This is a quote from the master of ocean racing himself – Sir Robin Knox Johnston and it is oh so true! At the moment the fleet is spread over 25 miles and we are watching the boat in front of us very carefully. Why is Seattle going a little faster than us although we are both experiencing the same wind and sea conditions?
Setting our minds to the problem, we tweaked (a very technical nautical term!) everything in sight and we did indeed improve our speed and some of you may have noticed that during the day we moved up from last to 6th! I’m sure the skipper would say it was down to his strategy planning but I’m happy to stick with the excellent tactics of the crew! We have to be reviewing this all the time which requires a huge amount of drive and commitment. Maybe we are not the most competitive crew in the fleet but we certainly do not want to be continuously at the back and I am sure we will be taking Sir Robin’s advice more seriously as we drive on to Liverpool!
Having this in mind I thought you might like to read a little more about the crew and how it works on board. I hope I am not duplicating the story from others but we do not see their blogs so I trust this is informative for you.
Part of the secret is to have a united crew, especially as at the moment we are experiencing 45 knot winds which, together with very confused and turbulent seas means that not only do we have to look after ourselves more carefully by hanging on for dear life but we have to ensure all our evolutions for managing the boat are spot on and working synchronously with our crew mates. Not doing this is a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately there is a strong united bond on board our boat. I’m sure we all have our moments and can annoy our mates but overall we seem to work together well. So, how is our crew made up? Some numbers for you….
There are 17 on this leg – a skipper, a mate and 15 amateur sailors. Either the skipper or mate are on duty all the time and spread over the two “watch” system we use. This means that we have 8 on one watch and 7 on the one I am assigned to and these run the ongoing day-to-day operations of the boat.
Each watch works 6 hours during the day, 7am til 1 and 1 til 7pm. We then do 4 hour watches overnight and this seems to work well for us.
Each watch has carefully defined roles to fulfill which we all take turns to do on a rotating schedule. Each watch provides a ‘Mother’ and a ‘Navigator’ which, on my watch, leaves 5 of us to work up on deck. Of these 1 is always on the ‘Helm’ and another is close by as the ‘Check Helm’. This leaves 3, the ‘Pit Crew’, to manage all the ropes which operate the engine of the boat – the sails. Obviously the skipper/mate and the mother/navigator are there to help the deck crew as and when the circumstances demand – this is a daily occurrence especially in strong winds. The off-watch often help out with repacking spinnakers or complicated sail changes.
‘Mothers’ are responsible for producing 3 meals a day, baking bread and the occasional cake, washing up, providing drinks for everyone, keeping the galley clean and tidy and scrubbing the galley floor last thing at night. This is a full-on job and you are pretty exhausted at the end of it!
I mentioned in another blog that the term ‘Navigator’ is rather grandiose for what they actually do! Of course part of the roll is in the area of formal navigation but much is not! They monitor of course our passage, advise on possible collision risks from other boats, watch the radar screen for oncoming adverse weather and download, from Clipper in the UK, new fleet positions every 6 hours. They also empty the bilges, clean the general areas of the boat, keep the heads spotlessly clean, ensure the skipper emails in to Clipper his 12 hourly reports, wake up the on-coming crew and be the general dogsbody! Not an easy task – especially is rough seas!
The ‘Helm’ and ‘Check Helm’ are obviously responsible for steering the boat to a set course. We operate a strict 30 minute on-helm rotation system as one’s concentration drops off rapidly after that especially in strong winds. The Check Helm is there to ensure attention is maintained because the slightest deviation from course means we drop down the fleet order very quickly! In light winds most of us are able to take our turn on the helm but as the conditions become more difficult then experience is very important, especially when flying spinnakers!
The ‘Pit Crew’ are rather like pit ponies in that they do all the grunt work on deck! They bring up the next sail needed from the sail locker, attach them to the stays, raise them, tack and gybe as well as lower and repack them into their bags and then back down into the sail locker. The lucky ones that go up to the bow who then raise and lower sails do tend to get very wet in all but the calmest seas. I see that as the role of the younger crew members and stay well clear – age and experience does bring wisdom! On top of this, after every sail evolution we must carefully tidy up all the ropes to avoid problems on the next evolution. I mentioned in another blog that we changed sails 7 times in a 70 minute time period on one watch on the way up to Airlie Breach but on other occasions we might have no changes for a couple of days!
The life of the pit crew can be quite boring as there can be a great deal of sitting around waiting for someone to shout ‘sail change’ or ‘reef in/out’ and then it is hectic for 20 – 30 minutes. The boring spells are usually when we are not flying the spinnakers as then there is very little to do between evolutions. But with a spinnaker flying one member has to hold the sheet and another sits in readiness at the grinder as spinnakers need constant attention to prevent them disastrously wrapping themselves around the stays. The third member of the pit crew sits at the Vang in readiness to release it if the end of the boom dips into the water as we heel over to far. As you might imagine this situation means everyone on our watch is occupied all the time with no relief!
(Last night was a wild one and the boat was crashing through some very high seas. Just imagine trying to sleep, let alone sail, through all the noise and crashing as 30 tons of boat finds itself with nothing underneath it and thuds down into the next wave trough! These boats are incredibly strong and any normal cruiser would be smashed to pieces!)
That’s the life of the ocean racer!
In what might be one of my last blogs on the wonderful adventure I’d like to thank my wife, Mary, for putting up with me for 48 years and allowing me to take on this wild and particularly stupid trip at my age! Also my heartfelt thanks go out to all my family and those friends that have supported me throughout. Also thank you to the anonymous donors to my Just Giving Rwanda Aid sponsorship. Sadly I don’t know who you are so cant thank you personally but it’s much appreciated.