Now I have the time and space to look back on my adventure I see quite clearly just how mad I must have been to have embarked on such an exercise. It was most certainly not for the faint-hearted and proved, in places, more exhilarating and tougher than anything I imagined.
I have purposely taken a step back since returning to allow my brain to absorb everything that happened out there. When re-reading the first draft of ‘my reflections’ I quickly determined that I needed to make them more honest which unfortunately further delayed my sending them out but I hope you still find them of interest even after such a delay!
I also make no apology for my summary being somewhat lengthy, I just want to capture as many of the myriad of thoughts still rushing around my brain and hope they can entertain you and help future potential crew as they use the internet to find out about ‘The Race of their Lives’.
Before I left I was asked by several people if I would come and present the highlights of my adventure to their various clubs/friends/organisations – I am very happy to do this so please get in touch and I am sure we will be able to find a date.
Also, many thanks to all those that have donated to my charity – Rwanda Aid. This is a great cause and any further donations will be most gratefully received.
So, why did I embark on this adventure?
Fundamentally, the primary answer to this question is because “I do not want to grow old gracefully”. Having retired some 8 years previously I found my life was getting into a rut and I was lacking both intellectual and physical challenges.
It was time to break the status quo and time to find out what is really important in my life.
Time to sign up for “The Race of My Life”. But perhaps I should have discussed this with the wife before I signed up!
What were the highlights?
- The strong bond the crew built amongst one another. I discuss elsewhere the issue of the fractured relationship between crew and skipper but the crew was undoubtedly the highlight of this adventure. My watch not only worked well together on deck but also strongly supported one another whenever problems cropped up or heads went down. We all had our downtime, tiredness, homesickness, interpersonal relationships, fear, yet the rest of the watch rapidly rallied around in support and for that, I give thanks to one and all.
- The Sydney/Hobart race. As we went through the Sydney Heads 4 miles after the start of the race we were in our usual position at the back of the pack – in fact, 95th out of 104 starters and we were totally dispirited and despondent – how on earth could we mess it up so quickly? We resigned ourselves to yet another disappointing race but then suddenly we heard “MayDay, MayDay, Mayday” and our world completely changed.
I have mentioned before that Clipper’s training is exemplary and in particular the Man Overboard drills we undertook at least once a day during the 4-week training program proved their absolute worth. Within 30 seconds the skipper looked at the crew and clearly said: “Right, we are going to get him”. At that moment we all smoothly and quietly slipped into the roles we had trained for so many times. What surprised me was that this time there was no nervous shuffling around, wondering what we should do or where we should be, just a wonderful feeling of professionalism and confidence.
When the call came through we were flying a full set of white sails in a good wind but going in the opposite direction to the casualty some one and a half miles away.
13 minutes later the MOB was safely on our deck thankfully unharmed.
Our heads came up and pride spread through the boat and everything we did for the next 4 days seemed to work exactly to plan. The rest is history – not only did we play a major part in rescuing a fellow sailor in distress but we went on to win the Clipper Division of the world’s most prestigious sailing race; The Sydney to Hobart.
It doesn’t get much better than that! My thanks for the race organising committee for the excellent recognition we were given and to our fellow clipper race crews for their support.
- Simon’s Memorial Service. Leg 3 was a disaster and extremely nerve-wracking for us Leggers about to join our boats. Not only did we have Greenings running into a reef in the dead of night; the broken arm and smashed finger on our boat; the medivac on Great Britain but Simon Spiers lost his life in a most terrible accident which almost resulted in the entire race being cancelled by the MAIB.
I take my hat off to the Clipper organisation for the efforts they made to set up a wonderful memorial service for Simon in the grounds of the Freemantle Sailing Club. There were several hundred people there and it was beamed directly to Simon’s family back home in the UK via Facebook. It hit exactly the right tone, it was moving, it was emotional and there was not a dry eye amongst the attendees.
(The MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Board) removed Clipper’s licence to ocean race but relented once each boat had a second professionally qualified ‘mate’ assigned)
4.) The sky at night. Occasionally here at home we get a reasonably clear night and manage to see the magnificent panoply the nighttime sky can offer. But out in the middle of the ocean there is minimal ambient light and we were treated so often to the full glory of what mankind has so little understanding of. Our crew still spent hours at night speculating on the unknown – the myriad of thoughts that so many before us have had and we too were left in total wonderment.
- The fishing fleets off Taiwan. I describe this phenomenal sight elsewhere but I will try to paraphrase it here for you.
It is night time and all you can see up on deck is dozens of boat lights – fishing boats. We counted 70 boats spread around us over a 5 mile radius and we were completely surrounded. Some were working individually and some dragging huge trawl nets between them. We came across drift nets extending for up to half a mile in length and totally unattended. Our passage required massive concentration both on the helm and at the Nav Station in order to pick our way through the mayhem! It took us 2 – 3 hours to get clear only to meet up with another fishing fleet an hour or so later and it all started all over again. We slept well after those watches!
It is worth recounting the many things that I had not really expected when setting out. Had I thought about it a little more or done more research the following might not have been a surprise so I note them for all future Clipper adventurers!
