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For Jane: the best thing of the day

VOR 2017/18 Leg 2: LISBON - CAPE TOWN

LEAVING DAY (DAY 0): Hugs - tight hugs that mean more than words. Hugs that say race hard and win but perhaps even more so, to take care & return. I'm overwhelmed by how many friends from all different parts of my life from across the world have come to say goodbye, again. I feel very lucky, perhaps undeserving of their efforts (I must communicate more myself!). But I'm incredibly grateful. Their kindness is unparalleled. It's a driver and a comforter in this marathon of a race.

DAY 1: Sugar - feeling the instant high as it hits your bloodstream. A protein bar passed on deck by a team mate just at the critical moment. 5 hours of solid grinding rewarded with a sugar rush that feels like sweet bliss. It's been a full day of gripping onto the pedestal as waves relentlessly crash across the deck on their journey back to the sea, threatening to take me with them with their every blow. I've been swept to the end of the harness tether 3 times today, but the sugar gives me a new lease of life. Only a few more days of this until the wind calms, the boat flattens and life becomes a bit easier, I try to reassure my aching limbs whilst the sugar high remains.

DAY 2: Fresh air - cold and crisp, whipping around my face and neck, instantly drying sodden skin as for just few minutes it's freed from the rubber seal of our dry tops. Moments later the wind builds again plunging the bow deep into a wave and sending white foam across the deck. Time to put the waterproofs back on but that moment of freshness remains, the memory of feeling dry and free.

DAY 3: Laughter - the gut wrenching kind. It was at someone else's expense but just thinking about it brought chuckles on deck all day. Poor Capey, he chose to relieve himself on the ‘outside’ toilet (off the back of the boat) as it was relatively dry on deck and the inside toilet leaves much to be desired! He had just sprinted to the ‘safety’ of the transom, no jacket on, pulling his trousers down to crouch to leeward, just as Kyle sent the bow down the biggest wave of the day. A moment later white foam is crashing across the deck, water everywhere, drenching Capey from head to toe with his dry thermals now soaked and rendered useless for the rest of the leg. He saw the funny side I think. No-one on deck could hide their amusement, the laughter was contagious. (I think Kyle is now slightly nervous of what this means for his punishments when we get to the equator crossing… it’ll be his first crossing he’ll have a visit from King Neptune…. Capey’s chance for pay back)!

DAY 4: A rain shower - clean droplets running over bare skin, washing off the 4 days of salt, sweat and suncream that cakes our hair and faces. Suddenly everyone is on deck. In a frenzy of activity clothes are off and the washing up soap is out, desperate to clean off the suds before the short rain shower subsides. I'm driving so I stay concentrated on the numbers, I’ll have to wait for the next one, but I can say the boys seem to have no shame when it comes to washing those vital areas in public on deck!!

DAY 5: Trying something new - today I ventured out onto the prod and tried to take on the bow properly for the first time. As I edged my way over the safety of the push put and clambered onto the bow sprit, spray threatening to hinder my fragile progress to the end, I have to admit feeling my breathing rate increase. I was nervous, actually slightly terrified. But then there was the exhilarating feeling once I made it back to the deck, job complete and the realisation that perhaps it's not the impossible task I'd built it up to be. It reminded me of learning to drop hike. Of you showing me how to hop in and out, as nimbly as standing up from a park bench. You said it was all technique but I couldn't fathom how attaching cuffs to my ankles and then hurling my not so insignificant body weight over the side of the yngling would lead to anything other than being permanently dropped. You seemed to defy the laws of gravity, popping up with precision and grace. But of course you were right. It is possible. Anything is if you persist hard enough.

So as I clamber out onto the pole I think of you. I try to embrace my inner Jane, strong, organized, precise and always returning with that smile (although in reality I probably resemble more of a grimacing baby elephant). I wish you could be out here. Up there with me for just a day, you'd love it and you'd own it, I have no doubt. But for now I'll try to take on the challenge as bravely as you take on the world, and not shy away from the chance to try something new.

DAY 6: Feeling full- with a belly full of couscous and tuna, (the closest it gets out here to real food). I'm laying in the bow, it's not particularly peaceful or I suppose comfortable, with my head propped up against the spare rudder. But right now it feels like heaven. We're just entering the doldrums and time on deck is intense, picking our way through the clouds. My watch is over, darkness is looming and there's a thin breeze coming through the front hatch. Hopefully I'll not be needed on deck for a while, so with my stomach full I'm going to dream of lying in a big bed, with clean crisp sheets, full, warm and ready to chase down some of competition in a couple of hours time.

