The Rosalba blog by Bronwen Maddox:  Read about the highs and lows aboard Rosalba, as our Chairman Richard Tolkien, and crew, Bronwen Maddox, Frank Sturm and David Herrod attempted to break the world record for crossing the Atlantic from Bermuda to Plymouth.  Spoiler alert:  They did it!! 

Starting out

What’s the chance of death?” I ask Richard. He looks at me curiously. “Very small. Why - are you worried?” No, I say, but people have kept asking me when I say that we are going to sail across the Atlantic in his 60’ sailboat Rosalba (and even have hopes of breaking a world record for time).

It’s a poignant trip in a lot of ways. He bought the boat some years ago after a lifetime sailing in the margins of a busy life with a much-loved family not particularly fond of spending hours on the water themselves. The light blue disc on her sail spells out Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research, the charity he chairs in honour of his brother David who was paralysed in a car accident, and the boat’s activities (funded by him) help draw attention to its work. But plans for the boat have not worked out - as often happens in sailing.

An ambitious race he’d intended to do was cancelled from the political upheaval in its starting point in Catalonia. A solo round the world trip he then planned after the death of his adored wife of 40 years ended when an Atlantic storm left him pitched up in the Azores. We’ve since done a couple of thousand miles in the boat along with one or two of a small band of now close friends and he’s done more in races. After completing the 2022 transatlantic race and another one twisting around Caribbean islands, the boat is in Antigua - with three potential buyers lined up back in the UK. So this may well be the last trip in her, and I am determined to come along.

For all Richard’s confidence, he, I and Frank Sturm (a former architect and house-builder from Berlin and a long-standing member of the crew ‘family’)  do the pre departure safety procedures with extra care. It is not a race - so no other boats will be around - and we will be crossing the second largest ocean in the world. We start with man overboard drill, always sobering - the boat goes at at least 10 knots and sometimes double that so in the 15 minutes minimum to bring the sails down and turn her around under engine, she would be at least two and a half miles from anyone who had fallen in. We install the signalling beacons in the life jackets and stow them on deck, and stash packets of pasta and 50 litres of water on board.

Slight tension of the night before leaving. The wind has really picked up and the mangoes are swinging in the trees. It is the Saturday night of the Easter weekend and Antigua’s bays have come to life, “Jolene” pumping out from one of the heritage sailing ships. Much incidental discussion of how the islands can actually impound oligarchs’ boats (as is talked about in the news) - who pays the crew and mooring and can the boats then be sold or do they become a drain on the island government?

We set the alarm for 7am with a view to leaving by 9am. Heading first to Bermuda to pick up Dave Herrod, another crew member, we want to get ahead of a band of squally wind coming from the east. We are in the trade winds blowing steadily from the east - I think of the centuries of boats carried along on them. So we should have a clear run of four days to Bermuda. Then, we’ll attempt to set the record for Bermuda to Plymouth.

Adjusting the sails   Frank and Richard at the chart table Frank at the helm

 Easter Sunday on the Sargasso Sea - Sunday 17th April

We make an early start from Antigua to have as much daylight as possible. We have an easy, almost geometric course: straight west to clear the south coast of the island, and then sharp right to go almost due north.

The sea is surprisingly bumpy as we pass over shoals just 8m under the boat. But then the depth on the gauge falls away until the reading just shows as two dashes. The chart shows 300m and in three hours we will be over 4,500m of water, by St Martin. A bit later, it will go to 6,000m.

It’s a bumpy afternoon and evening. The wind, coming from just south of east, is at least 22 knots but gusting 30. A dark cloudy sky which hides the nearly full moon as it comes up. We are doing at least 13 knots but before it gets dark, take in a second reef in the mainsail reckoning that the weather is with us for the night. First night at sea and we don’t want to be making big adjustments through it. As it is, it takes a lot of small changes to mainsail, jib, keel and course to get the boat balanced.

We had lunch at something approaching lunchtime - bread rolls we’re trying to use up, corned beef, tomatoes and carrots. Richard’s shopping is enthusiastic but sometimes off target; we now have a stash of what he thought was ginger but isn’t. Passing around a broken off piece and marvelling at the deep colour - turmeric? - and the smell that seems the essence of the Spice Islands, we have soon covered our fingers and parts of the deck with bright yellow.

Dilemma about power generation. We are sailing across the Sargasso Sea, most often referred to these days for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the imagined story of the Caribbean upbringing of the wife of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, now read as a post-colonial, feminist response to Charlotte Bronte’s work. But Christopher Columbus wrote about it too: a slow moving gyre, 500 miles across, carrying sargasso weed around its currents. The practical problem for us is that the Watt & Sea hydro generators will get clogged up. We experiment with dropping the leeward side one in when we’re clear of weed and hooking it out when the weed returns. This works, as the generator is so efficient it soon has the battery up at 96 per cent again. Richard and I eat a piece of the weed, our adversary. Covered with tiny bladders, it tastes like all seaweed - salt.

It’s so rough we don’t consider cooking but just make sandwiches again. We sort out the shifts for the night and fall asleep – we find we have very intense dreams on the first nights on the boat.

Next day, the wind has settled to a steady 22 knots and we are flying along at 13 knots. We are going directly north and it’s odd to see the reading for latitude tick upwards (now 26 degrees north) but the longitude not change at all. The wind is still straight from the east but will begin to shift to the south, slowing us down. When cooking supper, Frank became immersed in one of his astonishing pasta sauces with peppers, onions and a lot of celery all chopped very fine (when Richard tried to use his specialist chef’s knife for a bit of rope there was some noisy direction to stop). A flying fish suddenly comes through the hatch above the chart table, open by barely 10cm, and hits Frank in the lower back. An astonishing arc of flight. He manages to catch it - it’s only about 5cm long- and throws it into the sea. Later during the night, a dozen flying fish make it into the cockpit. We keep finding them behind the diesel cans.

Tuesday, and it’s the most extraordinary sight. Clear blue sky, calm blue sea with no sign of humans at all, not even planes. Not much sign of life either, just a white tern with a very long tail and a small blue bird that hovers over the waves. We are lolloping along at about 8 knots.

From the open hatch above where I am typing Richard says “here’s a giant flying fish come to distract you”. I assume he is referring to himself but when I do look up, he is holding a flying fish twice as big as his hand, with twin silver “wings” along its side and deep sunken eyes.

Sunset

Waiting for the north wind; tuna fish salad - Wednesday 20th April

Wednesday afternoon the wind  falls away. Dark clouds ahead and a swell approaching 2m but with only 4 knots of wind we have to switch on the engine. I am dozing on the bunk and the engine noise makes its way into a confused dream. It's distinctly better to be on deck when the engine is on and we gather in the cockpit  for mugs of tea and some Christmas cake Richard has found. Another tiny bird appears and Richard says "there are four of us!". The sense of being alone is extraordinary. Mainly exhilarating but also spooky. We wonder if this is at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle’s reputation - that if you disappeared, no one would have seen you for days. Strange dark clouds behind us, too: dark wisps trailing down like ink bleeding on wet paper.

We discuss inconclusively – such is life without Google – whether we are in the "horse latitudes" between the easterly trade winds to the south and the westerlies further north. Sailors long past, stranded in light winds and running short of water, used to throw their cargo of horses overboard to save resources for themselves, Richard says. One of several accounts of the origin of the term.

We chat over too why evaporation and condensation weren't used more on boats in the past to extract drinking water from the sea. (Rosalba's “water maker” is whirring away as I type). I had an old flatmate, Andrea, who survived what sounded like an excruciating civil service induction course by regaling them with instructions for distilling your own urine in the desert. It has nagged at me for decades (in a low key sort of way) that I can't remember the crucial detail of how you procure condensation. Boat conversations are like this, I begin to realise - often lacking essential facts or any way of establishing them.

