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!