Level 3 Clipper Race Training – Disaster OR learning experience…

Level 3 Clipper Race Training is much talked about and long awaited, it is known to be super tough, and cements everything learnt in previous training weeks. For me, level 3 was intense, gruelling, at times disastrous, fun, and above all a tremendous learning experience. I have no doubt that my level 3 week, is going to go down as a legendary training week, and the Clipper rumour mill is (I am reliably informed) already in full action about the antics of our ‘cursed’ training week!

Clipper 70 – our home

Day One – ISAF and first impressions…

Meeting at Clipper HQ, I arrived fashionably late, to a classroom setting where my fellow crew mates and former Race Director, Justin Taylor were awaiting to kick the day off.

Day one, was an intense classroom day. Where Justin led the delivery of the ISAF programme. Teaching us about all elements of offshore safety. Running from 9 – 5, there was a short test at the end of the day. We all passed, and are now happily ISAF qualified.

Being a day about safety, of course the conversation naturally drifted towards the 2 tragic fatalities of the previous edition of our race. You could see eye’s gloss over as our thoughts drifted away… what do those crew’s feel now? Are they OK? What actually happened? Are we going to be OK? AND back in the room, we focus, listening intently, conscious of the previous accidents and keen to avoid them. We want to stay safe, we want to make sure there are no more fatalities, and we want to be prepared to deal with anything. Since the last edition, Clipper have made some excellent safety improvements, which appear to be as a direct response. All crew now have auto AIS built in to life jackets, there is now web netting along all guard wires, and on the deck fore and aft of the traveller are warning signs to remind us at all times, to stay clear. We are all grateful for these changes.

First impressions on my crew for the week. They seem really nice! There is a bit of a chatterbox in the room… will suss him out later.

Some of my crew for the week…. L-R – GT (1st mate), Nigel, Lyndsey, Dave and John.

After a long day, my brain is fried and we head to our home for the week. CV24 – formerly known as L Max Exchange.

Wow. The Clipper 70’s look incredible. Shiny white hulls, waiting for their branding. Sizeably bigger than the 68’s. Lined up and ready to race. We’re the first crew to go aboard L Max since she returned from her RTW.

Day two… Briefings, engine failure, and tensions rise

Our skipper and first mate await us, both are in the running to be RTW skippers on the race. They are both pro sailors with a wealth of experience. Completely different leadership styles. But both excellent nonetheless. Onboard on our 2nd day, we also have Dan Smith (deptuty Race Director), and also Maeva Bardy (a pro photographer and videographer) who is potentially going to be part of the documentary crew going RTW.

[Before we get any further, I just want to clarify that what I’m now going to cover and events that unfolded over the next few days, I do genuinely believe were very unfortunate and bear little reflection on the incredible skills that both our skip and our mate hold.]

We start the day with a Man Over Board (MOB) drill on the pontoon, it went well. Things are clicking back in to place! We then run through safety drills and boat briefs, reminding us of all the important things to remember on-board, and we hear more on previous race accidents. From these tragedies and disasters serious lessons have been learnt.

After drills, and checks we start to motor out of Gosport marina and head towards the solent. All on deck, and excited for our day ahead. But there’s a sudden silence on-board. The engine has stopped. GT shouts from the helm “Engine failure! I have no power. No engine!” … we’re all thinking, ‘is this a drill?’… surely just an exercise. Alas, it is not. We all run to the guard wires, getting fenders ready in case of a collision. Our skip darts below deck, desperate to identify what has happened and re-start the engine. We drift, in a silent panic towards a number of other boats and high pontoon, totally helpless…. “hoist the staysail!” comes an order, we sprint to our positions and grind like our lives depend on it, the sail rises up nearly 90ft. We are all breathless, but  at last we have some control of the boat. Moments later comes the reassuring “put put put” noise of the engine kicks in, and we discover that an engineer had shut off the fuel lines shortly before we departed. Nightmare. But thankfully quickly identified, and dealt with in a calm manner, with a good end result. This on-deck drama lasted no more than 2 minutes, and taught us a valuable lesson. Always check the fuel lines!

Perkins Diesel engine on-board a Clipper 70

We exit the channel and sail around the Solent, practising drills – tacking, hoisting, reefing, gybing. And reminding ourselves of winch safety, rope handling, and various learned skills from previous training weeks. It’s all coming back!