- The cost of in-port time between races. I did 2 legs – 4 & 5 but in reality, participated in 5 separate races with the implied stopover periods in between each. These ranged from 6 days through to 12 days and the costs of food, accommodation and entertainment during these times is not covered by your race fees. In practice most of us did not want to stay on the boat in-port and so we had to find accommodation.
My advice is to sort this out before you leave or at least have an on-shore supporter helping you out. Remember, you cannot fix the date you get into port so you need to be as flexible as you can with arrival dates, changing them at the last minute if possible – but that’s not practical for those on the boat!
Sharing costs is significantly more cost effective but trying to get others to commit can be like herding feral cats!
Having a shared house also reduces food costs as you are not always eating in restaurants plus it is much more convenient just to fall out of bed and grab something from the fridge! I used Airbnb extensively and was very pleased with the results. Uber (DiDi in China) is also the crew mate’s best friend and saves a fortune. Using a local SIM in port is another very good cost saver.
We used WhatsApp (WeChat in China) for crew communications which was very effective. We started by setting up a different WhatsApp groups for each stopover but, personally, I felt this was a mistake as those at home missed out on what was going on. I would urge future crews not to do this as those not on the boat need and deserve to be ‘included’ and it is a great way to build a team.
- The lack of wild life. Again, I have described this elsewhere but suffice it to say that we saw very little out there in the ocean.
- Boredom on watch. Be prepared for sailing on a single tack for hours, if not days, at a time. There is very little for those not involved in helming to do during these times and it can get very boring!
- The length of time it took me to feel I was contributing to the watch. I am naturally a reserved person and it takes me a long time to come out of my shell especially in new company. However, I completely underestimated how long it took for me to turn my technical sailing skills into team skills with the other members of my watch.
This was partially due to my brain having significantly slowed down since I retired but also due to the steep learning curve associated with racing a thoroughbred machine like the Clipper 70s In practice I think I only really added value after leg 4, so for single leggers I’m not sure that they ever get the buzz of feeling a real part of the team.
There is a difference between Round the Worlders and Leggers but I have to say the welcome and support I received from CV23’s RTWers was magnificent and helped make the adventure so good. Again, my thanks to them.
Do not underestimate the potential impact that an extended sailing trip can have on your personal hygiene. Your normal routines are significantly disrupted; sleep patterns; the environment you operate in; the weather and your diet soon moves you out of a sensible regime. I suffered with a wide range of issues such as….
– Heat rash
– Reaction to the mattress cover provided by Clipper – that was bad news and took ages to clear
– Hand and feet problems caused by exposure to seawater and they both suffer.
– Yachtie bottie – caused by sitting on a hot deck and wet clothes
– Crutch rash – caused by sweat and/or wet underwear (sorry about that!)
– The normal range of bumps and bruises together with muscle strains
– I picked up an infection in one knee which felt like I was kneeling on broken glass – still trying to get rid of it!
– However much I tried to keep my teeth clean, washing them without fresh water is rather limiting and they need professional attention after 4 months!
You will be strongly dependant on wet wipes so you need to take a good supply and use regularly. Notwithstanding this, when on a hot leg you will be soaked again within 5 minutes so you do wonder why you bothered!
Having a seawater shower can be a bit of a relief but only temporarily for the same reason. You will get 1 litre of fresh water to rinse with if you are lucky! We had a diesel shortage so no fresh water for washing at all on that hot leg!
The best advice I can give is to NEVER sleep in wet underwear or socks. I had 3 sets on the go at all times hanging up over my bunk and mostly they dried out.
Roll-on deodorants are a godsend for your fellow crew and you can pretend that you do not really smell too bad for a few minutes!
The revelation of the trip for me was the discovery of Aloe Vera – as a treatment for heat issues and minor irritations it was second to none and even our on-board medic was impressed and stocked up with it for following legs.
A good hand cream is essential – for both hands and feet! A very kind Airbnb landlady took one look at my hands, took pity, and gave me a tube of “Eudermin” a Spanish rehydrating cream that worked absolute wonders. Available on the internet. 2.5 euros!
I know the dangers are drummed into us from day one of our training but when on board there can be a tendency to let standards slip with the “it won’t matter just this once if I’m not tethered” attitude creeping in.
Three people have died, there have been numerous man-overboard instances, all boats have multiple occurrences of broken arms, ribs, fingers etc., and there have already been 3 emergency medivacs on this race. It is not for the feint hearted.
The number 1 Clipper SOP (Standard Operating Procedure – or ‘rules’) is that each of us has to take full responsibility for our own safety and thoroughly respect the rules and I had to remind myself of this several times. It is also interesting to note that others always reacted very positively being reminded of this when their own protection wavered.
Below deck this becomes a greater problem as there are no real guidelines and nowhere to tether! At 45 degrees, moving around can be exacting, time-consuming and physically exhausting. Add to that the irregular pitching and rolling and you can see the problem! Every movement has to be planned and trips to the loo can take much longer than when on the flat! Many injuries are sustained below deck – so beware!