 We're expecting a lot more wind in the night, maybe 18 knots. But for now, there is either 8 knots from straight north, where we are heading, so no good for sailing, or 3 knots from points right round the compass, shifting the whole time. Everything is a flat, slatey blue - a bit ominous but beautiful. A straight column of rain from clouds to sea in the southeast. Still warm but we have jackets on for the first time. Full of Christmas cake, we agree on salad for supper, in the cockpit, lit by a headtorch hung on the Harken winch pedestal.

 When dark, it is really, really dark. I have the first watch and am feeling my way around. No horizon visible. Can't even see the mainsail, normally at night a  90-foot sweep of whiteness above us. Just the phosphorescence of plankton in the waves we create on each side. I'm fascinated by them - the first time I've seen the phenomenon. If I weren't alone on deck I'd be tempted to collect a bucket full, to see if they lit up as you agitated the water and to run it through your fingers. But the risk is too great - of losing the bucket, or me, over the stern.

Postscript: how to make tunafish salad on Rosalba

 Start in the space in front of the cabin hatch - the single square metre inside the boat where you can stand upright. Take off your shoes. Get onto your knees on the hammock in front of chart table. Curl into a ball and  wriggle on your haunches to the right of the chart table until you are squatting on the cover of the boat's batteries. Go  on knees again, wincing at the roughened, hard surface. Crawl through an open hatch (an oval about two and a half feet high). Turn 90 degrees to the left to face your destination - the fridge and two provision bags.

Extract a shopping bag wedged by the fridge. Lift off the top provision bag which is just pasta and sauce, to get at the one with tins. Extract tin of tuna and one of flageolet beans. Notice that many of the cans need a can opener. Ponder whether Rosalba has one. Put odds at 10 per cent.

Open fridge - a new acquisition, ordered from the kitchen table in Wales and a transformation of onboard hygiene. Extract tomato, peppers, tortilla wraps. Put in bag. Begin return crawling journey. Take onion, lemon and sundried tomatoes from net bag on starboard side,reckoning too much hassle to go to port side for shallots. Leaning through the hatch into the cockpit, chopping board on the floor (one of the few flat surfaces), chop everything up and throw in a bowl, with balsamic and juice of a lemon. "It is ridiculous" said Richard happily, on one trip to the fridge. He loves the pared-down brutalism of this boat. What's ridiculous is that we all kind of do.

Blue bucket

The fact that there is no toilet (or “heads”) on Rosalba is a subject of incredulity to many of our friends. There was one, when he bought the boat. But even on the delivery trip bringing Rosalba to the UK from the Mediterranean, it had become a focus of exasperation. “Ah, Richard, there seems to be a problem with the heads”, his shipmates would say. Apparently it always falls to the skipper to unblock the problem.

 So in honour of Rosalba’s  status as a racing boat, stripped down to the bald essentials of sails, ropes, keel and electronics, with nothing else on board that could go wrong, the heads went out. To be replaced with a blue bucket. “Bucket and chuck it” is the hearty sailing term for it, which I’ve heard too many times to find droll. Richard is very matter of fact about it but when his brother David, in a wheelchair after his accident (and the reason Richard became involved with Stoke Mandeville), had a picture on his wall of Richard on deck making use of such facilities, he finally asked him to take it down. I can rather see the sibling pleasure David might have got from it, though. 

In Rosalba’s case, the facility in question is an evil looking dark blue plastic bucket with a rusted handle which sits lashed to the fuel cans at the back of the boat. In every configuration of crew on the boat, we come to some accommodation. Usually, a hand gesture meaning could you gaze at the horizon while I use the bucket. It still takes quite a bit of agility, bracing on a sloping deck. The most awkward, I find, is if I’ve got leggings under oilskins, getting them on again afterwards.

Then the bucket needs to be washed out from the back of the boat and this is no joke, as the easiest way to fall overboard is from the stern. Wrapping the tape attached to its handle around your hand a few times (it would not make you popular on the boat to lose the bucket), you have to wait for it to catch the water. Usually, we are going so fast - say 15 knots - that it just skims and bounces along the surface. Suddenly it will catch and fill, and then I feel I am in one of the stick drawings my old physics teacher used to draw to illustrate Newtonian forces acting in opposite directions.  Force on the bucket, force on the tape, force on the person holding on. He was a wag, so his diagram would no doubt have ended with the small figure flying over the stern. But as I said, no joke, and we do all take care if not clipped on. 

Bronwen at the helm

Bumpy ride to Bermuda - Friday 22 April 

We are glad to be here, safely tied up next to a three masted super-schooner called Adix. But we have to move mooring in the next two hours as lots of other big boats are arriving to get away from the bad weather.

Which it has been. After motoring through light winds for much of the night, the north/north east wind did indeed arrive. 25 knots gusting 31, and we were cutting across the waves at about 40 degrees, as close to the wind as we could get. Making it very, very bumpy. One wave a second and every fifth or so, there would be one of 3m, leaving us poised at the crest before slamming down, followed by a corkscrew roll back up to starboard. Ten or so of those a minute. Briefly lying on my bunk, it was like levitating, feeling absolutely weightless, before slamming down along your full length. Impossible to lie on your side or front either.  So much water over the top of the boat, every porthole and hatch was obscured. The deck is very, very clean this morning.

We gave up on lunch, Richard and Frank finishing the Christmas cake. I don’t seem to get seasick but after 12 hours of the crashing-bumping-twisting felt entirely detached from the world of food. We made up for it on the dock last night, having met up with Dave who had to sit on the jetty while we were isolated on the boat until paperwork cleared this morning. He brought rum and ginger ale in cans (Bermuda’s Dark ‘N’ Stormy cocktail) and takeaway pizza we passed over the water between us.

Everyone seems to know about our record attempt, including the very likeable Australian crew of the Spanish schooner, who say they’ll be following behind, to Falmouth.

Sunday or Monday departure. Much weather discussion this afternoon.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday? Saturday 24th April 

Much intense weather discussion and six or seven runnings of the routing on the Adrena plotting system has been resolved in favour of probably starting at 15.00 on Sunday 24 April. At first, it looked like Monday. But as the weather developed, that would have left the 30+ knot winds of a low pressure system coming over us that night. Potentially a really difficult first night.

On the other hand, Tuesday looked like leaving us in the wake of that low, with very slight winds and no chance at all, from the start, of breaking the Bermuda-Plymouth record, on which there has been increasing focus. That seemed a pity. So, probably Sunday, depending on a further run of the weather forecast and routing first thing in the morning. That should leave us riding the westerly winds at the bottom of the low for some time. In theory.

It would also leave us sailing in parallel with the Spanish schooner Adix, which has also brought forward its departure by a day. R derives some comfort from that - both from their agreement on the best route through the weather and having a sort of sister ship (an adopted sister, I guess) in close contact on the same route. They are going to come and have a quick look at Rosalba tomorrow morning which they’re keen to do. We don’t have time for a return visit but they have described their two cooks and their gin freezer. Mutual enjoyment at the contrast.

Much focus now on the timing. From Antigua, we did 950 nm in just over four days. The “great circle” route (the shortest course between two points on the Earth’s surface) between Bermuda and Plymouth is around 2,800 nautical miles. But we may well have to sail 500 miles further, depending on how the lows (low pressure systems) move. Dave, plotting it two days ago, had us forced south of the Azores but the low is now moving faster and is set to dissipate a bit.

