Unlikely Voyages

“You can do anything, but not everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying some sprouted fenugreek seeds for lunch under lockdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.