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How to surrender with Panache

A note from Marie Tabarly on board Pen Duick VI

Marie’s original text can be found on the French OGR website.

Hello everyone,

This new message from on board comes quickly, doesn’t it? I might as well write it to you now while it’s still fresh. This is the story of a group of kids who had a dream and fought like crazy, with passion and bravery, until the very end.

Image: Marie Tabarly / Pen Duick VI © Martin Kéruzoré & RORC & The Elemen’Terre Project

So we are departing from Tortola to New York, each with our own visions and desires of the Big Apple. The idea of heading north at this time of year is to find rough weather and train the crew for big weather conditions. The first few days of the convoy are in dead calm, so we rely on the engine. We left six hours after our friends on the Esprit d’Equipe, but we all meet every night at 22:00 UTC (or EDT as Noé says 😉) on the BLU waves to give our positions and news from the ship.

With its lighter weight, the Esprit d’Equipe fares better in light winds, and by the evening of the 4th day, it has a 30-mile lead on us. Even though we are in convoy, it still bothers us a bit. With the staysail at the head, we spend the night at 13-14 knots, and in the early morning, we cross paths with the Esprit d’Equipe. We would have never found it if we had been looking for it!

The route is always favorable for crossing the Gulf Stream and arriving in New York, but we come across a swell that the weather file did not predict, at least not to this extent. We were supposed to have some wind, maybe light, but wind nonetheless. We spend the night at 5 knots in this swell, the engine couldn’t make us go any faster. These few knots less make us lose precious time, and we are 5 hours behind schedule on the route. The wind starts to come in, and I know it’s going to come in quickly, so as we exit the swell, we switch from the Yankee 1 to the Yankee 2. The Yankee 3 is on the deck, as well as the heavy staysail, which we’ll change later at 3 am during the watch handover. It takes about 45 minutes to maneuver, and anticipation is the key word on board. For now, we need to move forward and not waste any more time. Yankee 2, 1 reef, light staysail, mizzen, the boat glides at 130° to the wind, and we’re moving.

3am: Sail change. We switch to tank mode configuration. Heavy jib, Yankee 3, 2 reefed mainsail, and the mizzen sail lowered. The 30 knots of wind arrive shortly after, and the wind has turned as expected, putting us close-hauled. Wind speed settles at 35 to 40 knots, and the waves grow larger: 3rd reef in the mainsail, and we’re in “Beast mode.”

Things start to get rough. The problem is, we still need to cross the Gulf Stream, and the plan was to tack to starboard during the wind shift and head out of the current to the north. However, the time lost the previous night has put us in the wrong position in the current. We try to tack anyway, but we’re met with walls of water. The waves are about 6 meters high, 8 for the largest ones. We can’t make it through. We tack to port instead: at the helm, I try to keep as much speed as possible to avoid stalling, while going as slowly as possible in the rotation so that the guys can trim the jib and Yankee. They were really good.

We decide to follow the current of the Gulf Stream, it is the evening of the 6th, and during the 10pm radio call, Lionel from Esprit d’Equipe tells me that he has turned around, heading west and seeking refuge in a port. This sets off the first alarm in my head. But, we don’t have the same boats, Esprit d’Equipe is a very good boat (winner of the Whitbread 86!) but much lighter and shorter than ours. Now, we are entering the domain of the VI, very heavy weather. The boat is enjoying it, but we are not enjoying it as much. And then we made the choice to head north to train the crew in heavy weather, it’s not just by sailing in 25 knots in the sun that we are going to train them for the great south.

So, we’re launching the tank. Still upwind, the 40 knots are established, the anemometer rises to 50 in gusts, I select those who can steer in shifts. Steering a maxi in these kinds of waves requires technique, and also a lot of intuition. Above all, we must not constrain the boat. It knows what it’s doing. The key is to position it correctly to approach the waves coming from our port side, to avoid getting pushed from behind and thus ending up facing the wind. A tacking mistake in these conditions would be dramatic. The mainsail is open, so the preventer is at the foot of the mast. Really, this would not be a good time. But they are all managing, all that remains is to teach them not to let the boat slap in the waves. The idea is to quickly read the wave, correctly position the bow to be able to give a little bit of steering when we are on the crest and thus make the bow follow the wave, i.e.: brush the wave. Otherwise, it’s a “pile-driving contest”. If it’s not done correctly, the boat finds itself in the void and falls under its own weight. Inside, we know when it’s going to hit. Suddenly, we find ourselves weightless, holding onto whatever we can, and the blast arrives. A mixed sound of many things, aluminum, the dull, heavy sound of the loaded bow, crockery and cooking utensils that come unstuck, of all the stuff that despite being tied down, continues to fall, and of the crew, wherever they are. Everything is wet, hundreds of liters surge onto the deck (also a good opportunity to test our new wet weather gear that we’ll have for the round the world trip) and the shock barely over, the VI continues on its way with hardly any loss of speed…