So we have speeded up preparations. Two large swoops on supermarkets today, one for dry food and this evening after supper, in the 15 minutes before a store closed, the four of us tearing around it like a treasure hunt against the clock to get cheese, cold meat, fruit and vegetables, calling out “have you got soup? Hummus? Tomatoes?” as we rushed past each other in the aisles. We arrived at the checkout at 9.02pm and had to surrender the beer Frank had wanted - a Bermuda watershed for buying alcohol.

Then transporting it to Captain Smokes’ marina - named after Robert Oatley, Bermuda’s most famous sailor. And passing it in the dark over the 7-ft bouncing “passerelle” or gangplank, one of the most wobbly means of getting onto Rosalba that we’ve had. Moving mooring on Friday produced moments of tension but the owner found this berth for us - a good position.

Frank, finally released from isolation by customs paperwork, is still staying on the boat as he likes to do. Richard and I are staying up the hill with astounding views over the bay and its sherbet coloured houses, and a view of Rosalba’s always striking 90’ black mast. Dave, who lived here for five years and met his wife Ruth here, is with friends near the capital Hamilton.

Dave’s local knowledge and his civil engineer’s perspective has been a huge help. On the first evening, Frank mused that he might swim near the boat. “Er, don’t”, Dave said, pointing to the 6-inch pale sacs of Portuguese Man of War in the water. On their way in past Bermuda’s outer reef, they might have lost most of the length of their tentacles (which grow up to 50m) but they can still deliver searing welts - he said from experience. He also picked Suriname cherries for us from a tree (astonishingly sweet, then sour), and explained the roofing system: heavy limestone tiles in a broad pitch of about 150 degrees to present hurricane winds with little obstruction but also to frustrate their suction. And a diagonal channel on each roof to bring rainwater to a chamber below each house, as there has been no other source of drinking water until recent desalination projects. Finally took us for a brief and windy half hour swim to a stunning beach on the south shore with the famous pink sand. A place not without social divisions, some bitterly felt, he said; the quiet affluence of the financial services industry is evident in many ways.

So, Sunday first thing: more routing and then if our decision is confirmed, clearing customs papers and contacting the people who have agreed to be our starting officials, who will time us by several different means (sight from the cliff top by the lighthouse, the AIS marine tracking system and another GPS tracker from the World Sailing Record Council now taped to the hatch above the chart table). R has won one concession: that we can cross the start line from north to south, but had no joy on a second request, that the line be 1.5miles not 1.2 long.

  Dave fixing the pump

What makes a record? Monday 25th April 

On our first lunch ashore in Bermuda, a man approached us and said “You’re the chap who’s trying to break the record to Plymouth!”  At least three people have told us how they wished they had been the one to start us off.

I must admit I have taken time to take the idea of the Bermuda to Plymouth record seriously - but acknowledge that everyone here does, very much so. When I first heard of it, it seemed arbitrary, lacking the geographic obviousness of, say, New York to the Lizard, one of the famous record routes. “If I walked from Wimbledon to Coventry and no one else had done it, would that count as a record?” I asked Richard.

He said it wasn't like that: that it was a well known if not famous sailing record route and that multi hull boats, particularly, had had many shots at it (they have their own league tables). He had asked John Reed in Sussex, the secretary of the World Speed Sailing Record Council,  if we could try to set a record from Antigua to Plymouth but was told that was not a recognised route. However, for a fee of £2,000, to cover the cost of the starting and finishing monitors, we could enter ourselves for this one.

What is more, it has become clear that the current record of 13 days and five hours for our class of boat,  held by the distinguished Swedish sailor Mikael Ryking and his Russian co-skipper Irina Gracheva in a 40' boat, will not be easy to beat. We will have to sail at an average of 10 knots the whole way - not easy although right now we are bowling along at 13.

Our latest routing suggests we might cover the route in 12 days and one hour - but we never sail as fast as the routing predicts - and the weather more than four or five days out is likely to be different from the projection too. You can give  yourself a good first five days or so by picking the right departure time but the rest is subject to whatever the next lot of weather does.

I like the idea of sailing from one limestone city to another. When we were staying in Plymouth in October 2020, in the final week’s intense preparation of the boat for Richard’s attempted voyage solo round the world, we admired (as many do) the stone work and bulk of the limestone walls around the harbour. In Bermuda’s case, the limestone (a bare 100m sedimentary layer on top of the volcano that is the base of the island) is so soft, Dave says, that you could cut it with a hand saw.

Our designated start line today from St David’s lighthouse is the finish line for the Newport to Bermuda race, perhaps the biggest in the US each year. Richard spends some tense minutes entering the position of each end of the starting line onto the electronic chart. After two quick gybes, we cross the middle of the line. There is no gun, just a very British sounding "Rosalba, Rosalba, this is Starting Line,  Starting Line  - you have made a clean start. Over" on the VHF.

We realise that the "great circle" route, around 2,800 nautical miles, as well as not suiting the projected wind direction, would take us to the edge of the red exclusion zone on the chart which warns of ice. It's about the latitude of New York; no one needs to say Titanic to acknowledge the point that an old threat is despite modern technology still one now.

Anyway, given the wind direction (from the north west), we're going further south, to try to ride the low as it moves east. We started two hours after the schooner Adix; I had the first night watch and was sorry to see the red lights at the top of her three masts veer away to our south. They're suddenly diverting to the Azores to pick up some guests.

It feels very much like the first night at sea. Richard, Frank and Dave have all shaved and everyone's clothes are clean. But the wind is rising now, gusting 25 knots, and after some anguish, as Richard is tired with all the many-sided interactions of getting away, I wake him up to see if we need to take in a second reef.

Night watch - Tuesday 26th April

I love the night watch. It’s one of the things I can most usefully do on the boat, not being as strong or experienced as the rest of the rotating crew (generally three or four people for a voyage, sometimes just two). After supper at about eight - pasta or bean stew if the weather is calm enough to cook on the two tiny gas rings, or rehydrated “Expedition” food in sachets if all we can do is boil water - the others will go down below. I angle for the first three hour shift as I like the sudden peace at the end of a day of activity, and then seeing the moon come up over the water, or the stars.

There is a lot to do on the watch. First, twisting down through the hatch from the cockpit to get to the chart table, checking on the AIS system to see what other boats are around. Often it will flash an alert and warn that in, say, one hour 11 minutes we and a giant cargo ship will collide. Then each boat will shift on the waves and the tracker will have us missing by several nautical miles.

When the ship detected by the system finally appears out of the darkness, it can be vast, bigger than any you would see outside the world’s biggest industrial ports, with a fine line of lights along the side and more on the bridge. The job is literally watching ships passing in the night, but that phrase is a metaphor for failure to connect, not capturing the intense alertness with which we are watching these giants (and we hope they are noticing us).

Up on deck, every 10 minutes or so you have to pull yourself up on the cuddy frame that protects the area from waves, standing with one foot by a winch to see forwards. The point is to look out for fishing vessels and others too small to have an AIS beacon, to look out for fishing pots if we are near shore, and hardest, to try to spot sea debris. Then on the other side, to see around the blind spot of the jib. I love standing up there although it is not the most secure perch and I feel guilty about enjoying it - it feels like being a kid sticking her head out of the car window before being told not to.

There is a vast amount of junk in the Atlantic, we have found. The first night I spent on board, a year and a half ago, I was told “always sleep with your feet towards the front of the boat in case we hit something”. The deceleration from 20 knots could be enough to break your neck against the bulkhead.