I was never concerned that the boat could not handle the conditions that deep ocean racing throws at you. They are amazingly strong and fill you with confidence but the sea and the weather are another matter. Yes, on occasions I was frightened; being tethered on the low side of the boat and being hit by a wave coming over the deck knocking me flying; losing my footing on one of the many ropes and hitting the guard rail, slipping when attempting to sweat up a sail and being thrown around below deck by a rogue wave or unannounced tack. You must never lose that sense of caution, always be aware of what is happening around you and be prepared for anything because that is exactly what WILL happen. As group leader on another trip once said: “This is not a Disney Ride – you could die”. So, take care – please.
One of the most frequently asked questions is “how do you put up with the snoring on board?” Let me assure you this is the least of your worries! Snoring pales into insignificance in comparison to everything else that wedges itself between you and a good night’s rest!
I was given two pieces of advice before setting out…
– Take every opportunity to get as much sleep as you can as you will take time to get used to the new conditions and the watch pattern and you will quickly get worn out.
– In your mind tell yourself “that annoying noise is actually a good noise and is keeping you safe”.
Getting your brain to see all these as ‘good things’ really does help and once mastered they become white noise and you can get excellent rest. My youngest son has a great saying when I moan about something, he says “Get over it father” and do you know what, he is right, we all moan about far too many little things that, in the main, we can do very little about and anyway, I knew what I was letting myself in for as soon as I signed the contract. So, I got over it and had a much better time!
I am lucky in that I can usually sleep anywhere at any time but these two were absolute gems for me. When in your bunk you are surrounded by noise; the on-watch talking and moving around with size 10 sailing boots; screaming winches in constant use only a few inches above your head; slack sheets (ropes) banging on the deck; the generator recharging the batteries; the slamming of the boat as it crashes down from the peak of one wave into the trough of the next and oh yes, the gentle snoring of a crew mate!
Getting used to the 6 on, 6 off, 4 on, 4 off and 4 on watch pattern does take a few days but you do get used to it. However, the relentless “Eat, Sail, Sleep” cycle really does take its toll! It is a relentless grind and it is hard to keep reminding yourself that you are taking part in a race and that’s all that matters. You are not on a cruise and downtime is very rare and on the odd occasion you get any, make the most of it!
The bunks are narrow and there is very little headroom as you will have a crewmate only a matter of inches above or below you. Hygiene is a very important issue and you do need to take precautions where you can. Falling into your bunk recently vacated by a very sweaty colleague can be interesting! I was lucky as a friend made a mattress cover for me and I made very good use of it – do be sure to take one.
In addition to the mattress cover, I took a single sheet and this was brilliant on the hot legs when the sleeping bag was never taken out. It does allow a modicum of modesty to be maintained when wearing very little!
One of the best things I took was a chunky 6”, battery powered, fan. This was a pucker camping fan truly fit for purpose – this became the new ‘love of my life’ on the hot legs and I eagerly took it to bed with me every time, holding it over my ‘glowing’ head and torso desperately trying to reduce my core temperature. It worked exceptionally well and I really benefitted from it. I did not use rechargeable batteries, too much of a fag trying to jostle with all the phones and tablets! Cheaper and easier to replace the standard batteries between legs – but always carry spares!
On half the races I was fortunate in having a bunk to myself but even so on the other legs when sharing, the hot-bunking principle worked well when your buddy was sensibly disciplined/organised. Having a partner that did not use a mattress cover or left sweaty clothes all over the place soon gets on your nerves and needs ‘discussing’ very early on!
Every now and then you hear from above the call “tacking”! (This effectively means that whereas one moment your bunk is sloping at 45 degrees to port the next moment it will be rolling over to 45 degrees to starboard.) This can be interesting as, if you are not on your game, you can easily be thrown out of bed! There is a pulley system conveniently located at you head which is designed specifically for this. However, this takes quite a lot of effort and strength. Whilst I was strong enough to do this whilst staying in my bunk, many others had to get out to do it. A real pain and sleep disturber as this can happen quite frequently especially when dodging in and out and around fleets of fishing vessels!
And on a final note, sleeping on the hot legs brings its own additional challenges! There is no getting around it but, you sweat. Profusely. And putting it bluntly lying in a bunk with 15” clearance above you and no air circulation is somewhat of a pain! It is rather like trying to sleep in a sauna. You also have to take extra personal hygiene precautions on these legs – do not let symptoms go unattended. Do not go to bed in wet clothes and do everything you can to dry stuff, especially underwear and socks. In practice you have three ways of doing this; put them under your sleeping bag as you go to bed, hang them up above your head or, if you have a good relationship with your chief engineer, put them in the engine room – that works very well, but don’t tell the skipper or anyone else as it will soon get very full and the option will be removed!
What you see
This was a major surprise as we saw very little whilst sailing across some of the world’s greatest oceans. Considering our visible ‘patch’ when on the boat was some 30 square miles, it was a mystery to all of us why we saw so little! Well, with one amazing exception, but more of that later!
We spent hour after hour seeing absolutely nothing and we all marvelled at the extent of the world’s oceans and how omnipresent ‘water’ is on our planet. The deepest trenches are deeper than Mount Everest is tall; there are 333 million cubic miles of it, of which only 8 million cubic miles are fresh water. In many areas on the ocean we are closer to the International Space Station than to other human life.
