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…

Colliding in Cape Town

“A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

I realise this nautical adage is referring to sailing competency, but it could equally be applied metaphorically to team development, as my team have not had the best arrival and departure from Cape Town…Perhaps the spirit of Table Mountain had a beef with Punta del Este and wanted to show who’s boss, because we were penalised on our way into Cape Town and now we can’t leave Cape Town as Sanya has spectacularly T-boned our beautiful boat! Now she and the crew are being repaired back at port. All this happened a mere FIVE minutes into race start (!) to add insult to injury. Punta was starboard of Sanya, so technically Sanya was the give way vessel, although I gather a number of circumstances were reported that imply it is beyond simple anti-collision rules being broken…Skippers’ protests and a Race Committee investigation are ongoing, so no ‘official’ outcome yet.

Following a briefing back in port yesterday with both crews, Clipper report that repairs will take 8-10 days. All crew have either decided to fly home for a few days or go off sightseeing South Africa, but have to reconvene in port on 26th November. Sanya are also staying in port to race with Punta del Este when the time comes, as no one wanted a yacht going out into the great Southern Ocean on its own. Sanya also sustained some damage to her bowsprit in the collision so that needs to be repaired too; although it is a lot more of a routine repair. Nonetheless, it’s all still a very fluid situation and despite the intention of having all the fleet racing from Freemantle at the same time, precisely how this will be achieved is yet to be confirmed. I also do not know at this stage if Sanya will receive penalty points or if we will pick up some bonus points in sympathy. The official statement from Clipper on the collision typically does not give much away.

Many of us onshore crew and our team supporters are having withdrawal symptoms from not being able to avidly check-in with the race tracker on a daily basis and seeing the rest of the fleet draw ever further away from our stationary position is soul destroying, but nonetheless, the humour from team mates has been brilliant. David Lee’s message on the Crew, Family and Friends of Team Punta del Este Facebook page made me laugh out loud:

“Any chance you guys could challenge Sanya to a beach volleyball game or something? We are sort of lost without the race tracker, although Alan’s game face videos helped me get through another day of work. ;-)”

Alan, Alan Loy, is another team mate who is only racing in this leg – Leg 3 – managed to also make us all laugh with this:

“…You’ll be pleased to know that Punta del Este is a learning team, fully committed to continuous improvement.”

But despite the humour to keep up morale, it’s very sad to see our beautiful boat in pain; I wince just looking at the photos of the damage and impact of collision.

I was initially in shock when I heard the news yesterday morning and then I spent the rest of the day feeling great empathy and being gutted on their behalf; especially for my team mates who have joined in Cape Town to undertake a very challenging leg across the Southern Ocean and it’s their only leg in the race. One crew member may have to withdraw from the race as he does not have the flexibility to wait for the completion of repairs and then race on to Freemantle. His race could be over before it’s started and I feel for him. Another crew member also can’t continue because he sustained injuries to his shoulder as a result of the collision, so has had to withdraw. 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.

Until very recently I strongly felt the hardest part in all this was getting myself to the start line, but recently, I am also beginning to see that this is then swiftly followed by the challenge of remaining in the race. Despite the fact that Leg 3 has only just got underway and race start was only 10 weeks ago (it feels like an eternity!) we have already seen one Skipper sacked, another resign and I know of one crew member who has resigned from the race despite being a RTW’er for his team, not to mention those crew from across the fleet who have sustained injury and had to withdraw in port for medical treatment.

Still, it is also true that “every cloud has a silver lining.” For me this is encapsulated by the spirit of Team Punta del Este and those crew currently biding their time in Cape Town who took the initiative to locate a charity for all the fresh food that had been stowed aboard less than 24 hours previously to feed 22 crew 5,000 calories a day, for 28 days at sea (i.e. there’s a LOT of food on board!). So it makes me proud to learn that due to the significant delay in Punta’s departure from Cape Town, the fresh food on board Punta del Este went to a local charity in Cape town, U-turn, who work with those living on the streets (http://homeless.org.za), because the crew donated all their fresh food to the charity yesterday. A big shout out to fellow crew Craig Palmer and Nick Binks for organising this; true Punta del Este spirit!  