DAY 7: When someone's got your back - feeling horrific today and lets just say my watch buddy saved me. Looked out my kit, put me on the wheel for most of the watch so I didn't need to grind and did my other jobs so I could get straight into the bunk the second I came off watch. Thanks Kyle. Sometimes small acts of kindness go a long way!

DAY 8: Pink fake hair - always a good thing, but more so when Capey is spray gluing it to Pete Burling's chest and nether regions. We've just crossed the equator and as is custom King Neptune (aka Capey) has made his visit and made the first time crossers pay their dues. I got to read out their list of crimes, some payback for a few months of abuse from the boys! Punishments included the standard concoctions of flying fish, rotten freeze dried and hair removal. With the girly touch of purple hair dye and the addition of some pink princess hair. The pictures will look excellent. The boys might agree less next time they get to look in a mirror. Let's just say Ciccho was ruthless with the clippers!

DAY 9: First sighting of the Southern Cross - after crossing the equator yesterday, this morning just before sun rise the cross appeared. Twinkling above our heads it leads us on our journey south east towards Cape Town. (Well the GPS actually guides us but it's a good back up). I’ve no idea how it'd really help you get anywhere very accurately, but apparently navigation was possible before GPS, just glad that was before my time! I'm always excited to see the Southern Cross. I guess if you’re from the Southern Hemisphere it's as common as looking up to see the ‘Plough’. A consolation that is always reassuringly there. From childhood shown it by my parents, as a teenager before a much anticipated nervous first kiss on a starry night, and as an adult, walking out of the Olympic closing ceremony and glancing up at the Plough to see if it had any answers as to what was to come next.

But the Southern Cross that's exotic, somewhere far from home. I first saw it when I was 18 from a ship. Probably highly illegal but I remember we turned off all the lights to see the stars in their full glory. There was some crazy Japanese commentator trying to explain the meaning of the different stars in broken English. I still don't know a thing about the stars, another one of those things I'll get round to when I grow up. But for now I just know we're very lucky to see them out here. Miles from any light pollution, glinting from zillions of miles away, and very helpful to steer to on a dark, tired night. To be honest I think the Southern ‘Cross’ bit is miss named, to me it looks more like a diamond. Of course there was outrage from our onboard Antipodeans when I commented as such this morning. 'Bloody typical Pomme' was the response!

DAY 10:

The moment you discover something you temporarily misplaced (well lost) - Actually the device I'm typing on, known in VOR terms as a crew communicator. Apparently from this device (essentially an iPhone) I can instantly update the world about life onboard Team Brunel via social media, at the click of a button. It's all about getting 'Raw' footage out there. Of course I have absolutely no idea how to properly do that sort of thing or what the hell you are meant to write in a tweet, especially when limited to about 5 words. Who would I be talking to anyway?! Facebook posts I can just about handle but apparently that's way too old skool so we can't post to that. Anyway I'm finding the notes section very useful for the purpose of writing my list to you. So after searching the bunk below, the navigation station, the media desk (more of a dark hole at the back of the boat with lots of wires sticking out), my kit bag, the windward stacking bay and the leeward stacking bays (with a bit of impromptu bailing at the same time - that never ending task onboard). I was very relieved to find it hiding at the bottom of my sleeping bag. My poor bunk mate must have had it wedged into his lower back during his last few hours sleep. I need to take better care of my shit, a constant personal life goal!

DAY 11

Feeling human (after enough rest)! You can tell we've been on the same tack for a while with minimal sail changes. This afternoon even the pesky clouds that have hampered our progress over the past few days making on deck time intense trying to find a way through them, have subsided. This morning we blasted along at a steady 20kts having got on the right side of a cloud. This afternoon we're downwind, sailing fast but easy. The boat is flatter, no need for waterproofs and finally the boat is dry and the job list is being ticked off.

But what's better is that the banter is up and moral is high. The sign of a rested crew! We're going well but we're still a long way from cementing a position, as we all try to hook onto the low pressure system spread east to west across the Atlantic, we'll find out soon who's played it right.

The sun is setting, I can see Abby preparing dinner from my bunk, above my head I can hear the low hum of good humoured chatter on deck amid sheet eases and trims. Yep sleep and food pretty much fixes everything. Now I'd better get some before the gybing begins.

