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The Clipper RTW comprises a fleet of 12 seventy foot ocean going racing yachts, each with a professional skipper and a 22 person crew of ordinary people who race 40 000 nautical miles circumnavigating the planet.
Around 40% of the crew, like me, have never sailed before. But we're trusting that the comprehensive four weeks of training will give us the skills to face whatever Mother Nature dishes up as we cross the World's great oceans!
The full race takes 11 months, but I've opted to do half the race, around 18000 nm, or 33 000km. Starting on 20th of August from Liverpool, the race will take me from the UK to Uruguay in South America, Uruguay to Cape Town, Cape Town to Western Australia, then to Sydney and on Boxing Day 2017 we take part in the iconic Sydney Hobart race.
Conditions will be extreme, from violent storms in the Southern Ocean through the exhaustion of racing 24 x 7 with 4 hour shifts for weeks on end, cooped up in a boat with 22 people I don't yet know. I can't wait!
For more information and real time updates (once the race has started) view the clipper web site
After the festive atmosphere of the pre-race week in Liverpool, followed by the big crowds and fanfare on race start day, we are now heading down the mid atlantic on our pink boat, Liverpool 2018, toward the dreaded doldrums and the equator. We've covered around 2600 nautical miles (nm) over 14 days. Leg 1 (Liverpool to Punta Del Este in Uruguay) is the longest in the history of the Cipper race at 6363 nm (that's around 11500km!!) and expected to take around 35 days.
Conditions have been varied, from rough seas a week ago to several instances of absolutely no wind, with the boat bobbing around and going nowhere. Efforts are focussed on fine tuning the sails to catch the slightest breeze. However in spite of being frustrating because we're making no progress they are a great opportunity to have a bucket shower on the back deck. A bit like the ice bucket challenge, pouring refreshing sea water over your head, a good wash / shampoo and then rinse in a smidge of fresh water. (As with many other things on board supply of fresh water is limited so there is no normal showering.)
Life on board has settled into a repeating cycle of sail, eat, sleep, sail, eat, sleep and so on. The phrase 'groundhog day' is regularly mumbled, especially when getting ready for a 4am shift!
Because we're racing 24 x 7 the crew are split into two 'watches', each taking turns. While one sails the other rests. On our boat the basic pattern is based around 4hr shifts, meaning we never get more than 3 1/2 hours of continuous sleep. The hardest shifts are overnight, especially when doing the 8pm to midnight shift followed by 4am to 8am.
Of course being a race we are intensly interested in how the other yachts in the fleet are doing & trying to glean what their race strategies are. A snapshot of boat positions, speed and direction is received 6 hourly via satellite download. These are a key part of our daily 6pm skipper's catch up meeting with the whole crew where the positions are eagerly discussed.
After taking a bit of a 'scenic' route at the start leaving us at the back of the pack we've slowly clawed our way back. Good choices and favourable conditions have seen us work our way to 5th using a strategy of 'steady wins the race' - sailing consistently without taking risks that might result in equipment damange. While other boats have pushed harder several of them have had damage to their sails which will impede them going forward.
Also downloaded daily are updated weather files. These are our main tool for planning our route. Do we go west to get better winds, or do we go directly south to take the shortest route even if the winds are weaker and we will therefore travel slower? Of particular interest are any incoming weather systems, big storms to avoid or 'wind holes' that will leave us standing still.
Talking of weather, it has been extremely warm over the last few days. We spend most of the time looking like soggy loo paper, sweating profusely. Up on deck the breeze makes things more bearable but below deck it is sweltering, making sleeping difficult. Luckily we have small battery powered fans which help. The bad news is that the doldrums are likely to be hotter still!
Although we've all had four weeks of training the race itself is where we really learn to sail. As such our skills are improving daily. Personally I've found the learning curve quite steep with a whole host of new terminology (who would have thought a rope could be called so many things? It can be a halyard, a sheet, a painter etc.) However the different steps to be carried out to put up or take down any of the sails, tacking and gybing are slowly becoming more natural and the crew is becoming more competent. I've spent a bit of time helming (driving the boat in laymen's terms) over the last few days and starting to feel more confident.
