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.
If I’m honest, I think my last obligatory training week for the Clipper Race (Level 4), which I completed a week ago, was a real step up from Level 1, 2 and 3 training; L4 didn’t feel like an incremental development for a beginner sailor like me, no matter how logical the training syllabus is deemed to be by Clipper. It was intense, if not overwhelming and scary at times and a taster of what the Clipper Race is REALLY going to be like and demand of us crew. It will certainly call for endurance, patience, suffering and tenacity, irrespective of which ocean is being crossed. The fact that it’s taken me a week to even get the energy to sit at my laptop and write this post is also indicative of how physically and mentally-demanding my week at sea was. This week, back onshore straight back into work, has been hard to adjust to. Most of the time I have felt a bit washed-out, heavy bodied and listless. On reflection, I think it’s just my body unwinding after the intensity of Level 4.
The demands of Level 4 started before I even left home, because to get to Gosport marina to register by the required time, I had to catch the first train out of Bristol to Portsmouth Harbour and then get the foot ferry over to Gosport and walk the last bit to the marina. The train was scheduled at 5.44 so I set my alarm for a bleary-eyed 4.30am. As much as I wasn’t looking forward to this early start I figured that I would be on a watch system the rest of the week anyway, so I’d better get used to it. I was very surprised therefore, to see so many commuters waiting on the platform when I got there at 5.30am! I was stunned and hoped they didn’t do this regularly, but if they did, wherever and for whatever reason they were commuting at this mad hour I hope, made it all worth it. I spent my 3-hour train journey mildly anxious about the week ahead and sat at a table seat trying to discreetly practice my knots with a bit of nylon rope I carry with me everywhere these days. I also studied the handwritten notes and diagrams I had made at the end of my Level 3 back in March about the locations of particular jammers, spinnaker hoists and drops and re-familiarising myself with the particular deck roles and commands involved in all sail evolutions (tacking, gybing, reefing etc.) As with every training week I have done for the Clipper race that I have staggered over the last two years, I always feel anxious about it because I never go feeling prepared for it. Nonetheless, I somehow manage to pass each level and learn and develop in the process; it’s just not a comfortable process to go through!
I was one of the last to arrive at the marina as those international crew attending were staying locally, having got international flights a few days earlier. I had worked late the night before in my office so that I could be absent and offline for a week without too much calamity for my Masters’ students who are in the thick of doing their dissertations and the two research projects I am delivering at the moment. The usual rush and stress to get my landlubber life in order so I can slip offshore and offline! But once at the marina I felt energized by the general buzz and excitement of the race crews as they gathered to meet their Skipper and Mate for the first time since Crew Allocation in May.
I was directed by my Mate, Ryan (who proved to be a fantastic coach/instructor during my training week), to go and collect my Musto HPX Pro series race foulies before reporting on deck. They came with my name and initials emblazoned on them in reflective tape to assist in being identified on deck by other crew. Putting them on is a challenge in itself and they feel enormous and heavy. Whilst I quite like the salopettes, even if they are far too big around the groin and chest, I really don’t like the smock as the pocket cannot be accessed once our Spinlock life jackets are worn and it is difficult to put on any clothing over one’s head when heeled over at sea, nor does the rubber neck seal help in this regard! I much preferred the red foulie jackets we were assigned during previous training weeks as they fit better for women’s bodies, have lots of accessible pockets and some warm(ish) padding to keep the lower back from going numb when on deck. My ‘medium’-sized Musto smock is cumbersome and all the female crew I have spoken to are more than a bit annoyed that Musto didn’t make a custom-sized version for women in this edition of the race. At the end of the day though, it’s just one of the many things I’ll have to learn to put up with during the race and suck up.
