Unknown Waters

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Publilius Syrus

I’m writing this one week after Clipper’s announcement that the outstanding legs of the circumnavigation have been postponed till 2021; a year since I took a friend on an introductory row in the harbour with Bristol pilot gig boat club and nine years since I first sailed in and out of Gosport (where I subsequently did all my Clipper race training) aboard a beautiful replica of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew.

I am also writing this on the first day of Britain’s ‘lockdown’ after our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made the official announcement calling it last night; a historic broadcast from the PM according to British media.

It’s been a bewildering, emotional roller-coaster of a week; a week in which Britain began to shut down in a desperate attempt to contain Covid-19. It firstly began with panic buying in supermarkets prompting the restriction of sale of specific items to 2 or 4 units per customer and a dystopian vision of empty shelves. Then there was the death knell to the cultural sector, as all social and cultural venues closed their doors. Little did I know that seeing Yorkston, Thorne and Khan play a mesmerizing gig at Bristol’s Folk House on Sunday 15th March would be the last gig I am going to go to for many months, or that the pint of beer I had with my RYA instructor following my last Day Skipper exam would be my last visit to a pub for quite a while…or that the commiseration lunch I had at a café on the harbourside following the race decision from Clipper would be my last café outing for the foreseeable future too. The staff at this café were arguably ahead of the social distancing curve, replacing all crockery with plastic or cardboard and were offering take-away with non-cash payments only. All staff were wearing plastic gloves and the usually busy café was eerily quiet with just a few lone workers at their laptops. I was bemused if truth be told. Then public transport began to empty out and finally citizens started to stay home with much social pressure exerted via social media channels. I started to receive relentless emails from CEO’s of companies I didn’t even realise held my email address, informing me of their plan of action in the face of COVID-19 and all commitments in my diary were very quickly cancelled or postponed. For me, the most challenging cancellation is a face-to-face consultation I have at my local dental hospital to receive the results of a biopsy I had taken from the palate of my mouth a month ago. When everything else is up in the air and in limbo, I was holding out for a comforting ‘all clear’ from a consultant following a visual diagnosis. Now, even that has been replaced with a telephone consultation in a week’s time.

Reading back over this blog, whilst processing that my husband and I are not imminently setting off to Seattle, something I wrote on the 19th November 2019 (in response to the collision of Punta del Este and Sanya at race start out of Cape Town) really jumped out at me:

“This is one of the scenarios I dread. All those months and years emotionally, financially and mentally committed to the race and then, BOOM! It’s over. Just like that.”

Prophetic. Makes my hairs stand on end. Within a week my blog now feels that its title has come to pass, but not at all in the way I was intending!

We are all entering unknown waters and I am painfully aware of how invisible our most vulnerable are right now. People who were already struggling to cope with daily life when all was ‘normal’ could well break. I have three very close friends who have children with complex needs, some life threatening and requiring constant care. I feel for them all during social isolation and ‘lockdown’. Whilst we are all going to experience the coming months in very different ways, no doubt it will be challenging for us all. So, in a bid to make myself useful I googled: ‘coronavirus response volunteers Bristol’ and found a campaign run by our city council called ‘Can Do Bristol’. They are actively inviting volunteers, so I signed up. Who knows if I’ll be called upon or when…Maybe there’s something similar in your community or neighbourhood?

In the meantime, I have stowed away all the sailing gear that for the past year has been gathering dust in a pile at home and taken down the race schedule that has been stuck to the kitchen cupboard door since race start. For each leg I have noted which team won and our team’s finishing position. I have also rearranged the furniture in the living room to hide the spaces that were, until this week, stacked with technical sailing books I had on long-term loan from my local library, as well as lengths of rope for practicing my knots. I think my husband is pleased about that at least, as I notice he’s replaced my sailing paraphernalia with his oil paints and song-writing books! I have left the oil painting he did of Punta del Este sailing into a sunset out on the bookcase as a homage to all that we had worked towards and were looking forward to. At least with some cleared away floor space I have a bit of room to keep up my planking and floor exercises during lockdown I suppose.

…For now dear readers, hold fast, for we are entering a storm; but like all storms, it will pass eventually.

Dave’s oil painting on cardboard of Punta del Este sailing into the sunset, which he gave me a few weeks ago. It’s ‘going to be a while till she loses sight of the shore again, since the entire fleet are now moored up in Subic Bay marina (Philippines) until the race resumes at some point next year…Maybe.

Yellow Jack. No going back.

I woke up this morning to a raft of WhatsApp messages and emails of condolence, sympathy and ‘thinking of you’. I knew then that Clipper had (finally) made a decision. I am not in agreement with their decision – for what it’s worth, I wish they’d just called this edition of the race a day – but there we go. It’s done. My journey over the last 2 years and 9 months has been postponed; 4 weeks and two days before I was to depart from home. I am mostly feeling numb with occasional bursts of anger and tears. It’s a process. I shall learn to re-orientate my compass in time. I shall not write about how I am feeling right now for the risk of writing anything I’ll regret in time, but suffice to say there is a lot more at stake in all this than simply sailing in the race itself.

