Finding our feat.

It’s taken me almost 6 weeks to get down to writing a postscript blog post about our 18 day self-supported walk across Northern England in September; Wainwright’s coast-to-coast walk. It’s not that I’ve been really busy since being back, just that I have felt a bit “ugh”. A lingering, residual sense of restlessness, inability to focus or sit still long enough at my laptop to write this; a motivational issue that I put down to seasonal change – nights drawing in, the earth’s pungent smell making itself known on damp chilly mornings, the knowledge that summer is behind us and that winter is just ahead.

Well, until I read a chapter from an inspiring collection of women’s adventure writing where the words of Dr Kate Rawles reflecting on her incredible 8,288 mile Life Cycle project really resonated with me and made me stop reading as I realised: “Yes! This is EXACTLY how I’m feeling!” I wasn’t feeling the seasonal blues (though the night’s drawing in doesn’t help), I was grieving for life on the trail; the life-enhancing simplicity and gratitude of walking and camping every day. The straightforwardness of each day’s needs – being warm, dry and getting some shelter and food. Being constantly aware of the weather and movement of the sun whilst immersed in the sounds, touch and smells of a bigger, non-human world.

Upon returning from a year of cycling the length of South America on a bamboo bike (that she built herself I should add) and camping every night, carrying all her gear on her bike, Kate reflected:

“After that, to be back in a stationary house, with walls, the same house, night after night…After all that motion, to be suddenly stationary felt like a collision. Like hitting a wall. And in among the obviously wonderful connections with family and friends and landscapes and animals, the slow, inexorable, heart-breaking loss of gratitude. On the road, every mouthful of food, every glug of water is just fabulous. A good coffee is a miracle. Or a hot shower. Or clean clothes…I fought against taking these things for granted once I could have them whenever I liked. I tried to practise gratitude. But when you can have all these things and more multiple times a day it is hard, really hard, to retain that huge, life-enhancing sense of appreciation. Appreciation for the basic, good stuff of life and not wanting more than that – this is the secret to both happiness and sustainability. So simple and yet so tough to sustain off the bike, off the road, living in a more or less “normal” way in a “normal” Western culture, with rooms and wardrobes instead of panniers…There’s an easy sense of purpose and meaning on the road too, however illusory: each day is shaped by the need to find food and shelter and to get to wherever you are going. Life is both straightforward and vivid. There’s a feeling of being really, truly alive. And also, something harder to articulate: a strange sense, at least sometimes, of somehow tuning in with the overall ebb and flow of things. An intuition of other layers of reality. A feeling, sometimes, that you are in some other-world groove and that, so long as you stop trying to control and just go with it, everything will be just fine. And there is connection – connection with the ordinary extraordinariness of the world.”

These words really, really chimed with my own experience and what I had been mourning for, now that the C2C walk was behind me. It took Kate’s reflective words for me to be able to identify it within myself. I was grieving the end of living in “some other-world groove” where our days on the trail were “both straightforward and vivid”. The restlessness and beige feeling I was now experiencing upon being back home were almost inevitable.

I have subsequently signed up to the Long Distance Walkers Association as i met quite a few members on the C2C. I am curious, a tad amused and definitely excited, by the little-known world of long distance walking  (LDW), which my membership is opening up to me – well, it would have if the recent escalations in C-19 cases hadn’t shut down all organised LDWA walks.

It appears that walking 100 miles in 48 hours is a THING and one that people appear to do annually! Given that the next 100 mile Challenge is starting out from Chepstow in May 2021 (well, that’s the intention) and Chepstow really isn’t that far away from my house, I’m considering to try to qualify for entry. I have also been thumbing through my tried and trusted Cicerone guides. The Pennine Journey, Offa’s Dyke and Cumbria Way are long distance routes that have long interested me and Dave and we now have the confidence in ourselves as a little team to want to undertake a few more trails in the UK, as neither of us has any inclination to go overseas on holiday anytime soon… What do you think should be our next LDW? I’d love to receive some suggestions. Mind you, with an incredible 1,600 routes in the UK catalogued online by the LDWA, it might take a while to whittle down a few suggestions.

As a new member of the LDWA I received a curious pack that’s hinted at an endurance sub-culture I might find myself stepping into. There’s a member’s magazine aptly called ‘Strider’, although on many occasions on our walk I’d be pushed to say either Dave or I were striding! And there’s The Hill Walkers Register. I didn’t quite understand what this was initially, but I am amused to learn that this organisation keeps records of people who take it upon themselves to climb each and every peak over a certain height in the UK. There appears to be at least ten registers and certain names appear on a number of them, hinting at the addictive nature of mountaineering and long distance walking I suppose. Little did I know until flicking through the register that there’s the Deweys (hills at least 500m, but below 610m/2,000ft), the Wainwrights (214 Lake District fells over 2,000ft), the Corbetts (222 Scottish mountains between 2,500 and 3,00ft), the Munros (mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft), the Birketts, the Nuttalls, the Marilyns…the lists and registers go on to satisfy that curious breed of walker who is fixated on ‘peak bagging’. There’s even an international peak-bagging group that amusingly call themselves ‘Baggers without Borders’! Yep, like I said, I get the sense there’s a sprawling sub-culture where identifying as a ‘walker’, a ‘rambler’, a ‘mountaineer’ and a ‘hiker’ indicate quite different things and are loaded terms not to be banded about lightly in LDW circles.

However, when we set out quite apprehensively on foot from St Bees on the Cumbrian coastline edging the Irish Sea, we had no idea of all this. We were just walking. Admittedly, quite a long way for us; 192 miles, carrying all our gear with the intention of walking every day for 17 days with one stationary ‘rest day’ on the 9th day of setting out East. Whilst walking Wainwright’s route from the shores of the Irish Sea to the North Sea we walked through three national parks: the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. We fell in love with the distinctive landscape of Swaledale, although quickly tired of hoisting our 18 kilo rucksacks over the numerous narrow drystone styles. The vistas from the top of the North York Moors were expansive and welcome after living within the confines of a narrow city street, whilst despite the awful weather, the Lake District’s fells worked their magic on us and spurred us on with their majestic, awe-inspiring contours and moods. 2020 has been a year we could never have envisaged. It has been a tough year in so many ways bringing numerous losses, cancellations and disappointments, but as the adage goes, every cloud has its silver lining, and I would say, even though the year is not up yet, walking the C2C with my husband has been mine. I am profoundly grateful that we took the opportunity to go on a long walk and pushed ourselves to do so despite the challenges, doubts and fears. It was quietly epic and we are proud of ourselves for having done it. If all 2020 has given me is the opportunity to walk for 18 days across my motherland accompanied by my husband, then for that alone, I am full of gratitude.