There is slight friction among the crew, with a dominant crew member, getting a little bit ‘tense’ with another crew member. We all remind ourselves, that one of the big challenges of the Clipper Race, is people management, and importantly ‘self management’. Communication on-board is key. We need to get along, we need to communicate effectively, we need to work as a team, we need to be sensitive of others needs and importantly of other peoples emotions. Without this, it doesn’t matter how good a sailor you are, you will not win, you will fail. You will also have a miserable time, as will the rest of the crew. Later in the day, we reflect on the crew communication, and all agree, that this is something we need to work on.

We remind ourselves of the management mantra ‘Forming, Norming, Storming, and Performing’. We are not going to be a perfect team. But we will damn well work on it. We are in the early stage of this process, and we know we can do this.

Flying along….

As we finish a great days sailing, we smell an acrid smokey smell. Is there a fire on-board?? Below deck, smoke is billowing from the engine room, filling the sleeping quarters with thick smoke. All hatches are opened, to give some ventilation. ‘Is the engine about to go up in flames?!’ We motor slowly to our pontoon. And start to investigate the engine. Two issues… 1. The fan hadn’t been turned on! (Major fail and could have caused a serious issue). 2. A hose had become detached and was the main cause of the smoke.  We were lucky. Engineers, will look at it for us.

Day three… Deck prep, rough seas, and a mishap

I’m the appointed deck lead, for deck prep. But first up, I need to check the weather for the day. Listening in on the VHF, the crackly voice breaks through ‘Gale force warning is in place, 6 – 7, occasionally 8. Sea state, rough’. Gulp! It’s day 3, and it looks like we’ve got some weather coming our way. My mind flicks back to my level 2 training. And the whole crew being struck down with sea sickness, being battered by waves and wind. It was nerve racking, but so exhilarating. I don’t dwell on this any more, excitement takes over.

Up on deck, we haul up our Yankee, and Stay Sail, and we prep our Main Sail. It takes time for our watch of 5, and all the while we are getting a soaking, thanks to the black clouds above us. We fumble at the forestay with numb, cold wet fingers ‘hanking on’, until we’re done. The boat is ready, and so are we. Time to set sail.

Out at sea, the weather is better than anticipated. We get some great speed up. We practice more drills, and our communication is definitely improving. ‘Little fingers to the winch’, ‘Safety turns on’, ‘go under the traveller’… it is all coming back and falling in to place.

Heeled over on Clipper Race level 3 training

The sun is nearly setting, but we’re eager to fly our kite. Just a quick blast. We get her hoisted, and wow this sail is big! It’s been a while. But this tennis court sized sail, is never to be underestimated. And this is the smallest of our 3 kites. Wow. No time though, nightfall is on us, we have lots more to do. A well drilled and executed letterbox drop, and an hour of ‘wooling’ follows. And with that we head back in to the marina. Fenders are in place, and roamers are on deck.

But something is wrong, it is windy, and we seem to be going a little quickly. A bit to port, a bit to starboard… and then BANG! A horrible cracking, squeaking noise, and we’ve smashed in to the pontoon, the cleat on the pontoon is surrounded by white dust and splinters… clearly from our hull. We straighten up and slowly glide back in. Fenders secured, and lines in place. Many expletives ensue, and we’re all in utter shock and disbelief. What just happened?! How on earth did that happen?… and what is the damage. We all know it is likely to be bad.

We jump off and there in the dim light of day, we can see a hole in our hull. The damage is bad. This is serious.

The hole in CV24

Our skipper disappears to speak to officials. What a nightmare. I can only imagine what he is feeling right now.

He returns with a plan. We will decant our boat to team Garmin’s boat. And use that for the rest of the week.

Amid all the chaos we’d ignored the engine smoke. Which is now thick again below deck. And is a serious danger in itself. We discuss this as a crew, and agree we want to move boats immediately. The smoke is dangerous, we can’t sleep another night aboard CV 24.

Tired and in shock, we flake our foresails and mainsail, we clear the deck, move the bare minimum to our new home (CV20), and have a debrief…. There are some positives – communication has improved! We are forming as a team. And that’s great. The issues we’ve had have forced us to pull together as a team. We discuss the problems to date, and we agree we’ve been unlucky. Let’s hope for a better day tomorrow.

More of the crew… L- R – Seb, Steph, Sammi, Me, and Connal (Skipper)

Day four…. The run of bad luck continues!

I awake at 6am with a pounding headache, I’ve had a cold and the last couple of days of being on deck in the cold and wet have definitely not helped. Nonetheless, I push through it, I can’t let the  team down, and I don’t want to miss out on training. Another day of rough seas is forecast – and a force 7/8 in terms of wind. This is going to be a fun day!