DAY 12:

The anticipation of seeing old friends - We're over half way through the leg in distance and time. So as I drift off to sleep after my morning watch I'm thinking of our arrival into Cape town, and that first hug with friends not seen for far too long. I know how good that embrace will feel. Safe, time to rest, time to live a little, time to think and learn of something else outside our onboard bubble. For them of course the experience is less pleasant. Having not showered, washed my hair, waxed or washed my clothes for 22 days I won't have the best aroma. Nor do the salt sores, burnt lips, cracked hands or birds nest that has become of my hair add anything to my appearance. (I MUST cut my hair off in Cape town, in fact it's formed such a large dread lock it's likely to be the only option). But out of politeness if not genuine excitement there normally is some hugging, followed by a horrific photo moment (given the appearance explained above) and then time to really catch up with dinner and wine and....OK too far. We're still over a week out, way too early to be salivating over longed after food yet!

But Lynn, Tim, Jane, Becca and family and everyone else, I'm VERY excited to see you all and eagerly anticipate giving you a massive salty hug!

DAY 13: Sunrise surprise - those few minutes when the sun's light starts to edge over the horizon ending a dark night and showing the silhouettes of clouds, the weary sailors on deck and most importantly any competitors lurking nearby. In these few minutes we scan the horizon with bated breath, as the sunrise reveals the gains and losses made through the night, the 'surprises'.

This mornings sunrise was especially tense as we looked towards the red glow to the east to see if there were any dark triangles of boats gybing from the east and heading back our way. We've hedged further west than the rest of the fleet, opting for the great circle route to stay in breeze longer and this morning is the first indication if our investment in sailing more miles has paid off, or just cost us distance.

The triangle shadows never appeared and luckily 30 minutes later our 6 hourly sked report was due. Good news, we'd been the fastest boat and only Mapfre had gybed earlier. With the report out, no boats in sight and hence another 6 hours before the fleet would know our next move, we quickly gybed back out towards more breeze. The next 24 hours will reveal all. Tomorrow's sunrise surprise will be a big one!

DAY 14:

Sleep. 5 hours of that glorious sleep zone today (in 2 2.5 hour blocks of course, with a seriously wet 4 hours in between). With no wake ups, curled up in my sleeping bag, bunk jacked up as high as possible to prevent rolling out at 30 degrees of heel. Fleece jumper rolled up as a fluffy pillow at my head, and I was out. Lucky as the following off watch was a right off, consumed by a very lengthy and slightly disastrous night time peel (sail change). But all this was ok after a good 5 hours in the land of nod. Only 5 more days and they might be consecutive hours, in a bed, in a hotel!!

Day 15:

Musto duck hat - fleecy, warm, waterproof coated, ridiculous looking masterpiece! This thing is a life saver offshore. A large enough peak to duck under the oncoming waves crashing across the deck, super soft fleece inside, and ear flaps that might not be the most attractive but feel amazing! I was once at a talk by Stan Honey, Volvo Ocean Race winner and all round legendary navigator. He was asked what makes a good offshore sailor. He said his dad always told him "keep your head warm, your eyes open and your mouth shut". Musto is helping me do the first one of these, I'll endeavour to do the rest!

DAY 16:

Porridge that someone else has made - Warm coconut porridge (at least Luke warm still when I came off watch). Skilfully cooked (hot water added) by our onboard reporter. Very gratefully received after a long cold watch, sending it on the FRO in 25 kts. After 4 hours intense concentration gripping the main sheet, pedestal and wheel at different times (you always start grinding when first on watch then trimming then driving). I've definitely over eaten on the porridge front, but it set me up well for the peel that followed with only 20 minutes to get some rest before the next watch. Porridge rocks!

DAY 17:

Musto hpx hooded smock - this thing of beauty has a MASSIVE collar, fleece lined to mussel your face in, away from the assaulting oncoming waves. It's just the right amount of fleece, not too thick so that it goes up your nose. Then there's the hood, with clear side panels for peripheral vision, that prevent the waves piercing your eyes. Today the hood has been firmly pulled up over my duck hat to protect against the jet of water continually firing off the forward jockey pole. The outrigger as it’s also known seems to deflect the huge foaming bow wave directly towards the aft pedestal grinder. But no fear I'm tucked away in my hooded smock, in my own little world of warmth, impermeable to the ice cold fire hose. I can just about hear Kyle's Aussie trim and hold calls for me to grind the main on as we send it downwind.