We have not yet come across anything as catastrophic as the submerged container that Robert Redford hits on a solo voyage in All is Lost, a film of endless marine calamities overcome (or are they not, at the ambiguous ending?) which friends keep citing to me. But Rosalba’s been tangled in dozens of metres of plastic piping, rope from a fishing net wound around the keel, and one morning after 41 knot winds down near Portugal, we found ourselves sailing through a field of planks, presumably fallen off a cargo ship. For all the banging against the hull, they did no damage there, but in an instant had knocked the blades off one of the hydro generators, twin little propellers at the back of the boat which provide the power to run everything on the boat. The hydros are very efficient but fragile; when we fished one out of the water, it was bald - all the plastic blades knocked off by the planks. Luckily, we had more - the boat is full of spares.

The most difficult part of the watch is when the wind picks up, especially if it is squally. There are four things you can do to stabilise the boat: tilt the keel more to one side, loosen the traveller that lets the boom and mainsail swing a bit further from the wind, ease the main sheet to take the pressure off the mainsail, or finally, adjust the course a fraction to bear away from the wind. Before that last one, I would be calling for help from others in the cabin.

The keel is one of the glories of the boat even if one of the least visible, and pressing one of the five coloured buttons that control it is huge fun even if it seems childish to admit it. It weighs three and a half tons of the boat’s nine tons, a single blade of steel with a bulb at the end stretching from the heart of the boat into the water, and can move to a thirty degree angle on either side. People ask me why we’re not always sitting lined up on the windward rail as in pictures of racing yachts and one answer is there aren’t enough of us to make much difference, but the other is that tilting the keel does the job far better.

When you press one of the buttons to adjust its angle, it activates gleaming pipes which take up one whole compartment on the port side of the cabin: they force one of the pair of steel rams into motion, with a deep, industrial humming sound. It reminds me of the huge Industrial Revolution engines in the hall of the Science Museum in London; when I was a kid, they would occasionally set them grinding around.

The need to power the keel and the autopilot - essential given Rosalba’s crew is always so small - and all the navigation and communication equipment is why we can never let the power of the batteries drop. So one other thing to do on the night watch is to check the battery charge on a small meter above the chart table.

Then I’ll wake up Richard, for the second three hour watch. He falls asleep easily and wakes up quickly, after a life of this. I crawl into the same bunk which is still warm. It is just a narrow plastic bunk but I’ve always slept deeply there. Partly all the climbing around on the watch, and partly trust in the others.

The Big Low - Friday 29th April

Low pressure 

"Would it be your preference to bring the mainsail down more?" I ask Richard. Meaning if anyone were going to brave the cockpit knee deep in waves breaking over the port side. Evening of Thursday 28th April and we already have three reefs in the mainsail and the J2 headsail switched for the much smaller J3; a fourth reef would leave a pocket handkerchief of a sail. "My preference would be to bring down the wind", he says.

It's just hit 40 knots and it now stays above that for 12 hours, hitting 47 knots at one point. I swap the first night watch with Richard as he is tense, calling out to know the wind speed from his bunk. "Are you nervous?" I ask him. “No, but alert” he says, very conscious of what big seas and winds can do to the boat. He is determined to be careful and heads away from the wind for the worst of it.

We have the wind a bit behind us at an angle of about 100 degrees and so are riding largely with the waves, not crashing against them, although there is a constant roaring rush of water over the boat. "It's like being in a car wash", Dave says. But there is a lot of rolling and when the dawn comes up we can see that the waves are 6 or 7 metres high, spray blowing off their crests. We find Portuguese Man of War tentacles wrapped around the hydro generators, transparent but not stretchy at all, and pieces of tentacle in the cockpit.

Everyone a little tired the next day, although full of admiration for the way Rosalba has handled the big wind and seas.  I am remembering the advice of an old friend: "never accept an invitation on a boat". Dave and Frank cheer us all up by playing music from their phones, Bobby McGee from Dave and a rap group called (in German) the Fantastic Four from Frank. "Very famous", he says firmly. We all jig away on our different perches in the cabin.

The cabin, including the bunks, is just 5m across and the main part in front of the chart table about 2m, with a single square metre by the gas rings where you can stand upright. There are handholds everywhere; much of the physical effort is climbing from one to another, like primates in a too small cage at the zoo. The ceiling oddly resembles a timbered pub - the carbon frame is painted black like beams and the Kevlar shell painted white. It turns out that we've all had the same thought, though - that it is like being in the Apollo space capsule as it comes in to land in the water.

How we are going to land is becoming more of a question. "This is a significant Atlantic depression", Richard says, and the weather data we download shows that the low pressure with its big anti-clockwise swirl of clouds is about 1,500 miles across, covering half the Atlantic. It has helped us so  far - we did 290 miles on the first day, 274 on the second and will go on to do 295 on the third and 272 on the fourth. These are miles judged (in our daily sweepstake) by distance from the Eddystone rock at Plymouth. We will have sailed further through the water.

But the straight course we have been sailing to Plymouth will now deposit us in a hole, the charts show - a lozenge of high pressure east of the Azores. If we carried on, we would be sitting there, with no wind at all. The tiny "door" of wind the router had shown has now closed. Yet the route the Adrena course calculator now plots for us sends us way north - to the Fastnet Rock on the southern tip of Ireland and maybe further, before curving back south. "That's crazy", says Frank (who did the famous Fastnet Race with Richard and others last year). It would also make it very hard to break the record. We hope the forecast  will change - as indeed it often does.

322! - Saturday 30th April

We did 322 nautical miles today, a record for Rosalba in her time with Richard not just a record for this trip. That makes a great run for five days. It's been an exhilarating day, maybe the best so far.

But here's the sting - the weather forecasts mean that the straight course we've been making is barred by a high pressure system and complete lack of wind. Barred like the gate to a fortress. Not only has the record become all but impossible, but we will be forced to strike out straight north, even a bit westwards, before turning east to skim the Irish coast. A crazy looking route, we all agree, having huddled over the screen with the weather and route maps for nearly an  hour.

That aside, it's been a beautiful day. "Come and stand up here" Dave says, and we both perch symmetrically, one foot by a winch, one on the Harken winder in the centre of the cockpit, leaning on the cuddy frame, transfixed by the sight of the bow plunging into the waves. You don't  - thank goodness - get a sense of the drama of the motion from the cabin, as the boat pivots more or less around that point. In these 6m waves, the bow swings up by that or more before heading down and then with a whirring, juddering sound it ploughs into the next one, great funnels of waves sweeping down each side. "What a boat", Dave says, and the speed, which has touched 20 knots several times today, is quite something.

Seven or eight birds around - gulls with long black wings reminding us we are just a few hundred miles from the Azores. More ships too, one cargo ship  passing so close that Richard calls the bridge on the VHF to be sure of their course. With a ship like this one that is 300m long ("a baby" says Dave, who has been helping the Port of Dover with its redevelopment), there can be 100m of ship behind the bridge where the AIS transmitter is probably located and that could leave the passing distance too close for comfort.

I'm sorry we're not going closer to the Azores. When I flew out to see Richard there in late 2020, after a broken forestay and malfunctioning keel in a 52-knot storm left him taking refuge there, I was struck by the determined elegance of the Portuguese churches, squares and black and white tiled pavements, all perched on top of what are a just the tops of volcanoes, bleak and windblown. A Portuguese Iceland, and the Azores islands are one of the southern outcrops of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, of which Iceland is another. For a while, we will be following the line of the ridge, up to one of its higher points called the Faraday Mounts. 

When I was at the Financial Times,  there was a month or two when the Mid Atlantic Ridge was much in the news, I can only think for scientific or environmental reasons not  political ones. I had to write several stories about the discoveries at the foot of this seismically turbulent zone where the North American plate pulls away from the European one, making the Atlantic a little wider every year. A professor from the university of East Anglia told me he had eaten one of the worms that live without oxygen in these vents on the sea floor and it became a game played against the subeditors to see how many times I could get this fact in. Such being the small mischiefs of life as a reporter.

