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!
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!
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.
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.
Level 3 training was intense! Every day started around 6.30am with all of us ready to sail for 8am and then we were out sailing all day in the Solent and English Channel until long after nightfall. On clear nights I marvelled at the clarity of the night sky from the channel. I was working on deck for 5 consecutive days, that’s 5 consecutive days I saw a beautiful sunset; something I cannot claim when I am back in the city as the horizon is masked from view by buildings.
Our skipper for the week was Bob Beggs, a hugely accomplished veteran ocean racer /sailor, who has three-times led a crew round the world in the Clipper Race and secured victory for his team, Bristol, in 2000. In the last edition of the race, 2017-18, he was the Skipper of Unicef, the very same yacht I found myself on board for my training with none other than the Skipper himself!
Unlike my Level 1 and 2 training weeks in 2018, we were a much smaller gathering of crew. Just eight of us – 6 men and 2 women – from America, Colombia, Luxembourg and the UK, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-60s. We were also accompanied by an inspiring female First Mate, Sophie O’Neill, who has spent her life sailing and has contemplated applying to become a Clipper Race Skipper herself on occasion. I would be very happy to see her leading a team in a future edition of the race as she impressed me so much; always calm, always smiling, so agile on deck and very patient with those of us still learning the ropes.
Aside from consolidating all that we had learnt on Levels 1 and 2 about tacking, gybing, reefing, head sail changes, various watch duties such as engine checks and keeping an hourly logbook, Level 3 included a long onshore day of study for an RYA/ISAF Offshore Safety Course and introduced us to spinnakers. I had never seen a spinnaker let alone sailed under one, so I was in awe at the sheer size of them. I was also fascinated by the process of ‘wooling’ a spinnaker, which is no small feat when you have to do this below deck heeled over.
I also learnt I could be seasick on deck whilst simultaneously working the winches and grinders! Despite taking Kwells seasickness tablets, one breezy day on the Channel left me feeling dreadful, lying downwind at the stern wishing I was anywhere, but on the yacht! The First Mate, Sophie, ensured I drank water and sucked on sweets as I lay sweating, shivering, and fighting off nausea at her feet at the helm. I was slumped like Bob, our MOB (man overboard) dummy, with only my safety teether clipped onto a jackstay keeping me from being washed over the stern. I learnt that despite feeling like the living dead for an hour or so on deck, feeling like the living dead below deck was even worse! I also learnt that no matter how awful one feels, one will bounce back almost as quickly as the seasickness comes on. So despite my vomiting rounds on deck, an hour or so later I was leading a sail change and grunting over the grinders again in yet another sail hoist.
Our Skipper spent a lot of the week shouting “hurt it” whenever we were ‘sweating’ the halyards (hoisting sail by hand before employing the mechanical advantage of a grinder or winch) or using winches and grinders in the ‘snake pit’. Given that there are huge loads on the sails and ‘sheets’ (ropes attached to sails) they take a huge amount of human effort, even with mechanical advantage. “Hurt it” = give maximum effort, grit and sweat. Own it.
When the yacht began to really heel in the Channel and hint at her racing credentials I was both exhilarated and also overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge of working on and below deck at these crazy angles!
But despite all my trepidation and worries leading up to Level 3 race training about not being fit enough, not being knowledgeable enough, not being prepared enough, not being practiced enough, I survived (and the Skipper passed me)! Better still, I was able to step aboard and always tie bowlines under pressure, despite last being on a yacht over 7 months ago. Practicing tying the key 8 knots used on Clipper 70s at home whenever I had some spare minutes with my eyes shut had clearly paid off!
I have come back knowing so much more than I did a week ago. My fragmented sailing knowledge and understanding is gradually beginning to cohere so that even if I am not the fastest on deck to respond to situations and the helm’s orders, I at least understand what we’re doing and why. For me, that’s a HUGE learning development and means I stepped back ashore feeling quietly pleased with myself…A little bit taller, a little bit stronger, a little bit more…in the race.