Have I really got a clew about what I’ve let myself in for?

Level 3 training was intense! Every day started around 6.30am with all of us ready to sail for 8am and then we were out sailing all day in the Solent and English Channel until long after nightfall. On clear nights I marvelled at the clarity of the night sky from the channel. I was working on deck for 5 consecutive days, that’s 5 consecutive days I saw a beautiful sunset; something I cannot claim when I am back in the city as the horizon is masked from view by buildings.

Our skipper for the week was Bob Beggs, a hugely accomplished veteran ocean racer /sailor, who has three-times led a crew round the world in the Clipper Race and secured victory for his team, Bristol, in 2000. In the last edition of the race, 2017-18, he was the Skipper of Unicef, the very same yacht I found myself on board for my training with none other than the Skipper himself!

Unlike my Level 1 and 2 training weeks in 2018, we were a much smaller gathering of crew. Just eight of us – 6 men and 2 women – from America, Colombia, Luxembourg and the UK, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-60s. We were also accompanied by an inspiring female First Mate, Sophie O’Neill, who has spent her life sailing and has contemplated applying to become a Clipper Race Skipper herself on occasion. I would be very happy to see her leading a team in a future edition of the race as she impressed me so much; always calm, always smiling, so agile on deck and very patient with those of us still learning the ropes.

Our skipper giving us a recap on the principles of reefing the main sail in the galley…or if the board is anything to go by, a procedure for a shark attack!
My fellow crew mates at the start of our Level 3 training week at Gosport marina. We’re typical Clipper Race crew; mixed nationalities, mixed ages and mixed sailing ability.

Aside from consolidating all that we had learnt on Levels 1 and 2 about tacking, gybing, reefing, head sail changes, various watch duties such as engine checks and keeping an hourly logbook, Level 3 included a long onshore day of study for an RYA/ISAF Offshore Safety Course and introduced us to spinnakers. I had never seen a spinnaker let alone sailed under one, so I was in awe at the sheer size of them. I was also fascinated by the process of ‘wooling’ a spinnaker, which is no small feat when you have to do this below deck heeled over.

Part of a wooled spinnaker. The sail is so large that it extends the entire boat’s length below decks. Here you can also see the heads (toilet) with the red lights that are used at night below decks so crew do not get blinded and are able to work on deck at night.
Before ‘wooling’ the spinnaker we have to lay it out below deck with the head of the sail in the ‘sail locker’ at the ‘bow’ (front of the yacht) and the other two corners of the sail – the ‘clew’ and ‘tack’ – lying ‘aft’ (back end of the yacht) running through the cabin area where crew sleep in bunks to either side of the ‘nav station’ (where all the navigational and comms equipment is located; It looks like the inside of a space station!). Once the spinnaker sail is laid out we then have to run our hands along the ‘leech’, ‘luff’ and ‘foot’ (3 edges of the sail) to ensure there are no twists in the sail before we can roll the edges towards each other and secure with a tied piece of wool (as pictured in the previous image). In the above photo I am running my hands along the leech and luff and my two crew mates pictured are persevering with unraveling a big twist in the sail. Patience and team work is the name of the game here!

Given we were training on the yacht that was formerly Unicef, I was surprised to discover that former race crew would write motivational messages on the spinnakers such as ‘One life. Live it’, as well as this one! 😉

I also learnt I could be seasick on deck whilst simultaneously working the winches and grinders! Despite taking Kwells seasickness tablets, one breezy day on the Channel left me feeling dreadful, lying downwind at the stern wishing I was anywhere, but on the yacht! The First Mate, Sophie, ensured I drank water and sucked on sweets as I lay sweating, shivering, and fighting off nausea at her feet at the helm. I was slumped like Bob, our MOB (man overboard) dummy, with only my safety teether clipped onto a jackstay keeping me from being washed over the stern. I learnt that despite feeling like the living dead for an hour or so on deck, feeling like the living dead below deck was even worse! I also learnt that no matter how awful one feels, one will bounce back almost as quickly as the seasickness comes on. So despite my vomiting rounds on deck, an hour or so later I was leading a sail change and grunting over the grinders again in yet another sail hoist.

Meet Bob; the MOB dummy. I felt and looked like him when I got seasick!

Our Skipper spent a lot of the week shouting “hurt it” whenever we were ‘sweating’ the halyards (hoisting sail by hand before employing the mechanical advantage of a grinder or winch) or using winches and grinders in the ‘snake pit’. Given that there are huge loads on the sails and ‘sheets’ (ropes attached to sails) they take a huge amount of human effort, even with mechanical advantage. “Hurt it” = give maximum effort, grit and sweat. Own it.

One of my crew mate’s demonstrating the task of ‘sweating’ halyards

When the yacht began to really heel in the Channel and hint at her racing credentials I was both exhilarated and also overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge of working on and below deck at these crazy angles!

Off she goes!

The ‘sheets’ (ropes) can get quite jumbled up whilst sailing, hence this part of the deck is called the ‘snake pit’!

But despite all my trepidation and worries leading up to Level 3 race training about not being fit enough, not being knowledgeable enough, not being prepared enough, not being practiced enough, I survived (and the Skipper passed me)! Better still, I was able to step aboard and always tie bowlines under pressure, despite last being on a yacht over 7 months ago. Practicing tying the key 8 knots used on Clipper 70s at home whenever I had some spare minutes with my eyes shut had clearly paid off!

Knot tying practice at home!

I have come back knowing so much more than I did a week ago. My fragmented sailing knowledge and understanding is gradually beginning to cohere so that even if I am not the fastest on deck to respond to situations and the helm’s orders, I at least understand what we’re doing and why. For me, that’s a HUGE learning development and means I stepped back ashore feeling quietly pleased with myself…A little bit taller, a little bit stronger, a little bit more…in the race.

One thought on “Have I really got a clew about what I’ve let myself in for?

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