Tuesday 13th – Challenges!

The Wind has finally picked up – last night's watch was great.  We were moving again and all thoughts are focused on trying to catch Qingdao. They are just over 50 miles ahead of us and lying in sixth place.  We're in seventh. It's now looking unlikely that we'll catch the rest of the fleet and as long as we keep moving we should hold seventh at worst.  Over the last 36 hours we've managed to take a couple of miles from them – but nothing significant. We're all going all out to try our best to gain a place and an additional point though, so with the new wind comes a renewed spirit and determination amongst the crew. The concentration on the helm is more focused than ever and the challenge is on to pinch as tight to the wind as we can while keeping 'Umber sailing as fast as she can.
During the night watch we had some dramatic clouds gather overhead – and while they did bring an increase in wind, the squally downpours that we were beginning to get accustomed to never materialised. I loved my turns on the helm. I don't know why but helming at night gives a much greater sense of satisfaction – and when it's cloudy so you have no stars to help navigate by - the challenge is more intense.  It makes you tune in to the boat better and I find I helm through my feet – feeling the pull of the wind as it gusts against the keel and the swell of the waves that try and knock you off course.  You learn to anticipate in the darkness and all of your senses are heightened.  It also becomes very personal between you and the yacht.  You form a connection that is stronger than in daylight hours and it's easy to imagine going on and on forever – just you and your boat! I can understand why the guys that sail around the world single-handed do it.  Once again I realise how fortunate I am to be in the amazing position.  This time last year I'd never sailed before and now here I am at the helm of a 68-foot racing yacht, at night with no stars, driving along at nine knots across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!  Although no-one could see it, the grin across my face said it all!

During the day today I faced a new challenge. The Sextant! This is one of the oldest navigational tools used by sailors since the pocket watch was invented. It's a cross between a compass and a telescope with a series of coloured lenses and mirrors that allows you to measure the angle of the sun (or stars) from the horizon.  You also need to know the exact time at which you take this reading (hence the need for the pocket watch) and the combination of the two then helps you to work out your approximate position.  Duncan (who has much experience using sextants) had shown me how to take a reading before – which in basic terms means looking through the eye-piece and twiddling various knobs until you see two suns.  You then have to pan the sextant downwards so you line up the real sun (not the mirrored reflection) until it sits exactly on the horizon.  It's a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy but with one eye shut, the other looking at a moving horizon while you're standing on an erratically moving see-saw! Easy...NOT!  Having just got vague grips with that, Piers now introduced me to what you do with the three numbered readings you take from the various dials on the sextant.
It's all about working out the global hour angle of the sun and then applying various deviations, depending on your position in relation to GMT.  It involves looking up tables and doing lots of maths – things that have never thrilled me - but I ploughed on with filling in the various boxes on the formula chart.  The good news is that after an hour and three-quarters of mind-boggling equations – which involved lots of counting on fingers and toes – I was able to plot our estimated position as being somewhere roughly on a long bearing line on a chart.  The bad news is that I would need to take another reading later in the day to be able to then plot an exact EP (if that's not a contradiction in terms!) taking into account our bearing and distance travelled between the two readings.
Second time around I got my “maths time” down to just under the hour and felt very chuffed that I managed to plot a position on the chart at the end of it all.  Granted that at this rate I would only ever know where I'd been an hour and a half before hand rather than where I was now, I still felt a great sense of achievement.  And even though, after checking my EP against all our electronic wizardry on board, I was about 20 nautical miles out, (surely not bad on a journey thousands of miles long?!), I still felt proud that I was navigating (sort of) in exactly the same way that my forefathers did before me.  Most people on board felt this was a pointless exercise but as I reasoned that should we get a generator failure and lose all our comms and GPS kit, those same people may well be grateful for these old fashioned skills... I also started to feel another Superhero moment come on... maybe Super Sextant Sailing Girl... or perhaps “Nimble Nav Ninja” has a certain ring to it.......!