Yet we seem to make so little use of it as was apparent throughout our travels. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit (or ingenuity) of man to harness this ubiquitous resource?
All we seem to be doing is threatening nature’s fragile balance through global warming and pollution, and although our generation will not have to live with the consequences it will not be too long before we wreck that balance and the impact will be beyond our comprehension.
This is so easily demonstrated by the fact that the most frequent thing we saw was rubbish! And that was only what we could see on the surface and there is obviously tonnes more of it beneath, out of sight.
Every few minutes we would pass lumps of polystyrene, plastic, fishing floats, buoys, drums and other detritus. It was almost as if they were lining our path showing us the route to our next destination, but I assure you that crews on other boats experienced the same thing!
Notwithstanding this sad sight we were visited by some wild life and as I mentioned before, the only surprising thing was how little of it there was.
Firstly I have to confess that I am no “twitcher” and I freely admit that my knowledge of bird species is absolutely limited to ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ but I will try to do my best! Most days, however far out to sea we were, we had the occasional bird for company – but rarely more than one or two at a time. Three highlights come to mind:-
– An albatross not only circled us for quite some time one day but it then landed alongside and what a treat it was to then watch its huge labours as it lumbered back up into the air. A sight not seen by many and most memorable.
– A flock (yes, a rare occasion where we had loads of them!) of Gannets (or maybe Cormorants or Loons or….) diving into the ocean from a great height in chase of their next meal re-emerging several seconds later, many with fish in their beaks!
– Flying fish. Now what is the point of flying fish? They have to be one of the thickest fish out there in the ocean. Many landed on our deck and one or two also made very effective dive bombers, hitting crew members and giving both parties a great fright I am sure! We had several in-depth highly philosophical night-time discussions trying to decide just why they do ‘fly’. Sadly I have to report that none of us came up with a sensible suggestion. (Subsequent research on Google and with friends suggests they use flying to avoid predators, not too effective if you then get stranded on our deck!)
Much to my chagrin ‘the other watch’ were visited by what they assured us were two magnificent pilot whales. Now, we only have their word for this but as they were our crew mates we were prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt- but they could have shouted down to us!
Our watch had the odd visitation by dolphins, usually 2 or 3 and only on one occasion did we have a visit by a pod of more than 30. They arrived at the boat in small groups from every direction as if they were meeting up for a family reunion or coffee morning in the local Costa! I am told they were all ‘Common Dolphins’ and much smaller than I expected them to be. They loved racing alongside and under the boat and usually stayed with us for several minutes having fun playing in our bow wave. But whilst sailing some 12,000 miles we probably were only visited 10 – 12 times.
We had one rather strange coincidence off the coast of Tasmania. During the Sydney -> Hobart race we hit something quite large on the way down and then, low and behold, on the way back in that same area we hit something once again! We are not sure what we hit but on both occasions we saw something quite large thrashing around off our stern immediately afterwards. I hope we did not cause lasting damage and doubly hope it was not the same poor beast!
Apart from wild life and rubbish we did have other memorable sights:-
– The night sky could be amazing and on many nights the detail was so intense that what we thought was just another passing cloud was actually The Milky Way in its most glorious finery. It is no wonder the sailors of yore came up with so many apocryphal sea stories and shanties about the star constellations – they had so much time on their hands traversing strange and frightening oceans and were understandably so superstitious. Our GPS based ‘apps’ for the ‘sky at night’ worked overtime and were a good addition to the packing list!
– We saw the occasional aeroplane – usually at night and usually when closer to land and I am sure one evening we watched a satellite pass overhead!
– Marine traffic was plentiful and sometimes very inquisitive. One boat altered course towards us and slowed right down to watch us pass! It must have been a wonderful sight as we were flying the massive Code 3 spinnaker and whizzing along! On several occasions, we were in radio contact with other vessels (of all sizes) and it is interesting to note that most boats would change course for us to pass safely, following the time honoured maxim of ‘Motor gives way to sail’! It was the exception where we had to take avoiding action. On one occasion we could not raise contact with the oncoming vessel – perhaps they were having a good dinner down below! We crossed many shipping lanes which was quite interesting and it was our responsibility to do so with the minimum of impact on boats already there. A very careful lookout was really needed at these times.
I mentioned at the start of this piece that there was one exception to the lack of things we saw and this was truly amazing to behold! I am talking about the fishing fleets around Taiwan. As we left Sanya, en-route for Qingdao, we were warned about these but nothing we were told came anywhere the real thing!
Please let your imagination roam – it is pitch dark with virtually no moon and suddenly your radar presents you with this image……
This is an area of some 25 square miles and we are the orange boat in the middle of the picture! These are all fishing boats and there was in excess of 70 of them and we have to plot a course to get safely through them.
Not as easy as you might think as not all boats are carrying AIS markers and therefore do not show up on the screen; some boats work in pairs hauling huge trawling nets between them; some are drift nets up to half a mile in length – and you do not know where they start and where they finish. Nor do you know how much clearance there is between the top of the nets and the surface!