Below is a photographic snapshot of our journey. I hope you enjoy the view!

Feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement for the unknown at the official start in St. Bees. I look tired in this photo as I hadn’t slept well the night before, for worrying that I wasn’t prepared enough and panicking that I hadn’t packed some essential item. But, the good thing about being underway is that there’s nothing I could then do about it. It brought relief to simply start. One foot in front of the other.
Evidence that pies were quite a big deal to walkers on the trail!
First pitch of the trek having walked 15 miles from St Bees to Ennerdale Bridge (Cumbria). Sometimes we rough camped and sometimes we pitched in pub gardens (to access hot food) and on farms (to access a hot shower).
On our second night we had to find what shelter we could among some pines near Blacksail YHA and hunkered down for 16 hours due to fierce wind and rain. This is our camp the following morning. I am trying to dry off some of our clothing in the drizzle! On the left-handside you can see our tent pole is bent. We have no idea how it happened, only that it did and rendered the tent progressively more defunct over the coming days.
The rain clouds were with us throughout the first half of the trek, but occasionally showed their beauty.
I absolutely fell in love with the Upper Stonethwaite Valley – beautiful light on the fells.
Freedom on the fells
In my happy place striding along a majestic ridge with inspiring views.

From all at sea to a woman afoot

August 2020 was set to see me cross the finish line of the Clipper 2019-20 yacht race. Instead, the weekend that was scheduled to be a huge public home coming was experienced quietly at home with friends. These were friends I’d first gone to visit at their home on the Isle of Wight straight from my Clipper interview in September 2017, so it felt appropriate to be with them to mark the date.

Race finish marked with some of my loyal Clipper Crew Supporters and very much on dry land.

It is very surreal to think of the race and especially try to imagine the official race finish weekend in London’s Albert Dock. Thankfully two members of my team (Nick Binks and Diego Rodriguez) took the initiative to organise an online reunion of crew for the following Saturday. I must admit to feeling very ambivalent about joining my crew for this online ‘event’, but having done so, I am so glad I did.

There were 26 of us from Team Punta del Este logging in from all over the world: India, Philippines, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, USA, Colombia, Uruguay (obviously), Channel Islands, to name a few. I was very impressed by Fi for staying up half the night in Sydney just to log on.

It was quite emotional seeing my team mates and hearing their accounts of ‘lockdown’ and life post-postponement of the race. It was quite apparent we’d all been on our own roller-coaster ride.

It was emotional to see and hear people I had intensely trained with and then heard nothing from for most of this year. I loved seeing my team mates faces and it was eye-opening to learn that a number of my team are still living through full ‘lockdown’ in their home countries. Two of my team never made it home to the UK and our Skipper, Jeronimo (affectionately referred to as Jero by some crew who got to race with him), is still in Subic Bay looking after the 11 abandoned racing yachts. He informed us that it’s been an emotional roller coaster for him and frustrating not to be able to sail. He also told us that Clipper are still determined to resume the race from the Philippines in February 2021, but to many of us crew with outstanding legs to race in, we are less confident this will happen. The Clipper race is still very much in limbo, but I really pray to be able to move beyond the liminal zone with a definitive outcome from Clipper HQ by November. Like many crew, living in limbo is having serious repercussions on (un)employment and family.

I think on a very unconscious level this suddenly aborted race, which had been such an intense part of my life’s focus and planning the last three years, has been a big strain. We’re all experiencing uncertainty in our lives at the moment, but the indefinitely postponed Clipper race just adds to the uncertainty already initiated by covid-19.

So, in a desire to ground myself, take stock and experience some of life in the raw that I had hoped to do living/racing across two oceans, my husband and I very casually and spontaneously decided over breakfast in early August that walking from one sea to another would be a good way to mark what would have been race finish and finally surrender all the hopes and plans we’d had for 2020. This included the final piece of THE plan’s puzzle – to walk the entire GR10 over 3 months together upon my return to these shores – after Easyjet cancelled our single flights to Bordeaux a few weeks’ ago. Instead of walking from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea for 60 days across the Pyrenees, we’re now going to hike from the Irish Sea to the North Sea for 190 miles over 18 days along Arthur Wainwrights’ Coast to Coast (C2C) route. I am happy that I finally have an opportunity to wear and test out some of my Clipper kit: my (supposedly) quick drying, high-wicking, odour-reducing merino underpants, socks and base layers, as well as utilising the waterproof dry bags, head torch and notebook (it was meant to be my log book for legs 7 & 8 of the race, but will now be my walking journal!). I am happy to be putting some of my Clipper race kit to good use, including my body, which has been very sedentary for most of the spring and summer.

In many ways I think walking the C2C will be harder than the GR10, because the English weather in the Lakeland Fells and Pennines can be utterly miserable and walking on peat gruff and through peat bogs is very, very hard going. Added to that challenge, is the new challenge (to us) of carrying 16kg packs that contain all our necessary gear: tent, sleeping bag, mat, stove, fuel, water, dehydrated ‘meals’, first aid kit, map, compass etc. In fact, getting ready in the little amount of time we had rather reminded me of the huge challenge of victualling the Clipper 70 racing yachts during a very intense week at Gosport last August!

We’ll be relying on our Trangia to cook up those dehydrated ‘meals’.
As yet, untasted. We’re carrying food for two for 4 days, but hoping to supplement with cafe and pub grub as it appears along the way.