 

This is the official statement I received from Clipper today, which I know many of you have been expecting over the last week.

All current Leg 6 race crew are currently quarantined on the yachts in Subic Bay marina. Subic Bay is located on the Filipino island of Luzon, which is currently under ‘enhanced community quarantine’. Reports from current crew is that they are getting by with access to a toilet and cold showers and lots of games of backgammon and silliness to keep up morale.

Although the mosquitoes, humidity and general anxiety on board about whether they will get themselves and their luggage back home before lock-down are real challenges for them right now, in my eyes, everyone who has crewed in this race so far is a winner. It has been an unprecedented edition of the race because of all the geopolitical and environmental challenges the crews have encountered along the way. None of us ever thought for a moment that a pandemic would hinder us in achieving the race of our lives. Rather, we were all talking about unemployment, ill-health, bereavement, pregnancy as being the possible events that would curtail our plans to achieve what we set out to do.

Historically, the Clipper fleet would have to fly a “Yellow Jack” – a yellow signal flag (Q for Quebec) to indicate that they were under quarantine. However, in modern maritime use a yellow flag now indicates the opposite; as a signal of a ship free of disease that requests boarding and inspection by Port State Control. Today, the fleet would need to fly the Lima (L) signal flag in harbour which is made up of black and yellow squares to indicate that the “ship is under quarantine”. According to that free resource of dubious provenance my students all rely on, Wikipedia: 

“In International maritime signal flags, plain yellow, green, and even black flags have been used to symbolize disease in both ships and ports, with the colour yellow having a longer historical precedent, as a colour of marking for houses of infection, previous to its use as a maritime marking colour for disease. It is sometimes called the “yellow jack”, which became a name for yellow fever. Cholera ships also used a yellow flag. Plain yellow flags are still commonly used to mark a recent death in a neighbourhood in cities such as Jakarta, regardless of the cause. They are placed in intersections leading to the home of the recently deceased as direction markers for mourners, and to mark the funeral convoy so that it is given the right of way.”

As a Death Studies scholar I find all this very interesting, but I was doing the Clipper race as an opportunity to leave my scholarship behind for a change and to get out there and exist in the raw elements rather than behind a computer screen or book. My work colleagues at the Centre for Death and Society (University of Bath) had only a week ago written a heart-felt
announcement in our monthly newsletter, which read:

“This month we want to say a special thank you and bon voyage to CDAS member, colleague and friend Dr. Hannah Rumble, who has worked with us for nearly a decade on projects associated with funeral costs and practice. You probably know her best for the fantastic Dead and Buried project. Hannah is about to set down her academic tools and embark on the adventure of a lifetime, racing in the global Clipper sailing race. We are extremely proud of Hannah and want to thank her for all she has contributed to CDAS over the years. We will miss you Hannah and look forward to hearing about your life on the high seas when you return to the UK later in the year. Safe travels!”

So OK, I am now not departing anywhere at all; each and everyone one of us is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in our lives somehow. I wish you all the luck in the world for facing and living through the unknown. Now more than ever, hold fast!

Ironically, in the meantime, I have the last of my RYA Day Skipper exams tonight, but given while I was writing this blog post Clipper emailed to say my refresher pre-race sail has now been cancelled, if any of you reading this need an extra deck hand or know someone looking for crew, please pass on my details!

Another milestone.

My 60 day count down till 60 days spent ocean racing aboard Punta del Este was marked by the first of my RYA Day Skipper exams and the arrival of my prescription sailing glasses…getting my sailing face on!

The wraparound frames take some getting used to, but otherwise I like how securely they fit.
The Velcro glasses retainer is a good design as it means I no longer have to fight to get my glasses over my head.
My revision cards clearly paid off as I found out today that I passed my first exam. Just got to keep practicing my chart work!

I should be so lucky.

Just over a week ago I returned from a glorious week in Kyoto, Japan, meeting colleagues at the medical school of Kyoto University who are undertaking a research project that is similar to the project I am currently delivering with colleagues at Bath University. As well as mentally and physically preparing for my imminent departure to the States and sourcing sailing kit and medical supplies, I have to get the qualitative component of this research project written up to a publishable standard before I leave. I have about a month left! There’s nothing like a writing deadline to focus the mind.

A few days before I departed for Japan, my hosts at Kyoto University emailed to say there was a coronavirus outbreak. I couldn’t believe it. My first opportunity to visit Japan and the coronavirus had struck! I had two fraught days wondering if I should go (I’m so glad I did) and trying to source face masks as advised by my Japanese hosts. So I really empathise with all the current race crew and Chinese sponsors who have been hit hard by the outbreak. It’s been a logistical nightmare for the Clipper Race committee to re-route the fleet, especially as plenty of crew were looking forward to meeting up with family and friends in Sanya and Zhuhai. The original route for Leg 5 took in 3 Chinese ports, but that’s all changed since coronavirus cases started being detected.

