Baptism of Fire

If I’m honest, I think my last obligatory training week for the Clipper Race (Level 4), which I completed a week ago, was a real step up from Level 1, 2 and 3 training; L4 didn’t feel like an incremental development for a beginner sailor like me, no matter how logical the training syllabus is deemed to be by Clipper. It was intense, if not overwhelming and scary at times and a taster of what the Clipper Race is REALLY going to be like and demand of us crew. It will certainly call for endurance, patience, suffering and tenacity, irrespective of which ocean is being crossed. The fact that it’s taken me a week to even get the energy to sit at my laptop and write this post is also indicative of how physically and mentally-demanding my week at sea was. This week, back onshore straight back into work, has been hard to adjust to. Most of the time I have felt a bit washed-out, heavy bodied and listless. On reflection, I think it’s just my body unwinding after the intensity of Level 4.

The demands of Level 4 started before I even left home, because to get to Gosport marina to register by the required time, I had to catch the first train out of Bristol to Portsmouth Harbour and then get the foot ferry over to Gosport and walk the last bit to the marina. The train was scheduled at 5.44 so I set my alarm for a bleary-eyed 4.30am. As much as I wasn’t looking forward to this early start I figured that I would be on a watch system the rest of the week anyway, so I’d better get used to it. I was very surprised therefore, to see so many commuters waiting on the platform when I got there at 5.30am! I was stunned and hoped they didn’t do this regularly, but if they did, wherever and for whatever reason they were commuting at this mad hour I hope, made it all worth it. I spent my 3-hour train journey mildly anxious about the week ahead and sat at a table seat trying to discreetly practice my knots with a bit of nylon rope I carry with me everywhere these days. I also studied the handwritten notes and diagrams I had made at the end of my Level 3 back in March about the locations of particular jammers, spinnaker hoists and drops and re-familiarising myself with the particular deck roles and commands involved in all sail evolutions (tacking, gybing, reefing etc.) As with every training week I have done for the Clipper race that I have staggered over the last two years, I always feel anxious about it because I never go feeling prepared for it. Nonetheless, I somehow manage to pass each level and learn and develop in the process; it’s just not a comfortable process to go through!

I was one of the last to arrive at the marina as those international crew attending were staying locally, having got international flights a few days earlier. I had worked late the night before in my office so that I could be absent and offline for a week without too much calamity for my Masters’ students who are in the thick of doing their dissertations and the two research projects I am delivering at the moment. The usual rush and stress to get my landlubber life in order so I can slip offshore and offline! But once at the marina I felt energized by the general buzz and excitement of the race crews as they gathered to meet their Skipper and Mate for the first time since Crew Allocation in May.

I was directed by my Mate, Ryan (who proved to be a fantastic coach/instructor during my training week), to go and collect my Musto HPX Pro series race foulies before reporting on deck. They came with my name and initials emblazoned on them in reflective tape to assist in being identified on deck by other crew. Putting them on is a challenge in itself and they feel enormous and heavy. Whilst I quite like the salopettes, even if they are far too big around the groin and chest, I really don’t like the smock as the pocket cannot be accessed once our Spinlock life jackets are worn and it is difficult to put on any clothing over one’s head when heeled over at sea, nor does the rubber neck seal help in this regard! I much preferred the red foulie jackets we were assigned during previous training weeks as they fit better for women’s bodies, have lots of accessible pockets and some warm(ish) padding to keep the lower back from going numb when on deck. My ‘medium’-sized Musto smock is cumbersome and all the female crew I have spoken to are more than a bit annoyed that Musto didn’t make a custom-sized version for women in this edition of the race. At the end of the day though, it’s just one of the many things I’ll have to learn to put up with during the race and suck up.

Some of Team Punta del Este doing our Level 4 race training from Gosport sporting our brand new race foulies: (L-R) Me, Hilary, Kati, Steve, George and Ben.

Once we’d collected our foulies it was time to slip the lines and head off into the Solent to begin our week offshore under race conditions. This meant beginning our 3-hour watch system straight away, as well as hot bunking and no showers or mooring up to come ashore. My Skipper, Jeronimo, chose a 3-hour, 2 watch system that went as follows (if I remember correctly!):