Now winding down for the night. Sometime during this night we will have covered half the miles as the gull flies but with the diversion on which we are now forced to embark that doesn't mean a lot. We have a new watch system which should slightly reduce the frenetic switching of bunks, under which all four of us swapped position at 11pm (and there were many other switches on top).

Old system: I would be on first night watch 8-11pm, Richard in the starboard cabin bunk, Frank in the port aft bunk ("Frank's cave"), Dave in the port cabin bunk. At 11pm (until 2am): Frank would emerge from his cave to take over the night watch from me; I’d move to the starboard bunk; Dave would gallantly wriggle into Frank’s cave and Richard would go into the port cabin bunk where he could be easily on hand. At 2am: Dave would crawl out to come on night watch, Frank heading back to his cave. 5am-8am: Richard would come onto watch, and Dave move back to the port cabin bunk.  

It looked so much like the coffee time puzzles that newspapers print and which Dave and Frank are doing on Frank's phone - that we agreed we could surely do better. So Richard and I have swapped watches, which means a whole lot less swapping bunks all round.

Other good things about today: many lost objects on the boat (and it is amazing how many go missing) have now been found. One packet of jelly babies (Dave's, found in his bag). My hairbrush - behind the sink. Spare bottle of washing up liquid  - in the cool box that used to serve as a fridge now deep in the bow of the boat. Still missing - packet of fruit bars.

Richard and I also managed to  wash our hair, stiff and  sticky with salt spray, leaning out of the cockpit hatch.

Frank has  put more Berlin music on his speaker, hung by a rope above the sink. Mittelpunkt der Welt (Middle Point of the World) is the album, he says. With phosphorescence streaming down the sides of the boat, all the stars out, no other ships in sight - and a course at least for the moment bound for Iceland - that is pretty much where we feel we are.

Springcleaning - Sunday 1st May 

After an exhilarating day, a more difficult one. The new, longer northerly course forced on us by the high pressure west of France has produced a dip in mood on board.

It’s not just the increasingly remote chance of the record. Dave has a flight booked to his daughter's wedding in New Zealand.  I have a late teens daughter at home and things at the office hard to handle by satellite email, no internet, and a keyboard on a bouncing chart desk.

Frank, retired early from a successful career as architect and house builder, has no professional dates to meet though has a personal commitment a bit later in the month; he has throughout, though, made clear his scepticism at anyone trying to combine ocean sailing with obligations to be somewhere on shore on a particular date. Yes but if you do have those  obligations, does that mean you should never get to do this?  This question hovers over many voyages.

Over the night watch, Dave, Frank and I separately and together interrogate the Adrena routing software and the PredictWind weather forecasts on which it is based. The result is that Richard emerges from his sleeping bag at 8am to a hovering anxiety in his crew, all looking at him. Dave points out to Richard that we generally sail 10 per cent slower than Adrena predicts and so we may not make even the dates it is indicating.  A good point; but Richard then updates the forecast, which has improved quite a bit and no longer insists that we sail up to the latitude of the west coast of Ireland. Dave and I are reassured by this and by everyone's agreement that we could in extremis motor through 250 miles of slow stretches. That would violate the terms of the record attempt but the record would probably be out of reach by that point anyway.

Richard  throws himself into cooking bacon "for morale", which actually does begin to work  - and then into an astonishing spring cleaning of the boat taking advantage of the first real sun we've had since Bermuda, and much quieter seas. This takes over much of the day in a huge burst of energy leaving us all much more positive. First, pumping out ballast tanks of water, a disadvantage in these light conditions. An hour of pumping with a python like hose that reaches along most of Rosalba's length ejects, he reckons, a ton of water, leaving the boat much lighter.

Investigation of the food store right in the bow produces three slimy cucumbers, passed from hand to hand along the crawl spaces of the boat to be thrown overboard (the low decks that make Rosalba such a sleek racing yacht mean that some of the passages between compartments are just two feet high). "What is the word for this thing that is on the tomatoes?" Frank asks Dave. "Mould", is the answer. "Richard! The tomatoes have mould on them!" "What?" "Mow-ald!" Echoing and booming messages along the boat's 60-foot length. 

By early evening, the cockpit is draped with drying clothes, salt water encrustations of five days rinsed off. The boat's beanbag is hanging from a sail tie like a giant punchbag; when sunny, it transforms sitting in the cockpit but when wet becomes a sprawling menace. I looked out at one point of crashing waves to see Frank wrestling with it like a giant wet black bear to get it to stay behind the winches.

After the first couple of abstemious days, Richard instigated cocktail hour and we sit in the cabin drinking cabernet sauvignon and eating crisps. The evening forecast update comes through – our evening news - and it is far better still. After some tweaking of the Adrena programme (you have to go surprisingly far through the options menu of this otherwise excellent software to tell it that the boat cannot cross land, in this case the southern counties of the Republic of Ireland or Cornwall), it produces a course and timing that make us all happy.

Frank, an outstanding cook (fond of strong and innovative flavours), produces one of his best: spaghetti with olive oil, finely chopped onions, garlic and cumin, and a salad of tomatoes and peppers. A gybe in the night and one at dawn leave us following the latest Adrena course but more happily. Richard has a dream about running for Mayor of London which he retells with much delight. The strange red marks on Rosalba's starboard side in the well by the wheel are sand, we realise, blown from the Sahara, we think.

Suddenly, we could even be within an hour of the record, Dave calculates. "Keep the ball on the ground", Frank says, meaning just keep doing what we're doing, don't get lost in fancy.

 

Starboard gybe - Tuesday 3rd May 

It's as if we're sailing through a different ocean. Grey not blue; waves of barely more than a metre, at intervals longer than Rosalba's length. A wind from the south, at around 12 knots, although the sky is flat and grey and it feels clammy. A bucket of water hauled in for washing up is shockingly cold; we are in the North Atlantic Current. Three birds circling the mast like a weather vane, and briefly, 20 dolphins at dawn this morning, Frank said from the helm where he has been spending hours, steering the boat on our course which is now north, north east, no longer straight north.

It's a long way from the drama of the "big low": five days of winds over 35 knots and waves of 6-7m - conditions much like the infamous Southern Ocean would bring, Richard says, although that would take 40 days to cross.

We're on starboard gybe, too, the wind coming from over the rear quarter of the boat from the right hand side, and it's funny what a difference it makes. For almost the whole trip, except a few hours, we've been on the port gybe. As if Rosalba were a boat on a pub mantlepiece, her sails forever curved in one direction. Now, we're in a looking glass world with a parallel set of the boat's apparatus brought into play. The hydro generator on the leeward (downwind) side has been lowered and the windward one raised. The windward backstay running from three points on the mast to the stern, and taking much of the huge strain on the mast (without which it might break) is taut, the leeward one now pulled forward out of the way. The keel is tilted to starboard not port. Even the row of sea boots (Richard wears the ones that used to belong to his late brother Michael) are lined up on the port side of the tiny space in front of the gas rings, not starboard, so they will not fall over and trip people coming through the cabin hatch.

For me, it comes with a small private loss. I sleep, generally, on the starboard bunk in the main cabin. When the boat is tilted to starboard, there is an extraordinary sensation in that bunk of water flowing on three sides of you without touching you - three feet above your head, the same (more or less) below the bunk, and most startling, just a few inches away from your right ear. A constant rushing, gurgling hiss with occasional thumps and shudders of a bigger wave. If you put your hand on the side wall of the hull (carbon over a foam core) you can feel the slosh and flow of the vibrations along the hull - although with no sense of fragility, I should say.

On the windward side, you get some of these sounds, but are raised above them and lack that sense of immersion in a capsule within a stream which I find so riveting.