In re-routing, the fleet now go by the Japanese Ryukyu Islands. So as I flew home, I thought about how my team and I was the closest I have been to them for weeks, but they were far, far below me as I braced myself for the turbulence of ‘Storm Dennis’ upon my arrival back into SW England. The turbulence kept us circling above the runway for an extra half-an-hour as the pilot had to keep aborting his attempts to land due to the gusting winds. By the time we did land I was minutes away from using the sick bag! The experience reminded me of how I feel the first 1-3 days at sea on a Clipper 70. Terribly seasick. However, I know from my training that it goes away with time.

Still, it did make me smile, when I read a fortune I received at Ninnaji Buddhist temple in Kyoto because my fortune slip read: “You may worry about the change of environment for a while, but you will become accustomed to it rapidly.” My fortune also contained a miniature frog (Kaeru) bestowing me luck in “traffic safety and health”. I couldn’t decide if this was in relation to my trip to Japan and the flight home through Storm Dennis, or if it was in reference to my very imminent embarkation of Punta del Este and 60 days living on the ocean…I’m hoping it’s for the latter and banishes seasickness!

I have decided I will take this little frog with me in my kit bag, together with my St. Christopher that my mother-in-law gave me two years ago when I went to Gosport to do my first week of sail training, because there’s no such thing as too much luck – especially when embarking on a challenge that will take you into the unknown!

My fortune slip.
Unwanted fortunes blowing in the breeze at Ninnaji Buddhist temple.

Vitamin Sea

The sea and proximity to sea air has long been associated with being beneficial for us and cultural ideas and practices based on this belief abound: from taking in the sea air to unwind and feel rejuvenated, to Victorian seaside convalescent homes viewed as a means of preventing tuberculosis, to the healing effects of sea water advertised in coastal spa towns for those suffering from skin conditions and aching joints. Much more recently, the appeal of ‘wild swimming’ is also based upon beliefs we hold about the mental and physical healing properties of water; be it saline, geo-thermal or punishingly cold! I confess that I have often found myself claiming the health benefits of water when telling people what it is I love about pilot gig boat rowing and why I brave the English Channel for a dip anytime between February and November without a wetsuit. In fact, I found myself taking my first sea swim of 2020 last weekend. A few friends and I collectively built the courage to submerge ourselves in a cold, cold sea in Studland (Dorset), where the only other things in the sea were fisherman’s bouys!

Definitely colder in than out! The 1st February is the earliest time in the year I have ever swam in the sea without a wetsuit and my skin was certainly tingling for a hour afterwards.

But I am at the stage in my pre-race planning, with my departure only 11 weeks away (!), where all talk with medical professionals is about how the sea’s environment and ocean racing is going to present challenges to my health, wellbeing and survival chances (if I end up in it)! It’s all getting rather technical and exhausting and feels a long way from the romantic allure of sun, sea and wave.

Right from the very beginning of my Clipper race journey the medical and health implications of my intention to sail across oceans has been openly discussed in fine detail with my GP, oral med consultants at Bristol’s Dental Hospital and Clipper medical staff. I was determined that my OFG, a rare condition I have had since I was a teenager, was not going to prevent me from joining the race and therefore, I have taken all precautionary steps available so I now have copious prescriptions for medicines that I will take onboard. But ultimately, if I get a bad flare-up, I will be asked to leave the race and I totally understand why.  I do not want to be a ‘passenger’ and effect team morale by not being able to fulfill my role in the team.

But it doesn’t stop there! I have worn prescription glasses most of my life and this is now a technical point that is taking both time and money to address for the race. In discussion with my local opticians we are debating the merits of daily contacts, monthly contacts, prescription sports glasses with inter-changeable lenses or regular prescription sunglasses. My options are limited by my prescription and the conditions I will be living in whilst aboard Punta del Este. Currently, myself and the staff at my local high-street opticians are thinking that I take my two pairs of regular prescription glasses and be prepared to get them trashed (due to the weathering effects of salt water on the lens tints as well as the strength of the sun’s rays in the Caribbean), but invest in a pair of prescription sports sun glasses with removable lenses. I am keen to hear from sailors who have had similar issues to weigh up, so do get in touch if you can recommend a particular brand or solution for those of us who are reliant upon prescription glasses!

Another huge facet of health and wellbeing at sea – and one which most of us race crew don’t really consider before we start our Clipper training –  is personal hygiene; how to avoid (at best) or minimise (more likely), body odour given that all crew are unlikely to get anything other than a weekly wet wipe ‘wash’ and opportunity to change base layers. This I where merino wool far exceeds other fabrics for minimising smell and my team mates and I have been debating the merits of different merino wool underwear brands for months…as well as seriously long-lasting anti-perspirants and different types of footwear. The consensus is that although they are significantly more expensive, leather footwear is kinder to one’s feet and therefore, to one’s team mates!