It is impossible to avoid everything and several of our colleagues became entangled and it took great effort to get rid of the encumbrance and continue sailing. One boat was even being ‘hauled in’ by the mother fishing boat but luckily got free before being gutted and deep frozen on board! We did pick up a piece of fishing net but that was elsewhere and although we dragged it along for a day or so we eventually managed to get it off the rudder with the help of a bread knife gaffer taped to the boat hook and the skipper being dangled over the side!
This fishing happens every night and begs the question “How can there be any fish left in the sea in this area?” It is truly crazy and maybe our EU rules to restrict fishing in our own waters is the right way to go.
This is probably the most difficult section that I will write about my trip. I discuss elsewhere the fantastic fellow crew members I had on both legs 4 and 5 but I cannot avoid writing about the difficulties we had with our skipper. Firstly, I have to say several other boat also had problems in this regard and I am not suggesting our experience was any the worse than theirs. However, I do feel that the Clipper organisation needs to pay significantly more attention to the recruitment of their skippers. I fully understand that the safety of the boat and crew must come first and I am sure they are all first class sailors, but this skill has to be blended in with the ability to build a solid, efficient and happy crew. It seems that the fact that the crew are the customers here, paying not insignificant amounts to participate, is being overlooked.
One key skill was severely lacking in our skipper – man management. It meant that we had a real rift between skipper and the rest of the crew which was not resolved by the time I left the boat at the end of leg 5. I do not intend to go into full details but the impact was that the crew did not get fully involved with the day-to-day running of the boat, as there was a pervasive climate of fear and we did not want to get ranted at in a very personal way.
There were obviously frustrations on both sides but to be told “the crew is lazy” at a review session I feel amply demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how to motivate and build a team.
It was interesting to see that in no small way did this hamper the rest of the amateur crew bonding extremely strongly and many solid long lasting friendship have been built.
I do hope that on the remaining legs the crew are able to find a way of overcoming this problem and thoroughly enjoy a more successful set of race results which I am sure will happen with a strong, unified ‘team’. (Addendum; I have spoken to some of the RTWers after leg 6 and I am pleased to hear that they have now insisted on a new, joint, approach to deciding day-to-day tactics and ended up 4th!)
Life on board is rather like that of a boarding school and most people soon learn to fit in. Nevertheless, we all have bad days whether it is for lack of sleep; emotions; misunderstandings; injuries or rows. We were very lucky in that our crew were exceptionally perceptive to others’ bad days and united strongly and quickly to help them get back on track. We were also very lucky in that we had no-one on board that did not fit in.
For those thinking of embarking on this adventure
Before you leave. “The Race of Your Life” will become all-consuming from the moment you sign up and to ensure you get the most out of it I thoroughly recommend you throw yourself fully into every aspect of your adventure. But, beware, you must not underestimate the impact this will have on those friends and family around you. You will most probably become intensely focused – tunnel-visioned even – and this could become a real issue.
I would recommend reading “The Crossing” written by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell. This is the story of their rowing race across the Atlantic and the impact it had not only on them but also on their supporters at home. The role of the Supporter must not be underestimated – my wife’s attitude to the expedition totally changed when she read it and she became a real part of the overall preparation and participation. For me, it made all the tough stuff thrown at you whilst at sea just that little bit easier to handle knowing someone back home understood and was actively supporting you – albeit remotely!
Know your limitations. This race is not for everyone but that is not to say that most of us can’t play an active and constructive role on board in some way or another. It is essential that you know your limitations and I learned mine quite early on in training. What I initially put down to lack of agility (probably due to old age!) meant I was not able to move around the boat easily, especially in heavier weather. In fact, I have a balance issue rather than an agility problem, which meant that in front of the mast was not something I was comfortable doing – so I did not. I discussed and agreed this with my skipper before we left which was most important. In practice I did have a conscience about this as my crewmates were the ones that were hanging on for grim death and getting soaking wet whilst I remained in the pit.
Get Involved. I would thoroughly recommend getting involved with as many aspects of the race as possible:-
– Crew Allocation gives you your first taste of what will become your ‘Clipper Family’ and all the training suddenly starts to become real – it is the start of the journey!
– The Team Building Weekend is an excellent event and where you start to get to know your fellow crew compatriots. One of the best outcomes from our weekend at a girl guides camp deep in the Sussex countryside was a clear statement of what we all wanted out of it. It is interesting to recall these now that I’ve completed my participation:-
– To get around safely and not to have to win at all costs
– To continuously improve our sailing skills and become more and more effective as a crew
– To have fun and come back remaining friends
It took the 37 of us that attended the weekend no more than 2 hours discussion to arrive at these goals and it is interesting to note that at the end of leg 5 when I left these still remained our core focus and were generally accepted by one and all. Other boats had a greater degree of competitiveness which might well have something to do with us not regularly being at the front of the fleet!
In practice, well up until the end of leg 5, although we were not a very successful racing team we managed to deliver on each of these. (Ok, so we did have a few broken bones but in comparison to other boats we had minimal problems in that regard).
