SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
IN A BATTLE AGAINST PREVAILING WINDS AND THE TEMPTATION TO CUT AND RUN FOR THE SHELTER OF THE IRISH COAST, PAUL HEINEY PERSEVERES ACROSS THE ATLANTIC SINGLE-HANDED WITH NOTHING MORE THAN FINISHING THE COURSE ON HIS MIND
Paul Heiney is a cruising sailor to the core who has succeeded in some notable ocean quests. The first of these to appear in book form was his successful entry in the 2005 ‘Original’ Single-handed Transatlantic Race organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. The event was to reclaim this historic contest for Corinthian sailors from the highly sponsored, professional event the old race had become. Paul must have been the perfect entrant for the organisers. Quiet, modest and totally without commercial assistance, he states in the early pages of his book, Last Man Across the Atlantic, that he doesn’t mind taking the wooden spoon. For him, completing the course will be victory enough.
His boat is a heavy, long-keeled, largely unchanged family cruising ketch of 36ft and his racing aspirations are minimal, yet he comes through with a creditable elapsed time to Newport of 35 days. Not bad in the light of Chichester’s 40 days to New York in the first race.
The hidden delight about Last Man is Heiney’s style of writing. In this extract, his comments on the morality of single-handed racing when he’s just a week out shine with the clear voice of reason, but lest we imagine he is taking himself too seriously, he cracks a secret grin over his socks and some hilarious arrangements for easing his perilous passage to the heads.
This is a book – still in print – that all of us who fancy ourselves proper sailors would do well to study. With each succeeding page, one feels that Paul is an old friend we’d love to have as a shipmate. I hated throwing fresh fruit and vegetables over the side this early in the race. After less than a week, some were already turning to mush, so I embarked on a high-fibre diet to consume them. Meals now consisted of anything green, doused with a little oil, lots of salt and pepper, and a can of fish – sardines my first choice. This became my idea of proper sailing food, providing it was not repeated too often.
I was hugely grateful when a heavily feathered bird landed in the cockpit. I think we took each other by surprise, and we exchanged blank stares for a while, possibly sharing the same thought – who the bloody hell are you? I know nothing about birds: I can tell a robin from an eagle and that’s it, although this tiny thing I recognised as no albatross. However, its arrival was a rite of ocean passage. In many of the accounts of long voyages, an exhausted bird collapses on board to keep the lone sailor company, becoming a major influence in his life and a focus for all manner of complex self-examination. Once a firm relationship has been formed, the faithless bird then flies away, leaving the skipper an emotional cripple, weeping at the wheel of his ship, while thoughts of isolation bear down on him. The bird had become his only companion, a metaphor for the whole of humanity, and now it has turned its back on him. Well, I can only assume my visitor took one look at where he’d landed, decided there was never going to be any kind of relationship here and legged it back to land. In the time it took to make a mug of tea, he’d crapped on the Walker log and gone.
The tea inevitably brought about the need for the piss-pot. Forgive me if you find this offensive but it was always the intention that this race should be for the development of single-handed sailing techniques, and isn’t this one of the most fundamental? I sliced the lid off my last fresh-milk bottle and elevated it to its vital new role. I noticed that it had contained organic milk from a company called Rachel’s Dairy and so my new bottle became known as Rachel. I apologise to Rachels
Above: The sturdy long-keel Biscay 36, Ayesha kept Paul Heiney safe