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Volvo OR - Terror in the Southern Ocean + Video

by Volvo Ocean Race and Gorfon Macguire 15 Dec 2017 15:43 PST
Volvo Ocean Race 2001/02 © Volvo Ocean Race

To get a feel for what it’s really like to drive one of these boats in the Southern Ocean just read and watch this interview with Gordon Maguire. It is perhaps the most heart-felt and eloquent account of the how raw life on board really is.

Gordon Maguire was a helmsman with News Corp in the eighth edition of the race in 2001-02. This was his fourth race and after reading his account you won’t be at all surprised to learn that it was also his last.

In the above interview, describing the events at the end of one watch on Leg 4 from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro in February 2002, gives an extraordinary insight into the adrenaline-fuelled reality of helming a boat through ice in the Southern Ocean and the sheer terror such a mission can inspire.

“It's evening watch, last half hour, it’s getting dark, last light. Everything is very dusky, it's foggy and you’ve got about 400 yards visibility. You look at your watch, and it's 20 minutes to go and you're thinking, ‘I'm just over this.’

It's blowing 35 knots, you're doing 25 knots of boat speed, you're hanging on the wheel. You haven't lost it, you haven't wiped out, everything is under control – it's just another day in the office.

The navigator sticks his head up the hatch and says, ‘Iceberg on the bow.’

You say, ‘How far?” He says, ‘One mile.’

One mile at 25 knots, you just don't want to think about it. It's like three minutes and you're on top of it.

Your heart starts going. The whole thing is now elevated to a level that you just didn't need. It's the end of your watch and you are over it. The sweat is running down the back of your neck; your feet are like ice blocks, your hands are like ice blocks, your face is raw red from the salt spray. And all of a sudden, you are being told ‘Iceberg on the bow, one mile.’

When you’re driving in those conditions, you have what we call a 10-degree envelope to steer in. You can go up five degrees or down five degrees and either side of that is a wipe out. You are quite limited about where you can steer. You have to react instantaneously. So we react. We come up five degrees and the navigator disappears and goes back to the radar.

‘Second iceberg on the port bow.’

‘You're kidding? Is it the same iceberg?’

‘Don't know.’

Down he goes. The clock is ticking and now you are within a minute of arriving in this scenario and you are actually not sure if these two blips on the radar are one iceberg or two. Is there a gap between them? How big is the gap?

All you have is 400 yards visibility in front of you. The sea is covered in ice. It is as if someone has just frappéd an iceberg right in your path.

You have a guy standing to your shoulder and he calls you ‘up’, ‘down’ and you drive through the pack ice picking out the big bits to miss as the small bits bounce along the side of the boat and out the back.

All the time in your mind you remember that somewhere, somebody in school told you how much ice there was under the water, but you can't remember how much and you don't want to. Why would you want to remember that 80 per cent is under the water and you only see the little bit at the top?

You look at your watch. There are five minutes before the end of your watch and you think, ‘I'm over this, I just do not need this in my life.’

And all the time, the guy to your shoulder is shouting, ‘Up five, up five, down 10, down 10, OH MY GOD, up five.’

You say, ‘Please leave out the expletives, just give me the numbers,’ as ‘Oh my God’ doesn't help anybody.

All the time you're doing 25 knots, the hammer is down fully, the boat is just rocking down and you're thinking if we hit anything bigger than six or eight feet across, we will actually compromise the hull and go down.

Then you pop out the other end of it, and there is no more ice. But there is no more anything. All you can see is a 500-metre circle around you. It’s misty, by this stage the sun is down, it is five-to, and the other watch is coming up.

You go down below and take your gloves off. Your feet are frozen, your hands are frozen, and you curl up in your bunk and pretend you are not there, and I don't need to do that anymore... that's my last time. I'm over it.”

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