Once we’d collected our foulies it was time to slip the lines and head off into the Solent to begin our week offshore under race conditions. This meant beginning our 3-hour watch system straight away, as well as hot bunking and no showers or mooring up to come ashore. My Skipper, Jeronimo, chose a 3-hour, 2 watch system that went as follows (if I remember correctly!):
This meant that for every 24 hours aboard, I went to sleep 3 x and got up 3x, with a total (potentially) of 8 hours sleep in two-hour stints. We were always woken 10-30 minutes before being ‘on watch’ and it took half an hour of our ‘off watch’ to clamber out of our life jackets, safety tethers and foulies, usually stuffing some pasta or potato meal into our mouths enroute to our bunks. All of this was conducted at an angle and if we were heading into the wind, then slamming up and down too. I usually crashed out once I had struggled to access the top bunk on the high side, but even more of a challenge if I was feeling seasick. Although I had to rely on my leecloth to prevent me from rolling off the bunk and causing serious injury, I must admit that after a week, I still wasn’t confident in it’s ability to keep me safe and secure, so if we were on a tack that had me restrained by it, I lay tense clutching the netting of my stowage on the other side for peace of mind; it didn’t make for restful sleep! Going to the toilet (heads) and brushing my teeth were agonizingly slow procedures that I managed about once in every 24 hours. For the week I was at sea I didn’t change my underwear or thermals and I washed my hands in salt water. Day 3 was mentally difficult as I felt gross and seasick, but by day 6 it all began to feel ‘normal’. Seasickness hit most of the crew within 24-36 hours from shore and I struggled too. But I was really pleased with myself that this week offshore, despite feeling very nauseous, I wasn’t vomiting, so that’s a hard-earned battle I have won mentally during the course of my training.
You will notice that we were all on deck for a 3 hour overlap in the middle of the day. This meant a 6-hour watch for both watches and a chance to mingle with half of the crew we otherwise wouldn’t interact with. Being in race conditions for a week also made me painfully appreciate that all crew need to view time off watch as a privilege, not a right. Life at sea involves always expecting the unexpected, be that changes in the weather, crew injury, mechanical failures, which all result in requiring all hands on deck. So, the watch system was fine in theory, but as I learnt, it often meant that what should have been my precious 3-hour ‘off watch’ rapidly got diminished to 1 hour. On these occasions I would remain in my foulies below deck and sit slumped, eyes shut in the galley. I didn’t want to waste precious minutes struggling to take off my foulies and clamber into my precariously positioned bunk. I was surprised and marvelled at how my body would wake itself up within minutes of a on-watch crew member coming to shake me awake for duty and I was also surprised by how little I smelt after a week offshore not washing. Nevertheless, some of the time I would lie in my bunk summoning the energy to clamber out completely confused as to the time of day, day of the week or where I was. It wasn’t until I came up on deck, had the wind hit my face and feel the sea spray that I’d begin to wake up. Clambering in and out of foulies and life-jackets below deck was usually undertaken in a foggy silence, for me at least.
As Nick Leggatt, one of the race Skippers said to us during the week: “First you’ll feel you’re ‘gonna die, then you think you’re ‘gonna die and finally you wish you could die!” He said this jokingly, but quite frankly, I now understand the source of the joke!
During the week offshore, we had to undertake two practice races ahead of the real round the world race starting from St. Katherine’s Dock in London this September. I have never been in a yacht race before, so I had no idea what to expect and as a result, felt nervous about it. From my school days competitively running the 1500 meters and uni days as a college rower in a women’s VIII, I have never enjoyed a starting gun or flag drop. The anticipation doesn’t bring out my best side. I guess I have to accept that I am not a person who thrives under competitive stress, but it was too late now, we were motoring towards the race start off the Needles/Isle of Wright!
Le Mans race starts:
…No, nothing to do with motor racing! In yacht racing these involve a ten minute countdown and at one minute all the crews have to be behind the forward coffee grinder and the engine has to be turned off (my role in both practice races!). Prior to the 10 minute signal all boats have their mainsails hoisted, headsails hanked on, halyards and sheets attached, but NOT hoisted. On the gun all crews rush forward (well as much as one can rush when attached to a Jackstay with a 3-way safety tether!) to get up their headsails. Due to the wind conditions and direction the sail plan of choice was full mainsail, staysail and Yankee 1. Le Mans start rules dictate all boats must keep the same course and sail plan for the first ten minutes, after which they can do what they want.
Roles on deck:
When I am not cooking on mother watch, cleaning the heads and emptying bins into the lazarette on cleaning duty, completing the hourly log and hand-pumping the bilges and grey water tank on navigation duty or doing engine checks on engine duty (all duties rotated daily among crew) or, actually conked out on my bunk ‘off watch’, there’s an awful lot to do on deck; be it a change of sail, change of tack, the constant attention required for maintaining maximum speed with sail trim, tidying the snake pit to avoid meters of knotted rope and constant repairs! …Here’s a few of the tasks I was involved in during our week sailing offshore in the English Channel:
Life on Board:
On reflection Level 4 taught me precisely what sacrifices and adjustments need to be made in order to be a competitive racing crew member and it also made me start to wonder if the majority of yacht owners probably don’t know how to sail their boats properly or for maximum speed performance. Just slipping the lines to cruise offshore in light airs for a day will never be quite the same again!