This meant that for every 24 hours aboard, I went to sleep 3 x and got up 3x, with a total (potentially) of 8 hours sleep in two-hour stints. We were always woken 10-30 minutes before being ‘on watch’ and it took half an hour of our ‘off watch’ to clamber out of our life jackets, safety tethers and foulies, usually stuffing some pasta or potato meal into our mouths enroute to our bunks. All of this was conducted at an angle and if we were heading into the wind, then slamming up and down too. I usually crashed out once I had struggled to access the top bunk on the high side, but even more of a challenge if I was feeling seasick. Although I had to rely on my leecloth to prevent me from rolling off the bunk and causing serious injury, I must admit that after a week, I still wasn’t confident in it’s ability to keep me safe and secure, so if we were on a tack that had me restrained by it, I lay tense clutching the netting of my stowage on the other side for peace of mind; it didn’t make for restful sleep! Going to the toilet (heads) and brushing my teeth were agonizingly slow procedures that I managed about once in every 24 hours. For the week I was at sea I didn’t change my underwear or thermals and I washed my hands in salt water. Day 3 was mentally difficult as I felt gross and seasick, but by day 6 it all began to feel ‘normal’. Seasickness hit most of the crew within 24-36 hours from shore and I struggled too. But I was really pleased with myself that this week offshore, despite feeling very nauseous, I wasn’t vomiting, so that’s a hard-earned battle I have won mentally during the course of my training.

You will notice that we were all on deck for a 3 hour overlap in the middle of the day. This meant a 6-hour watch for both watches and a chance to mingle with half of the crew we otherwise wouldn’t interact with. Being in race conditions for a week also made me painfully appreciate that all crew need to view time off watch as a privilege, not a right. Life at sea involves always expecting the unexpected, be that changes in the weather, crew injury, mechanical failures, which all result in requiring all hands on deck. So, the watch system was fine in theory, but as I learnt, it often meant that what should have been my precious 3-hour ‘off watch’ rapidly got diminished to 1 hour. On these occasions I would remain in my foulies below deck and sit slumped, eyes shut in the galley. I didn’t want to waste precious minutes struggling to take off my foulies and clamber into my precariously positioned bunk. I was surprised and marvelled at how my body would wake itself up within minutes of a on-watch crew member coming to shake me awake for duty and I was also surprised by how little I smelt after a week offshore not washing. Nevertheless, some of the time I would lie in my bunk summoning the energy to clamber out completely confused as to the time of day, day of the week or where I was. It wasn’t until I came up on deck, had the wind hit my face and feel the sea spray that I’d begin to wake up. Clambering in and out of foulies and life-jackets below deck was usually undertaken in a foggy silence, for me at least.

As Nick Leggatt, one of the race Skippers said to us during the week: “First you’ll feel you’re ‘gonna die, then you think you’re ‘gonna die and finally you wish you could die!” He said this jokingly, but quite frankly, I now understand the source of the joke!

Nick has a wealth of experience as a Skipper. He’s 52-years-old from Cape Town and has already circumnavigated the globe three times, and set five world speed sailing records, including a round the world record with American adventurer Steve Fossett’s crew on Cheyenne (Playstation) in 2004.

Racing:

During the week offshore, we had to undertake two practice races ahead of the real round the world race starting from St. Katherine’s Dock in London this September. I have never been in a yacht race before, so I had no idea what to expect and as a result, felt nervous about it. From my school days competitively running the 1500 meters and uni days as a college rower in a women’s VIII, I have never enjoyed a starting gun or flag drop. The anticipation doesn’t bring out my best side. I guess I have to accept that I am not a person who thrives under competitive stress, but it was too late now, we were motoring towards the race start off the Needles/Isle of Wright!

I was incredibly nervous at this point, so I was only too glad to assist in hoisting our storm sails as per race rules following the Fastnet disaster in 1979.
Approaching race start off the Isle of Wright. Prior to the 10 minute signal all boats have their mainsails hoisted, headsails hanked on, halyards and sheets attached, but NOT hoisted (as pictured). The race route was to take us across the English Channel off the French coast at Cherbourg and through the Channel Islands before crossing the Channel again to the Dorset coastline (Portland Bill). For this race we practiced a Le Mans race start
Disaster as we ripped our code 2 spinnaker off the French coast, but despite this we went on to win our race an hour ahead of the 2nd placed yacht. Let’s hope this bodes well for our performance in the real race itself!
Our repairs to the spinnaker didn’t last long, but we still managed to win.
The cardinal that marked the end of our 2nd race off the IoW, which we also won.
Sums it up for me!
We managed to get up to 22 knots surfing waves in the Channel off the French coast. I loved helming in these conditions, but it didn’t half take its toll on my arms.
Winning our first race, which we smashed at 23 hours and 9 minutes.