– I felt it important to have some form of role on the boat and as all the ‘on-board’ roles are obviously filled by Round the Worlders I managed to play an active part in the Crew Fund set up and organisation. I found this made me feel much more part of ‘the team’.
Do Your Research. There is loads of information out there on the internet and I strongly recommend doing as much research as possible, as early as possible. Firstly, you will gain a bit of an understanding of what you are letting yourself in for plus you will more clearly understand where to spend your money on kit. This point I build on in another section. One piece of advice is do not buy too much too early as you will gradually learn more and more about just what is important and what is not.
Cookery. Do learn how to bake bread, nothing too fancy, just good old fashioned loaves as these are a very important part of daily life. When food became scarce on a couple of races we were baking 4 loaves a day and everyone took their turn to do so!
Basic cooking skills are pretty important too. Again I’m not talking fancy stuff as most meals are ‘two pot specials’. One for rice/pasta/potatoes and the other for the concoction of the day, a stew or stir-fry or whatever we have left over!
Fit Out Week. The week before the boats leave for the start host port (Liverpool in our case) is known as ‘Fit Out Week’ and is a great time to get to know your boat intimately. I was only able to be there for a few hours delivering crew fund purchases but I know those that were there longer got a lot from it.
Delivery. Volunteers are sought to deliver the boat from Gosport up to Liverpool and that can be a good experience/team building opportunity, although this year one crew member that had signed up for the whole trip got off in Liverpool – delivery showed him that the experience was just not for him!
Social Meetings. The Clipper organisation hosts alumni sessions, this year at The Little Ship Club, in London which is a great opportunity to build relationships with your own crew as well as talk to returning crew from previous races/legs. Well worth getting to if you can.
– And finally, when on board throw yourself into everything, if you see something that needs doing then just get on with it. You will become the RTWers best friends very quickly! Remember, you are there for the whole experience and it is NOT a cruise.
Getting fit is an essential part of your preparation and start your training program as early as possible. I was reasonably fit but increased the intensity during my gym visits but made one mistake in that I did not pay enough attention to upper body strength. In practice your legs get minimal work out as most of the work is associated with arms, back and stomach muscles. On-board you will be pushed to the limit – the coffee-grinders are a real test and advanced training is pretty much essential.
Part of getting fit was to lose weight which I fared pretty well at. However, I was advised to pile on the carbs in the month before I left so as to have plenty of reserves as I would need them when racing. Never a truer word said in jest – I lost 16kg over the two legs and would have lost more had it not been for stocking up during the stopovers!
These boats are designed to handle just about anything that deep ocean racing can throw at them and at no time did I feel unsafe when sailing on them. They lapped up 60+kt winds’ and falling off the crest of 30ft waves into the troughs below. The hammering of the ever-changing winds into the huge racing sails was impressive and enthralling to behold. My simplistic description is that sailing a Clipper beast is akin to racing an F1 car in comparison to a Ford Focus. It requires a minimum of 4 people to run her at any one time – but 6 is better! It requires strong teamwork and, trying to sail her single-handed, would be almost impossible for any length of time.
However, these boats are definitely a tale of two parts.
Part 1 – On Deck
The sailing equipment is well designed, equipped and laid out as are the associated electronics. The in-port support for replacing anything broken is impressive in the main, although our standing rigging was reported as being a problem several times before anything was really done about it.
Part 2 – Below Deck
This is a totally different story and, in my opinion, the design below deck was done as an afterthought and with a very limited budget. I refer to leaks, flooded bilges and poor plumbing and lack of prober bailing pumps. I could add many more ‘moans’ but I’m sure Sir Robin would just put this down to ’It’s all part of the experience’. However, I would counsel this as being too far down the ‘roughing it’ road and would be a significant turn off for many potential paying customers and is unnecessary.
If You Are Not Trimming You Are Not Racing
This is absolutely true and something that we as a crew did not properly build into our daily sailing strategy much to our detriment. However, I discuss elsewhere the problems between crew and the skipper, which was a major reason for not being better at focussing more strongly at sail settings and accurate helming.
Was this the only reason we were never really in contention for race honours? (Sydney/Hobart apart) Did we have the correct strategy & tactics from the skipper? Perhaps we overreacted to changing circumstances too readily? Were we just not a competitive crew? Were the problems with the standing rigging tension a significant contribution? Perhaps we will never know but I truly hope the remaining legs prove more effective and rewarding. (Leg 6 is looking better – well done guys!).
As I write leg 6 is in its 12th day and the boats have completed 1800 miles of the 5500 mile route and the first 7 boats are separated by 44 miles! The title of this section is a direct quote from Sir Robin and can be easily demonstrated by the following examples:-.
– Attention to setting the correct sail position can mean a significant increase in speed – for simplicity let’s just say a good sail adjustment could mean an increase in 0.5kt speed. This would give your boat an extra 12nm covered per day!
– For every 1 degree off course we steer means we are 1 mile away from our goal after an hour’s sailing. That’s 24nm in a day!
It doesn’t take too much of our imagination to work out the impact of this and how each crew must work hard to match other’s progress and how easy it could be to make a real difference!