So this August bank holiday Dave and I will set out by numerous local trains to reach St. Bees, (wearing our face masks obviously) and on the 1st of September, just before our joint birthday and the autumn equinox, set off on foot to climb up into those extraordinary Lakeland Fells full of anticipation and very full, heavy packs. We anticipate reaching the shore of the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay on September 18th. However, as this year has taught us all, this plan may have to change. Better to depart prepared to go with the flow according to weather, health and local lockdown’s I expect.

The Coast to Coast

Given I was blessed to be raised in Edale within Derbyshire’s Peak District national park – where the story of the modern walking movement began in 1932 with the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout – it’s perhaps not surprising that I have grown into taking up long-distance walking as my preferred way to spend annual leave. Growing up, my siblings and I roamed Kinder Scout; be it with mum for a picnic after school, or on the annual primary school walk to Kinder Downfall led by the vicar, or alone as moody teenagers when we usually stormed out the house in a huff. I have run those hills, hidden in the peat gruff writing unrequited love letters and on more than one occasion, dreamt of far-flung adventures inspired by the many outdoor enthusiasts I met whilst working in both the village pubs. I have signed a fair number of those Pennine Way completion certificates when working weekend shifts at the Nags Head. Many walkers are drawn to Edale to start or finish the 272-mile Pennine Way – inaugurated by the Ramblers’ Association in 1965 – but I have NEVER been drawn to walk the Pennine Way! I know Edale residents who have done it, but their narrated experience in the pub upon return, confirms my worst suspicions about the route. In fact, Wainwright himself famously declared that:

“I finished the Pennine Way with relief, the Coast to Coast walk with regret. That’s the difference.”

(Arthur Wainwright, June 1972)

Meanwhile, I have no idea if and how I’ll finish the Coast to Coast (just like the Clipper 2019-20 race then!).

Dr Rumble rambles on 😉

Testing out our kit, knees and lower backs on Dartmoor in early August.
“Where did you say we were meant to be again?”

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

This summer I went swimming

this summer I might have drowned,

but I held my breath

and I kicked my feet

and I moved my arms around

moved my arms around.

Loudon wainwright III – ‘Swimming Song’

Contrary to all that I was building up to this year, I have not ended up spending these last few months having the Pacific and Atlantic lash into my face or deluge my boots. Unlike some of my team mates who did get to race in previous legs in autumn and winter 2019, I have not lived through the experience of being slammed by a rogue wave into the cockpit floor or main sheet traveller and losing my front teeth and breaking a few ribs in the process. 2020 has proved to be dramatic in other ways.

As for gig rowing, well, it’s definitely not happening for 2020, as it’s impossible to follow social distancing guidelines when the activity requires 6 oarsmen and a cox to sit together in a 32-foot clinker-built rowing boat.

But…(there’s always a but and an alternative somewhere)…without any intention on my part, I have started a weekly river swim with a dear friend and work colleague. Neither of us had river swimming noted as a 2020 new year’s resolution, but when options for access to outdoor space become very limited and the temperature starts to rise in a city, it is rather inevitable we have both found companionship and solace in a brief dip in a river located roughly halfway between our respective cities of residence – Bath and Bristol.

Luckily for both for us, this little foray into the River Avon enables us both to get away from our desks and home life, whilst following social distancing regulations. I also relish taking to the saddle and escaping the city for an hour or so along the cycle path and seeing a horizon without buildings.

The first time we met for our inaugural dip was 9am on a Friday, so the cycle path was quiet except for runners and racy cyclists who don’t believe in slowing down, even for a blind bend. Like us, there were other women swimming alone or in pairs and the day looked like it could turn out to be a sunny one.

My friend has a fear of losing touch with the ground beneath her feet; an irrational fear she disclosed she acquired after watching Jaws as a kid, and I have an irrational fear of touching something I can’t see in the water like an eel. I do not enjoy swimming in the sea when there’s lots of seaweed or in rivers where there’s long weeds, as just the brushing of them on my legs leaves me paranoid I am about to be attacked by an amphibian or reptile. So we made a good co-dependent team, each trying to calm and smooth away the other’s fears. We both made it into the river, so a big hurdle was overcome there. The next hurdle to overcome was getting my friend to swim out into the river and for me to stop mentally visualising that I am about to be attacked by an aggressive pike. All was going well, we both bobbed around in the serenity of the river’s bend gazing up at the clouds as we floated on our backs and sighted rabbits in the meadow that meets the river. We happily floated about delighting in sightings of swallows, house martins and red kite gliding overhead. Then I saw it, and I did a double take. My instinct was to scream (but I didn’t).

A grass snake (at least I think it was a grass snake because of the yellow and green colouring on its head) was snaking across the surface of the river a metre in front of me and between me and the river bank’s exit! Of all the things I had tried to push to the back of my mind whilst putting energy into trying to be in the present moment savouring my surroundings, a grass snake was not on the list. At first my friend thought my fear was a joke, but she quickly realised I was serious. Worse still, the snake decided it would swim towards the spot where our clothes were heaped half-hidden from view in undergrowth. I was mortified. Heart beating fast. Fortunately, my friend is not scared of snakes so she and another female swimmer came to my rescue by each swimming either side of me and cajoling me to the river bank. It took a while, but I did reach the bank to retrieve my clothes and catch my breath. The  ‘incident’ with my fears did take me a while to internally wind down from, because it had promptly brought to mind two other incidents in my life where I have been terrified when faced with my worst reptilian and amphibian fears.

In 1998 I was hiking with two German guys, an American and a Canadian woman who I had randomly joined up with in one of the hostel dormitories in Gunung Mulu National Park; a protected rainforest in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak). We were trekking the ‘Headhunter’s Trail’ having been on the steep trails to the Pinnacles at Gunung Api (tall, jagged limestone formations). I was not well at the time, suffering all the digestive issues that go hand-in-hand with a tropical disease, so already feeling weak, dizzy, nauseous and lagging behind the rest of the group…and then a green pit viper fell from a branch overhead where we assume it had been sleeping, landing with a loud thud within a few inches of my feet. I was utterly terrified and stood as motionless as the viper. Thankfully, we had an Iban guide with us who calmly instructed that we all stamp our feet, apparently the vibrations encourage the snake to scarper, whilst with a slight of hand I didn’t see coming, he grasped the snake in his palm and slammed it to the ground. I was too stunned to remember the details, but proceeded to walk on with a rapidly beating heart and hyper-alert gaze focused exclusively on the tree canopy above me.