We’re looking forward to some downwind sailing, under spinnaker. We sail along the coast of the Isle of Wight, and haul our code 3 kite on deck. Practising our rigging, we get her ready to fly.

We begin the hoist, but alas the run of bad luck continues…  something isn’t right, the sail partially blows open, but most remains coiled, wool is tight and there could be a twist. Unsure, we whip at the sheets, hoping we can inflate the sail, and that there is no twist.

This can not be happening. Two or three attempts… the boat is heeled right over, the wind is blowing hard, and we are feeling the spray on our faces. The sail is not our friend today. Refusing to open, it collapses and the sheets start flogging violently in the wind.

Straight in to the water, our sail is being dragged under the boat. The shout comes “all hands on deck” “get on the foredeck, pull it in” “AND CLIP ON!”. My head is now pounding, my eyes are streaming. This migraine is bad, and we now have a serious situation on our hands.

We need to get this sail in, and fast. It’s weight is unbelievable, on shouts of “2, 6, HEAVE”, we haul and haul, but she’s being weighed down by the wind and the sea, and we have no hope. With the full strength of every crew member, we don’t even make a dent in getting her on-board. Every inch we gain, we simply lose again. The pressure is incredible. We’re breathless. And the adrenaline is pumping through our bodies. We have to cut the tack. This is dangerous. Our skip runs to the foredeck, knife in hand and swiftly cuts the line.

This relieves some pressure, and we haul and haul. It takes a further 35 minutes. But we finally get it on deck. There is blood on the sail. We are battered and bruised. And frankly exhausted. But we did it! We check everyone is OK. A couple of minor injuries, bleeding lips, cuts to hands, but nothing serious. The sheet is left in the water, and I excuse myself and head to my bunk. I can’t take the pain in my head any longer. I am probably a danger to my crew, and need to be out of the way. I know that my effort in hauling our kite in wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t find any more energy in my body.

I lie down, and am promptly sick. Back to my bunk, to darkness, and to try to shut out some of the noise.

Some time later, I can’t work out how long it has been…. there is a loud crack and a bang, and then the engine starts. What? We can’t be heading ashore already? I can’t have been in my bunk for that long… Is there an emergency on deck? Not a MOB? Someone would have raised the alarm. Argh my head hurts. My eyes are streaming. A migraine on a racing yacht is not fun. At all. What was that noise?

I spot a crew member out of my half closed eyes… Steph! A lovely crew mate, she asks if I’m ok. I don’t care about me, Why is the engine on? She explains, we’ve had another major issue on deck. A sheet from our kite was left dragging in the water. It was on top of our bowsprit, and the power of the sheet (50 m in length) and weight of the sea, have buckled our bowsprit right back, flat against the hull in fact. ‘What?! This HAS to be a joke. Seriously, this must be a joke. We’ve had engine failure, a near fire, a hole in our hull. This can not be.’ Steph looks down at me, and in a soft Scottish accent, assures me that she’s unfortunately not joking, we’re motoring back. We need to urgently assess the damage.

Our broken bowsprit aboard CV20
Trying to assess the damage and potentially make good after our bowsprit accident

In disbelief. I recoil into my sleeping bag. I awake shortly after midnight. People are just heading to their bunks. My head feels slightly better, I pop some more tablets and head back to my bunk. I can’t even face going on deck to see what on earth has happened.

Day five… Today has got to be the day

I awake to the sound of waves crashing against the side of the hull, and rain pounding the deck. Where are we??… I thought we headed ashore. This doesn’t feel like we’re in a marina. I feel so much better, human again. Thank god. I need to get up on deck and find out where we are.

Poking my head out of the companionway, I see that we’re in Gosport marina,  on the fuel pontoon. The decision was made to berth here, as winds and tides were strong when we came to moor, and after the previous catastrophe a good call was made to stay outside of the main marina. Wow, it is rough, considering where we are. At sea it is going to be a hell of a day.

After such a run of bad luck, and me being knocked out with a migraine. We’re all excited for the day ahead. Today is going to be our day. Our bowsprit is no more, but the boat is seaworthy, and we can have an awesome day of sailing today. Pulling together everything we’ve learnt. Downwind sailing, MOB, put some tacks in, practice helming in heavier weather. We head out to sea and our deck is prepped.

With just our main and stay sail up, we put 2 reefs in, it’s windy today, and the sea is already whipping up. We’re in for a ride today! We put a few tacks in, and pull together our plan for the day.

