The plane was now in full taxi, the G-force pressing me into the green Air Italia seat in preparation for take-off from Valencia.
I ran that thought once more- the aircraft was pressing me into the green Air Italia seat Ö then I realised it was the same feeling! It was the same feeling that I had tried to describe for the past 6 days, while sailing from Lorient to Valencia on Alain Gautierís ORMA 60 trimaran Foncia.

The full Foncia team was onboard as we pulled away from Foncia HQ by the submarine base in Lorient. This was a good thing, a very good thing indeed I came to realise as 6 of us huffed and puffed in turns at the grinders in order to hoist the main. Alain had a weekend date with a Decision 35 on a Swiss lake, so after much arm waving goodbye, it was just the four of us; three to grind and one to helm as we unfurled the jib and ripped off towards the descending sun.

I was unsure at first if the crew would be comfortable with me at the helm - none of them knew me or had any idea of my experience, but Gautier’s choice of crew seemed to count for everything and after a moment’s instruction on how my priority was not the course or the wind angle, but to maintain a continuous 15kts, I was very shortly left to it. I was still having wonderful ‘I have been entirely let loose at the helm of an ORMA 60 cruising at 15kts / hold on-how did this happen?!’ thoughts when nearly two hours later, the skipper Mayeul [known affectionately as ‘Mama!’] came to relieve me. Had two whole hours really flown by? Could it be true that we had just torn 30 easy miles away before sunset?

There was no watch system per se, which astonishingly seemed to work. I fell in sync with the skipper; Gabi with Ludo (a helmsman ex-Orange II). I dozed in 2 hour chunks of my own accord, and then it was back on the helm for the next watch and a 20 knot scream in the dark. I simply couldn’t get enough of helming, although as morning broke, it dawned on me how cold and wet and damp I had become in the process of a nocturnal battering of spray.

We knew from the outset that there was a building depression in Biscay and we knew from the outset that there was no way entirely round it, nor a best time to avoid it, as another was due shortly to follow. Our passage into its teeth happened very swiftly, with one reef following another in quick succession. The jib was downsized to the Solent, before that was rolled away in favour of the Staysail. The storm jib was made ready in an epic voyage forward by the skipper, clinging to the nets of the foredeck as the motion tried to rip him free. The leeward trampoline rose and fell as the ama flexed to the pulse of the pounding waves, like a heart beat in a chest cavity. The waves became a chaotic chop of short, sharp, steep crests and troughs. They exploded through the tramps with great gusting fields of spray. Throes of thick white water tossed its way over the windward hull and engulfed the leeward float while a steady overflow of rivers conjugating to slop and spill over the cockpit sole in search of an exit. Foncia possessed an aura, a shrouding veil of white spray clouds as waves crashed mercilessly against her, beating at her beams and raining like nails on her cabin top. Now off watch, I bounced my way back from the steering bubble towards the cockpit, trying to avoid injury on the way. It was hard to see out, as a weight of water hit me on the head and penetrated the inch gap, between my HPX smock hood and red over-nose-and-mouth collar. As we edged past Cape Finisterre, I came to understand the word EXTREME!!

Inside the cabin, the motion was violent, brutal even, like the worst aircraft turbulence through a thunderstorm, combined with a crash landing and lift falling down its shaft. Foncia shuddered in shock. It was a simulator ride, with no comfy seats and nothing to hang on to. I knew lying down in the mid-bunk was a mistake as soon as I lay down. After a few minutes of watching water splatter against the survival hatch, I got up. My HPX smock was just about over my head. I was just about going to get it on in time. I was just about going to make it out of the cockpit in time, before… I hung my head over the lip of the companionway and felt my stomach muscles clench. With some relief I crawled back into the dank cavern underneath the cockpit. I didn’t care that it was drafty and oily from hydraulic fluid. It was low down and stable. I never missed a watch and, in fact, at the helm I was absolutely fine. My problem now was that everything else was an enormous effort. I spent my on-watch-but-not-helming hours (while ‘Mama’ drove) steeling myself to fetch food, or use the bucket. It took me ages of self-persuasion, because a pattern was emerging. I knew what would happen. I dropped into the cabin, only to eat and ascend to regurgitate it. At least I was not the only one affected.

Into Thursday afternoon, the sea state eased as we cut a path past Portugal. The wave direction was shifting from a head sea to a beam roll. Rocketing along, my driving session was a 19-26 knot bout of maximum concentration, as we drove once again for speed alone. I was flying the middle hull clean out of the water, riding the dagger-board, unaffected by a single wave as we cruised cheekily above them! The helm hummed for me, as the trim tab on the dagger-board went into full resonance. The slightest nudge of the helm kept her in the desired speed bracket with a touch of round-up to maintain control, but then it was time to charge the batteries and put the hull back in the water to satisfy the raw water intake. Most disappointing!