After that incident, I just couldn’t relax on the trail and had a silent, mental battle with myself as my irrational fears had me constantly scanning my legs and ankles for leeches and the branches overhead for snakes. The rainforest closed in on me and I was desperate to get back to my flat in Penang surrounded by familiar urban life. I suddenly found the rainforest environment very threatening and claustrophobic.

I’m on the far left and despite my strong legs, was feeling weaker by the day.

For a year from 2002-2003 I was a VSO volunteer in Bangladesh doing research and advocacy work for indigenous knowledge in fisheries management. Once again, I had to confront my fear of snakes and leeches as they are common place among the paddy and in the monsoon season. Like with my fear of snakes, I have an irrational fear of leeches that similarly began with my first encounter in Sarawak, but at least nowadays I don’t scream when I see my blood-stained socks or trousers and I can tolerate someone else removing them – just don’t ask me to do it!

So, my encounter with the grass snake on the River Avon wasn’t just an encounter with a grass snake; it instantly recalled memories of times in the past when I have been utterly terrified and felt vulnerable to attack. It also reminded me of the time I was swimming off a 32-foot sloop that was my home at the time, living at anchor in and around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. My then partner and I decided we’d head further out of the bay to go to one of our favourite fishing locations to catch some red snapper for dinner and whilst he was absorbed with the lines I thought I’d go for a dip off the boat as the sea was almost flat calm. I was swimming around the boat when he called in a serious, measured voice that was so unfamiliar for him: “Hannah, swim to the boat. Now. NOW.” Instinctively I knew why and it was my worst fear when in the sea; a shark. I didn’t hesitate and swam straight back to the stern’s steps and only once my feet touched the deck did I glance back to see the fin.

On all these occasions I am sure the pit viper, unidentified shark and the grass snake were just as scared as me, possibly more so, but that’s the thing about irrational fears though – it’s very hard to control them.

That’s why I was so proud of my friend when she called me a week later to suggest we met up at the same bend in the river, only this time we met at dusk and this time she swam further from the river bank and I was relieved not to be eye-balling my grass snake again. Feel the fear and do it anyway. We had fun and I was blessed with this sunset on my cycle home afterwards.

From CV25 to 3B

Contrary to what my diary informs me, I am not currently sailing CV25 between New York and Bermuda. The Clipper Race Committee anticipated that today would have been the start of the fleet’s arrival window into Royal Bermuda Yacht club. I would have set out from New York – the start of Leg 8 – five days ago and raced hard on the homeward leg. Hmmm… (I’m letting that thought sink in a moment and trying to imagine what that would feel and look like).

Ok, so instead, I have my feet firmly planted on terra firma and yesterday, after three-and-a-half year’s on the waiting list, I secured this little patch of overgrown land near my house on a council-owned allotment site.

Proud (if not a tad daunted) owner of Plot 3B.

It saddens me how neglected this plot has become as there are traces of former love and care to be uncovered under the prolific bind weed and brambles; like a vibrant purple clematis pictured above. I love that it is still flowering despite the overgrowth’s shady cover and the tendrils of suffocating bind weed.

I have uncovered the partial remains of a chicken coop, which one day I hope to re-populate with hens. There is a cherry, pear and apple tree that all require TLC, but at one time will have been invested in when they were first planted in the midst of time and the allotment association’s collective memory.

I disturbed a frog when I was clearing away brambles and I found one, lone and very stunted, raspberry cane when clearing some of the couch grass…little signs that at one time this was a cared for corner of earth. As it happens, I have no idea of the soil quality on this plot as I have yet to clear away enough growth to get a glimpse of what lies beneath. All in good time…This gardening project is going to take the same perseverance, time and effort as my preparation for the Clipper race did, I suspect.

Yesterday, not only did I officially acquire the status of ‘allotment holder’ (having given up my beloved plot 66B eight months ago thinking I’d be at sea this growing season), but I also took on another role with Youth Adventure Trust, who I have been volunteering with for the last three years. It’s a commitment like the allotment that involves nurturing, patience and care. Having had weeks of getting to grips with online video calls, meetings and classes, I am shortly to be assigned to a young person as their remote online mentor until mid October to manage their transition over the summer holidays and back into school in the autumn (fingers crossed!). I am a bit apprehensive if truth be told, as it’s more challenging to build rapport and trust exclusively online (as opposed to YAT’s face-to-face mentoring prior to Covid-19) but then I imagine the young person is probably apprehensive too.

So, I’m not currently racing towards Bermuda aboard CV25.

I’m on plot 3B planting better seeds instead.

Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama)

I started writing this post on World Oceans Day on the 8th June, but here we are, still rolling on with it six days later, like a long surf wave or sustained exhale.

A week that began with World Oceans Day has also seen me get back behind the helm, well, metaphorically at least. It’s been a completely unintentional, but significant, week for re-connecting with my ocean sailing ambition after a couple of months of being very inward looking and domestically focused contained within my home; always doing something, whilst at the same time, nothing much in particular. I have been quite restless at times and sometimes found it very hard to summon the focus or motivation for work-related tasks that demand a lot of mental energy and intellectual creativity.

Similarly, whilst it has occasionally felt like all my neighbours in the terrace are doing Joe Wicks’s exercises each morning and out clocking the miles during the day peddling the Bristol-Bath cycle path or numerous other Sustrans cycle routes that kriss-cross the city, I have struggled to motivate myself to go for a run or cycle. Some days, I just haven’t left the house!

I think when the official news eventually came through that the race was postponed I was in shock, not only that the thing I had worked towards was not about to happen, but also, with the dawning reality that we were not free from the virus on this little island. I mentally and emotionally shut down. I kept busy doing ‘mindless’ tasks like housework, clearing out drawers and cupboards, filing copious amounts of dusty paperwork, tackling a build-up of limescale in the shower or moss in the gutters; that kind of thing. It was therapeutic, because I could keep myself busy doing these things whilst grappling internally with my overwhelming feelings of disappointment and anger.