Victualing in Cape Town

…So every cloud has a silver lining. We were able to be charitable despite our major setbacks and we could repay the hospitality shown to all the crews whilst in port, by feeding some of those people in Cape Town, for whom the idea and opportunity to race in a round-the-world yacht race is even more of a pipe dream than mine was.

I hope it won’t be long before we can!



Yep, my team are racing hard for the finish and using secrecy as a tactic, because Punta del Este have gone into ‘stealth mode’, potentially within 24 hours of their arrival into Cape Town marking the end of Leg 2. Just before they went into stealth mode, they were in 2nd place behind Qingdao….this is going to be a very exciting finish as the fleet jostles East in the South Atlantic.

Not far to go now!

Each team can choose to go into stealth mode for 24 hours, which means their position will be hidden from the other boats in the fleet (and the race-viewing public) until Friday morning (7th November). Clipper have also given the 7th November as an ETA into Cape Town…

For those of you who are curious or indeed, sticklers for detail, here are the lengthier Sailing Instructions from Clipper HQ about using stealth mode in the race:

a. Each yacht shall have the opportunity for up to two 24-hour periods in each nominated race to activate ‘Stealth mode’.

b. Yachts shall not be permitted to use ‘Stealth mode’ in the first 24 hours of each nominated race.

c. Yachts shall not be permitted to use ‘Stealth mode’ within 250nm of the finish line.

d. Each yacht may choose not to use their Stealth period(s), however, any that are not used shall be lost and may not be carried forward to the following races.

e. Where more than one Stealth mode period is permitted in the nominated race, each yacht shall be permitted to take them back to back, which means that their position shall not be available to the fleet (or the public) for a 48-hour period.

f. Should a yacht wish to activate their Stealth mode, the Skipper shall notify the Race Office by email, giving no less than six hours’ notice, and nominating the schedule from which the 24-hour Stealth period shall begin. From that nominated schedule, for a period of 24 hours, no polling data for that yacht shall appear on the public website or be posted to the rest of the Fleet.

For example, a Skipper sends an email to the race office before 0600UTC, nominating the stealth mode to begin at the 1200UTC schedule. The fleet and the public will receive the 1200UTC position for that boat, but no other position information until the 1200UTC schedule on the following day (i.e. 23 hours and 59 minutes).

  1. Request made to activate stealth at 1200UTC schedule 0559 UTC
    >6 hours
  2. Position Broadcast: 1200 UTC
  3. No position broadcast: 1800 UTC
  4. No position broadcast: 0000 UTC
  5. No position broadcast:0600 UTC
  6. Position Broadcast: 1200 UTC

g. Once the Skipper has notified the Race Office of his decision to activate Stealth mode, the yacht shall be deemed to have used that opportunity, i.e. the Skipper cannot cancel his request to use the Stealth mode, even if he contacts the Race Office prior to the requested start of the Stealth mode period.

h. Whilst the yacht is in Stealth mode, the Skipper shall not prevent the automatic tracking units from providing data to the Race Office, and shall continue to send the reporting emails to the Race Office at the appropriate time.

i. The Race Director reserves the right to cease Stealth mode for any vessel before the 24-hour period has expired for reasons of safety. This is not grounds for redress.

j. When a yacht in Stealth mode passes a reporting position or a Scoring Gate, her time of rounding or passing may be made public.

A mountain-biking milestone

This weekend marked the 6 month count down till I set sail from Bell Harbour Marina in Seattle, USA, for the official race start of Leg 7! That means that as I sit and type this post, 6 months from now, I’ll be into my 3rd day aboard Punta del Este. I wonder how I will be feeling and what the weather will have subjected us to? It’s hard to process that I’ll be in the Pacific ocean sailing down the Western seaboard of America, given I am currently in the thick of wrapping up two academic research projects, have just taken on a new allotment plot nearer to my home and, like many other people, am feeling the onset of winter.