Le Mans race starts:

…No, nothing to do with motor racing! In yacht racing these involve a ten minute countdown and at one minute all the crews have to be behind the forward coffee grinder and the engine has to be turned off (my role in both practice races!). Prior to the 10 minute signal all boats have their mainsails hoisted, headsails hanked on, halyards and sheets attached, but NOT hoisted. On the gun all crews rush forward (well as much as one can rush when attached to a Jackstay with a 3-way safety tether!) to get up their headsails. Due to the wind conditions and direction the sail plan of choice was full mainsail, staysail and Yankee 1. Le Mans start rules dictate all boats must keep the same course and sail plan for the first ten minutes, after which they can do what they want.

Roles on deck:

When I am not cooking on mother watch, cleaning the heads and emptying bins into the lazarette on cleaning duty, completing the hourly log and hand-pumping the bilges and grey water tank on navigation duty or doing engine checks on engine duty (all duties rotated daily among crew) or, actually conked out on my bunk ‘off watch’, there’s an awful lot to do on deck; be it a change of sail, change of tack, the constant attention required for maintaining maximum speed with sail trim, tidying the snake pit to avoid meters of knotted rope and constant repairs! …Here’s a few of the tasks I was involved in during our week sailing offshore in the English Channel:

Learning to helm, which involved understanding how to surf the waves to maintain maximum speed.
Putting my back into the primary winches grinder
The woman in pink on the grinder with me is called Melody. She hails from America and is an experienced ocean racer. I was so impressed by her strength, knowledge and agility and I was slightly in awe if truth be told. Team Zuhai are lucky to have her!
I always seemed to end up on the grinders; exhausting work!
Impressive grinding on the mainsheet winch from Skipper, Nick, and Mate, Ryan…I’ve got an awful lot to improve performance wise!
At the bow learning to trim sail with my Skipper coaching me in the proper use of Bowman’s hand signals to communicate with the helm.
Sweating the main halyard.
Team Punta del Este and Team Zuhai’s Mates (AQPs) doing spinnacker sail repair in the galley; painfully slow and uncomfortable work.
Hanking on headsails.
Pre-race man-overboard drills.
Dropping and flaking the mainsail .
Kati doing the hourly log in the nav station; the geek in me quite likes this task as I enjoy learning about COG, SOG, true and apparent wind speeds and directions etc. (something the landlubber in me never ever thought about before).
Night watch…somewhere off the French coastline.
A cold night watch.
The Bowman is constantly checking sail trim.
Illustrate’s Skipper’s warning: “High side, happy side. Low side, suicide!”
I made myself climb to the top of the 90 foot mast at night whilst sailing so that I didn’t find myself having to do it for the first time under necessity during the race next year. I took my mobile phone with me to the top but then didn’t take a photo as I was afraid I’d drop my phone. You just have to trust me that the moon beams on the water were magical, but that the view of the deck looked uncomfortably tiny below!

Life on Board:

On mother-watch with another crew member, Robbie, from East coast America. We both felt very seasick and didn’t fancy eating what we were cooking at all.
Making tea on Mother Watch on a gimbled stove. At night we only use red lights to avoid night blindness.
We tied a rope across the gallery to help us move down below when heeled over – going to the toilet is quite a challenge!
My favourite watches are always the ones that mean I get to see a sunrise or sunset whilst on deck. This photo is taken off Sark I believe.
We’ve just won our first race and barely slept for 24 hours.
A bit of fooling around when it’s quiet on deck to keep morale up so we don’t all focus too much on being cold, wet, seasick and tired.
The same goes for the Clipper Race Skippers too! Here Nick (L) and Jeronimo (R) pose with Bob, our MOB dummy.
My inspiring and relentlessly positive race Skipper, Jeronimo Santos Gonzalez, all smiles after winning both practice races…long may it continue!
Proud to sail her and crew in Team Punta del Este!
Punta del Este is finally moored in Gosport after our epic sailing race week where we sailed between France, England and the Channel Islands, winning both races…an auspicious start?

On reflection Level 4 taught me precisely what sacrifices and adjustments need to be made in order to be a competitive racing crew member and it also made me start to wonder if the majority of yacht owners probably don’t know how to sail their boats properly or for maximum speed performance. Just slipping the lines to cruise offshore in light airs for a day will never be quite the same again!

2 thoughts on “Baptism of Fire

  1. Hannah – what a great blog! We’ve had contrasting sailing weeks – I was on a 46 footer out of Naples, tootling up the Amalfi coast in force 4s and full sunshine, glass of cold beer at lunch and a sea-food pasta on shore at night. 3 heads/showers for only 6 of us, bed by midnight and not up until 8 am unless to answer a call of nature! Thankfully no pressure to drive the boat hard on this trip – but I loved hearing about your wins. Go team Jeronimo!

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    1. Rosie, your sailing trip sounds magical! I would love to join you on such a trip one day; cold beers and seafood obligatory requirements! 😉

      Like

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