I could shift to the starboard aft bunk which has more noise of the water, but it is full of bags and in any case, the two aft bunks, fitted tight under the cockpit deck, are quite something. Higher slung, with a bare two feet of headroom and the ceiling painted black not white, they are reached through a two and a half foot hatch. Underneath are neat lines of boxes of the boat's formidable array of spares, all labelled (acetone, Sikaflex, pump spares, technical manuals). Frank has made the port side one into his den and lies there with headphones in and a headtorch on, reading or playing Sudoku on his phone.

The calmer seas but still useful winds have led to Frank spending hours at the helm, which he loves and is very good at after days in the past year or so on Rosalba (and decades sailing elsewhere). He takes his headphones out to offer me a helming lesson. "Not like a car steering wheel, it's for correction", he says, pointing out how quickly the power of the mainsail will turn Rosalba towards the wind if you take your hands off. I spend a happy if chilly half hour there, squinting at the almost featureless cloud to find shades of grey to steer towards.  Frank shows how at one point of the wave you can take your hands off the wheel and the boat will just glide down the curve.

New forecast, better yet. The high pressure has moved south; the light winds appear confined to the final 100 nautical miles (though that could still be a problem). The perfect S shape we appeared to be tracing through the North Atlantic has tilted and elongated, pointing more directly to home.

Dave and Frank  experiment with rigging a staysail in between the mainsail and the great black curve of the jibtop at the front, but it is too heavy and stiff and adds nothing. Still, we have the right range of sails for these conditions, Richard says. There are plans to get out the largest sail, the Code Zero, as the winds lighten. Frank's favourite sail, it swoops around half the side of the boat, scooping up the wind. But we can't bring it from its store in the bow to the cockpit ahead of time; the sheer weight of the vast expanse of sailcloth would drag down the stern.

Picking the right sails is a big part of getting the boat to sail to her potential. Great excitement at cocktail hour round the chart table last night as we were sailing "above polars". There is a table taped to the cabin wall showing for any wind speed and wind angle the speed that Rosalba theoretically should be able to achieve, based on other details about the boat's  sails, weight and other characteristics. These are the polars, and while the Adrena course calculator only assumes we will do 80 per cent of polar, there is a little triangular icon at the top of the screen which shifts to red if we are below polar and green if we were above. Last night, a lot of green. We were mesmerised.

A cold mist at dusk, cutting visibility to half a mile and obliterating the horizon. We put on socks, leggings, then more layers. At the helm, having another lesson from Frank, I squint and fail to find any feature at all in sky or water, even breaking waves, and  have to steer by the course reading on the glowing cockpit screen. As if we are sailing off the edge of the world and it is only half a mile away.

 

Time Zone Rosalba - Wednesday 4th May 

Exciting and startling to see Ireland and Cornwall on the course plotter with the boat-shaped orange icon for Rosalba fitting easily on the same screen, rather than having to search for them far to the east or to make the scale so small the map spans the Atlantic. That has focused our minds on re-encounter with land - and with its schedules.

"What time is it?" we ask each other many times a day on Rosalba: for knowing when the next weather forecast will arrive, judging how fast we're going, the start of the night watch or just the next meal. Each time, mirth and some debate. Some of our watches and phones (receiving no signal but deployed to play music and take pictures) are still set to Bermuda time. That's four hours behind British Summer Time although Frank is incredulous at that term and declines to use it. BST is an hour ahead of UTC, the Universal Time standard time used in maritime communication - and our record attempt is timed according to it  - although you might of course refer to it as Greenwich Mean Time (another "What?!" from Frank).

But in sailing from the lighthouse by St George's in Bermuda to the Plymouth breakwater, the best part of 3,000 miles, we will have crossed almost exactly 60 degrees of longitude. And four hours difference in time zones. Dave, who came aboard with a huge paper chart of the North Atlantic, on which he is marking our progress each day, suggests we create four time zones, one every 15 degrees, and move "boat time" on by one hour as we enter a new one. Last night, we crossed over into UTC, the penultimate one. Brings home that we're in the last few days (winds permitting, of course).

Do we need boat time? Well, yes, to try to keep some sense of the structure of day and night that also corresponds to light and darkness. When we started, there was almost exactly 12 hours of darkness and the four three-hour shifts of the night watch spanned it neatly. We've gained about two hours of light in the past 10 days, much of that from going further north not just the advance of the northern  hemisphere summer. It's become subtly harder to keep the rhythm of our schedule.

We are sleeping a bit less and skipping breakfast (everyone picking at fruit, bread or muesli). Lunch in the cockpit is still a fixture although yesterday it was about 14.30 UTC, but that was as much because of the feast of pancakes Frank cooked as our slithering sense of time. Dave unscrewed the handle of the only non stick saucepan for him to make them in (neatly reattaching it after lunch) although the propensity of the small pan to slip through the cage of the gimbal that swings to keep the hobs horizontal whatever the boat's motion produced the first real swearing of the trip.  Richard had been bemused to find Frank had stashed a bag of flour among the provisions but had his answer. An astounding stack of pancakes emerged, coloured deep yellow with turmeric, and we ate them with chicken, fried onions, fresh tomatoes and salsa. Richard and Dave had final ones with peanut butter and honey.

Dave, then Richard, did squats in the cockpit holding on to the Harken grinder (filmed by Frank), in recognition that 10 days at sea might do a lot for your arms and upper body with grinding the winches, hauling on sheets, and general clambering around from one handhold to the next. But aside from the need to balance, it does less for the legs. Sailing needs strength, I have found, but it doesn't quickly give it to you if you don't have it when you step aboard.

The aspect of time that we don't really want to discuss is the record. It stands at 13 days five hours - an average of more than nine knots all the way. It looked more than formidable four or five days ago, and now, just maybe...The weather forecasts have turned astonishingly in our favour - but the variability makes the point of how much they could still change. The high pressure zone and low winds marked with a serene deep blue on the PredictWind weather forecast seemed to herald days of stalling, less than 100 miles from Lands End. A sliver of green - winds of around 10 knots - seemed just possibly to offer a slender bridge through to sailable conditions. Now, a new low pressure with the alarming looking red swirls  of higher wind that are actually what we want to see is coming up behind us from the west.  Forcing the high pressure south. The bridge has got wider and stronger. But according to the chart, almost the moment we pass over it, another blue-purple zone of no wind will be on our tail. "Shutting the door behind us", says Dave, marvelling.

But we don't want to talk about that yet. Three days to go, says the Adrena course plotter, and a lot can happen. We are in lightish winds now - around 12 knots - and have the huge Code Zero up, the largest headsail on the boat, with its great curve cupping round the back of the mainsail. But in recognition of its venerable status as the only old sail on the boat (the rest are pretty much new), we are careful with the loading on it. Already, it is showing signs of delaminating - little ribbons flying out from its head. Richard and Frank spend some time gazing up at it. If it tore  and shredded along its vast height under too much strain, we would lose our main tool for getting around Land’s End in the very light winds we are fearing then.

Dave and Frank wrestled with getting the tilting bowsprit to deploy - a feature of some racing yachts, it angles the bowsprit about 15 degrees to either side. Odd looking, like someone's nose literally out of joint. But it puts more pressure on the sail and in some conditions, adds to the speed. Richard took it down before the night, to be careful of the Code Zero.

We all find our thoughts turning more to deadlines and decisions on land, phone calls to make. But for the moment, those are the other side of the endless practicalities of life on board. Fine tuning the sail choices and wind angles - the main topic of conversation. Sifting out the least sweaty, salty, damp clothes to wear. Sorting the provisions for the final days; we are short of fruit but have lots of bread. Not much toilet roll but lots of kitchen roll - or "katastrophenrolle" - an irresistible fragment of German bequeathed by Frank which is now part of Rosalba crew vocabulary.