Saturday 2nd November was the 6 month milestone to be precise and I realise now that I spent it in a very appropriate way (no conscious planning on my part). I was mountain biking in a beautiful woodland near Warminster with 30 young people in torrential rain and high winds. Like many of the young people, I had never done any mountain biking, so I was just as nervous as them initially. It seems very apt that my 6 month countdown was marked by doing a new outdoors activity that challenged my own confidence on a bike (mountain biking is absolutely nothing like road cycling I now realise!), saw me having to be a positive team player and motivational, despite feeling wet, cold, tired and hungry myself. It was a day we all had to exercise determination, a positive attitude and just get stuck in as a team. I was participating in my role as a programme volunteer with Youth Adventure Trust (YAT); a youth development charity I choose to spend a week’s annual leave and some of my weekends involved with from March – November each year, as the work they do is simply brilliant in my opinion.

YAT are a Wiltshire-based charity who have recently expanded into Somerset and rely heavily on volunteers. YAT provide a 3-year programme built around using the power of the outdoors to transform the lives of vulnerable young people aged 11 – 16. The aim is that over 3 years these young people are inspired to: build resilience, develop confidence and self-esteem, learn valuable life skills and achieve their full potential through an outdoor adventure programme. There’s a camp for each year of the programme – Forest Camp, Mountain Camp and Coastal Camp – as well as day-long activities scattered over weekends throughout the year called Explore Days, Pathway Days and Activity Days. Although I inform YAT at the beginning of each year which weekends and camp dates I can cover, what I love is that until the day I never know who the young people I am going to be spending my time with are, nor what activities I am to do with them. Like many of the young people YAT serve, I have participated in lots of new activities that I would never have done outside of YAT: coasteering in Purbeck, raft-building in Swanage, canyoning in the Black Mountains, mountain biking near Longleat, surfing in Pembrokeshire…

The Youth Adventure Trust’s 3-year youth development programme

Although we are all naturally a  little bit apprehensive when we undertake a new activity, by the end of the day, everyone has enjoyed themselves and feels proud to have pushed themselves to try something new. I am always amazed by those in my group on Coastal Camp who are afraid of water and not confident swimmers, but who quietly push themselves to jump off a rock into a heaving swell by the end of the session. They inspire me every time and this weekend was no exception! One girl in my group was not confident on a bike at all; never mind having to mountain bike uphill in thick muddy tracks! We started the day all getting used to our bikes by cycling around a tennis court, whilst she simply stood in the corner and stared at her bike with a big frown on her face. Somehow the instructor managed to coax her onto her mountain bike, but she was not confident and quickly lagged behind. The fact that there were high winds and torrential rain did not help, but despite this, she plodded on at the back of the group, occasionally pushing her bike. Another young person who was not in his comfort zone either, promptly vomited over his handlebars once we all re-grouped at the top of a track. The next section of the route did nothing to entice either of them into the activity either, as the heavy rain meant that each dip on the forest floor became a good pool of very muddy water that came over our feet and peddles and the tracks had become sticky, thick mud slides, which threatened even the most confident cyclist’s balance and challenged even the strongest thighs to keep turning those peddles in the resistant grip of mud. Mud was everywhere! The young woman by this stage was getting quite fed up and had long since given up being in the saddle. She huffed and puffed and heaved her bike through the mud and occasionally threw her mountain bike down in frustration. But despite this, she and the young lad who had vomited both completed the course and returned to the scout hut covered in mud, having free-wheeled down the hill back into Warminster with the rest of the group. Neither vocally complained, nor gave up, shouted, swore or cried. They stayed with their group and quietly gritted their teeth. They really impressed me. Their grit and resilience was impressive. During those challenging moments at sea aboard Punta del Este when my own energy levels take a nose dive or seasickness threatens to stop me from fulfilling any of my onboard duties, I need to recall these two young people and summon the same grit and determination that they did whilst mountain biking, for they NEVER gave up and stayed with their team.