So, I am somewhat surprised and bemused by the fact that as the weeks have flowed into months of a new ‘normal’, I have found myself being drawn to and finding sustenance from, almost daily yoga practice at home. It was stabbing attacks of shooting back pain when stood lecturing in front of 200 undergraduates that brought me to Pilates and now, it seems its life in lockdown that has brought me to yoga.

I get the impression I am not alone in taking yoga more seriously right now and giving it the space in my life that it deserves. Until lockdown, well, until Clipper announced back in mid-March that the race was postponed, I had barely time and energy to think outside of race preparation and departure day. I had also been quite focused on cardio-fitness and core strength floor exercises. Yoga just seemed too still at the time. Too slow… and classes in this city are expensive.

However, just before the pandemic struck, I had picked up a leaflet for yoga classes at my local supermarket. It grabbed my attention because the classes were affordable and located in a church hall, a mere 5-minute walk from my front door – and that’s me assuming a slow walking pace! I thought to myself that if I can’t “turn up on the mat” (as yoga teachers seem to often be heard saying), when said mat is only five minutes from my front door, when can I ever? I also knew that the great sailor whose feats and skill have inspired many of us Clipper Crew – Bernard Moitessier – used to do regular yoga practice on the deck of his boat whilst doing his solo circumnavigation. I got the impression when reading Moitessier’s account in The Long Way, that yoga and sailing were drawing on similar energies and skills in attention and noticing (not to mention balance).

I managed to turn up to about 3 of Krama Flow yoga classes in early 2020. Then COVID-19 swiftly took those classes away too, but all credit to my teacher, also called Hannah, for getting to grips with setting herself up with the equipment and mindset to be able to offer her weekly class online instead. Over the months we’ve become a little support group and check in not only with ourselves, our emotions and aches and pains, but also with each other. There are people in her Zoom class who I know from my neighbourhood or from the face-to-face class in the church hall, but equally there are people in the Zoom class I’ll probably never meet in person.

Many of the asanas that we are led through develop one’s balance, which can only be of benefit for the time when I will, hopefully, plant my feet firmly back on the deck of Punta del Este, instead of a yoga mat. As global movement, the economy and our day-to-day lives have shrunk, I have found myself slowing down to the point that a few weeks ago, I declared to my husband: “I think I’ve come to a full-stop!” Once I had got over my initial shock, anger and disappointments, I began to ease into taking stock, noticing, reflecting and catching-up with myself. Yoga fits this mood completely and I am enjoying the journey so far.

The other journey I have started this week is one that’s been set in motion by the Skipper of team GoToBermuda, David ‘Wavy’ Immelman, with one of his team’s crew, Andrew Cowen. Hats off to them both for their hard work and generosity of spirit, which is required in setting up and hosting a 10-week yachtmaster theory masterclass via Zoom that’s completely free for all crew, across all the race teams. They have created a valuable learning opportunity and shared it across the race fleet.

I leapt at the chance to further my knowledge and ‘keep my hand in’, so I didn’t hesitate to sign up and attend my first online class this week. It reminded me that the last public outing I had before ‘lockdown’ was to attend my Day Skipper theory exam, followed by a pint with my instructor and a fellow student at Bristol’s floating harbour…Those were the halcyon days (Pubs. Pints. How I miss you)! I was worried that I would have forgotten everything after 3 months of absolutely no sailing or nautical activity of any kind, so it was a confidence boost to remember my navigational lights and the main aspects of the ‘COLREGS’ (collision regulations). It was even more of mood booster when I saw a few familiar faces – some of my teammates -when I clicked on the gallery view in Zoom. After class, a flurry of WhatsApp messages went back and forth between Punta del Este crew; it felt SO good to re-establish contact and touch base with the race and some of the key players after these last few months’ race void.

Over the last three years I reckon I have been on a BIG roller-coaster of a self-development journey (for want of a better term that comes to mind right now); making myself do things that scare me, putting myself into unknown situations that bring me into contact with new people, knowledge, skills and ways of being. 2020 was meant to bring about the fruition of all of that learning and experience through living-out the challenge of ocean sailing in the Clipper race itself, but it has, rather like the title of my blog, changed tack. Almost imperceptibly, I have been re-setting my compass during lockdown, setting course towards an inward, slower-paced journey. So, it makes me excited to get hints this week that maybe, just maybe, these journeys will coalesce into something much bigger in time; postponed race or cancelled race.

Thanks for reading (assuming you have got this far). I hope this finds you well.

What journey have you been on during lockdown? What have you (re)discovered? Use the comments box below to share your reflections and revelations or send me a private email via the contact page on this blog. It’s always a nice surprise to hear from readers of this blog.

A week of ‘should have beens’

Firstly, I want to announce the winner of my quiz. The lucky winner gained a score of 22/30 and will receive a book about the maritime origins of everyday expressions, which is currently wending it’s way to them on the Isle of Wight. Congratulations Lenka!

In many ways it feels very apt that Lenka should win the quiz as I went to visit her on the Isle of Wight straight from my initial Clipper application interview in Gosport in September 2017. We sat up till very late drinking too much wine and binge watching previous editions of the race on DVD, because Lenka also shares my passion for boats and the sea, having been a member of Ocean Youth Club (as it was called) back in the day. We were both enthralled by the exhilarating footage of huge seas and exposure to storms at night. Lenka mused that were she not a mum, then she too would like to sign up to the race, but then both agreed she is blessed to share her life with her special daughter. So happy reading Lenka and thank you to all of you who took the trouble to submit your quiz answers.

