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Taking the Helm: Tales of leading a Whitbread team

Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Taking the Helm, Dawn Riley’s account of her experience in the Whitbread round the world race in which she skippered US Women’s Challenge entry, Heineken

The Whitbread Round the World race/Volvo Ocean Race has a precedent for replacing skippers in Uruguay and Taking the Helm, recounts what happened after one such moment. 

Skip Novak took over Fazisi in the late 1980s. Dawn Riley’s time came in 1993 when Uruguay was a stopover on both the outbound and return Atlantic legs. The US Women’s Challenge entry had run into major difficulties under its previous skipper, leaving the boat in disarray at its first stopover in Punta del Este, in desperate need of an American to head them up who could not only race the boat but could also pull a disaffected crew together.

A veteran of three America’s Cup campaigns and a watch captain on Tracy Edwards’ successful Maiden Whitbread challenge, Riley answered the call and delivered the goods handsomely.
Just to finish would have been a respectable result, but she took 9th place out of 15 entries against opposition of the calibre of Grant Dalton, Eric Tabarly and Lawrie Smith.

Her book, Taking the Helm, co-authored with Cynthia Goss, is an inspiring read. In this extract, the women are approaching Cape Horn with half a rudder and what turns out to be a serious structural issue with the hull of their Whitbread 60, Heineken.

Once we turn that corner, we can follow the long paper trail on to Uruguay and Heineken’s second visit to Punta del Este, the resort town that promises blue sky, sun, a dry bed, cheeseburgers, boys, movies, parties. But first, we have to get around the Horn.

After our steering cable broke, the rudder never felt right again. We checked and rechecked the cable; the quadrant seemed to be operating fine. There was a lot of play in the rudder bearing, which had been groaning for days, but that could not account for the feel of the helm.

It all came clear in the 50 or so miles we had left before the Horn. The breeze calmed down to around 20 knots and we could put more sail up. Sue was on the wheel, and we had our full mainsail and a jib top flying – not the kind of conditions that our boat would round up and broach in, but we did.

Heineken’s all-woman crew hard at work in fair weather. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Pot lids flew; sleeping bags rolled off their bunks; I think Marleen’s teddy bear crashed in the bilge, and some of the off-watch crew were rudely awakened.

Sue got control of the boat quickly. But we rolled over again. I got on the helm to see for myself if these broaches could be avoided. The same thing happened to me, so we shortened sail.

“Dawn, this shouldn’t be happening,” said Renee, out of breath from holding herself up on the high side of the boat.

“You’re right,” I said. “It’s been bothering me ever since the cable broke; the only thing I can think of is that we don’t have a whole rudder down there. But we didn’t hit anything. Not that we know of.”

“Why would the rudder be sheared off?” asked Gloria.

“That’s what bugs me. If the rudder has a clean break, it will stay broken at that point. But if the rudder is delaminating, we have a serious potential problem.”

“We just have to keep a close watch on our steering until we can figure out what shape the rudder is in. We’ll take it easy around the Horn,” I said.

Hard at work in tough conditions. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

This sounded like a plan you’d read in a manual: if boat broaches with full mainsail and jib top in 25 knots of wind blowing over steady sea swells, you have lost part of your rudder. Reduce sail area. Watch your steering carefully. Take two aspirin.

We rounded Cape Horn around 0500 on 8 March. As we approached, the weather appeared relatively calm. When the moon was only a sliver knifing through the clouds, and the silhouette of the landmark rock was a black shadow on the horizon, I went to sleep.

When we passed the great, dark Horn, the crew woke me up, but I elected to stay in my bunk. I’d seen it before. The first-timers were not happy with me: how can she miss the rite of turning the corner?

I learned that Susie Crafer – our strawberry-blonde version of the absentminded professor – threw her knickers overboard. “It’s a tradition for a woman to throw her knickers overboard when she passes the Horn,” she was reported to say as she tossed them into the sea.

I’ve never heard of the tradition, but there weren’t that many women who sailed around the Horn, so maybe it was our job to start establishing some.

I was up at first light. Conditions had calmed, so Gloria held my feet while I hung headfirst over the transom to get a closer look at the rudder. We had only part of a blade left, but at least we knew how much of a blade we still had under us. We transferred any movable weight aft to push the blade down as far as it would go.

Hanging off the stern to jury rig a rudder. Photo: Stephen Munday/Allsport/Getty

We are now 117 miles past Cape Horn, sailing in the 60 mile wide Le Maire Strait that wraps around the toe of Tierra del Fuego. We are travelling at 18 knots over the ground. The current is with us, running at around three knots.

The wind is on our beam, raging somewhere around 45 to 50 knots. We don’t know for sure, because our wind instruments have been wiped out. But it’s the waves that are the worst thing.

The moving water forced through the narrow channel creates walls of water that are steep and close together: 25, 30, 35ft. They look like a rank-and-file of skyscraper waves that don’t stop coming.