In spite of the difficulties of lack of sleep, living at a constant angle and being in confined quarters with 22 others, they are far outweighed by the beauty of the wide open sea, the frequent pods of dolphin that swim next to the boat and the georgeous sunrise and sunsets. Plus getting to know our fellow crew members, a really neat bunch of people.
We're incredibly lucky to be able to be part of this great adventure, it's something that few of us will get to experience. I'm very grateful to be part of it.
8/10/2017 _ Some things change while others stay the same....
After a brilliant stop in Punta Del Este in Uruguay we're now on Leg 2. (The overall race is broken up into 8 legs, each of which is made up of one or more races. For example Leg 1 and 2 are individual races, while leg 4 has 3).
What's changed? Well some of the leg 1 crew have left and new 'leggers' have joined (that's what crew doing individual legs but not the full circumnavigation are called). Fortunately the new team has gelled well. We've also had a shuffle around of the watches and a switch around of the watch leaders.
What hasn't changed are the living conditions. As mentioned in the previous blog life at a >35 degree angle is quite challenging. Each day's mothers (they do the cooking for the day) have to battle with flying food and everything sliding all over the place. Just getting from one side of the boat to another is a full body workout. My allocated bunk is a top bunk on the high side. To get in requires my Spider-Man impersonation, walking sideways up the wall and then swinging across to the bunk and quickly adjusting the angle to avoid falling out. Fortunately the bunks have a pulley system so that you can adjust the angle to have it flat even though the boat is tilted over, along with a lee cloth to keep you in.
Still present are the 4hr shifts, which have taken a few days to get back into. Ten days in Punta with full nights sleep soon got my routine back to old. However I'm getting back into the swing of it and not feeling nearly so tired, especially when being woken up at midnight for the 12 to 4am shift.
Having said all that, state of mind is key. You can let it get you down and dominate your thinking or accept it as part of the experience and get on and enjoy it. I'm taking the latter approach.
Sailing conditions have been varied with heavy seas for the first few days. Several new crew were affected by sea sickness but luckily I seem to have developed my sea legs and haven't been. Very different to the start of leg 1 where I had several sessions with my head in a bucket!
In particular we've had waves constantly breaking over the boat with everyone on deck being regularly doused with cold sea water. Think 'Ice bucket challenge' over and over. My dry suit has been invaluable in keeping me dry.
We've also had some particularly big waves. A few days ago I was sitting on the high side in the front of the cockpit and the next second I was in a heap at the low side back of the cockpit at the end of the tether. The wave not only washed me across the deck but set off my life jacket and AIS. We quickly had to email other boats in the area to let them know it wasn't a man over board emergency as the AIS automatically shows up on their nav and they're ready to assist. The need to clip your tether onto the jackstay (a number of strong lines attached to the deck) is constantly drummed into us during training and for good reason, as they will save your life.
Since then the seas have been calmer allowing us to make good progress. Unlike many of the other boats we decided to make a dash for the scoring gate and were the 2nd to reach it, scoring two points. Although officially 10th (positions are based on distance from the run line and we're quite far to the south) we are in a good position for the run to Cape Town.
Not so good for one of the boats, PSP, which had to return to Punta after hitting a whale and damaging their rudder! I believe they've been put up in a hotel while the boat is being repaired and treated to more Uruguayan hospitality.
In spite of the conditions I'm having a good time. Helming a 70ft yacht surfing down crashing waves is a real adrenaline rush, even more so when it's pitch dark and you can't see the waves coming! The beauty and vastness of the open ocean, watching sunrises and sunset, sailing at night when the stars are out or moon casting light on the water. Watching albatross hover above the boat and the occasional whale breaching. All these make this a very rewarding experience.
After a regular diet of dramatic YouTube videos of Clipper boats in the Southern Ocean, with huge waves and high speeds, I've been a little surprised at the first week of leg 3.