This week has been an especially difficult one emotionally for me as every day of my diary has had an entry for a Clipper race-related commitment at Seattle’s Bell Harbour marina; be it a refresher sail, crew registration, onboard crew brief with my team mates and Skipper and today…Well today, I would have hugged my husband for the last time from the pontoon that Punta del Este was moored to and stepped aboard at 11am in order to be ready for slipping the mooring lines for a ceremony at noon and parade of sail. This is a marker at the start of each race, which I have avidly watched via Facebook live for all the previous legs. Dave and I were going to take off our wedding rings and replace them with symbolic silicone ones (so that I reduced my chances of a nasty injury whilst using the winches over the coming months!). He’d also written me a song in honour of this moment called ‘Sailing Free’. So today, instead of stepping aboard Punta del Este and separating for 3.5 months in Seattle, we are very much together reflecting on a few ‘should have beens’ at home. We decided to mark this day by Dave performing his song on camera. I hope you enjoy the song (it has a catchy chorus to sing-a-long with).

My husband performing this song he’d written to mark the eve of my part in the Clipper race 2019-20. Performed at home in Bristol, England, on the day and hour we were meant to be saying our last goodbye to each other on a pontoon in Seattle before I embarked Punta del Este for Legs 7 & 8 of the race.

Even if I can’t physically be on the ocean tonight, I shall be imaginatively transported there. It’s canny timing (again) that at 6pm GMT tonight, Sarah Outen is giving a free online talk about her experience of 500 days alone ocean rowing. Given that Sarah’s books about her cycling, kayaking and rowing adventures inspired me to re-apply to Clipper in 2017, I can’t help but think it is very apt she’s giving this lecture tonight; marking what would have been my first night on the Pacific ocean aboard Punta del Este. So if you’d like to hear her talk too, then you can watch it here.

Tomorrow is a new day and also a new chapter in the Changing Tack adventure story. Until the close of today I have been living my life in lockdown in full knowledge of many ‘should haves’, but as of tomorrow, there are none. My diary is empty for the rest of 2020, because I was to be offshore. Off air. Beyond reach. Jumping off into a huge unknown, trusting that it would all be OK and things would work out one way or another. I had no plans beyond returning from the race safe and sound in around 60 days time into the embrace of my husband. So it’ll be quite a relief tomorrow to finally wake up to a new chapter where my life at home under lockdown finally matches what the experience of crewing in the race would have demanded; to just try to go with the flow in the face of great unknowns, make the most of each moment for what it is or brings and know that there will be great challenges ahead, but also beautiful moments too. I think that’s what life in lockdown asks of us all too.

If you’ve been reading my blog, thank you for being part of the journey and contributing to the story as it unfolded. Remember that whatever circumstances you find yourself in right now, an adventure awaits. Take care. Stay safe. Be strong.

I received this beautiful pin badge through the post yesterday from a good friend and work colleague who wanted to remind me that although “the world and their plans have been utterly turned on their head, I’m sending you this to remind you that good times are ahead…It’s a reminder that the world will continue after this pandemic and who knows where you’ll be and what you will do. Life is for living.”

The best laid plans.

In a parallel universe today was a BIG day; the one I had organised my personal and professional life around for absolutely months. For today, my husband and I would have driven down to Gosport at 6am so I could board one of the Clipper ’68 training yachts at 9am for a 3 day ‘refresher sail’ in the English Channel. Returning back to Gosport’s marina, we’d have continued driving onto London to catch a flight to America to join my team in Seattle for the race. I would have walked out the door of my home knowing that I would not be crossing that threshold again until sometime after the 10th August 2020. Knowing me, I would probably have been fretting that I was missing some key item in my kit bag and trying to ignore the ever-present voice in my head telling me that I wasn’t fit enough, wasn’t prepared enough and wasn’t skilled enough. I know I would have had a ‘to-do’ list right up to that moment of saying “goodbye” to my home, neighbours and street. I’d likely be sitting in the car on the M4 thinking “well, this is bonkers! What am I doing? Eeek! I’m finally doing it!” and generally oscillating wildly from excitement about finally doing the race after 2.5 years preparation and the adventure’s unknown future, to doing my best to undermine myself and doubt absolutely EVERYTHING. It’s process I go through on an almost daily basis, whilst my husband patiently observes the self-sabotage.

But of course, we live in a new world order now so all that is definitively NOT happening today. Instead, under lockdown, I am noticing that I am struggling to motivate myself to get out the house as the weeks drag on, never mind get myself to Gosport for 9am to go sail training! However, the biggest irony of all, is that instead of doing what the title of my blog declares – Changing tack from university researcher to ocean racer – I have spent my day of departure and what would have been my last night in my home on terra firma, definitively being a university researcher. Back to square one.

I guess it is rather inevitable since my professional moniker is Dr Death and we’re living through a pandemic. Whether I like it or not, this means I am quickly finding myself being pulled back into rapid response research and public engagement on death, funerals and bereavement. Instead of reflecting on my last night at home on the eve of departure, I found myself sat at my desk answering questions on REDDIT for a designated AMA (ask me anything) about COVID-19! The university’s public engagement team set me and my colleague up with this:

…Hmmm. Well, that was a new experience for me. It was actually quite an interesting few hours as I was interested in the kinds of questions I would be asked, but it definitely wasn’t part of my PLAN. I should have been having my last meal among friends and neighbours and doing last minute packing and phone calls to family. Then today, my colleagues and I have been finalising a research bid to do evidence gathering with the bereaved and deathcare professionals here in the UK as the pandemic proceeds over the coming months. Suddenly I don’t have to justify to people why an empirical focus on death, dying and disposal is a necessary and important area for social research. Quite frankly, we’re all feeling it at the moment. Words don’t really need to be said.

So it looks like that whether I planned it or not, I am having to be in the mode of researcher and the racer bit will have to wait. So a big THANK YOU to the generous person in British Columbia who posted a garland of origami stars and boats to me as a “Clipper Commiseration” gift. I have yet to meet the woman who created this beautiful garland, but her sentiment and generosity of spirit has certainly brightened up this last week and the garland takes pride of place hung above my desk.

There’s a boat with my name on it!