Of course, there’s the almost taboo topic among some, which has meant female race crew have had to form our own Facebook Group called ‘Clipper Girl’ to discuss all things related to the biological facts of our bodies! This is not an issue to take lightly and one that has caused some women considerable anxiety and always been a topic among ourselves during training. Like all other female crew, I’m hoping to avoid having to deal with periods at sea, but following a number of appointments with my GP to discuss options, there was no ‘obvious’ intervention. The same goes for the conversations with my optician and with my oral med consultants at the hospital about the best course of action for managing my less than 20:20 vision and OFG…It’s quite a task!

Initially, when I started my race training with Clipper 2 years ago, all talk of health and wellbeing at sea was focused on sea survival – all crew have to do the RYA Sea Survival Course as part of our Level 2 training – (i.e.) the extreme end of the health and wellbeing spectrum at sea – but as my day of departure draws ever closer, my consideration of health and wellbeing at sea has become more mundane, but no less important. A consideration of personal hygiene, dental health, multivitamin supplements and dietary needs, as well as a consideration of medications for the kit list to alleviate the all-too common ailments at sea: sea sickness, sun burn, heat stroke, skin infections, conjunctivitis and other eye infections, burns and scolds, dehydration, low mood and stomach upsets.

The other common crew ailments are more likely to arise from accidents – particularly broken ribs – usually from falling out of one’s bunk or being thrown around below deck when tacking or (crash) gybing and burns/scolds when on ‘mother watch’ in the galley. This is why Clipper drill it into us that we always have one hand for yourself and one for the boat when moving around above and below deck, particularly in bad weather when bruises, cuts, cracked ribs and broken bones are not beyond possibility; a lesson I learnt the hard way during my last level of race training in the English Channel! I have found myself instinctively learning the motion of the Clipper 70 yachts, anticipating how they jerk and spin – especially when gybing and from the wash of a big ship or sudden squall. This is also why crew on deck shout down to those ‘off watch’ below deck when a tack or gybe is about to take place so they can brace themselves for the manoeuvre. On the Clipper 70s we also use two sets of foreguy preventers to limit the swing of the boom to prevent crash gybing and we always wear life jackets and three-way safety harnesses tethered to the jack stays that run the length of the deck. Health and safety are paramount and drilled into us during training; especially with how to safely move around and work on deck.

As part of our sea survival training we had to learn how to deploy and enter a life raft from the water; much easier said than done and a lot of bailing is necessary!
We had to practice different means of treading water to conserve body heat and energy.
A requirement is that we have to digest this book from cover to cover prior to the race.

Given that the race is now over halfway through with all teams racing beyond Papua New Guinea in Leg 5, as far as I am aware, the only medical emergency so far (touch wood) has been a crew member aboard UNICEF who had suspected appendicitis so had to be disembarked in Durban upon departing for Leg 3 from Cape Town. Historically many transatlantic yachtsmen used to have an ‘elective appendectomy’ in order to avoid the possibility of this trouble at sea. Fortunately, now antibiotics can usually hold up the situation until help is at hand. All crew aboard UNICEF will have had the medical attention of the ‘doctor’s-surgery-by-sat-comms’, PRAXES. For more than 22 years, PRAXES has provided 24/7 remote medical advice to people operating in some of the most extreme and remote locations around the world. PRAXES will be on hand in the event they have to guide my Skipper over a satellite phone through complex medical procedures and help him diagnose injury or illness to his crew during the race. It is a source of some comfort.

Having said that, absolutely nothing could have fore-warned Clipper about the recent coronavirus outbreak, which has also had a huge impact on this race given that in this current leg – Leg 5 – the fleet were due to race into two Chinese ports. This is the latest official update from Clipper:

Message from Clipper Race Organising team:

03/02/20 – 13:00

“In view of the coronavirus outbreak, the Clipper Race, in consultation with the organising committees in both Sanya and Zhuhai, has amended its race schedule and delayed its arrival into China.

The fleet, currently racing from Australia, will now head to Subic Bay, Philippines, which was previously planned as the second of the three ports in Leg 5.

The estimated arrival window into Subic Bay is 13-16 February. There will now be an extended stopover in this port of a minimum of nine days.

The Clipper Race will continue to work with its Chinese organising committees and has contingency plans prepared should the race route need to be further amended.”

In this edition of the race, three of the eleven teams are backed by Chinese sponsors – Qingdao, Zhuhai and Sanya – with a significant number of Chinese crew aboard each. No amount of sea survival training or stockpiling for the ship’s medical chest could prepare the entire fleet for this. The coronavirus headlines remind me try to keep a sense of proportion and scale (i.e. avoid thinking the worst) and that ultimately, whatever we do in life, we’re never fully prepared (even if we think we are)…and that’s OK.