However, I must add a word of caution as paying too much attention to being too competitive might mean the crew’s attention is taken off the aspect of safety which can have disastrous results as we see from leg 3.
Food on Board
Food on board is of fundamental importance – it is something everyone looks forward to at the end of each watch, it is warming; it replenishes spent energy; it is a great opportunity for relaxed conversation (usually!) and it can also be a cause for dissatisfaction!
Getting it slightly wrong can be highly demotivating and there has to be a careful balance between what is possible and pleasing everyone all the time!
Each crew member is allocated a budget of £3.50 a day – yes, for all three meals, snacks and drinks! It is the unenviable task of the boat’s victualler to plan and purchase meals for the whole leg before setting off. An interesting task when in a strange country and made even more difficult when in somewhere like China!
Our victualler did a great job and even if they hadn’t, there was no way anyone would say so as we were such a tightly bonded team with a classic ‘one for all and all for one ‘spirit. The same goes for the meals provided by those on Mother Duty each day. Mothers are on duty effectively from 5.30am through until 8.30pm and are given a ‘daily bag’ of food items to be creative with. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are there and it is up to you what to cook. Raiding ingredients from other bags is an absolute no-no. Some Mothers love to cook spicy dishes whilst others like to let crew members add their own ‘additions’ – this is rather important towards the end of each race as ingredients become somewhat limited and often very bland!
Fresh vegetables and fruit cease to be edible after some 10 days at sea and it is fascinating to see what you can do with Smash! (Didn’t know that was still around!). Snacks (crisps, sweets, biscuits, chocolate) need to be available 24 hours a day and hot drinks are essential ‘on request’ to make tough on-watch duties easier.
Practicing your cooking skills before you leave is a great idea! You don’t need to be a Cordon Bleu cook but having the basics is really a bonus. Understanding how long to cook pasta for and how to bake a loaf will help!
It is all well and good practicing at home in your own kitchen but just consider knocking up a stir-fry when the boat is travelling at 12 knots under white sails (that means not flying spinnakers) with the boat leaning over at a 45 degree angle! That’s a challenge for anyone especially when frequent tacking is the order of the day! It is not peeling potatoes or trying to spread butter and jam on toast that is the issue – just try to lay out 16 bowls, jam pots, butter, milk, cereals, coffee, tea, sugar, spoons, knives, cups, porridge, and the toaster on a stainless steel work surface 30” x 18” whilst the boat is trying to imitate a bucking bronco. It is a work of art and only for people with the patience of Job. Many a time did we have everything everywhere and never a complaint when some nourishing food item was scraped off an innocent kettle, milk bottle or wall and represented on a welcome piece of warm toast. And that’s only breakfast!
It is interesting to note that you soon learn to ‘like’ food that you would not normally eat. Your body craves calories and adapts to boat food as a necessity. However, I still question the relevance of couscous as ‘food’! Nevertheless, although Clipper claim to provide 5000 calories a day I am not convinced we get anywhere near that
The boat weighs 33 tons, is 90’ tall and 70’ long
She can sleep 23 but 16 is much better!
They are built in China and the lead time for a new one is around 6 months. (No decision has been made on replacing Greenings and it may not be because it would be a ‘new boat’ and therefore better/faster than the rest of the fleet and therefore not ‘evenly matched’)
This is their 3rd trip around the world, they will definitely do 2 more and might even do a 6th.
They carry 11 different sails:
- Main Sail (with 3 reefs)
- Storm Sail
- Storm Jib
- Yankee 1, 2 & 3
- Code 1, 2 & 3 Spinnakers
The most sail changes I did was 7 in 70 minutes!
The fresh water maker generates 20l of fresh water an hour
The race is split into 8 legs and 13 races, points being awarded for placings in each race.
On leg 6 they recorded winds of 87 knots and 14 meter seas!
There are two groups of people amongst the crew – those going around the world – the “Round the Worlders” (RTWers) and the “Leggers”. The key operational roles on-board are allocated amongst the RTWers and they are given additional training by Clipper :-
- Navigator Coxwain
- Medic Victualler
- Engineer Sail Maker
- Watch Leader (usually)
Leggers then support these specific roles for their time on the boat.
My packing list can be found here but what I originally thought was right for the trip and what I subsequently learned was slightly different – here are the highlights:-
- Sailing shoes are a pain as they never get dry and stink to high heaven – I took a pair of Crocs which were marvelous. OK, a fashion disaster but they were great on deck and below. They were also comfortable and quick drying – a great buy. Sailing shoes were relegated to stopovers!
- I needed to repack for the start of each race as, a) I learned how to organise stuff more effectively given the limited storage space available and, b) because different items were needed depending upon the state of the weather.
- For everyday items be sure to take loads of soft 5l dry bags. These are great for hanging over/under you bunk or in the limited space provided by the cupboards you are allocated. Remember to always keep everything in waterproof bags because if you do not there is a very strong likelihood that it will end up wet – either from leaks or, to put it bluntly, sweat dripping from the walls and ceiling! Beware – if you leave stuff lying around it will soon get lost or damaged!