Funnily enough, I received another piece of mail from Canada this week too (believe me, this is all most unusual – I usually just get junk mail for pizza delivery and stair lifts!), this time from an old university friend who emigrated to Canada and set up her own bookstore and coffee bar; The Penny University. She’s obsessed by coffee – she even did a PhD about the coffee industry – and is an avid reader and enthusiastic writer. Her moniker is Dr Coffee and she’s written about her coffee passion and entrepreneurial disasters and breakthroughs in ‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Ten Years of Mis Adventures in Coffee’. I don’t think Bel intended for her package to arrive on what was meant to be my last day at home before departing on the adventure, but the uncanny timing made her gesture even more poignant and gratefully received by me.

Unbeknownst to me, Bel had collated all my blog posts into a book format, which she then hand bound. It’s utterly beautiful.

Given I enjoy doing patchwork and quilting, I approve of the front cover!

All this reminds me that:

  1. I should not expect things to turn out as planned.
  2. The generosity and kindness of strangers actually does exist.
  3. Unexpected paper gifts through the post brighten up my day.
  4. Given how many of us around the world are living under various degrees of restriction to our movement and freedom, it’s quite miraculous that mail from Canada actually arrived at all and just how quickly it did! …I am biased as I am married to a postman, but be grateful that delivery companies are still functioning; they’re helping to keep us connected to each other and send random acts of love and kindness to each other through the post. Gratitude indeed!
Doing its rounds on social media, but made me laugh.

Off Shore. On Air.

Since they have been safely flown home following quarantine in Subic Bay marina, there’s been a flurry of media coverage of my team mates who were sailing in the aborted race. So I thought I would share their reported experiences of the race so far with you.

First up, is one of Punta del Este’s circumnavigators, Mary Vaughan-Jones, discussing her experience of the race in the Independent newspaper and how it came to an abrupt end due to the coronavirus outbreak. You can read the article here.

Next up is Clara Carrington, having done most of the race to date, being interviewed in a 30 minute podcast hosted by The Sailing Show. Listen here.

“Abby’s guest this month is Clipper Round the World sailor, Clara Carrington.  Clara has been a passionate social sailor through her life and having worked shore side for the Volvo Ocean Race, Clara has now embarked on her own round the world race with Clipper.  Clara is racing with team Punta del Este which is currently lying third overall in the Clipper Round The World Race.  Abby chats to Clara from her home in Uruguay having recently returned following the decision to postpone the remainder of the Clipper Race due to the global impact of COVID -19. They discuss how Clara’s experience in human resources helped her with the crew’s interaction and what she learned from each leg especially with adapting to new crew members and the importance of empathy in a team situation.”

Finally, but by no means least, ‘legger’ Jim Leaf, sharing his race journey on The Enterprise Podcast. Listen here.

“After stepping foot on to a sailboat for the first time ever in April 2019. Jim completed 4 weeks of training with Clipper Ventures, earning his Competent Crew and Sea Survival qualifications. He then joined the loud crew of the Punta Del Este Clipper Yacht to race 11 other boats from the Punta Del Este in Uruguay to Cape Town South Africa. He directly crossed the South Atlantic through the eye of 3 relentless storms, back to back.

Joined by 21 other crazy amateurs and led by 2 amazing professionals. Jim and the crew finished in 2nd place after battling 40 – 75-knot winds and 8 – 12m waves for 16 days! This amazing experience was to become the most incredible test of endurance of his life so far. Back on terrafirma, I caught up with Jim to reflect on the lessons he learned about teamwork, communication, social awareness, compassion, leadership and crisis and stress management.”

(Don’t) Miss the Boat

Idiom: to fail to take advantage of an opportunity.

Remember life before COVID-19? Back in those days I had a BIG plan for today. Today was the day I was catering for 35 friends who would join me at the Benjamin Perry Scout Hut in Bristol for my Race Departure Party. Dave had produced a nautical themed playlist and I had written a quiz for the early part of the evening to be enjoyed with rum and a hearty buffet of home-cooked food.

The party invite I had sent out to friends over New Year 2020.

Today also sees in the start of British Summer Time. We would have lost an hour’s sleep upon waking up tomorrow, but I saw that as auspicious and entirely apt for life at sea.

This is where I should have been partying tonight on the harbourside.

Rather than get in the doldrums about it, I thought it would be a homage to all my husband and I were looking forward to by sharing his playlist and inviting you to do the quiz. You have until the 30th April to send me your answers using the contact form on this blog. I will announce the winner on the 2nd May, which would have been the start of Leg 7 racing from Seattle aboard Punta del Este.

The winner will receive a copy of this book, which I am happy to post anywhere in the world in the spirit of adventure and dreams of circumnavigating the globe under sail; if I can’t, at least the book can!

A copy of this book is up for grabs if you’re the lucky winner of the quiz below!

Just promise me you don’t cheat, because, after all, it would be far too easy to simply Google the answers if you don’t know them already. I also encourage you to enjoy doing this quiz whilst listening to some of the tracks from Dave’s playlist below and pouring yourself a rum if you’re lucky enough to have access to any under lockdown!

Quiz

  1. In what year did the first Clipper round-the-world yacht race start?
  2. Who founded the Clipper round-the-world yacht race?
  3. Which legs of the race was I competing in?
  4. Name all the port cities or locations I would have been visiting in the race, including the city I was to set out from? (There are 6, so 1 point for each correct answer)
  5. Ocean-racing involves fast, responsive deck work as a team with each crew member assuming a specific role. Which of the following deck roles is the fake one? a) Bowman b) Lugger c) Grinder d)Helm
  6. What is the image on the hull of the yacht I was meant to be racing aboard?
  7. In what country is the coastal city of Punta del Este to be found?
  8. What is the country of birth of my team’s Skipper?
  9. In what year did the construction of the Panama Canal begin?
  10. What is a toilet called on a boat?
  11. What is the name of the inlet of the Pacific Ocean that I would have sailed along upon departing from Seattle?
  12. What is the name of the very large sail flown at the bow of a yacht in light airs?
  13. Is Bermuda part of the Caribbean?
  14. What is the term for the watch who are assigned to cook meals and clean below decks?
  15. What was the city of New York formerly known as?
  16. In what year did it become known as New York?
  17. What is a lee cloth?
  18. What do crew clip their 3-way safety tethers to when working on deck?
  19. What festival was scheduled to take place during the Derry-Londonderry stopover?
  20. Name the three corners of a sail. (1 point for each correct answer)
  21. What is the longest pleasure pier in the world?
  22. Which of these knots cannot be used as a stopper knot (stopping the end of the rope pulling through a hole)? a) Figure of Eight b) Admiralty c) Sheet Bend
  23. Which of these is not found on the deck of an ocean racing yacht? a) Cockpit b) Snake pit c) Pulpit d) Sand pit
  24. Sailing involves learning a huge amount of technical or maritime language. For example, a rope is NEVER called a rope! So, what is the name of the rope (line) that is used to hoist or drop a sail?
  25. What is the name of the rope (line) that is used to control the trim of a sail?

