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The Terror of Iceberg Watching on an Offshore Yacht

23rd August 2019
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The Maiden crew with Angela Heath (nee Farrell) right in front row The Maiden crew with Angela Heath (nee Farrell) right in front row

One of the things I have done in my life is an iceberg watch on the bow of an offshore yacht racing in the Atlantic during the dark hours of night, keeping an eye out for ‘growlers’.

These are small chunks of floating ice that may only be barely visible above the surface of the water, perhaps a foot or two. They could do quite a bit of damage to a yacht. I was on the 83ft NCB Ireland at the time, racing across the Atlantic from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton.

It was the final leg of the 1989/1990 Round the World Whitbread Race, now named the Volvo Race. Because of the variety of weather conditions encountered on that leg, it was a microcosm of the entire race, quite rough and touch and benign at varying times. Somewhere around the cold Labrador Current which flows from the Arctic Ocean south along the coast of Labrador and passes around Newfoundland, continuing south along the east coast of Nova Scotia, a continuation of the West Greenland Current and the Baffin Island Current that meets the warm Gulf Stream at the Grand Banks southeast of Newfoundland, I learned about “iceberg watching” from the NCB crew! It was cold at night, but the warmth of the ‘nav station’ with radar sweeping around seemed to be where “iceberg watching” was done, so I thought that would be ok, only to find my watch was not there but on deck, in the cold, looking for “growlers”. In spring and early summer, when NCB was crossing the Atlantic the Labrador Current transports icebergs from the glaciers of Greenland southwards into the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes.

All that came back to mind this week when I heard Angela Heath, then Angela Farrell from Dun Laoghaire, describe “iceberg watching” as “terrifying”. Indeed, you didn’t know whether to call an alarm or hope that what you saw in the dark was only another wave.

Angela had done “iceberg watching” in much tougher waters in that race – the Southern Ocean – crewing on the all-women’s yacht, Maiden. That 58 ft. British boat was skippered by the legendary Tracy Edwards, then 27 years old and set a new level for women’s participation in sailing. This is the 30th anniversary year of Maiden’s trailblazing achievement which is the subject of a film documentary in the cinemas by Director Alex Holmes. Maiden changed the view of women in world sailing and Angela is still committed to that approach as part of Irish Sailing’s campaign to encourage more participation by women in sailing. Angela helmed the yacht ‘Crazy Horse’ in the Pathfinder Women At The Helm’ regatta in Dun Laoghaire where 200 sailors raced in 61 boats.

She was talking on my radio programme, This Island Nation, to my colleague Justin Maher. I was transfixed listening to her description of sailing on Maiden and “iceberg watching” and how, after having a family, she returned to sailing and how important the ‘Women at the Helm’ programme is.

She concluded her piece with the words about sailing: “Go and do it, it’s so good for you.”

It would be hard to find a better description of the lure, the attraction of our sport. It’s worth listening to.

• Listen to Angela Heath on the Podcast below where she starts by describing what ocean offshore racing is like.

Published in Tom MacSweeney
Tom MacSweeney

About The Author

Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney writes a weekly column for Afloat.ie. He also presents the maritime radio programme This Island Nation on community radio stations around Ireland.

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