Then comes the call again, “Ready to tack, runners back”, we get to position. “Helm to Lee” comes to shout, and then BAM! The boat stops and almost nose dives in to the water. We stop dead. WHAT WAS THAT?! …. We’re run aground. We’ve parked. Everyone on the high side. Engine on.

We try and move the boat. We put her in to reverse. We position our weight. But nothing. We’re stuck and that is the end of that. We’re beam on to the waves, getting pounded. Hearts are racing. Every wave that hits us, feels like it could roll us. We’re a sitting duck. How can the run of bad luck be continuing. None of us can believe our luck.  Our skip briefs us on the plan, calms the situ, checks the keel bolts, and preps us on next steps.

We drop the kedge anchor, to help keep us from rolling. And make sure we’re as safe as can be. Radio and call in. We’re safe from other vessels, it’s just the weather that’s giving us a battering. Black clouds fill the horizon, and a soaking soon follows. The boat rocking from side to side. The sea spraying across the deck and crew. A couple of hours pass. Time for a cup of tea. All we can do is sit it out.

Aground on Hyde Sands, and there’s a storm coming…

Stories of vessels that have run aground are re-told. Of the dangers after a grounding. Of the tragedy of Cheeky Rafiki, which we’re all too aware of. As soon as we’re free, when the tide comes in, we need to head shore. The boat must be lifted and the keel checked.

Mid afternoon – we feel a sudden lifting feeling, we’re free! A spontaneous round of applause, and then time to lift the anchor. This in itself is a mission. We grind the rope on to a winch, and start the process. “GRIND!” 4 people on the primary winch grinding hard. And then 2 of us hauling the chain on the foredeck. We get the anchor on-board and head ashore.

The feeling of frustration, and disbelief on-board is obvious. The crew are also worried for our skip and mate. They’re fantastic guys, professional, skilled sailors. What has happened this week, has been a run of unfortunate events. Some preventable, yes. But they’ve happened, they’ve been dealt with. We’re all safe. We’ve also learnt a lot as a crew. We’ve mustered together. Communication is now not a problem! We’re a team. And we have dealt with some real life serious situations which has given us experience that could help us in the future. Where others may have only learnt the theory, we’ve done these things. From every negative we must find the positive.

Day six… cleaning and debriefs

As is tradition, at the end of a training week it’s deep clean day. We strip back the boards, clean the bilges, rinse all gear. Thoroughly clean the galley. Go over defects. And get CV 20 ready for her next crew. She will sadly need engineer work and lifting, following the bowsprit incident and the grounding.

We reflect on the week. WHAT A WEEK! We’ve missed some of the syllabus. But we’ve had experiences and lessons from the dramas that have happened. We’ve definitely learnt a lot about team work and life on-board. We’ve grown as a team and grown as sailors. This week has contained several ‘incidents’, and will no doubt become a Clipper legend, but it hasn’t been a disaster, in my opinion it has been a learning experience.

lesson onboard clipper race training
Having a lesson on-board. I’m holding a whiteboard with prompts on!

For me personally, I am now very clear about the kind of boat I want to be on. What kind of skipper I want to be on-board with. What I want from the race. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for the last couple of months. But the week has cemented by decision. I want to be on a podium boat. I am prepared to push myself to the limits physically and mentally, I want that podium. I want a crew that operates as a team, we need to be sleek, we need to communicate, we can’t all be pro-sailors, but if we work as a team we may well be better! I want everyone to push themselves, no slackers here please. I want to be the boat that goes that extra mile. We distribute our weight and sails for speed, we balance our boat, we trim, we trim, and we trim some more. A relentless race of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. I want the podium.

So after an intense Level 3 Clipper Race training week, it’s next stop – crew allocation!

6 thoughts on “Level 3 Clipper Race Training – Disaster OR learning experience…”

  1. A great read as an alumni 15/16 – wanting a podium is a great thing – I wanted to do well and got frustrated but winning takes lots of different angles and we in the end got a 1,2,3 in races but it took time. ultimately we were a safe boat, a great cohesive crew the majority of the time and the overall social spirit winners and I wouldn’t change a thing. I vowed to be all over the race and it was a consuming thing for me because I wanted to get the most out of it all. I would go out with my crew and skipper again at the drop of a hat, and that to me is winning overall. Have a great race! 🙂 you’ll have lots more stories to tell!

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment.
      I completely agree with you in terms of winning overall, the stories, experiences, and friends are a huge part of it. I am so lucky to have already made some incredible friends through Clipper, and am looking forward to meeting many more 🙂

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