The mountain rise of Lisbon was in view to the east, as the motor drove Foncia on autopilot at 4.5kts. The stereo blared ‘Dido’ and Ludo, Gabi, ‘Mama’ and I lazed in the sun, with our wet clothes strewn across the tramps. The absolute lack of wind was a welcome reprieve. I fell at one point into a deliciously deep slumber, where there was only the sound of silence. I know this, because as I woke up the noise of water running past came rushing back. As the breeze returned, we crept off towards Capo St. Vincent on a beautiful flattening sea, with evolving hues of yellow to orange to red; with a final smudge of madder carmine pink strewn as an afterthought across the sky. Then came the real coaching as I learnt to fly at 31kts…

My fingers were clenched around the tiller, with my right hand on hand, to lend a hand. High above the water; high up on the high side, I drove Foncia on Friday 15th June 2007 in the late afternoon. With every muscle tense, from the back of my neck to my little toe; my toes were braced inside my boot, my boot braced against the steering foot platform; I was pinned against the seat. Propelled, catapulted, I was on some kind of out-of-control G-force fairground ride, hurtling mouth open, head first into oblivion - loving it but at the same time wondering ‘How will it end?’ ‘When will it end?’ and yet when the end was in sight, the gust ebbing from its peak, there I was craving it all over again, knowing that that was it: I was hooked as a newly born speed freak multi junkie. And after this run and that run and a final streak of maximum acceleration, I unpeeled my clasp on the tiller and gave the helm away, because the crew too wanted their hit of that wonderful, exhilarating, thrilling, ORMA 60 trimaran feeling.
 
That night, I was spent. I was worn out and struggled with fatigue, falling intermittently asleep at the helm, only to be startled awake as Foncia came off the boil or began careening off into the night. The gennaker was up for a broad reach toward Gibraltar, but somehow 15-20kts had begun to feel slow! ‘Mama’ was attempting to teach me good VMG sailing techniques: Build up speed, ease down towards the desired course. Watch not to bury the leeward float. Shake off the water by touching up wind and then drive straight. Creep down again, watching out for that wave and then drive straight... It was clearly a fine art and handing over the tiller to one of the French Masters, saw a smoother flight through the water, with a constant speed and the minimal of effort in tiller movement. I became determined to work on it.

Through the straits of Gibraltar, we had stunning views of first Morocco, then the rock of Gibraltar on the other gybe. Fishing boats littered the waterway and life was truly great. The sun blazed. We were creaming along at who-knows-what-speed (our instruments having gone down in their entirety off the coast of Portugal) and really no one said a word, as a perfect day was followed by a perfect night under a full sweep of stars. The air was warm, balmy and all-embracing, as trance anthems wafted from the steering stereo. Helming in the dark without a compass or navigational lights, I drove by feel, my instincts responding to the boat’s body language.

Then, (encouraged by ‘Mama’) I shut my eyes and steered through my own darkness, apparently perfectly on course and on speed for the whole duration. Was I loosing touch with reality? I really had no idea anymore of how fast we were travelling. It just felt good. My confidence was crippled by a bad Route du Rhum experience in a boat that seemed jinxed with a determination to first bar me from the race and then spit me off its course. But I now knew what I had to do. I know what I really want to do. From ‘Moxie’ (1st Atlantic crossing), to ‘Shockwave’ (OSTAR & back) to ‘Provu’ (One Woman, One Boat Exhibition) my dreams in truth are Multi; ORMA and Jules Verne.

The Spanish landscape presented a magnificent jagged line of mountains, silhouetted in haze. The wind was light and our progress intermittent. We were nearing Valencia and so my time on deck passed in full appreciation and ORMA worship. I peered at Foncia’s fittings and traced her lines, watching aft as she tore through the fabric of the sea. In the home run, we were back hitting the high notes with ‘Mama’ in the driving seat. ‘May I take her for just five minutes?’ I asked, to which he (understandably!) replied. ‘No!’ Then after a while, when ‘Mama’ began to tire, Foncia and I were holding hands again, terrorising the waves in front, ripping over them, dipping and nearly diving into others. Teetering on the brink, I found myself no longer afraid of her sudden will to accelerate, her seemingly never ending runs of speed. Foncia was a puppy, bounding along under my lead. I was starting to understand that ORMA feeling of exhilaration in all its complexity. And so it was nearly midnight when we rolled in on the swell to Valencia, to Port America’s Cup, past the commercial dock with all its bright lights, to be greeted by Alain Gautier. Walking away from the boat to the welcoming prospect of a beer, shower and bed, I had that spaced out feeling, like I’d been on another planet for a week; like I’d been on planet Foncia.