There are just a few of us that have been brave enough to face the ferocity of the Southern Ocean head on. There is a reason not many have done this. Imagine scaling the dizzy heights of mountainous waves only to crash down the other side, sometimes getting engulfed in the next wave. Imagine living life at an angle that means you can barely stand up, you crawl around on all fours and more often on your bottom like a child that has not learnt to walk yet.
It is wet, cold and miserable. The apparent wind is significantly more as you make slow progress upwind and therefore increasing the gradient wind to feel icy and biting against any exposed flesh. The wind chill felt on skin that has been exposed to the freezing sub-zero temperatures of the ocean can be so painful it becomes numbing.
You make progress but never in the right direction as you tack your way around the shifts of the wind in the weather systems. Your destination never seems to get closer. It can be soul destroying at times.
Or, you can experience the thrill of some of the best sailing you will ever see. The boat is on the edge of control, there is a brief thought of how on earth am I meant to slow down? Then there is the realisation that this is what it is all about. You ride the ocean swell, the boat is picked up on the back of a wave and you surf at speeds exceeding expectations. It looks like your bow will pierce into the wall of water in front of you and then you continue to ride the wave. Sometimes the boat will disappear ahead of you as you catch that wave in front and at other times you feel as if you are on your own special magic carpet. Untouchable.
The spray whips across your face feeling like it is slicing your raw cheeks open. Your eyes sting from the salt water and your hands freeze on the wheel, but you are warm from the energy it takes to control and tame the boat and get the best from her and the power of the environment that is testing you.
A loss of concentration for a second and it is a disaster. The boat speed drops you crash into the bottomless pit of a wave and the swell engulfs the boat. You rise again, shake off the green sea water washing down the decks and get going again.
The miles fly by and you realise the journey is getting shorter by the day. Yes, it is cold, wet and at times miserable but the adrenalin rush from this sailing is something else! You are not alone. You may think that conditions are getting extreme and then alongside the boat will be a majestic Albatross soaring effortlessly with his huge wingspan. He glides within inches of the crests of waves never getting caught out. They are the life of the Southern Ocean keeping a watchful eye on us sailors that venture into this hostile environment.
It is indeed a hostile environment; you are at times further from rescue than you would like. The closest human, not in a boat, is actually in the International Space Station. In fact, your closest help is your fellow competitor and you remember that unique aspect of our sport that although we are fierce rivals when racing we are also each other’s first point of safety if required.
The experience of the Southern Ocean, whether alone or with a team is special. Whether you face it head on or go careening down the side of waves on the edge of control, only those that have also faced the Southern Ocean and survived all it can deliver, truly understand what you have been through. It is a unique bond and a memory that will stay with you and very often entices you to go back down there and try it again.
In a rough calculation I have spent about 275 days in the Southern Ocean and I still have my fingers crossed that I can go down there again and face it, racing harder and faster than before. Where do I sign?
My overpowering memory of the Southern Ocean is in its raw nature and its sheer beauty. From the frigid grey in every direction to monstrous rolling swells with crystal clear deep blue skies, the company of Albatross and the Southern Lights. The permanently drenched personal gear, eternal discomfort and what feels like a non-stop fire hosing with near freezing water soon fades from the consciousness.
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