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CSM'S BLOG: 40 SECONDS!

I have been in Punta Del Este for just over a week now and still memories of the closest ever finish in solo round the world sailing keep flashing into my mind. The exultant feeling of approaching the bay after 7,500Nm at sea just  five boat lengths ahead of Gutek- then the crashing blow when I realised I could not lay the finish line on the course I had chosen as I was too close to the coast. It all has a somewhat dreamlike quality to it but the terrible reality of those wide-eyed seconds before I threw in the first of my two desperate gybes to clear the rocks are jarring and painful even now.

I had picked up Gutek in the mid-morning, and right on cue he crossed my bows having made some excellent tactical choices during the night cutting away the remaining 3 Nm of my lead.  He had crossed about half a mile ahead and I tacked directly onto his track to begin hunting him down.  Not since the first night out from Wellington had I seen another boat- let alone one of the boats I was racing against and to look forward over Spartan's deck and see Gutek's lofty mast splitting the horizon was truly exhilarating. Here was my first human contact for almost a month and it was a friend! Operon represented the first identifier in many, many miles of deserted open ocean that there were still other people in the world- something it is sometimes hard to remember when the only concrete evidence in 27days is the distant flash of the lighthouse at Cape Horn.

For almost an hour I crept painfully closer to Gutek and through the binoculars I could see him helming, trimming, going below popping up and looking at me- but with 45Nm to go he was getting only marginally closer. I tried to helm in an effort to increase our speed slightly but as soon as I did there was no one to trim and we slowed down so I relinquished the helm to the Raymarine system that had done such a fine job for so many miles and went to sit on the rail to monitor Operon, keep an eye on the sails and help keep Spartan as flat and powered up as possible.

With approximately 20Nm to go the breeze finally veered and we could lay Punta with cracked sheets on a fine reach. I put my hand on Spartan's cabin top and whispered to her - 'itís now or never girl'. I saw Gutek ease his mainsail and come down a few degrees and I tapped the autopilot down 5 and released the main a foot, the speedo picked up a few tenths but nothing worth writing home about. I then stepped forward to the Solent winch and cracked it off - the rig bounced and shook the hull as the sheet pressure of going upwind all morning was finally released.  As soon as the sail's tell tales rotated down into the correct horizontal attitude, I could feel the hull lift and surge forward and  I knew I could catch Operon.  For 3500Nm of blue white Southern Ocean I have been listening and learning to sit Spartan in this exact groove- it is the setting that reels in the boats in this fleet like fish on a line. Now two hours out from the finish Gutek had placed himself in my sights and I was squeezing the trigger. 13, 13.5kts, 13.9, 14.0kts and now I can read the writing on Gutek's sails and now I can see what he is wearing.

The feeling of the deck trembling beneath my feet, the sun beating down on me and the sight of such a fantastic competitor getting closer and closer unable to respond was an inspiring moment in my sailing career- one I will treasure. But Gutek was having none of it and I could see him dashing around his deck preparing something-then just as my bow began to overlap his stern he unfurled his gennaker and Operon pulled away. I dropped a few more degrees to increase my speed and stay with him and dragged the Code 5 headsail from the side deck forward and threw it aloft faster than I have ever managed before. I sprinted to the cockpit and hauled on the sheet deploying the sail in a cloud of white dacron. I winched in like a man possessed and only five minutes after Operon began to move forward Spartan was back in pursuit and closing. We were only 10Nm from the coast now and I could see the clouds hanging over the land, in fifteen minutes I could see the land and crucially the lighthouse that marked the finish.  Had I not been so tired from 40hrs close racing, had I perhaps had more to drink that blistering morning I might have taken what?- two minutes to go below and triple check the lay out of the finish. If I had I would perhaps have been 2nd rather than 3rd in the closest finish of solo sailing history- had I altered my course by only a few degrees at that point I would have easily laid the finish.

Instead I kept my eyes glued on Gutek. As a previous 470 and 49er champion I am happy to concede that in a close quarters situation he can out probably out maneuver me and I kept focused on keeping my boat between him and the line. And right there not that I knew it I lost the race.

