When the 13-tonne racing yacht I was crewing started spinning backwards faster than we had been sailing forwards, I knew this was not going to be an average regatta. We were in the grip of a whirlpool.
It was nearing midnight and we were 150 miles into the Rolex Middle Sea Race, in the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the boot of Italy. I had stayed awake after my watch to see the waters that Homer had described as the graveyard of boats.
I thought it was just a Greek myth that immortalised this place as home to Scylla, the six-headed monster who devoured sailors, and Charybdis, the original bad girl whom Zeus struck with a lightning bolt that changed her into a ship-swallowing vortex. Though I’d grown up sailing, earning my skipper’s certificate in Southampton, I’d never seen indications for whirlpools on any chart. That changed dramatically in the Mediterranean.
What brought us amateurs together was a passionate love of sailing that meant we jumped at the chance to join Peter when he entered Innovation in the annual Middle Sea Race round the islands of Stromboli, Lampedusa and Sicily. Ted Turner, founder of CNN and America’s Cup skipper, described it as the most beautiful sailing course in the world.
No one was laughing the night of the whirlpool in the Strait of Messina. We had light winds and Peter had nosed Innovation around the last headland of the narrow waterway when suddenly we began spinning backwards in a rapid series of 360-degree turns. The skipper turned the steering wheel every which way to no avail. I sat there mesmerised: how do you get out of a whirlpool? British sang-froid reigned supreme. Chris Winnington-Ingram, an engineer, poked his head into the cockpit and said: “I thought I should come up when I saw the moon go backwards. Twice. At speed.”
The skipper could have ended the drama by powering out of the whirlpool, but if you turn on a motor in a race you have to quit. Peter is not the retiring kind. So we spun around out of control until the whirlpool finally spat us out — directly into the path of an Italian ferry. Our necks craned upward at the black bow towering above us in the moonlight. It looked like something out of Star Wars bearing down on us. Lex Woodley, founder of a west London building firm, raced below and came back on deck with two burning white flares, holding them high to alert the ferry we were in its path. It changed course, narrowly missing us.
Danger averted, a day later Innovation was flying along at 27 knots in a Force 9 gale, now one of the leading boats in the Middle Sea Race. Then the 100ft mainsail came crashing down on deck. This race was starting to feel like a real-life Odyssey. [...]