Helming the boat in these seas is tricky, like driving 70 miles per hour on ice; you have to be good at recovering from potential disaster.

I cannot always see the walls of water coming up because the waves are rolling into us from about 10° off the quarter, beyond my field of vision. But I can tell what’s coming by looking at the crew in front of me. If their grip on the boat tenses up and their faces freeze into a ‘Holy shit’ mask, I know it’s a big one. I bend my knees, I brace myself, I get ready for the shock as the wave throws the boat up and drops her. Flat.

White water never stops rushing over the boat; it comes over the topsides, over the bow. Buckets of it come constantly at our faces. One wave knocked my feet out from under and washed me off the helm. To these seas, we are featherlight, fluff – and we are getting thrashed.

Life is not bearable on board. When I use the head, I levitate and hit my head as the boat torpedoes down, flying fast from a third floor window height into the level of a back alley. But it is not quality of life I am concerned about; survival is foremost on my mind.

Mayhem

We need to make as much headway as possible while the current and the wind are still with us.

I go below to get back into my bunk, but just as I put my feet in my sleeping bag and zip up for warmth, the boat spins out of control.

I fly out, into a jacket, and back on deck. The waves have spun the boat head-to-wind. Our jib is flogging out of control. The jib sheets have already tied themselves hopelessly in knots.

the crew are in good spirits with their jury-rigged rudder 30 miles south-west of the Isles of Scilly and on their way to the Whitbread race finish. Photo: Stephen Munday/Allsport/Getty

Mayhem prevails. The flogging jib and the sheets sound like thunder and I can barely hear myself think. Everyone is so bundled up in wet-weather gear that if we had not written our initials in big red letters on the backs of our jackets, there would be no way of knowing who was who.

I find MC’s initials, and I have to hit her – hard, again and again – to get her to turn and read my lips and understand what I am trying to tell her.

“Get that Number Three down. Before it pulls the rig down!” I tell her, my face contorted like a madwoman.

The jib is shredding itself in the wind, pulling at the rigging like a wild animal, but it’s not coming down fast enough. Part of the sail has fallen into the water, and part of it is still wrapped tight in the rigging.

“Cut it off!” I mouth. Cutting a sail off and throwing it overboard is a last resort. But we have to get rid of the jib before the sail in the water turns into a huge sea anchor and pulls down the rig. This takes a very long time.

By nightfall, the seas are still big, but they are not as steep and as sharp as before; the hell of the Le Maire Strait may be behind us. We hope.

Hours after spinning out of control and shredding our jib, there is a sense of aftershock on the boat. We are all bruised and beaten. Everyone is shattered. We are isolated out here, somewhere between the Southern Ocean ice and South America. Punta is close, 406 miles away as of our latest fix. But at this rate we may never get there.

Our hull has a sandwich construction with inner and outer skins of fibreglass and Kevlar and an inner foam core. The day after our thrashing in the strait, we discovered a three-foot-square section of the hull panting like a live creature.

Dawn Riley at the helm of Heineken. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

The flexing could be the result of a separation between the foam and the fibreglass skin. The motion of our inner hull skin is minimal now, about two millimetres, so we will watch the strange, breathing motion of the hull and hope it does not get any worse.

But before we can think of repairs, we have a race to finish. We are finally moving forward. The wind has come up and we are making 7.8 knots toward the finish line.

With cooking gas run out, dinner is a less-than-exciting salad of freeze-dried vegetables thawed in salad dressing and washed down with a cocktail of an electrolyte-powder drink mix. After the evening meal, the wind and the seas begin to build and we are pounding into waves again.

The rudder has not altered shape since the Horn; still, it is hard to steer in a straight line with only part of a blade. And the breathing section of the hull is growing; I outlined the original area with a marker to gauge any expansion and the hull is panting outside my guidelines.

We need to do something. Gloria is brandishing a hacksaw and eyeing our jockey pole. We need this pole, and it would be too difficult and too expensive to get a replacement shipped to Punta. I steer Gloria in another direction.

Running repairs

“These floorboards would be perfect,” I tell her. “Here, give me the hacksaw.” The jockey pole is saved. For now.

The pounding is getting worse. It may be my imagination, but with each wave it seems as if the girth of the bulge is getting bigger and bigger.

The only thing between us and disaster is two skins of fibreglass and some foam. I see in Gloria’s eyes that she concurs.

We cut one fibreglass floorboard into shorter lengths and bolt them together to shape the single board into a platform of inner support. We have a good supply of bolts and washers, so we use a lot of them. Our repair looks like an atrocity, but it will get us through the night.

By daybreak, the wind has decreased. The sun is coming out. Soon it will be warm again.

Our hull is still in one piece. If our weather predictions are right, we should be in Punta in 30 hours. For the first time since we left Auckland, the crew has stopped asking, “Will we make it?” Instead, we are all wondering: “When should I wash my hair?”

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