New Year. New Decade. New Challenges.

As we enter this new decade you might have found yourself reflecting on your life’s journey to date and concluded it’s high time you actually did that adventure you’ve always dreamed of, or took up a new challenge that excites you. According to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on Jeremy Vine’s What Make’s Us Human podcast this week, it is the spirit of adventure that makes us human. So, being human after all, get planning that next adventure or challenge!

In the radio programme, Sir Robin reflects:

“I’ve never felt more human than when I’m ocean racing…Daily wants and needs are stripped back to the core. Simple pleasures of fuel, shelter and companionship are what matters…the long game is driven by a thirst for adventure. Adventure is to survive an ocean crossing, not only in a geographical sense, but also to accept everything the experience brings with it; whether it be doubt of one’s ability, isolation, extreme temperature or physical exertion. When you’re in the midst of a storm you aren’t thinking “this is amazing!”, but later, in a moment of calm, you reflect in a different way.”

As the 100 day count down till race start of Leg 7 from Seattle is almost upon me, I am certainly finding myself prone to doubt; questioning whether I am up to the task, a good team player and if I am fit enough to meet the required levels of physical exertion that ocean racing entails. Thankfully, according to the GB paralympian and endurance athlete, Mel Nicholls, my mental doubts before the big challenge are very normal.

I had the privilege of meeting Mel at a Youth Adventure Trust organised walk for their volunteers this weekend in Somerset. She was extremely generous with her words of hard-fought wisdom when it comes to undertaking challenges and adventures and gave me some good advice for how to cope with the inevitable lows that I will face during the race/offshore. Mel has just got into the Guinness Book of Records for handcycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in just over 6 days!!!! An extraordinary feat from an extraordinary woman who inspires us all by her motto to ‘Dream Big. Live an Adventure’.

Mel has just had a film about her world record attempt released on YouTube, so if you think you need some inspiration and motivation then watch Dream Big. Breaking a cycling WORLD RECORD below:

Congratulations Mel; an accomplishment for which I hope you are feeling proud, as you’ve definitely earnt it. You and Sir Robin share that human spirit of adventure for sure!

Casting off

cast off

phrasal verb – UK  /kɑːst/ US  /kæst/

  1. The act of letting go.
  2. To let go a mooring.
  3. A boat leaving the shore.

Today is a Friday so for those of us with regular working patterns, it’s typically regarded as the end of the working week in the UK. It’s also the 20th December, so the last Friday before Christmas when bars in town will be brimming with expectant people celebrating the beginning of their Christmas holidays (mostly). Given it’s the 20th December that also means it is only 4 months to the DAY, before I board a flight to the USA to join my team in Seattle. Time is slipping by incredibly quickly now; my brain can’t really process it all!

Meanwhile, earlier in the week my team mates safely arrived into Freemantle from Cape Town, having won the Roaring Forties Match Race against Sanya after their very delayed start following major repairs to Punta del Este’s hull.

So there’s lots of sighs of relief and celebration happening around the world tonight; be it jubilant, but tired crews from Sanya, Punta del Este and UNICEF enjoying well earnt beers, showers and a proper bed in the vicinity of the marina at Freo, and many other people departing work for the Christmas break and a nation-wide opportunity to ‘down tools’.

It’s been a milestone week on many counts and quite a week of ‘lasts’ for 2019 or in the lead up to my departure… This morning I did my last 5K park run for 2019 and was chuffed to come 2nd in my age category – a nice ending – and I managed to go out twice on the harbour this week after work, gig rowing in the dark and sleeting cold rain, marking my last rows of 2019 (but quite possibly my last, until I return from the Clipper Race next August).

My last Eastville park run of the year; all good cardio training for ocean racing!

But far more significantly, I also said goodbye to my School of Education (University of Bristol) colleagues and desk this week. My contract as a Senior Research Fellow has come to an end, following a few roles I have held over the last 3 years in the School of Education; being a Master’s Dissertation Supervisor, facilitating Action Learning Sets with staff at We the Curious (Bristol’s Science and Discovery Centre), to setting up inter-generational projects in care settings in the South West region with partnered primary schools under Dr Helen Manchester on a fantastic project called Parlours of Wonder.

I have really enjoyed working with Helen as she undertakes many and varied co-produced projects with community partners in the city; it means I get the opportunity to make a contribution to peoples’ lives and my community also. I have never been an academic who is satisfied to undertake research for research sake. I like my work to have an application, to have a purpose beyond my own academic ego or career development, so Helen’s research portfolio offered me lots of satisfaction in that regard.

Image
A poignant goodbye with Helen Manchester on my last day in the School of Education, University of Bristol.