It’s incredible. Not only does it not flinch, but we’re sailing at 11 knots, close-hauled, in 40 to 50 knots of wind and walls of water that I would have trouble describing. I don’t know many boats capable of doing that. The atmosphere on board is serious but good. On the one hand, we feel that the boat is doing well, everyone enjoys the spectacle of mother nature, and then we know that to do what we want to do in a few months, we have to go through this. The crew, already in love with the boat before, is beginning to really understand what makes it such a special boat. Such a shame not to have videos of it taken from the outside in those moments!

Night falls, and the moon becomes our best friend. Already feeling like we’re racing on the highway with a 34T truck with the headlights off, without the moon it would be headlights off and driving the wrong way!

Julia is at the helm. Julia, 22 years old, a volunteer firefighter, plumber, and carpenter, who now works on energy-efficient building renovations. Julia is one of the sailors we decided to train for the position of N°1, the most coveted position on the foredeck. She has a cool head and a beautiful sensitivity that makes her a good budding helmswoman. And there, Julia tells me, without panicking, but with a certain degree of incomprehension in her voice, that she no longer has any feel in the helm.

Image: Marie Tabarly / Pen Duick VI © Martin Kéruzoré & RORC & The Elemen’Terre Project

What? But no, look, the boat is fine, you’re on course… “Uh… no, no, I have no steering…” with those two question marks still in her eyes, and that calmness…! I shout “Toooom Wake Up!!”, so my second wakes up and throws himself on the tiller. Proof that the boat is balanced and we had the right combination of sails, the VI calmly continued on its course as if nothing had happened!

This year, I finally have the dream combination of skills in my professional crew: Tom, who is one of the top number ones on the circuit (No.1 on board JClass boats such as Velsheda or LionHeart) and an expert in rigging. He takes care of deck management and maintenance, while Kai, also a good sailor on deck, No.1 on Mod 70 boats in particular, is a master tinkerer. From mechanics to electricity, he has to understand everything, it’s his thing.

Kai rushes to the lazarette at the back of the boat and discovers that, due to the chain breaking, the steering cable had been pinched in the rudder and was now severed. This is the downside of aluminum boats. While wear and tear on textiles can be controlled, metal cannot. Given its importance, the system is regularly inspected and replaced, and Kai had checked it during our previous voyages. I give the helm to Tom and go to the chart table to assess our fallback options. The tiller on the VI is heavy since it is directly connected to the rudder, and we cannot remain in this configuration indefinitely, especially since it requires two people at all times, with either Tom or me in the mix.

The Bermuda Islands. It’s our only option. We bear away and set course towards them. Kai tells me he can fix it, we have the necessary parts, but it’s going to take a while. In my mind, New York is out of the question. Repairing a steering gear at sea, in these conditions, is nearly impossible. We have to dismantle the wheel, re-thread the chain, fight in the grease at the back of the boat, which is very narrow, and above all, replace and reconnect the steering gear cable while the tiller is still in use. All of this in 40 knots of wind, and we’re still in the dark.

Only the crew wants to go to New York, and the guys (and the guys, the girls, there is just no gender on board, period) have switched to warrior mode. They won’t give up. And they repair the steering system in less than an hour and a half. Honestly, I didn’t believe it! They all surpassed themselves, and there was not even 3 minutes of hesitation. We set sail again and that’s it. Before we tack again, I ask Tom to take a moment to do a complete check of the deck. Halyards, shrouds, stays, sails, tacks, sheets, cars, everything is in order. This breakage triggers the second alarm for me, so I ask him, “We can go to Bermuda. We can also continue. I will only make the decision to continue if I am sure that you are 100% in agreement with this decision.” And my Englishman answers with his tea in hand, “Bloody hell yeah, let’s do it!” Okay. We tack again and the boat sets off to battle. It was a beautiful moment. These few hours marked the group, something happened, something magnificent. A common will of a whole group that without even consulting each other goes in the same direction, with the same objective, without me even asking them. Exactly the state of mind we are looking for for the round the world trip, unwavering motivation.

