee as I crawled back aft clutching my nose, feeling very sorry for myself! I went down below and tried to get some rest, but it seemed like only moments before the call came down at 0500 saying "AP, you're up"
It is still pitch black at this time, and the sky is completely overcast, so you can barely make out a horizon, let alone see any stars or moon. This means your only sense of direction comes from the instruments, which you have to rely on religiously. However, those who've sailed at night know how hypnotizing those little numbers on a screen can become, so even a short lack of concentration can mean you're 30 degrees off course without even realising it.
That was the longest of long nights, so it was nice when Lefty came and joined me on deck at 0600, just as there was some light starting to show on the horizon. It's amazing what a difference an hour can make. By 0700 it was full daylight, and we'd had a hot chocolate & a gingernut, so moral had increased exponentially. Even better was that the wind had continued to lift, so before long we'd shaken all the reefs out of the Main and were sailing under a Code Zero making good time towards the mark.
Our chief rival in this race is our good friends from Tauranga on Squealer. We are the two smallest boats in the race, so there is a strong desire to beat the hell out of each other in the race to Fiji. We've made a bet for one bottle of rum per hour for the first boat to finish, so each sched is measured not in distance to the finish, or time ahead of our rivals, but in how many bottles of rum we owe, or are owed.
Over the first four days & nights we'd managed to squeeze out a small lead over Team Squealer, through sheer determination and simply looking better, however last night got very quiet and we ended up becalmed for about four hours during the night. When I got up for the 0400 watch, the GPS helpfully told me that we were 24 days away from the finish. We could only hope that the other boats we're experiencing the same difficulties, and were pleased when the wind picked up again before daylight. That joy was tempered somewhat to discover that we'd gone from a one and a half bottle lead over Squealer, to owning them about a bottle. Curses. Must do better.
As I write this, we're about one mile from the half way point in the race, so we're going to have a crew party in the cockpit with hot chocolates all round. We're also having a sweepstake to guess the finish time. Winner gets $50 but also has to shout the whole crew a cocktail, which will almost certainly cost more than the winnings, so is somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Anyway, life is definately looking up, as the wind has freed up enough for us to get the big A2 Gennaker up and we're making good progress towards Fiji. The rain has stopped, so the deck of the boat is looking like a Chinese Laundry, with every piece of wet weather gear, sleeping bags and squabs etc, hanging out to dry. Again, it amazing how quickly moral can rise, given a change of circumstance.
That reminds me of another school yard memory. Who remembers that song "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda", about that kid who was sent to school camp, and hated it because it rained every day, so was begging his parents to take him home? Then one day the sun came out and the kids got to play cricket and go sailing. Well, Mudda Fadda kindly disregard this letter...
By Andy Pilcher