Southern Ocean Watch
On board "Heath Insured"
The British Steel Challenge Round the World Race 1992-93

Working a watch system on a racing yacht there is no day and no night. There are only the watches, and they stretch away into the distance of the mind like an unbending road off which there is no turn.

    A non-day starts before any watch with the threatening sound of a person entering your cabin. A moment's pause and then the coarse whisper - 'Are you awake? You've got twenty minutes to get on deck.' Your mind is dulled by a couple of hours of dodging between asleep and awake, never really either, and for a moment or two the words mean little. You allow yourself to relax, and then it hits - the understanding. Those words were for you, they meant you and time is counting.

    From outside come the sounds of the boat working hard. She heels and lurches in the wind and waves. An occasional shout from a crew member on deck injects tension. Why the shout - is something wrong? What are they doing up there? Up there has been their world for the last two or three hours and the cabin has been yours. Now 'up there' is to be your world once again.

    There are new things to learn, and learn fast. Your mind has been full of muddled soporific nonsense; you've been trapped in a half-world that passes for sleep, but is nothing like it. Put that behind you for on deck you need to be alert and in tune with what is happening.

    To be ready there is much to do in the next few minutes and the first thing is to kick yourself from the safe-ish haven of your bunk to the floor of the cabin. From then on it is grinding will power.

    Pull on soggy clothing and curse if you were too lax to sort out your kit properly before turning in. It might be that you cannot face those socks again, so you have to rummage about in your 'clean' kit to find your least dirty pair. But find, also, a moment to hang the ghastly ones somewhere. In a few days, no doubt, even they will become the new generation least-dirty pair as the cycle begins again.

    The process of dressing is a mixture of contortion and hanging on. It requires space but there isn't any; the cabin is very small, dank clothing hangs dismally around and anyway, your cabin mate, perhaps two of them, is getting up also. He's getting in your way (or are you getting in his..?) and your anger is rising. You grunt in frustration, half to yourself, and avoid cursing him out loud. If your first words to him are a stream of vitriol, then you'll've both made a bad start.

    Out into the companionway and the hubbub of the boat at work is all around. The navigator pores over the chart, a watch leader in attendance, and someone is craning down through the doghouse hatch, water splashing down, asking if the course is good. All are engrossed and hardly recognise your muttered greeting. You struggle into your heavy weather gear, still soaked from your last watch. If you are making a good start your wellington boots do not get caught in your trouser legs. F**k - they have. Get a grip, sort it out, it doesn't matter.

    On with your lifejacket and harness, grab a safety strop, a balaclava and a hat, stand by with your gloves, probably two pairs one inside the other, check you have your torch and your knife and, if you're due to helm, your ski goggles. You are ready and there are still a few minutes until you have to be on deck. Good - use them to adjust; rev up your senses and get ready to be alert as soon as you move up to the deck. Except that, in the galley, the kettle has just boiled and if you can get in by the two people already there, you can get a quick cup of tea down you before you have to go up. Shove in some extra sugar - makes you thirsty again soon, but you'll be able to use the energy.

    And so on deck. It is pitch black, cold and water is flying everywhere. Clip on and keep crouched low; the boat is moving violently and there is no horizon to relate to. You see the other watch hunched about the cockpit. Some are hovering round the hatch, waiting for you to come up, but others are still bent to some task. The night and their part in it are, at this moment, quite alien and for a moment you allow yourself to wonder how they can stand it for four hours. But do not think like that, for it's your turn now. No good thinking ahead, it deadens the soul; just think of now and what you have to do.

    You settle to your task and wish the other watch away. This is now your world and you do not want others telling you how to react to it. Your mind roars with the effort of making sense of the situation, and very quickly you are in tune with it all.

    Someone is talking; yelling against the elements, more like. It's a joke - some bugger's telling a joke...! The punch line might be lost in the tempest, but its fleeting existence is enough. Laughter abounds. But the boat kicks and a black shadow becomes a wave breaking into the cockpit. The helmsman yells a warning, a little late, there's an explosion of phosphorescence and the crew are thumped by a wall of water. No expletives are deleted and the air is blue with basic Anglo Saxon. The punch line comes back but that moment was sluiced away with the last wave, and with it the laughter.

    Check boat speed and course, trim sails and helm. Course, boat speed, trim. Course, boat speed, trim. Keep driving the boat - are we going as fast as we can? The cold is biting, the sea is hostile, the night is black and unyielding. The business of racing the boat is everything and, sunk in the pinched faces of the crew, eyes shine with determination.

    Milestones of the watch shuffle by. The first hour has passed and soon we'll be at the halfway point. The kettle goes on again, and one by one crew go down to the doghouse for a short spell on standby. On deck, that which had seemed so alien at the start of the watch is routine. Except that nothing is routine and the watch is punctuated by nerve-wracking adventures. Something needs looking at up forward. Away ahead in the darkness the foredeck is a dangerous bucking animal. It's lashed constantly by breaking seas. It is not a place you'd go through choice.

    Two crew inch forward, clipping on and clipping off their safety strops as they go. Others in the cockpit keep a watchful eye on their progress, willing them back to safety. The helmsman frowns with concentration, trying to imagine any rogue seas, wondering how to protect those at the bow. Ahead, torch lights flicker with troglodytic activity, and after what seems like an age the two shuffle back again. Willing hands grab them, haul them into the cockpit and thump them about a bit to warm them up...! More Anglo-Saxon.

    There is no space. You are in the closest proximity with your fellows at all times; the integrity of the boat depends upon it. But you need space; man has to express his individuality in order to assess and reassess his position in the great order of things. On the boat only in the mind can such space be achieved and at times you slip into an elusive reverie. Distant memories come flooding back in full relief. Imaginary conversations abound. Arguments previously lost are reargued and this time won. Mistakes are relived and old regrets become new regrets. Old girlfriends forgive you your transgressions and burgeoning love blossoms. 'When I get home', you think to yourself, 'when I get home I shall have sailed around the world. When I get home I shall learn to speak French, get past bar ten of the Moonlight Sonata. When I get home I shall visit London Zoo and when I get home I shall tell Sarah that I love her...'From deep in the Southern Ocean, where there is only the boat and the raging sea, flowers of perceived opportunity grow on the other side, thick upon a green grassy bank. Can we really pick them and make a sweet-smelling bouquet of happiness? Alone in your head in the watches of the night it would seem so...

    In time, from astern, a pale smudge breaks the monotony of black. The night is past. Within an hour a blanket of monochrome flatness reveals the steely grey of the sky sitting uneasily on the crumpled, broken, granite grey of the sea.

    Below there is movement. The other watch is up once again, stumbling from bunks and into the galley for breakfast. Soon they will be up on deck, blinking and cursing. There'll be the usual litany 'I haven't slept a bloody wink - shit what a miserable day.' Then to no-one in particular 'Oh, still nine knots then - at least we're getting on with it.' You: 'See yuh, have fun...' They: 'Fat chance - see yuh..' At sea you don't spend time with the other watch. You are finished for now; they've got the boat.

    For you there is breakfast, then into your bunk for more half-sleep. If you are determined, and can get into the heads easily, you might make yourself clean your teeth. It has, after all, been a week since you last did 'em... You might go completely mad and change your underwear - that's been God knows how long.... or you might say 'Sod it' and crawl straight into your sleeping bag. Fate will determine...

    The boat bashes on powerfully. We are racing around the world. It's taxing, tiring, frustrating, exhilarating, painful and bloody marvellous. Don't make sense of it; just live it....

The British Steel Challenge - much more than just a yacht race...

Words © Adrian Rayson 1993
Pictures © Adrian Rayson and Graham Price 1993