Ocean racing is about a sequence of highs and lows and the success of any race is based upon how a team deals with them to build a happy environment whilst minimising the potential of conflict between people and watches. When the weather is good and all is going well the hardships of living in a tiny micro environment are easy to deal with as general morale is on the increase and smiles are a more natural part of the day! There are many things during a race that contribute to the highs and lows!
For those of you who know Peter, the owner/skipper of Quokka, you will be all too familiar with his philosophies of sailing. For example, if he wants a new kite he will ask the sailmaker to imagine that his boat is four or five foot longer than it is and then fit as much sail cloth into the area that the geometry will allow! Then for good measure he will request it to be built 5–10% bigger! The net result is an animal that is powerful, fast and lives on the edge when unleashed!
You will be equally surprised to know that earlier this year Peter took a very conservative step of ordering a new kite with a very simple brief of “I would like something we can put up in 28 knots of breeze and not be frightened” He then did not interfere! When the team of Quokka arrived in Gran Canaria we went out for a training sail to try things like the new kite and storm sails which the regular inshore team had never seen. Having seen the new red kite I awaited, with a smile on my face, the reaction of the team. It was met with an outburst of laughter from James Allen, one of the best trimmers, and a look of bemusement from most of the others! I think you get the picture, it was tiny and aesthetically it bordered on the ridiculous! The best anyone could say was “It is nice to have a kite that is not white!”
When the wind freed us off early in the race and it was time to put up the kite for the first time it was decided that the new (which equals even larger) A3 would be the ideal choice. It very quickly became apparent that it was going to be more than a handful. Down it came and a dejected team realised that it was time to put up our brand new red ‘Chicken Chute’ or wayfarer (a small dinghy) kite, On Quokka this just did not feel right but it was our only choice, it was the only kite that was small enough to keep us under control for the sleigh ride West!
Within seconds of the hoist Quokka pounced like a wild cat. She accelerated and was touching speeds of 13 knots with ease, for the first time I can remember in 25 knots of wind Quokka was on rails and perfectly under control, whilst surfing and powering through the Atlantic Ocean. It was a revelation as we quickly grew in confidence that the once feisty Quokka was now less feral and ready for battle! This was one of those highs that I mentioned previously and a reminder that size does not always matter!
Our striking red kite that we had all once mocked became our weapon of destruction as we demolished Scarlet Oyster in a stunning 24 hour run of 220 miles. It very quickly became our weapon of choice and our most precious possession on board, well except for Steve Bruce who was consistently conjuring up delicious dinners for us on a regular basis. The 30 mile lead that we created in those 24 hours was another high point!
A couple of days ago the wind dropped from yet another 30 knot squall to a benign 16 knots. In the darkness of the night our watch was responsible for a perfectly routine kite hoist, something we have done many times before and should be able to do with our eyes shut. During the hoist we made an error and as a consequence of the fatigue that had set in we did not react to it quick enough. The result was a snapped spinnaker pole, which McGyver intends to mend at some stage. The sounds of carbon shattering is never a pleasant sound, but is quite distinctive and when 1000 miles from closest land it hits home just how important it is to protect our assets. Another low point, even more so for Peter than anyone else.
If you can imagine ten grown men living on a 43 foot sailing yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean far away from the creature comforts of a western world and loved ones, where sleeping is hard at the best of times, where a shower is standing naked in the cockpit making the best of yet another squall to only put the same smelling and damp cloths back on, where the simple task of making a coffee is a trauma as the mugs jump off the work surface just after filling with hot water, then you will start to get the picture as to why there may be potential for an equal balance of lows! Simple things like being a minute late on watch will cause irritation, or not washing up properly, or accidently moving someone else’s personal kit a few inches making it impossible to find may draw a picture that makes it understandable as to how conflict can begin.
What upsets one person or causes a low point might be very different for another who would become equally upset by something just as insignificant but equally as distressing. As individuals we learn to deal with the issues and as a team we become more tolerant, assuming we want to be a happy team that actually wants to spend time celebrating the massive achievement of crossing the Atlantic together upon arrival in St Lucia.
The moods and morale are a constantly changing feature of any ocean race, almost as often as the wind and weather and can in fact be intrinsically linked! Blue skies, favourable winds, flattening seas and a good feast are all typical catalysts for increased morale! The dark moments quickly fade into insignificance for the team whilst individuals can spend time rationalising and addressing their own issues in a systematic and constructive manner.
On Quokka we have an excellent leader in Peter Rutter. He works hard at bridging gaps and nipping in the bud any issues that have the potential to spiral out of control. He is completely in touch with the changing atmosphere and even when he is on a low he makes light of the situation. For obvious reason the snapped pole was a particular low for Peter and within minutes he summarised the situation by saying “I thought we would snap a pole on this race but I never expected it to be with the small red chicken chute in 16 knots of wind on a flat ocean, now that is quite embarrassing!” A wonderful skipper who we are all loving sailing with.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention the greatest morale booster or demoraliser of all are the polls as they show miles won or lost against Scarlett Oyster (The Lobster). Those that know Peter will be aware of his infamous competitive nature. Second place is not in his vocabulary, he is a perfectionist who has a desire to win, so any indication of a lost mile or two will cause distress.
The team on Quokka possesses talent in depth and character in abundance. All difficult situations are dealt with with minimal fuss as we focus on the goal of winning this race. You will not be surprised to know that generally morale on board is high and we are all in good spirits, many lessons are being learnt on the way that will make us better sailors and team players. You will be pleased to know that we do have a spare spinnaker pole and possess the belief we can win this race. For now we have a lobster to catch and we want it for dinner!
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