I have to admit the collar can be a bit of a hindrance on the bow. I had a fairly catastrophic J2 sail change earlier. Trying to plug the tack of the sail in which involves putting a small pin into a small hole and then securing it with an even smaller pin. All the while being pelted by waves on the bow at 30 degrees of heel. My musto collar was flapping around my face and at the critical moment my self inflating Spinlock life jacket (which apparently only fires under significant hydrostatic pressure) decided to inflate. Suddenly it felt like I was being strangled, constrained by a ballooning fluorescent yellow vest, now pinning the fleece musto collar to my face and impairing any vision. Then of course the automatically triggered AIS device fires, sending the aerial straight up my nose. In an attempt to deflate the jacket I had to let go my grip of the J3 stay and hence was promptly swept aft, my knee, a fairly hard object making contact with the leading edge of the daggerboard, a much harder object it turns out.

Despite the mis haps the J2 was finally in the air ready to deploy and it did make me laugh, especially when I turned around to spot Rich our Onboard reporter poised with his camera just behind the shrouds, shooting the whole catastrophic debacle. So watch out for some footage of a fluorescent yellow clown fumbling around the foredeck. Anyway the bow is a ridiculous place to be (at least for me). Musto hpx smock you get a massive thumbs up from me. Top of the list for day 17. Lifesaver!

DAY 18:

A visit by the Albatross - Always breathtaking. Everyone stops for a moment and is in complete awe of how impressive this creature is. The same too can be said for whales, dolphins and other sea life, but with these everyone points and screams in excitement at their first sighting. When the Albatross arrives, circling from behind and swooping around the forestay, everyone just stops. There is something majestic about them. Graceful, peaceful but strong and powerful at the same time. We always say that Magnus Olssen, our former Team SCA coach and VOR legend, has come back as an Albatross. He's out there looking over us with his infectious laugh and his catch phrase of 'keep fighting’. So sighting an Albatross always makes me think of him, fist raised high in the air, big grin spread across his face and brings a smile to mine, however bad it is.

Today is not a great day, it's become all too clear that we're destined to finish in 4th. Not what we'd hoped for after being in 2nd, close to 1st for a lot of the Leg. The front group’s lead is extending as they more favourable pressure and shift. Now we have 72 hours on deck left. It's cold, very cold and wet and fundamentally a bit miserable. Each sked update bringing more bad news of miles lost to the leaders.

But then the Albatross arrives. It's looking at us as we battle along against the waves, upwind, working hard but going no where fast. Hoods pulled up over balaclava covered faces, anything to shield from the ice cold spray as daylight fades and the night time chill descends. The Albatross seems to glide at ease, upwind, downwind, unaffected by the elements we're struggling with. It puts on a show, a few laps of the boat displaying its impressive wing span and ability rise and soar. And for a few moments the pain of bleeding miles to our competitors, the challenging conditions and the sheer slog of being at sea now for 18 days, is all forgotten. I feel lucky, insignificant almost, but mostly reassured by its presence. We're nearly there, 'keep fighting' it says.

DAY 19: the final day

Singing when no one’s listening. Tucked down inside the collar of my Musto smock, wedged to windward of the pedestal waiting for the next grind on call for the main. I'm singing, belting out some old favourites. Probably not particularly in tune, the words jumbled, occasionally slightly breathless after a long grind on the handles. But it keeps me going through that first hour on deck, in the darkness and the silence other than the sound of the waves hitting the hull. Selecting songs then projecting them into the inside of my collar, safe in the knowledge my team mates are on the windward rail, meters away and upwind of my crowing.

I guess it's a bit like singing in the shower, the freedom and simple joy of launching into song, whether it sounds any good or not (except here the water drenching me is significantly colder & definitely isn't making me any cleaner). In the last race with Team SCA singing on deck (at the right moments) was fully embraced. So as we approach our last night of the Leg Abby and I broke into 'One more night' on deck. The boys looked at us perplexed. Pretty sure they're way too young to even know who Billy Joel is but also not sure they're so into the singing. We're going to have to change that! Belting out a tune in the middle of the ocean, with only the odd dolphin and your team mates to pass comment on your melody (or lack of) is the best. Music is something I miss out here, the only other noise day in and day out is the sound of water on the hull and the creaking of sheets. But until we've trained Team Brunel to take on the singing, I'll keep churning out the tunes into my collar. My own secret (and well now yours)!

This is my last 'best thing' for this Leg. We're due to arrive into Cape town in a few hours. I sincerely hope that tomorrow's best thing is that I get to read your blog, full of promise, cheer and good news. And that I can share with you my ramblings from onboard, if just for a moment to distract from the pain and bring that smile to your face.

I have been thinking of you every day. Willing you on, and marvelling at your bravery. I'm not a big Facebook fan but have found I'm anxious out here without your news.

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