Get set, ready…vamos!

Today all the race crews will be assembling for race start and setting off from Punta del Este for the 2nd leg in the circumnavigation. The 2nd leg is also the shortest leg, involving a crossing of the South Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa. Whilst all the crews focus on what lies ahead and have everything to play for, I thought I would share this footage taken from across the fleet from Leg 1. Captured is my team’s Skipper, Jeronimo, looking very happy at the helm with his feathered companion; one of the quieter, more relaxed moments from the race before the full force of the Pampero hit.

The Clipper Race fleet experienced everything on Race 2, Leg 1. From days of going nowhere in the doldrums, to the heat of the equator, where King Neptune came to visit. Finally, with the race finish within sight, an almighty storm descended, testing all the crews to their limits.

Tide and time wait for no (wo)man

It was my husband who casually pointed out to me on Saturday night – whilst we were cooking dinner together – that it was exactly six months until we board a plane from London bound to Seattle; it will be our first ever flight/trip to the USA and for me, it’ll also be hot on the heels of a 3-day ‘refresher sail’ aboard a retired racer – a Clipper 68 – in the Solent. Although we haven’t bought our flights yet, we’re pretty certain we’ll need to get a flight on the 20th April 2020… a date consisting of a curious combination of zeros and twos; please tell me they are not unlucky numbers!

All this means that as I sit and type this blog post, I have even less time before my departure and suddenly, I feel I have crossed some invisible time zone where my active part in the Clipper race, which always formerly felt far off, banished to another year’s diary, is now lurking round the corner of Christmas and there’s SO MUCH to organise, secure and attain before then!

Last week, uncannily the same day as my team reached Punta del Este, Uruguay, marking their finish of Leg 1, I started the first of many Tuesday night evening classes studying for my RYA Day Skipper with 11 other wannabe confident sailors at Bristol Maritime Academy. I was pleasantly surprised by the mix of ages and the fact I wasn’t the only woman in the room; I was joined by a Slovakian woman who wants to feel confident sailing on flotilla holidays in the Med, rather than relying on her husband when offshore; an English woman who has ambitions to charter her own boats and seems to have done quite a bit of sailing already and an Italian woman who wants to confidently sail in the Southern Med. There’s also a young man who’s gone in with some of his friends to buy a J class racing yacht (as you do) and now wants to learn to sail her (!) and one older man who was involved in the TV production of Mutiny (recreating the 4000-mile trip of Captain Bligh in a tiny wooden boat after the mutiny on the Bounty) and seems to have sailed all over the world, so I have absolutely no idea why he’s on our course! We make a curious bunch of students with one thing in common – we want our RYA Day Skipper ticket – because even our sailing loves are not shared; we’re a divided class between those who own or use power boats and those of us who prefer or own (indeed, aspire to own!) sail boats.

My first night class of many at Bristol Maritime Academy.

I have my second class tonight – the curriculum states we will be covering tidal theory, true bearings and nautical measurements – whilst my team mates in Punta del Este will be having their last meal and sleep ashore, ahead of tomorrow’s Leg 2 race start racing to Cape Town, South Africa. A number of the crew are new to the race having convened in Punta del Este over the last week and from my brief WhatsApp messages with a few of them, wishing them all the luck in the world, I know they’re nervous. I also know I will be too, when my turn comes. I don’t think there will be much sleep among them tonight.

The film footage below was taken by a media crew member aboard Punta del Este in Race 2, Leg 1 and shows the challenging weather conditions the crew had to deal with when less than 24 hours from the finish line and port at Punta del Este, Uruguay; absolutely no amount of Clipper race training or RYA Day Skipper study and exams is going to prepare me fully for this.

…I am in awe of all the crews who sailed through this and all those crew sailing from the safety of Yacht Club Punta del Este tomorrow have a right to be nervous.