As our course arched into the bay I was to the north closer to the land and closest to the nearest end of the finish line but only marginally ahead.  Press boats started to swarm around us and I could hear the race officers calling to check we were on the right VHF frequency. Gutek was five or six boat lengths behind and the line was close now very close - I could do it!  I knew there was as shoal patch at the Northern end of the line but I was sure I was outside it. I finally ducked below to check the chart.  In a nanosecond I was back on deck. I had got it wrong. I had drifted too far north during our battle into the bay and now sitting ten boat lengths to windward of Gutek- in my mind aiming for the closest end of a finish line that ran 256 degrees from the light house I had put myself in a lane that ran me straight onto the very rocks the light house stood sentinel over. All I could verbalize was 'No, No No'. The problem was that although by now we were almost on a run and although just one gybe would get me round the rocks I knew also that like Brad, Derek and Gutek I was running the Code 5 with only one sheet- for a gybe at sea we normally furl the sail- reset the sheet and then manoeuvre. In this inshore situation I was stuck literally between rocks and a hard place. I could gybe my main but the headsail would not be able to cross the foredeck and power up. I had only one choice. In the remaining distance I must gybe twice.

In an Eco 60 gybing is a long-winded and physically demanding business on your own. The main must come all the way in, the runner comes on, the keel goes over, headsails across, restack your gear- in all it ends up being a 45min affair.  A quick gybe can short circuit a lot of that but still itís going to take 5-10 mins.  I was one mile from the line and if I did not react immediately I was going to destroy my boat for the sake of a rosette and that was a line of thinking we decided against many moons ago. I hurled myself at the main sheet winch and I don't care how fast those rugby players were at the grinder challenge in La Rochelle - they could not have kept up on this occasion.  Main in, runner on Ė one minute- flat.  Gybe.  Shake my head and curse at the headsail that will not fill wing and wing allowing me to run dead down wind.  Count out the seconds - jump down and eyeball the electronic chart - back up and again I rag the mainsheet winch like a mad man.  Runner on. Bang! another gybe. Four minutes since we started- sheet on the headsail.  Five minutes wasted, two gybes, I feel like I want to vomit and I have pulled the muscles in the lower part of my back but it doesn't even register- Gutek is ahead- Spartan is accelerating but surely there is not enough time. Then on the VHF I hear O-P-E-R-O-N!  and cheering and across the water I see Gutek punching the air and waving.  Had my boat found the rocks at that precise moment I doubt I would have flinched.  After so much after coming so far, my basic seamanship let me down.  I felt numb.

The race director comes over on the RIB with Brad on board. It is clear that he and JC, one of Le Pengouin's expert preparateurs, are going to board me to help take down the sails and get ready for entering port. Their faces are smiling and I know I need the help but I wave them off. I can only deal with people after I have dealt with the boat, dealt with this pain.  I begin grinding in the Code 5 and all I can think is 'I am so sorry girl'.  So much effort then to be pipped by such a small amount requires a little thought.

I have a choice.  I have been awake for nearly two days, I have eaten and drunk very little and I have just missed out on the comeback of the year after spilling guts and blood for weeks to make it happen.  I can either laugh or cry.  I decide to do both.  I shed a tear for all of my effort, I shed one more for the boat and her spectacular performance I shed one for everyone who was with us every mile of the race and deserved the victory as well and I shed the last in frustration at fate, chance call it what you will that insists on tutoring me in such a Dickensian manner.  And then I stood up straight I pulled myself together and looked around.

The sun is shining, the beaches of Punta look like something from a travel magazine, the RIB is back and Brad is beaming at me.  Itís not so very bad.  I did my best which is all I was ever here to do and I have safely traversed the Southern Ocean and rounded Cape Horn on my own. I have fought back from 400Nm behind Gutek and lost to him by 40secs. It is crushing but I find myself to be uncrushed.  My boat is safe and I am well, it hurts but as my grandmother would have said: 'this too will pass'. I let my pain seep out and allow the sunshine to fill up the void within.  In a minute I am being pounded on the back by Brad and JC, there are other voices and laughter on deck and I can see Gutek hugging his wife and team and suddenly ocean racing is a game again - one we choose, one we risk a lot for, one we balance our lives against in search of victory but a game nevertheless- and even after all this there is no use getting wound up over a game.

I laugh and joke with the guys as we get ourselves ready to go in and they tell me I am a klutz for letting Gutek by and in so doing take the sting out of it - but just before we round the break water when they are in the cockpit driving and rigging the stern lines I go to the bow to check the rigging of the flags and the bow lines.

I kneel momentarily to adjust something and as I do I stoop a little closer to the deck and placing my hand on the rough hot surface I promise, promise, that next time we step out in this game of sea chess there will be no falling behind, there will be no moments of relaxation, there will be nothing except the race. 40secs is a number I have tattooed on my brain now and for 7,500Nm to Charleston I will count every second, every tenth of a knot every meter lost or gained expecting the finish to be this close again. Next time someone else will be on the losing end.