When I started this race I always wanted to work on the bow. I wanted the adrenaline rush that comes with wrestling down a sail while bracing yourself for the icy waves that crash across the foredeck. Helming was my least favorite job. Being in control of a 30 ton vessel in high winds was frightening and stressful for me. I preferred to sit in the cockpit and let the others helm. As the journey has progressed I have found myself behind the helm more frequently. I owe it to the help of my skipper, watch leaders, and several of the crew who spent the time to teach me what they knew. I now find myself enjoying my stints behind the helm. The challenge of fighting the waves trying to keep our course straight and the speed up. On the last leg I had several moments behind the helm that I will never forget.
Several weeks into our journey we were hit by a storm. The strong winds and heavy seas were tossing our boat around making it very difficult on the helm. We had reduced our mainsail to reef three and had hoisted our storm jib. I had spent two hours earlier fighting to pull down the remains of our Yankee 3. It was torn to shreds during the storm. The whole ordeal took quite a bit of time and I had to stay on deck for my watch shift. I took the helm first during the night and was forced to sail down the 45 foot waves. The feeling is similar to going up a rollercoaster where the boat slowly climbs up to the crest of a wave before gravity careens you down the other side. The wind pushed our boat down the waves at a 35 degree lean with water crashing over the side. Even with the reduced sail plan we were still travelling between 15 and 20 knots thanks to the hurricane force gusts blowing across the deck. Several of us got into the spirit and were whooping each time the boat picked up speed and careened us down the mountain sized waves into the dark troughs that we were unable to see. I realised that night how valuable having a drysuit is to cope with the unforgiving conditions. It kept me warm and dry on deck as I stood behind the wheel through the storm. That night a couple of us stayed up late to help the other watch who had a difficult time earlier. I always enjoy those moments when both watches come together to get through these difficult conditions.
The second memorable day was helming with our Code 3 (heavyweight spinnaker) with 30 knot gusts. The helm was heavy in rolling seas. We had the perfect conditions to surf down the large swells. It’s nerve wracking and exciting at the same time. The bow dips under the water as you pick up speed and the water on either side of the boat peels apart creating a fountain like spray. The wheel almost takes control of itself and your scared to turn it either port or starboard incase the boat will violently twist mid wave. In 3 hours we had made over 40 nautical miles pushing the boat and ourselves hard. This helming takes a lot of concentration and physical strength to maintain course and adjust the boat to keep the sail full and the boat balanced in the swell. My eyes are constantly looking at the sail, the wind index, and compass as my crewmate relays information about passing clouds and incoming waves which might affect the helm. We rotate on the helm every 30 minutes just to stay fresh and concentrated on the sail. We finished our shift tired but feeling well rewarded by the mileage that we completed during the watch.
Helming has become quite enjoyable for me and I look forward to doing more of it as the race continues. I still prefer to be on the bow but it has become a close second to my favorite activity on the boat. Except in light winds. This leg had quite a bit of heavy weather helming and the cold weather forced me to use my Henri Lloyd winter gloves quite a bit. Besides the cold weather this was my favorite leg to helm on and I have plenty of good memories behind the helm.