After a hard fought and challenging 5,200 nautical miles across the Atlantic, the Clipper Race fleet faced one more hurdle in the last 48 hours as they started to get closer to Punta del Este, Uruguay. The notorious Pampero wind is a meteorological phenomenon commonly found around the lowlands of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. This burst of cold polar air can be violent and picks up very quickly. The Clipper Race fleet experienced this natural force as they raced down the coast. Strange cigar shaped cloud formations, known as roll clouds, appeared ominously and the crews set to work quickly reducing sail and preparing for the inevitable. In the case of the Punta del Este team, the winds hit hard and gusts of up to nearly 80 knots were felt on deck. A Code 2 Spinnaker is certainly not designed for anything like those conditions and as the crew battled furiously to take it down, nature did its thing and decided it would come down but in many more pieces than it went up in. The crew’s experience and skill meant that up against the elements, they dealt with the situation extremely well and were back racing along very quickly to an outstanding and warm Latin American welcome as they arrived at the Yacht Club Punta del Este.
A hero’s welcome for the crew of Punta del Este at the end of Leg 1 as they survived that almighty weather to arrive safely into the marina of Yacht Club Punta del Este a week ago (October 15th 2019).
Overall race standings at the end of Leg 1 (London to Punta del Este)

Weather Watching and Seasonal Change

My (not so) daily weather log for February 1991.

As a social anthropologist I am acutely aware of the myriad of ways humans cultivate and understand their surroundings through the material changes and attunements they make to their homes and immediate surroundings over a lifetime. These temporal and material changes can be both reassuring and distressing. Reassuring when your home reinforces your sense of who you are and your belonging in the world and utterly distressing when one’s home and surroundings are fundamentally changed, destroyed, taken away, leaving an existential vacuum that brings into question people’s lives, identity and future possibilities.  Similarly, through my academic research with the bereaved and terminally ill, I have become very aware of the necessary sorting and sifting through of memories, artefacts, administration and emotions that a death of something close requires. The never ending cycles of life and death.

But seasons change in other ways too. Over the last year my family have been dealing with the myriad of ways their lives have registered the changing of the seasons so to speak; my brother has just moved into a new home for his expanding family, my father has sold his home to downsize for retirement and my mum is having to leave the family home out of necessity. I have been helping her sift through 35 years of memories, paperwork and objects that reflected a once active woman with a myriad of community roles and creative talents, who now takes up to three hours just to get out of bed each morning. Childhood toys and schoolwork have all been sequestered to a skip at the bottom of the garden or into storage boxes that might never be opened again. More symbolically, to our family at least, the tiny caravan we used to all go on holiday in as kids, including the family cat, dogs and budgie, has been broken up for a scrap metal merchant to come and collect. It has been rusting away for years, gradually eroding into the driveway through years of exposure to northerly winds and peaty rain, but always reassuringly there. That is, until the day that the scrap metal merchants turned up to take it away.

A former shell of a beloved caravan that mum rather incredibly managed to take herself and 3 kids away on holiday in, complete with family pets.
Almost gone. Family holidays rather swiftly and efficiently dismantled into the back of a van.

The spaces we occupy in our lives become enmeshed in our everyday lives in so many ways; not just the house or flat, but the adjoining spaces too: a shed, a garden, a yard, a basement, a vehicle, driveway or street….it’s taking me and my mum considerable time to physically and emotionally go through these spaces and sift, sort, discard and sometimes, re-purpose. Very occasionally this activity has served up a long-forgotten memory or reveals a long-lost treasured item, but most of the time it just hurts (more for mum I admit). Whilst I am currently observing a fundamental change in the seasons for my mother and siblings, I used to (as a bit of serious kid), patiently record the micro-weather systems and seasons through my daily observations, measurements and encounters with nonhuman life in the same bit of drive-way where the rusting, rotting caravan stood until very recently. Of course, I had forgotten all this until sorting through mum’s dresser with her a few weekends ago yielded the re-discovery of my (formerly) beloved ‘complete weather fun kit’ (as the packaging declares).

