HUNKERED down in the darkness against the force of four-metre waves, it was a case of deja vu for half the six-man crew aboard the yacht JoXephine of Hongkong as they set out in last week's race to San Fernando in the Philippines. I was one of three crew veterans from the last biennial race across the South China Sea, when similar conditions split the boat's mast during the third night and forced us to retire. This time 57 vessels started out and only 48 made it to the finish line. Shortly after the start, two of the crew succumbed to the debilitating effects of sea sickness as the boat began pitching in the high seas. They went down soon after the engine's alternator died, making it impossible to charge the batteries needed to power the radio and night navigation lights during the 480 nautical mile race. It also made it impossible for me to make daily ship-to-shore calls back to the South China Morning Post with details of life aboard one of the smallest boats in the fleet. Some of the crew were worse off than others. ''All I could do was assume the foetal position in the cockpit and hope my condition would improve,'' said crewman Steen Andersen, on his first offshore voyage. The cold, 40-knot northeasterly wind howled for two solid days as the 9.9 metre, three tonne boat thrashed on its southeast course through the thundering waves. Split into two three-man shifts, life for crew members above deck was the most inhospitable. Despite the best designed foul weather gear, the sea's continuous lashing and eye-stinging spray left everyone waterlogged. Dry changes of clothes seldom lasted beyond the next wave. Secured by safety harnesses attached to lifelines running along the deck, each team sat in four-hour shifts on the windward edge to help balance the boat that was set at a 35-degree angle by the force of the wind. An occasional rampaging wave would flick one of us from the rail and send us tumbling to the other side of the deck in a frothy display of the sea's indifferent power. On the second night, a wave that deposited hundreds of litres of water into the cockpit brought with it an unsuspecting flying fish which flopped around to the crew's amusement until being help back overboard. There was little refuge below deck where the boat's constant pitching left a tangled pot-pourri of food supplies, wet clothing, spare sails and sloshing bilge water. The vibration of the wind racing through the rigging and the waves pounding on the hull were amplified in the cramped space below deck. As the boat headed south and the temperatures rose, the enclosed space became a steamy, dank quagmire described by boat owner and skipper Jon Neeves as the ''primal swamp''. Because the crew had little choice but to sleep in wet gear for the first part of the race, the cushioned bunks were soggy and condensation dripping from the cabin roof made sleeping difficult for all but the most exhausted aboard. One crew member, on the third day of the four-day race, swore to never go below deck again - and didn't. No one thought of food until the second day when stomachs got used to the tossing sea. Even then, the pre-packaged dry noodle soup - a main item on the boat's menu - was preferred raw. The effort of boiling water seemed too much. But as the crew grew toughened to the conditions, we could begin to enjoy the wonder of offshore sailing. Darting between forbidding waves during the day became a game. Those that we couldn't avoid we admired for their magnificent turquoise colour before their crests came crashing down around us. At night, phosphorescent sea life shimmered in our wake. When the heavens finally cleared for the final two days, a golden moon rose in the star-studded night sky. As the wind eased and the waves settled, schools of porpoise bounded about the boat, turning the water an emerald blue. All was right with the world, as JoXephine of Hongkong and its weary crew crossed the finish line in San Fernando on a clear morning on the fourth day and made their way to terra firma.