But it’s funny how in the encounter of being cast off from the University of Bristol this week, in a process of letting go of my employment status that meant I have packed research papers into boxes, backed up my university email and had the pleasure of receiving a leaving card and lovely gifts, there’s a subtle shifting of sands where just for a moment, the past, present and future all amass together in a limbo…When a boat casts off, for a few moments it’s wake can be seen in a trail that connects it to the shore; for me, that came in an absolutely wonderful surprise and blessing on my last day at work. In response to a thank you email I circulated around the School of Education, I received a swift response from a work colleague I didn’t know. It read:

Hi Hannah,

I’m aware this will come out of the blue, especially on your last day, but did you by any chance teach on a Social Anthropology summer school in Durham about 10 years ago? It would have been under the umbrella of the now-extinct National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, and was a week-long residential programme.

I was one of the teenagers who went on it, and there was a tutor called Hannah who I remember as looking quite like you!

If it was you, I’d just like to let you know that week and the things we learned had a massive impact on me – I read Soc Anth at uni because of that week, loved it, and essentially have ended up in academia on the basis of those early experiences.

Good luck with the Clipper – it will be amazing.

All the best,

Felicity.

It fills me with a great sense of contentment that as I depart, Dr Felicity Sedgewick is settling into the university and it just goes to show that none of us ever truly know whose lives we have touched and influenced!

…A lovely email to receive just before casting off from the mooring that the University of Bristol has provided for me the last 3 years. Thank you Felicity.

Dr Felicity Sedgewick and I had a brief reunion on my last day of work. I was her anthropology summer school tutor at Durham University in 2007 when I used to co-deliver an anthropology programme for the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth…Felicity has clearly lived up to the programme’s name and expectations!

Nevertheless, time never does stand still, so meanwhile back in Freo, the Clipper race teams will be very busy getting ready to depart on Leg 4, racing from Freemantle to the stunning Whitsundays. I think it’s quite apt that they depart on our Winter Solstice, but it certainly won’t be the shortest day of the year in Australia!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year dear readers! xx

Clipper Race at St. Katharine Docks

Lessons from Loss

wake/weɪk/ – (noun)

  1. A watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances.
  2. A trail of disturbed water or air, left by the passage of a ship or aircraft.

Inevitably, quite a few crew have been curious about my work and how I got involved in it, so I think it’s time I wrote a post about it given it has had a HUGE impact on my decision to apply and subsequently act on the opportunity provided by the Clipper Crew contract arriving through my door one autumnal morning in 2017.

If you’re only reading my blog because of a shared interest in sailing/ocean racing and you don’t like dwelling on mortality then you might not want to read on… Just a warning.

I am jokingly referred to as ‘Dr Death’ by family, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. It is not a nickname I gave myself, but one that regularly comes to other peoples’ minds when they find out what I do for work, so rather inevitably this nickname is one that has often been used for me during race training by other crew. I suppose humour is one of the ways we humans like to circumvent difficult topics, suppress uncomfortable realities and face shocking or difficult moments. I am no longer appalled by this nickname when someone jokingly suggests it is how I should be known – like I haven’t heard it a thousand times before! I get it. Not that I try to kill people nor work as a coroner, funeral director or embalmer. Rather, as a social anthropologist, I treat death as a human universal experience and fact of life, but a cultural phenomenon worth exploring and understanding in its own right. We do not all identify, mark, understand nor process mortality, death, dying and bereavement in the same way. As an anthropologist I am fascinated by how a shared universal human experience can be so varied and I am both interested in the cultural and social particulars, as well as the shared experiences, values and beliefs.

I did not wake up one day and decide the death industry was going to be the future I aspired to focus on as an academic, rather, a series of small, but far from insignificant moments in my life, led me to working as an academic scholar specialising in ‘death studies’. Yes, it’s a thing. Google it. In fact, I am very proud to sit on the editorial board of an interdisciplinary journal called Mortality and that my colleagues’ work was featured in Times Higher Education recently, regarding their important research at the Centre for Death and Society (University of Bath), where I also work as a Research Fellow. But even the Times Higher Education journalist picked up on calling me and my colleagues “the death squad”! You can read the full article here.

As my dear colleague and friend, Dr Kate Woodthorpe, is reported to say in the article: ‘When you work in this area, you see death everywhere and realise how life is on a knife edge at any point. You become hyper aware of it.” She’s absolutely right!

Sometimes when I have interviewed people who are bereaved or dealing with terminal illness or suicide, their words can stay in my head for days and weeks. They can profoundly affect me, as can the fieldwork I have undertaken at funeral directors, crematoria, cemeteries, hospices and hospitals. I have a hyper sensitivity to suffering, loss and pain. I have had it all my life, but I have unconsciously found myself in a career that professionalises it. I have to empathise, form rapport and build trust with a myriad of research participants if I am to be a good ethnographer or social researcher and do justice to their experiences. Sometimes I do interviews with people in acute medical settings, sometimes on a funeral directors premises and at other times in the intimacy of peoples’ homes.

