I am writing this just after dawn on what I think is a typically white, cold dank morning in this part of the Indian Ocean. I am cold, my clothes are all damp, my hair is matted and when I woke up this morning I had the imprint of the foam matting on my face where I had eventually fallen asleep on the floor.
Last night Medallia and I achieved out highest ever top speed - 27 knots - and we put in a 4hr run with an average pace of over 19 knots. Wow! that was incredible.
One of the things I love about being a human being is our ability to continually develop, to push ourselves to new levels, to develop who we are and what we are capable of throughout our lives, to redefine our own definition of 'normal' as we constantly move on to new things.
One of the things I am loving about this race is the incredible opportunity for all of us, regardless of background, budget or boat to make our own competition, to perform within our own parameters and certainly for me to learn and improve as I make my way around the world.
Yesterday afternoon and evening I took the possibilities of what Medallia and I are capable of to unknown territory and the schedule between 17h and 21h we averaqed a speed of 19.28 knots. Yes that was our average. It's not often that I speak proudly of my own achievements, I am a strong believer that pride goes before a fall and so I have an aversion to any sort of statement that could be considered boastful. I am still slightly in shock, a bit groggy and feeling like I'm waking up from a massive impromptu party that happened at my place last night.
I was pleased yesterday morning when we finally hooked into some breeze - the top of a low pressure system that is rolling underneath us and I have been fairly determined not to let this thing escape. I have been looking after Medallia carefully in the light wind days and was confident that we were both strong and in good shape to push hard. It was a bitter experience watching Didac and Manu sail away from me while I dropped off the back of the last front we rode together and I decided that while I had the energy and the confidence I would push as hard as I could to stay in contact with this breeze even a few more hours in the wind than the last time would make a difference.
The sail plan was simple, starting with the jib and main, then as the breeze shifted behind me I could transfer the jib to the outrigger and eventually hoist my code zero. From the look of the forecast the passage of the majority of wind would happen between midday and midnight and I would be on my code zero within twelve hours.
I didn't set out like a maniac, just with the desire to push the boat on the set up I had. The wind quickly accelerated to more than forecast, gusting up to 44 knots but Medallia took in her stride. As the breeze built we continued to fly, bow up, autopilot steering a hard but steady course, I tucked in another reef and wondered about changing down the headsail but there seemed to be no need. Everything was under control and every now and again I would put the bow down, sail downwind, flat and slow so i could wander around the deck reassuring myself the stack was tied on, the tack lines were not chafing, the sheets were not rubbing. It was fine and there was no need to back off.
I had been averaging 16 knots for the first part of the afternoon, regularly surfing at 20. When the breeze had eventually gone far enough round for me to put the jib onto my outrigger, I put the bow down, went forward and set the pole with a new sheet for the jib then came back and transferred the sail outboard. When all was set I dialled the pilot back up 40 degrees to course and it was like someone had pressed the turbo button. Medallia literally leapt forward on a gust of wind, the speed accelerated through 20 knots, up to 24 and then sat there for over a minute. I was standing in the cockpit, gripping onto the edge of the cuddy and the expression on my face must have been one of total shock and amazement. A tonne of water came over the bow, it didn't take it's normal route down the side deck and into the cockpit, it covered every surface of the coachroof, a huge moving body of water that slammed into me pushing against the back of the cockpit. I adjusted my position to stand behind the coffee grinder, grabbing hold of it with both hands staring at the screens in front of me head down to the on coming waves, watching in amazement as Medallia continued to sit at speeds in excess of 20 knots.
Now I would hardly call myself gung-ho and I will happily admit that after my first shock at how fast we were going, my second thought was "you'd better put that jib back where it was... this is too fast". But I wrestled with my caution and gently went through every element of risk, identifying each reason I had for slowing down, mentally ticking off all the possible areas of the boat that could be put under strain by this new level of speed and as logically as possible I reassured myself that this was not outside the capabilities of me and my boat. Though I have been sailing in the IMOCA class for two years my experience of sailing at these sorts of speeds is limited. In my first year with Medallia I was on a shoestring budget, the boat badly needed a refit and I knew that to push hard in big breeze would be a risk to the whole project and so it was out of the question. Between the end of my refit, receiving my new sails and the start of the Vendee Globe race I was lucky enough to get about two weeks of big breeze training days, and for these I will be eternally grateful. We pushed the boat hard at these times and it gave me the baseline confidence I am working from now. But this is different, this weather, this open ocean, my knowledge and strength.
So we sailed. I couldn't stay on deck. No one could. But I couldn't settle down below. There was no way I was going to take off my foul weather gear as is normal I wanted to be ready to spring on deck at a moments notice. I sat in the conservatory for a while listening intently to every noise the boat was making. Then I realised I was so cold I was shaking and I hadn't eaten or drunk anything for absolutely hours. I went below and made a meal, all the time watching the numbers, the boat speed the wind speed, the rudder angle and so how hard the pilot was working.
The big breeze and the fast wind angle lasted for a little over six hours and during that time I pushed Medallia harder than I have ever pushed her in the two short years of our acquaintance. The boat is strong and I am so pleased with our sail plan and set up for this race, it's right for the boat and has given it a new lease of life. For me it was another learning experience, a chance to look myself in the face and decide to take the hard option. It was not an easy ride and my mind spent the whole time in a constant feedback loop of addressing concerns and providing reassurance that all of this was well within the capabilities of this skipper and this boat. During the super fast section, despite having droopy eyelids I could not sleep - I tried but my brain flatly refused to turn out the lights. I might not get a chance to push Medallia that hard again, or maybe the chance will arise in the next few days but I sit here now proud that I had the courage to challenge myself and having had a glimpse of what the next level of 'normal' might look like.