Within the box my spidery, handwritten recordings still reside, complete with all my terrible misspellings. The ones that make me laugh as a 41-year-old woman today are my handwritten notes to my former kid self, to remember to check the ‘rain gage’ and to refer to the ‘bofort scale’ when recording wind speed. I also smile when I see that under ‘special features’ on the weather entry for February 1991, I have written ‘white snow’! Such recordings of the seemingly obvious and mundane by a 13-year-old me, I now figure were one of the formative ways I registered changes in my immediate environment, the seasonal calendar year and ultimately, my advancement through life. Mum would encourage me and my siblings to also keep nature journals during the school holidays (we always groaned at this, but I appreciate it now), encouraging us to develop our engagements with the plants, animals and sounds of our immediate environment, as well as the atmosphere and local weather. So in a way, the meteorological register that sailing requires is a process of attentive watching, listening and feeling that began many years ago for me, as a 13-year-old girl stood in the driveway of our family home, clutching my compass, notepad and pen, looking up to gauge visibility and identify cloud formations. Even today, living in a very urban, polluted city environment with just a concrete yard for access to outdoor space, I nonetheless find myself each night stepping into the back yard to look up and observe the moon and stars before going to bed and each morning, as I wait for my coffee to percolate, I stand by the back door listening and watching. When I step aboard Punta del Este in just over 6 months’ time, I will be similarly attentive to my immediate environment by observing wind direction and speed, cloud formations and sea states. I will also have to learn to trust my instincts more, especially when helming and trimming sails. I have an awful lot yet to learn and understand, but in some tiny way I acknowledge that this process began when I was a child with my clumsy driveway weather recordings.

In the midst of serious concerns about irreversible climate change and global weather extremes, my daily weather recordings may be understood as one minor register in understanding weather encounters. Of course, I write this fully aware that a key register in collectively understanding weather and climate encounters begins today; an international rebellion organised by Extinction Rebellion. My husband will be in London to participate by playing his beloved sport, cricket. He and some of his friends have set up an Extinction Rebellion Cricket Club; look out for them if you are in London this coming weekend.

An Oarsome Race

On Saturday I competed in my first UK Traditional Boat Championship, the Great River Race, rowing 21.6 miles from London Docklands to Ham in Surrey, with seven fellow crew from the Bristol Pilot Gig Boat Club. Regarded as London’s river marathon, Time Out describe the Great River Race as “Less po-faced than the Oxbridge race and a lot more colourful” and it certainly was!

314 crews entered from all over the globe, including the United Sates, Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Palestine. It was quite a sight to see 314 rowing boats of all shapes and sizes being launched at once from the muddy banks of the Thames. It was total chaos on the water at race start, but everyone was in a good mood and the sun was shining.

Crews making their way to their boats for the race start at Milwall.

Some crews were in their club colours, whilst others opted for fantastic fancy dress outfits. I saw Hiawatha coxing one gig boat, a skiff full of convicts, a dragon boat of fairies and it looked like St. Cuthbert and Maid Marion had been resurrected in another Cornish gig sponsored by the beer, Tribute!

Looking fabulous, but I wouldn’t want to row in those outfits; quite a bit of chafe I imagine!

I had little appreciation beforehand of the variety of rowing boats that would be competing in the endurance race: Skiffs, Celtic Longboats, Cornish Pilot Gigs, Thames Waterman Cutters, Whalers, Lifeboats, Hawaiian Outriggers, Dragonboats, Seine boats and Skerrys, to name just a few! Nor had I appreciated that the Great River Race is an event that’s been going for 32 years and is hosted and organised by a guild; the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames to be exact. This explains the rather brief, but very specific race entry requirements and rules:

“The race is open to any traditional boat, or traditional-style replica, powered by a minimum of four oars or paddles; however sliding seats and riggers are not allowed. We insist that all boats fly a flag and carry both a cox (who steers using a rudder) and a pilot (passenger) in the spirit of the Watermen who plied their trade on this river for centuries.”