I recognise that my acute awareness of the fragility of life means that for a person of my age I probably dwell on death far too regularly. Nevertheless, many people say I am gregarious and full of warmth and humour, but I would say I am full of warmth and humour precisely because of what I do. I try to live with gratitude and that has been massively informed by those individuals who have generously shared their experiences of illness, loss and grief with me over the years.

An influential academic figure in ‘death studies’ is Professor Robert Neimeyer, an American psychologist who espouses the philosophy that life challenges, even the most painful or uncertain, contain the seeds of new possibility and that a serious engagement with them can open the door to a life of renewed purpose and pursuit of valued goals. In one of his influential books, he writes:

“As we sift through the lessons of loss, we can come to approach life with renewed priorities, with a clearer sense of what is important, and what is not worthy of concern. As we revise the philosophies by which we live, we also “re-vision” ourselves, perhaps opening ourselves to possibilities that once seemed foreclosed, developing skills and interests that previously have lain dormant within us, or cultivating relationships with others that previously had been neglected or unexplored. In this sense, while loss diminishes us, it can also lead to our renewal. Although the loss of familiar forms of work, work roles, and relationships can be unsettling and even threatening, it also can challenge us to enlarge our identities and integrate the hard won wisdom that comes with survivorship.”

Robert Neimeyer, ‘Lessons of Loss: A guide to coping’

Neimeyer’s words resonate with me as I have lived through the processes of change that come with loss many times over in my life. I have supported family, friends and colleagues through loss and bereavement many times over too. We’re all survivors in one way or another.

I am very privileged and blessed to have been taught by all those I have interviewed over the years to value LIFE; to see it as a momentary blessing, rather than a right, and honour it by living it as fully as I can. My research participants gave me the wisdom to appreciate that all change involves loss, just as all losses require change.

…And today my professional, personal and Clipper race worlds collide in a way I could not have anticipated…

I am sat writing this having found out this morning that a national funeral directing company are prepared to give me some generous sponsorship towards my race stop-over expenses, for which I am incredibly thankful.

Not more than half an hour later, I received a phone-call from my mother-in-law announcing that my husband’s only surviving aunt died yesterday, leaving him and his father as the only Miles’s in the family line. Ironically, my mother-in-law, in the process of seeking reassurance from me about the intended funeral arrangements disclosed that the same funeral directing company who are offering me some Clipper race sponsorship, will be the same company she’s intending on making the necessary funeral arrangements with!

Needless to say, it has put us both in a reflective mood and has probably influenced the tone of this post. Thank you for reading it, if you have got this far!

Update: The sun WILL rise again

On the 22 November at 14.00 UTC, the entire crew for Punta del Este were finally put out of our misery by this official update from Clipper’s Race Committee following the collision with Sanya at the start of Leg 3:

Race Committee Ruling

Regarding the incident which occurred during Race 4 Start in Cape Town, the Clipper Race Committee has agreed upon the following :-

After investigating the Port / Starboard incident between CV25 Punta del Este and CV29 Visit Sanya, China, at the beginning of Race 4, the Clipper Race Committee has adjudged that CV29 Visit Sanya, China to be at fault after a clear breach of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) 10 ‘On Opposite Tacks’.

As a result of this ruling CV29 Visit Sanya, China has been disqualified from Race 4. The team will officially receive a zero points score and is prohibited from entering into any Scoring Gate and Ocean Sprint for Race 4.

CV25 Punta del Este is exonerated from any breach of RRS 14 ‘Avoiding Contact’ and has been awarded redress as follows. The team will receive an average points score of 9 points and this has been based on its finishing points to date over the three races completed so far and includes any Scoring Gate bonus points, as well as points gained from its Joker. The team will be entitled to enter the Ocean Sprint for Race 4 as per normal.

The calculation for average points is detailed below :-

Race 1: 11 points
Race 2: 6 points (3 x 2 including Joker)
Race 3: 8 points

Sub-Total: 25 points

Scoring Gate: 1 point
Ocean Sprint: 6 points

Grand Total: 32 points

Calculated thus :-

25 points over 3 races = 8.33333 average.

Adding the single point gained from the scoring gate to the total and then calculating average points gives 25 + 1 over 3 races = 8.66666 average.

Over 3 races CV25 Punta del Este has gained an average of 0.3333 scoring gate points per race so will be awarded another 0.33333 points for the scoring gate on Race 4 (which it cannot enter).

This gives a total of 9 points awarded to CV25 Punta del Este for Race 4 and the option to go for the Ocean Sprint (which has not been averaged as it is still live for them).

CV25 Punta del Este and CV29 Visit Sanya, China will commence racing in Table Bay after all repairs have been completed. They will start together as a Le Mans Start and will match race against each other following the course, as laid out in existing Course Instructions for Race 4.

They will not be racing on elapsed time and will therefore not be racing against the rest of the fleet. They will be match racing against each other and will be competing for a unique Clipper Race match racing trophy which will be presented to the winning team.