The race started reasonably well from Cape Town but the wind soon petered out and six hours after start Table Mountain was still in sight. Since then we've been in several 'wind holes' with minimal wind and the boat bobbing around. At other times the light winds have seen us sailing at a sedate 10 knots. This is a little unexpected in the 'roaring forties' where strong westerly winds are the norm. Most of the winds we've had so far have been easterly.
However we have had some rough weather with the boat pounding into the waves and plenty of splashing over the deck.
Yesterday we had a glimpse of the real Southern Ocean. We were sailing along in quiet conditions when out of nowhere a squall came up with 40 knots winds (storm rating) and gusts of 60 knots (hurricane rating). The boat was almost knocked over and things became very rough. Crew on deck held on for dear life as the deck was almost vertical. Luckily below deck there was a bit of chaos but not too much damage. I was on mother duty and was just about to start dinner but didn't yet have food on the stove. However we were not so lucky on deck with our code 2 spinnaker being badly damaged (shredded might be a more appropriate word). It was quite a scary experience.
Although a slow start for us it was a devastating one for the Greenings boat, who beached themselves and had to abandon ship. (See Clipperroundtheworld.com for details) Having won the first two legs of the race they are now out for the rest of the race. Some of the crew were able to get on the Hotelplanner.com which had to turn back to Port Elizabeth to drop off a crew member with a broken arm.
If you've been following the race viewer you may have wondered at our zig zag course, but be assured it's not because we've been drinking behind the wheel (sadly the Clipper boats are alcohol free - a beer would be great after a shift on deck!). It's the only way we can sail up wind.
For the first time in ages we had a couple of dolphins swim with us. Apart from that our only companions are the sea birds. The Southern Ocean is a lonely place. No other ships and we only occasionally see one of the other Clipper boats pop up on the AIS. According to the Clipper blurb the closest people to us are on the International space station!
Talking of sea birds the most impressive are the large (wingspan of around 2 metres) albatross that glide effortlessly past the boat, only metres away. They then swoop away in their continual search for food. This evening one was hovering behind the boat metres from where I was behind the helm cage, close enough for me to see it eying us out.
Race wise we are currently in 6th place but in a pack with little between us. Currently doing a good pace and hoping to make up a few places. Distance wise about a 3rd of the way after 10 days of racing. Another two weeks to go and enjoying every minute, almost....
I’m a bit grumpy.
As much as I'd like to report that we're all having a ball, the reality - for me at least - is that being on the same tack for several days with the boat pounding through waves and everything being hard to do is testing my resilience. With a watch of only four + watch leader, things are taking their toll, both below deck and with the sailing.
Everything is hard from climbing up the wall to get across to your bunk to going to the heads. Organising a simple watch rotation becomes a logistics exercise (how hard can it be to get four people rotating through four roles?). Just getting from one side of the boat is a full body workout. I mentioned in a previous blog that our attitude is all important and that we can take these conditions in our stride. That's still true, but it's hard.
Things are as mentally/emotionally challenging as they are physically. Comments made in jest take on a sharpness. Now I know not to take things personally, but in this weary state of mind it becomes harder to 'keep calm and carry on' as our English crew would say, and I'll have to admit to letting things get me down just a bit.
And then I stand behind the wheel, powering this 70 foot behemoth through a vast ocean that very few people get to experience. Right by me only 2 to 3 metres away is a large white albatross. With a two metre wingspan it glides effortlessly, close enough that I can see its eyes. It, in turn, is eying us out, checking to see if we are a source of food. After a minute or so, it peels away to continue its endless search. In the meantime the boat may have wandered off course (good helming takes full concentration), but I'm hoping no one noticed!
The current winds are forecast to continue for the next 24hrs, after which things will change and life on board will be easier.
I feel better already.
Today is 15th November and it's my birthday. As it turns out, it was a day I won't forget in a hurry.
All started well. A special breakfast of cereal, boiled eggs and toast with well wishes from my fellow crew to be followed by a quiet watch up on deck. Now that the long promised wind change has arrived, the boat is a lot flatter while still maintaining good speeds. Things are far more comfortable and all was well.