We are watching out even more for ships - many more now, cargo mainly but fishing boats soon. Many more gulls, too, although the weather is still cold and misty. "This is [the real meaning of] British Summer Time", Frank says, pointing at the grey sky.

Within reach (maybe)…and why do it at all? - Thursday 5th May 

Thursday, May 5th, and we're beginning to realise the record is within reach. Maybe. Depending, now we're getting closer to land, not just on wind but on the tides and currents of the UK's intricate coastline. At worst, in light winds and with the tide against us, we might have to anchor in a bay until the tide turned, losing crucial hours. But although this morning started with something you might call a sunrise (a glowing brightness in the east more or less distinct from the clouds around), there is a darker line of clouds behind us, moving faster than we are. Bringing bad weather and higher winds, but that could do the trick and get us over the line  in time (before about midnight on Saturday).

Richard has been quietly excited, emailing more people with the boat tracker, which has prompted us to discuss the point of this record. For three of us on board (I'm presuming to guess a bit of what Frank and Dave feel), while the record adds a frisson to it all, it's the drama and sheer fun of crossing the world's second biggest ocean without an engine that has brought us here. For Richard personally, the record has a lot more point (although he did have to get the boat back to the UK somehow). He's hardly without victories after a lifetime of yacht racing and adventure sailing (alongside a career in the Treasury and City). But this would mark success for his project of three or four years, buying Rosalba and refitting, refurbishing, tweaking every bit of the boat to reach her potential, which as we've seen on this trip, can be astounding.

Now 20 years old, Rosalba was when she was built the height of design of the renowned Imoca class of racing yachts, built to compete in the hardest races including the Vendée Globe, sailors racing solo around the world through its wildest and most remote oceans. Those traditional boats are being eclipsed by constantly evolving designs such as foils stretching out from the hull that let them rise out of the water at high speed, and wing masts that turn to act as aerodynamic foils. More innovations by the year, backed by budgets, often from commercial sponsors, of millions of dollars or euros (rarely pounds) a year.

So at the least, the record would be a tribute not just to decades of his experience, but to the meticulous intensity of three years’ work, lists of fixes and improvements ticked off to be replaced by more lists. Which depended in turn on finding the right people on shore to believe in the project and with the skills to help see it through (Tim Rogers, this means you – and on board, Frank). And paying for it; Richard says he has a file in a drawer he can barely bear to open, with  all the bills. The record would show that an amateur sailor, funding it entirely himself, could pull it off. It would be an endorsement of Rosalba's design and resilience. And a quiet reproof to the racing authorities beginning to shut older boats out of the big competitions in search of "Formula 1" glamour.

Richard hopes, too, that it would advance his aim of using the boat's activities to draw attention to Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research, which he chairs and became involved with after his late brother David was paralysed in a car accident. The decals of SMSR, and the mission of "improving the quality of life after paralysis" have been fixed onto Rosalba's mainsail since her 2019 refit, and have, he says, attracted attention and donations. SMSR's aim is not to research a "cure" but to work on the handling of miseries like urinary tract infections which can indeed really improve the quality of life.

I confess I look up at the decals with admiration but also guilty thankfulness; 20 odd years ago I had the kind of back accident from which you shouldn't reasonably expect to walk away, except I did. An awkward fall from a pony, a mistaken all-clear x-ray from a hospital, and I walked around for an excruciating week until another hospital told me I had shattered one vertebra at waist level, ruptured two discs, and needed to lie down in a plastic brace for six months. Luck that the fracture didn't slip onto the spinal cord (and the support of my employer, The Times)  meant I walked back after those long months into a normal life, if an inch shorter. Some don't, though; SMSR reckons there are tens of thousands of people with spinal cords impaired through accident (not birth) in the UK and its work is for them.

Back on Rosalba, we are focussing on the home straight. We have crossed (nearly 4,000 metres below us) the Porcupine Abyssal Plain and are now over the Porcupine Sea-Bights: rising ripples of mountains that will soon become the walls and ramparts of the continental shelf off the coast of Ireland. More boat "jobs" yesterday morning, after an interlude over the first coffee; Frank puts on Keith Jarrett Live in Cologne ("the best") and we sit entranced. Dave turns his engineer's dexterity to getting one of the four pumps to work again, deducing that something it sucked up, maybe a screw, stripped the blades off its impeller wheel. Richard devotes a tank of the fresh water that the boat can "make" out of salt water to wash clothes that were salty beyond any hope of drying. "The sun's coming out!", he says, hanging them around the cockpit. "What drugs are you on?", says Frank.

Big excitement of yesterday: Powerplay, one of the world's fastest trimarans, and a harbour mate from Antigua, is on the chart screen, just 10 miles behind us. Pretty soon, against the clean line of the horizon (almost uninterrupted by waves), a thin dark spike. Almost sinister, if it were an enemy in pursuit - and it gets larger very quickly, even though we are moving at 11 knots (in 12 knots of wind) and the foam is bubbling in our wake. Fifteen minutes, and she's bearing down on us: three narrow dark blue sails, the tallest over 100 ft, and the bright cobalt of the three hulls below, one hull right out of the water, all tilted at what looks like an impossible angle. We scramble to make Rosalba look more professional, tearing down the washing. Richard stands at the wheel, the other three of us (I'm afraid) have our mobile phones out,  acknowledging the sheer phenomenon of it. The Powerplay crew give us a thumbs up from their tilting, flexing "trampoline" deck, a precarious looking web slung between the hulls.

Powerplay is travelling exactly twice as fast as Rosalba, around 22 knots, the chart tells us (perhaps I should make clear that the record we're trying to break is for monohulls like this boat not for multihulls, which have their own leagues, records and rivalries). The blue spike crosses from one horizon behind us (two or three miles) to disappear over the one in front in barely half an hour. We return, satisfied and a bit deflated, to our cockpit lunch - corned beef hash with onions, Richard's idea and a surprising success (but we're now down in the provisions to 1950s-style cans of meat with little keys in the side to wind open a strip of tin).

Last but one regular night and we open a bottle of Muscadet Richard has extracted from the bow. Through Friday night into Saturday, if things go according to the course calculator, we'll be manoeuvring the last stretch to Plymouth, all of us awake, in the dark, trying to hit the coordinates of the finish line.

 

Last run to Wolf Rock - Friday 6th May

Friday morning, May 6th. Alertness, even tension, rising on board. Everyone up at about 6am (except Frank, who's done the 3-6m watch and is still up, coffee mug in hand, staring at the grey clouds. There's a dark grey band of them behind us to the west, and wind under them is "just pushing us along" says Dave.

If the chart predictions hold good, we could be in Plymouth in 18 hours, beating the record by almost a full day.  "Ommmm", says  Frank, spreading out his hands in mock meditation, meaning don't count on it yet. 

And although the wind is gusting it then fades while the barometer is rising, showing we are edging closer to the centre of the high pressure and the "hole" of no wind at the centre. The American weather forecast (we flick between that and the subtly different European one, in search of hope and of warning signs the other may have missed) even has us arriving within sight of Plymouth, a few miles away, and then stalling for hours completely, becalmed.

The mechanical hum of the keel ram is sounding again and again as we adjust the angle of the keel - wind constantly changing. We raised the Code Zero sail again at dawn for what we fear may be its last hurrah - fraying even more at the top (as Richard watched, a scrap tore off and flew away). But for now, the great sweep of sail has scraped an extra knot of speed from the wind - even managing to get us sailing faster than the wind (12 knots in a wind speed of 11). Rosalba's very low built, light hull (all that crawling and wriggling we do inside but one of the triumphs of her design), several feet at least lower than a cruising boat would have, and the huge expanse of sail which the mast supports give her that exceptional speed.