As both teams will be racing, they will still be able to accrue penalty points for sail and equipment damage as per the Clipper Race Sailing Instructions.

Repairs and Race Start dates for Punta del Este and Visit Sanya, China

Repairs are going well on CV25 Punta del Este and CV29 Visit Sanya, China and the Clipper Race Office estimates the work should be completed by 27 to 28 November. Current estimates would see a departure by both teams on 28 or 29 November. Before that date, but around repair work, crew of both remaining teams will be training on the Visit Sanya,China yacht as additional preparation for the Southern Ocean.

Based on the above departure dates and subject to weather conditions enroute, it is estimated that both yachts could arrive into Fremantle on or around 21/22 December.

This will obviously have an impact for crew joining on Leg 4 and we will be able to give a further update on this as soon as we have some more accurate information.

20 November 2019

Work is being done around the clock in Cape Town to carry out the necessary repairs to Punta del Este and Visit Sanya, China.

A core team of Clipper Race Director, Mark Light, Operations and Logistics Manager, Matt Pettit and Maintenance Manager, Jay Haller, along with the Skippers and AQPs of both yachts, are remaining in Cape Town until the boats are ready to depart. Their focus is making sure the repairs to both yachts are completed to the highest standards and as soon as possible as well as supporting the crews and dealing with all of the immigration and clearance formalities.

In the spirit of the Clipper Race both teams will definitely be competing against the rest of the fleet in Race 4. Facilitating this in a fair way, for all teams, is being considered and worked out by the Race Committee.

The Race Committee will be deciding on any repercussions from the incident and how this may affect the results of Race 4.

Both crews are supporting each other and remain in close contact with the Clipper Race team in Cape Town.

Whilst it can’t be guaranteed at this early stage, Clipper Race organisers hope to have both teams on the start line for Race 5 from Fremantle to the Whitsundays.

And here’s a blog account from a crew member onboard Sanya to get another perspective…

Meanwhile, repairs are progressing for Punta del Este

Repairing Punta’s damaged hull on the port quarter.
Prior to the repair.
Limping back into Cape Town with a lot of damage sustained to the helming station.

Alien with extraordinary ability?

It’s been a few months of pensively waiting and biding my time between various stages of a bureaucratic process, in order to obtain the necessary US visa that allows me to arrive and depart the United States of America by various ports in US waters.

It was with great relief therefore, that on Saturday morning on my way to Appledore (Devon) in order to compete in my last gig regatta of the season, I swung by a soulless trading estate on the periphery of Bristol and the M4/M5 coridoor to collect my passport containing the much needed visa. Huge relief on my part and another milestone on the Clipper journey passed, as well as another item on the never diminishing ‘to-do’ list ticked off.

I must say, prior to having to attend a face-to-face interview at the US Embassy in London, I’d had to go through a two-stage online process, which given I’m supposed to be educated, I still often found confusing. The language of sovereign state borders, the control of the movement of people and the categorisation thereof, is truly mind-boggling. Clipper had advised that we should apply for what’s known as a B2 non-immigrant visa, but whilst in the process of applying for one you quickly realise there are several quite different circumstances why a person might need a B2 non-immigrant visa; as varied as being unpaid crew in the Clipper RTW yacht race to traveling to the States as a ‘medical tourist’. Dare I say that there might be occasions where those two intentions of travel to the States might collide, but I hope not on my watch! One category of person I found particularly interesting and half-jokingly reflected whether as race crew we were included, was an ‘alien with extraordinary ability’; certainly some people back onshore might identify us as being so!

Embassies are a curious piece of state apparatus, so although I was standing around for three hours waiting for my ticket number to be called for my interview, I found the whole process and aesthetic of the embassy fascinating. From being made to stand outside with no cover in front of two security guards with very large guns, to being asked to take a sip from my water bottle during the security clearance, to the faceless room we were all processed in, there was much to keep my anthropological gaze focused. I then spotted a woman, Catherine Johnson, from my team who was also waiting to be processed, so we quickly became animated talking about the race events of the last few weeks and comparing our own preparations. It was an odd acknowledgement that the next time I’d see her would be in Seattle as she disembarked after 3 long legs in the race and I step aboard to play my part for the team…

Saturday was clearly a good day despite the torrential rain obliterating my visibility on the drive down to Appledore…rather like helming in big seas actually! Perhaps having my US Visa gave me some special super powers (in addition to being able to travel internationally – unlike so many people in this world) ‘cos later in the day, I and five fellow Bristol women’s vets won our race in the North Coast Gig League hosted by Torridge Gig Club. Whether categorised as a ‘female vet’ gig rower or ‘non-immigrant’ traveler to the United States, both grant me permission to race, be on the water and an incentive to win.

Scoreboard November 23rd 2019 NCGL.
A great way to finish my regatta racing season, as the NCGL is my last Bristol gig appearance until I return from the Clipper race next autumn…