That is until a loud 'thunk' was heard. To me it sounded like we had hit something in the water, but the reality was worse. The large steel shackle that connects the forestay to the deck had snapped (the forestay is the strong steel cable that supports the mast and also where we attach the yankee sails).
It looked like our Leg 3 race was over. Without being able to use yankee sails, our speed would be severely limited and would likely delay our arrival in Fremantle by days. Even worse was the possibility of having to motor the rest of the way.
But all was not lost.
If you're around my age you may recall a TV series called MacGyver, where the main star was able to get himself out of many hairy situations using common items at hand and always managed to come up with a plan. Well, on the Pink Panther we have our own MacGyver in the form of skipper Lance!
Once the forestay had been secured and the mast supported with a spinnaker halyard, he was off to find a fix.
The initial problem was that we did not have a spare shackle. So the first task was to see if we could find a shackle somewhere else on the boat that could be repurposed. As luck would have it the bobstay has a suitable one. The only problem was the bobstay shackle is connected to the front of the boat right at the water line. John V was suited up and dropped over the side, but found himself up to his neck in the water with the shackle constantly disappearing under the surface. Lance then called for all hands on deck and got us to stand at the back of the boat. Amazingly this raised the front of the boat by a foot! Although enough for John V to have a good go at releasing the shackle, it remained firmly stuck.
However the full crew gathering was not wasted. I was on the helm at the time so the crew took the opportunity to perform a fine rendition of Happy Birthday.
Since the bobstay shackle was no longer an option Lance, James et al. moved on to plan B, then plan C and so on, eventually coming up with a workable solution. Last I saw was Lance balancing on the bowsprit, hacksaw in hand, with James close at hand surrounded by the contents of the tool box.
Long story short, a while later the two returned from the bow with a triumphant look. The repair work was complete and we were able to sail again.
Although the broken forestay had cost us the best part of a day's sailing we were extremely lucky that the weather was calm enough that the boat did not sustain significant damage (a collapsed mast for example) and we were able to carry out repairs. Had the weather been rough it could have been a very different outcome!
My birthday celebrations finished with a great meal (courtesy of the day's mothers, Graham & Eric) which included rice pudding and not one, but two, birthday cakes, complete with icing (thanks Graham). Another team singing of Happy Birthday rounded out the end of a day that could potentially have been disastrous, but was saved by team work & ingenuity.
On reflection, my 51st birthday reminds me of the old Mastercard moments advert (which goes something along the lines of: Family Dinner: $120, Movie Tickets: $30, watching the joy on your children's faces: Priceless)
My version would be the Clipper Race: $ A small fortune, Accommodation & travel: $5000, sharing my birthday in the middle of the ocean with a fantastic group of people: Priceless!
With the Elliot Brown Ocean Sprint now finished, we are back to good old fashioned regular sailing which to be honest is not much different from ocean sprinting. We're still keeping south (very, very south) and we're still trying to get the absolute best boat speeds we can from the winds that are on offer. If we're not careful we might come across a flock of penguins rather than an albatross - that's how south we are. Here's hoping that we can sneak past a couple of the other teams who have, up until now, held their ground north as they now begin to make their descent down to Tassie.
In other news, a few of the team are doing their best to keep up their daily schedule of Decksercise (see what I did there - I'm so punny). Whilst a number of the team adhere to Decksercise, none of them, and I do mean none of them, compare to Kiwi Steve Schoultz. The man has a level of dedication I've not seen for a long, long time. Without fail he spends at least 20 minutes a day doing a varied combo of pushups, dips, lunges, leg lifts and stretches to keep himself in ship shape. And he does this regardless of the weather or how much the boat is heeled over. I can tell you now that watching a man in a full set of foulies balancing on one leg whilst the boat threatens to broach is amazing. It's almost like watching ballet (well I assume it is as I've never seen the ballet). To Mrs Kiwi Steve all I can say is - that's one hell of a limber hubby you've got there. Good for you!
Written by Lance Shepherd - Skipper