Given that there’s such a variety of rowing boats competing in the race, the race committee use a handicapping system to make allowances for the size and weight of boat and the number of oars used to power them. The slowest boats start first in a rolling start marked by the presence of a beautiful Thames Barge in the middle of the river. The small dingys, Dorys and Salter Skiffs went first, whilst the speedy Hawaiian Outriggers and Dragonboats started last. I was in a Cornish Pilot Gig Boat so we started 45 minutes after the first boats off the start line.

A Dutch crew in an 8 oared sloop
The slower boats heading off first for the start line.
Big gigs and skiffs
Happy to be slipping our lines at last. I began the race in the pilot seat.

Despite all the depressing realities of British politics, indeed global politics right now, it was nonetheless quite extraordinary and exciting to row past Westminster/ Parliament hearing the cheering crowds from the river banks and bridge. It’s a memory I know I will treasure forever and was fortunately captured by Zoe on her mobile phone as she was in the pilot seat at the time (we rotated the cox and pilot seats throughout the race).

I also recall the pleasure and thrill of rowing past a supportive gathering of people on their house boat letting off fireworks that rained glitter and sparkles on the crews below and the man who had turned out to play his violin whilst half-submerged in the river was also a magic sight. It was a day that honoured the best of amateur sport and demonstrated how a sport can unite people despite cultural differences and physical ability.

My crew in a Cornish Pilot Gig called Wapping Wharf as we approach the finish line in front of Ham House.
The shot that marked us crossing the finish line in under 3 hours. Exhausted, but very, very happy.

The race results were published today so I can now say we came 168th out of 304 boats to complete the distance, but we were the 141st fastest boat to finish with a time of 2 hours 57 minutes and 55 seconds. Out of our class, we finished in 31st place out of the 51 Cornish Pilot Gigs that were entered. It would have been a bonus to have finished towards the top, but I am also just feeling very satisfied that we entered and completed the race, which given we’d never rowed together and most of us had never rowed for more than an hour at any one time before, is quite a feat!

Approaching Richmond. 3 miles from the finish line.

The Great River Race has opened my eyes to an international traditional boat racing world that I never knew existed and I finished the day knowing I certainly want more of it! I now have my sights set on a cross-channel row or an ocean crossing….Never say “never”!

I end this blog post just in time to cycle into the city for an evening row on Bristol’s floating harbour and clean the murky Thames grime off our gig. There’s also the beautiful completion certificates from the guild that I need to distribute to my fellow crew this evening, but as the rain clouds gather outside my window, I’m thinking I need to find a way to keep them dry!

A proud recipient of this certificate!
Enjoying a well earnt pint 5 hours after leaving the Docklands with my fellow crew.
L to R: Jo, Zoe, Lucy, Sarah, Gerald, me, Lydia and Kay. We are a mixed crew of Women’s A and B squad, as well as non-competitive open rowers and Super Vets.

I write this on a post-race high knowing that the men’s squads in my club are all facing the 2nd biggest gig rowing championships in the annual fixtures this coming weekend in the Newquay County Championships (so they’ll all be out training hard tonight) and that my sailing crew on Punta del Este are pushing hard into the 2nd day of race 2/leg 1 having departed from Portimao in Portugal 30 hours ago. They have played their joker and are now having to negotiate light airs off the coast of Morocco, whilst weighing up their tactical options for the Azores.

RACE 2 – DAY 1

Jeronimo Santos Gonzalez

A part of my heart is on the Thames and another part of my heart afloat in the Atlantic with my team. Rowing or sailing, both encapsulate the rawness of being outdoors in all weathers and being intimately aware of how tide, winds, visibility and temperature affect technique, skill and effort. Both are sports that require constant spatial awareness and multisensory attention. No time for nagging work-related worries. In a boat I am in the flow, both literally and metaphorically. It feels good.

The sky is not my limit…I am.

T. F. Hodge quoted in ‘Four Mums in a Boat: Friends who rowed 3000 miles, broke a world record and learnt a lot about life along the way’.