Dave made a playlist for tonight’s party. Here are some of my favourites, if you fancy listening to them whilst working through the quiz questions.

The La’s – Liberty Ship

Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues

Tom Waits – Shiver Me Timbers

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Lee Shore

Fairport Convention- A Sailor’s Life

…If you have any nautical themed tunes you want to share with me then please do make suggestions using the comments box below.

Unlikely Voyages

“You can do anything, but not everything.”

A year ago I was training aboard CV21 in the Solent with my level 3 Clipper Race training crew under the experienced eye of Skipper, Bob Beggs and First Mate, Sophie O’Neill; one half of Seas and Summits, currently sailing in Antarctica!

Stood beside Sophie at the helm. Getting my first real taste of what a heeled over racing yacht feels like!

My level 3 training taught me just how miserable seasickness can be and also introduced me to spinnakers; prior to this training week I’d never seen a spinnaker, let alone hoisted or woolled one! The week was intense and despite the sunny, clear blue skies, very cold. I remember being in awe of Sophie’s agility and strength and her confidence to lead an unruly crew at times.

Gives you an idea of how enormous spinnakers are! Here is one of three spinnakers that each yacht carries, laid out on the marina pontoon in Gosport so that we can practice wooling it on dry land before having to do it for real offshore.

So it takes a while for me to get my head around the fact that rather than Clipper race training out on the Solent, a year later, like the rest of Britain, I am living through ‘lockdown’. Currently, my world has physically shrunk to our tiny terrace and a vision of rooftops from my windows rather than being confined to a Clipper 70 gazing upon an expanse of the English Channel. Given that in 3 weeks time I was meant to be back pre-race sailing in the Solent and then down the Puget Sound from Seattle for the ‘real deal’, these last few days I have been reflecting on the subtle similarities between life on dry land in ‘lockdown’ and my life aboard a racing yacht offshore.

Both ocean racing and our day-to-day life under ‘lockdown’ involve restricted movement and living in confined spaces with others. At least on dry land I get to sleep in a dry, warm bed!

Both ways of living necessitate a restricted diet and being economical with resources. Just as with life offshore ocean racing, fresh coffee, fruit and vegetables are a luxury, not a necessity. My Clipper training stands me in good stead for not being fussy about instant coffee, milk powder and tinned veg. In fact the other day, I dug out my old sprouter which I haven’t used for years and have been enjoying freshly sprouted fenugreek and mustard seeds, which have been a blessing as our fresh veg is running low and looking a bit sorry for itself. I remember Sarah Outen telling me that she used to try sprouting from her ocean rowing boat when she was crossing the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.

Enjoying some sprouted fenugreek seeds for lunch under lockdown.

At sea there are ALWAYS cleaning, maintenance and repairs that need doing, so it would appear I am adjusting to a simpler, quieter daily life under lockdown by busying myself with cleaning and repairs. At least on dry land I can readily refer to YouTube for ‘how to’ videos if I don’t know how to do something or I can call a friend and ask them for advice. Sailing on an ocean, however, demands that crew not only know how to sail, but can also fix engines, sails, boat leaks, attend to plumbing, electrics and clean. Those bilges always need pumping! Weirdly, I dunno what it says about me, but I quite liked pumping out the bilges. I saw it as good exercise…and the satisfaction of a job done.

Ocean racing does involve quite a bit of sitting and waiting. Waiting for the wind to pick up, hours watching the sails perfecting sail trim, watching the clouds on the horizon getting some indication of the weather ahead and, for me, one of the joys was watching the wake we left as we surfed down waves. I used to get utterly absorbed in staring at the wake… Now, confined to our ‘2 up, 2 down’ terrace with a tiny concrete back yard I am finding myself starring at the sky above and listening to the birds. Since less people are travelling from their homes there is much less traffic about in the city, which I think means the air is cleaner (at least, I can’t smell the usual overpowering whiff of diesel on the main roads) and bird song is more audible. I’m delighting in that at least. So, be it on deck, in a chair or stood in the back yard, stopping, looking and listening is very absorbing and it’s amazing what you start to notice and what captures your attention and gaze. The last six days we have enjoyed very settled weather with clear skies, which has also made for some wonderfully starry nights even in a city full of light pollution. Each night before going to bed I have gone to stand in the yard and look up and imagine how I would be feeling if I were gazing upon these same stars from the deck of Punta del Este on a calm night watch.

But I also ponder the things that I have to hand at home under lockdown that I would not if I were aboard Punta del Este, namely:

  1. The option to call, text, email or write to family and friends.

2. Sleep that isn’t limited to 2-3 hours at a time in a damp, smelly bunk.

3. Despite running low on fresh food, my diet at home is still far more varied than anything I would get aboard an ocean racing yacht.

4. I can wash both myself and my clothes on a regular basis …with fresh water; from a tap! Even under lockdown, there’s no need to rely on the odourising qualities of merino wool undergarments and wet wipe body ‘washes’! For that alone, I am extremely thankful!

With each new day I am adjusting to this new ‘normal’ life and accepting a new version of 2020 to the one I thought I was on the cusp of living out. I hope it is the same for you and that you are grateful for whatever blessings, big or small, this new normal brings for you.

…If you have any other suggestions for blessings to be mindful of with regards to life under lockdown, as opposed to life on an ocean wave, I’d love to hear them. Post your ideas in a comment below.