Three hours go by, the wind still at full strength, the same walls of water crashing onto us, and we’re in the middle of it all. Each of us must have thought at some point that we’re all crazy, not to be here, but to take pleasure in being here… Eating is a mission (the cook may be the craziest of us all: managing to serve hot and balanced meals for 12 in these conditions, respect!), going to our bunks to sleep? A mission. Going to the bathroom…?! Just getting undressed takes 10 minutes while hitting our heads against the walls, so…!

That’s also what’s good about it, and especially what puts luxury into perspective. For us, true luxury is found in simple things. A hot shower, a bed that doesn’t move, feeling warm, eating without having to carefully calculate the path of the fork to our mouths…

Simon is at the helm, Tom is on deck, while I tried to close my eyes for an hour. “I’ve lost the helm!!!” Tom jumps back on the tiller with Simon. Kai inspects the chain that has slackened. 3rd alarm. Probably weakened by the first break, a link has given way. We have what we need to fix it, but it will take time. Tom will take a rest to take over for me later, and I take the helm with Julia, then Mathys comes to relieve her.

This time, we stay close to the wind, on course. Up front, I give the order, and they press their forearms against mine to harmonize our movement. “Push, pull, good angle, center the tiller, push a little, not too much, p-u-u-u-ull!!” And for 2.5 hours, we race down the mountains under tiller while Super Kai, helped by the rest of the crew, repairs. As we recover our wheel, I stick Mathys at the helm and step down. I’m no longer useful. I need both hands to drink a glass of water. My shoulders, hands, and arms no longer respond. The tack to stay in the right current vein approaches, but I can no longer make a decision, we continue on this tack and I go to sleep for two very short hours.

Upon waking up, I check the weather forecast again… A new depression is forming over New York and gaining ground. Another alarm. Yes, we can try to tack and see if it works on the other tack, and thus get out of the current to reach NYC. But just thinking about the tack… and facing those waves on the other tack… ugh… it will be worse than what we just went through, but if everything goes well, we will arrive before the depression hits. Except that the boat signaled me twice. And two other events sounded the alarm. If I break something, my only option is to reach Bermuda. If I attempt New York and an event forces us to seek shelter, we will not arrive in Bermuda on time, which is still two days at sea. The depression will catch up with a boat that is by definition not at 100% of its potential.

It only takes a few minutes of discussion with Tom to make the decision, or rather to admit the decision, because it has been made for a long time but is difficult to pronounce: we must bear away now for Bermuda. It’s the safest option. We all want to go to New York, especially to arrive there with Pen-Duick VI… Everyone wants to celebrate this boat, and a lot of people are waiting for us there. But it’s not the right time. The objective was to prepare the crew for rough weather, and that’s done. So, we bear away and the crew doesn’t give me time to be afraid of disappointing them, they support the decision whatever it may be.

We fought until the end, with ardor and bravery, but we must surrender, so let’s do it with pride and with panache. We were only 240 miles from New York, 36 hours at sea… but the Gulf Stream stood like a rampart, like a wall.

We wanted to play, we didn’t win, but we didn’t lose. We put our heart, joy and enthusiasm into it, a lot of effort, but sometimes we don’t always get what we want. When sailing, we know when we leave, but never when we arrive. We’re not even sure of the final destination…

We are now sailing downwind at 30 knots, with a boat and a crew in good condition, to reach a legendary island. And we are happy. In addition to checking off a serious line for our around-the-world training, we have just lived a beautiful story of men and boats, we have seen the ocean as few people have the chance to see it, and that, that is priceless.

From somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle,

Ma(o)rie, Pen-Duick VI and its valiant crew.

Image: Marie Tabarly / Pen Duick VI © Martin Kéruzoré & RORC & The Elemen’Terre Project