- Take plenty of very good plastic vacuum bags. These are excellent for condensing those bulkier items you are not needing straightaway. The flimsy ones were absolutely useless.
- Don’t bother taking everyday medicines – they are all there on the boat.
- I took a dry suit but did not use it on Legs 4 & 5. Other legs really needed one so plan ahead.
- A wide-brimmed hat is essential – the sun is relentless.
- You will lose weight so be prepared for loose clothes – two good belts are essential and make sure they have plenty of additional holes in them!
- Make sure your clothes that are quick drying – anything else is useless as they will never dry.
- Take loads of light, quick drying, sweatshirts and pants and a few clothes pegs to hang them up to dry!
- Be prepared to dump loads of stuff when you get off – I ruined quite a bit.
- A mattress cover and single sheet were essential on the hot legs.
- A sturdy fan is essential – don’t bother with the flimsy versions, they just do not give you the airflow you need.
- Your sailing watch must have a backlight so you can see how much time you have left in your bunk!
And lastly – take a large, sturdy plastic bag for your dirty washing and don’t open it too often!
Would I Recommend Clipper?
Yes, but with serious reservations.
– Remember Clipper are in it for the money and pay little attention to concerns of the crew who are, in essence, the customers.
– Skippers are not renowned for their man management skills and team building seems not to be an important aspect of their role.
– Although the sailing equipment on the boats is pretty good the care given to life below deck is poor. The design of the plumbing is dire; many boats leak badly resulting in beds/clothing being permanently soaked; manual emptying of bilges is ridiculous and watertight doors not being watertight is very bad management.
– Do not underestimate the additional cost of stopovers – it is rather like paying for an annual holiday between each race.
– Relationships on board are potluck – we were lucky but this is not always to case.
– My personal view is that doing a single leg does not give either value for money or the opportunity to get fully involved with the day-to-day operation of the boat. It takes longer than you think to hone your skills into an efficient team/watch.
What I Learnt About Myself and What’s Important In My Life
My brain has stopped learning. I retired some 8 years ago and since then I have lived a laidback, privileged lifestyle. The downside of this is that my brain had slowed down and I found it quite difficult to learn and retain new facts and skills. This gradually improved but I have to do something about it in the months/years to come.
My health. I had difficulty moving around the boat when it was anything other than flat. At first, I put this down to a lack of agility – ie: fitness, but soon came to realise that was not the case and it had more to do with my body’s ability to maintain my balance. I also lost 16kg and need to keep it off!
Was the cost worth it? I make no apology for focussing heavily on the principle of ‘value for money’ throughout life and I am very pleased I did more than one leg. I only really got into the experience on the second leg and would have not got as much out of it if I had done a single leg. Yes, I am a better sailor too and will have much more confidence when going on family sailing holidays.
Being involved. I still have a big need to be ‘involved’ despite being retired and supposedly slowing down. I am not ready for that. I now need another ‘project’ and finding it is going to be a challenge!
Carpe Diem. I know there are loads of clichés here but for me, this trip completely reinforced my belief in the need to ‘make every day count’ and remember that ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’. I really am determined not to ‘grow old gracefully’ and to ‘live life to the full’ on the basis that ‘you can’t take it with you’ and that ‘shrouds do not have pockets’. I think you get the picture!
Spontaneity. There is one other cliché I’m afraid which is ‘getting stuck in a rut’ and this trip reinforced my absolute resolve never to so do! I didn’t watch television for the 4 months I was away and on my return was rather taken aback to see just how puerile much of it is! I need to find ways of introducing more spontaneity into our lives.
Team player. Running your own business limits your ability to become part of a team as you always have to stand back a little. This trip really helped me to learn how to be a team player again and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the key things I came to realise was that I need to learn how to listen more and to ask more questions of others as I suspect I do (did!) have a tendency to interrupt/speak over people.
Get over it Father. I know I mentioned this earlier but feel it well worth relating once more.
You do not need me to tell you that I am quite an intense person, not too good with small talk and pretty bad at telling jokes! Before I went, my youngest son said something to me that became a bit of a mantra. I was mithering about some silly thing that was bugging me at the time and he was a bit fed up with me keeping going on about it and said ‘Get over it Father, life is too short’. It stopped me short at the time but now, every time I start mithering again, I repeat to myself ‘Get over it Father’ and as a result I feel I am now a much more relaxed and happy person. Still can’t tell jokes though!
Being a Butterfly. Since retiring Mary & I have led a very privileged lifestyle traveling all over the world and seeing so many of the wonders this world can offer but I came to realise that we have actually only seen ‘a little of a lot’ – rather like a butterfly. Perhaps it is time to start to spend more time in places and really get to know them in more detail. You never know, if Brexit goes wrong our explorations might just be worthwhile!
Family. And finally, and probably most importantly, being out there in the middle of the ocean is a very lonely place despite being with great crewmates and it really does reinforce the importance of the family in one’s life. You have loads of time to reflect on what is important but, for me, there is one priority and seriously important aspect in life and that is our family. I feel I can be a better husband, father, and grandfather and must work harder to be so.
Only time will tell if I achieve this – but it starts now………….