We're now well over the continental shelf. The depth meter, which has shown two bald dashes for 11 days, suddenly shows 130m, then 107m. So it was working fine all along; all those times when we were over four, five, six thousand metres of water and it would flash up a ghostly reading that there was something 83m or 122m below us, perhaps there really was: a shoal of fish, a whale, even.

Irish accents from the Cork and Shannon coastguard on the VHF (warning of Force 6 winds but that is good for us as our greatest obstacle now is the wind failing). The first outside voices, aside from two cargo ships we’d spoken to and a few satellite phone calls we’d made, that we’ve heard for 12 days.  At night, a glow under the heavy clouds from Irish towns. Fishing boats all around now. Sometimes the AIS system says explicitly that they are "engaged in fishing" but otherwise we guess that from the way they are moving at less than a knot, turning here and there. Many Spanish and Portuguese ones, judging by the names. We keep clear - their nets trail two or three hundred metres behind. "Never mind the rules of the road" says Richard (and there are lots and lots of rules about how boats must pass each other) "they get very stroppy if we get in their way. They think 'we're working, you're playing’".

We are crossing the shallow Labardie Bank, where the choppy waters contributed to the disaster of the 1979 Fastnet race in which 19 lost their lives. Headed for Round Island and then Wolf Rock,  after the Scilly Isles, just before Land’s End and a gateway to the Channel.  No mobile signal yet - we are all braced for the digital flood of normal life back onto our screens but my office has sent through the local election results and we discuss Westminster, Wandsworth, Northern Ireland, words barely heard in the cockpit for three weeks.

We can see the Scillies! First land for more than 3,000 miles. Messages flood in, hundreds of them, and we're torn between another sail change - to enable us to clear the fiercely-enforced traffic separation zones of the Channel - and catching up on two weeks of the world. Fishing boats everywhere; one we called up on the VHF because he was criss-crossing our path answered in a nice Cornish accent that he was about to start fishing in five minutes and would go to the west of us. 

Wolf Rock appears - a bald lump barely big enough for the lighthouse on it  - then the Lizard. We open a book as to when we'll cross the Plymouth breakwater. All guesses have us well ahead of the record...

We did it! - Saturday 7th May 

We crossed the finish line, an extension of the Plymouth breakwater, at 21.07 UTC last night (10.07pm in Britain) breaking the record by more than 26 hours.

 “Rosalba, Rosalba, this is Observer Ellison”, said Michael Ellison, a long-time monitor of world sailing records, from his vantage point on the cliff top. “I can see you clearly”. We switch on the deck lights and illuminate the mainsail so that we are unmistakeable.

He comes the next morning to collect the World Speed Sailing Record Council’s tracker, the “black box” taped to the hatch above the chart table, and we invite him to our celebration supper in Jolly Jacks in Plymouth’s Mayflower marina the next evening.

Our time of 12 days, three hours and 13 minutes breaks the previous monohull record of 13 days, five hours and 19 minutes held by Mikhael Ryking from Sweden and his Russian co-skipper Irina Gracheva on Talanta, a Class 40 monohull, in June 2017.

In the final 24 hours, everything went our way - and that really doesn’t always happen. The wind strengthened far beyond the forecast and veered further into the south west, enabling us to sail much closer to the Cornish shore. As we came past the Lizard, the tide turned in our favour (a phrase I never thought I’d use literally). The Code Zero headsail held together for the final sweep to the line, helping us do more than 11 knots in around 12 knots of wind as we passed the Eddystone lighthouse with its double pulse of white light.

The only hazard as we bore down on the line, just 500 metres away - and Richard let out an sudden, incredulous yelp of warning - was that a gigantic passenger ferry pulled out straight across our course, almost blocking the stretch of water we had to cross. We stared unbelieving at the wedding cake of a ship, white lights blazing from four decks and steam streaming from the stern, as it passed just 200 metres away.

The finish line passed, a scramble to get down the Code Zero, unseal the engine (a requirement of the record monitoring that it is put beyond use in some way) and start the engine (would it start, after two weeks without use? But it did). Dave, Frank and I, head torches set to red, start getting out fenders and mooring lines and calling out the depth below the keel to Richard at the helm.

I tug Richard to look up at the mainsail with its four luminous bars now shining as I feel a real pang of sadness - if he sells Rosalba, will we ever see the sail up there again? I know his ambivalence about selling her has been growing, though. “She’s never gone so well, never been in such good shape”, he says.

Then a tense mooring in a deserted marina at midnight. Richard tries to manoeuvre Rosalba stern first and then bow first into the obvious spot - in fact the exact position in which she was moored for a week in the autumn of 2020 as he prepared for his circumnavigation attempt. 

That voyage didn’t work out but if he hadn’t ended up in the Azores after a week in need of urgent repairs (a dislodged forestay leading to a shredded J2 sail), he wouldn’t have met Frank, there on a friend’s boat also waiting for repair.

Frank has been so central to Rosalba’s rehabilitation in the past two years that this voyage would not have been possible without him, living on the boat for weeks in different berths around the Atlantic, constantly refining and fixing. I compliment him on the success of his project to “Make Boat Dry” (all boats, given the necessary small holes made for hatches, wires, pipes, engine water inlets and outlets, have a propensity to let in drips but Rosalba is exceptionally dry). “Make Boat Dry - and Working”, he says. Which she was; the only piece of technology to go wrong on the voyage was Richard’s mobile phone. And this is rare.

Finally, after half an hour of tension in the dark (and I wonder briefly whether we will have to sail back to Bermuda, such is the problem of the wind pushing us off the pontoon), we moor on the outside. Dave’s wife Ruth (who is going to meet us the next day) has arranged for a bottle of fizz and a case of beer to be at the marina. Dave walks off into the darkness and somehow re-emerges with these.

The Mayflower marina office had coped with our sudden arrival with good humour and charm; “oh yes, we remember Rosalba”, they said. “We are having a Pirates Weekend but we’re sure we can fit you in”.

We toast the voyage, taking crowded, happy selfies with a flash. A minute past midnight, Dave says “happy birthday” to me - as it is - and the three sing Happy Birthday, Frank replacing my name with “World Record Holder”.

A funny mix of feelings as we walk away from Rosalba (with that wobbly, wavy feeling as if we are still on board). Another potential buyer has emerged in the two weeks we’ve been away but Richard’s attachment to the boat and appreciation of the achievement of everyone involved over the past few years has also grown. For the sailors among you, Rosalba was also named Artemis, Pindar and Hexagon in her previous life under various distinguished skippers; there are few boats of her class and generation around - maybe a dozen - and several of the key ones have just changed hands. We’ll see.

This has been my fifth voyage on her although by far the most intense, and I’ve loved it. The geographic sweep of the miles travelled. The decisions and dilemmas of the routing. The sense that people have been doing this for thousands of years but without the electronics that we now have for weather and routing, and the courage which that must have taken (as, though, it still does). The company of clever, practical men who like having the right kit and getting things to work. The almost childlike chance to have first impressions and to live in the present ( I feel I’ve now walked back over a gangplank from that world of present tense verbs).

Even the sheer, inescapable uncertainty of it, reminding you that the control implied by the course calculator includes one big part luck and is in another part an illusion. I didn’t want to write it into an earlier blog for fear of alarming family and colleagues but at the worst point, we feared we would not arrive back for another week.

On that note, heartfelt thanks to our families, friends and colleagues all round.

The crew celebrate:  Frank, Richard, Dave and Bronwen

Bronwen Maddox

May 7, 2022