Level 4 Clipper Race Training is the last of the 4 weeks of training that Clipper provide ahead of the biennial Round the World yacht race. And it is known to be incredibly tough. Offshore for 7 days, sailing round the clock in watches, honing ‘drills and skills’, the week also includes a cross channel drag race against the rest of the Clipper Race fleet. I’ve just completed my Level 4 Clipper Race training, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Here I’m going to blog about one of the most tiring, exhilarating, intense, exciting, and downright exhausting weeks of my life. I’ll warn you now, you may want to grab a cuppa – I hope you enjoy the read.
On Level 4 race training, crews are on-board with their race skipper and the crew that they will actually be sailing with. My skipper is Gaetan Thomas, and my crew are thus called Team GT. Some of the crew will be circumnavigating together with GT, and others (like me) are ‘leggers’, and we will join the race for specific legs.
My crew are an eclectic mix ranging from approx. 23 yrs or so in age, through to probably 65 yrs, encompassing people from all walks of life, with mixed sailing ability and fitness. But we have one common goal, and that is to take ourselves out of our day to day, and join the race of our lives across the world’s oceans. Ahead of level 4, some of us have previously sailed together, or met at crew allocation, but there were also a few newbies on-board that I’d not met. And it was fantastic to finally put faces to names.
The crew are committed, led by GT we are very well gelled. Each finding our place within the team. I couldn’t have been happier with our crew this week. The support, the smiles, the laughs (I haven’t laughed so much for a very long time), the determination and the hard work. There were no rifts, no conflicts, and no un-pleasantries – just respect for each other and for our dedicated and hard-working skipper, GT.
Drills and skills…
On the first couple of days of training we completed various ‘drills and skills’ which we might need during the race. We also had various safety briefings. We all concentrated hard and listened intently, hoping that we wouldn’t ever need to deploy any of these skills. This is absolutely no laughing matter, this could be in some cases the difference between surviving and not surviving if a situation arises.
Training included towing another Clipper Race yacht, boat to boat transfers of supplies and of a casualty, fire safety, collision and flooding drills, a medivac, and a coordinated live Dan bouy AIS test. The AIS test was a site to behold – all of the level 4 boats rendezvoused at specific coordinates, one by one the 70 ft racing yachts appeared with their excited crews, ready to spring in to action. The coast guard had been notified, as this was a live drill and were on standby, and then over the radio the command came to begin. We activated our AIS and threw the dan buoy overboard, tracking movement and position on the AIS receiver. This is effectively what we would see and hear if we were in a real life man overboard situation. It is both frightening, and yet reassuring. The system is highly effective, and the skippers are incredibly well drilled.
Day 2 – A rude awakening and a Mayday call…
After a day of drills and skills, we’d anchored off Osbourne Bay with the imposing Osbourne House keeping watch on us, perched upon the picturesque cliff top on the Isle of Wight. We’d all done a cycle of anchor watches over night, in perfectly calm waters. But at 5.30am I was woken by the sound of the hull slamming in to the waves, the halyards were pinging… it sounds like the wind may have arrived. A short while later, there’s a shout of ‘muster!’ The wind is too high, we need to pack up and leave the anchorage.
We set sail, and a few are struck with nausea, namely the unfortunate ‘mothers’ who had to remain below deck in choppy conditions to get breakfast ready. The VHF is quite busy this morning, with the rest of the fleet out, we are coordinating with each other on ch 77. And then comes something none of us expected to here, ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is CV 31…’ One of the fleet put out a Mayday call, we couldn’t quite understand what was wrong, and we were too far to help. But a Mayday call is serious, reserved only for situations when someone’s life is in grave or imminent danger. The crew all ponder what may have happened, concerned for our fellow racers, we all hope to god that they are OK.
Alas, we must remain focused. We’re now in our watches, with half the crew on watch and half off. I am assigned the responsibility of assistant watch leader. I am more than happy with that. We’re off watch 12pm – 4pm, then on from 4-8pm, off for 4 hours, and then back on from 12 – 4am. The watch system is highly effective, allowing enough time to recoup, and ensuring that we all have maximum energy to give. My watch head off to bed after our 12 – 4pm shift, as we climb down the companionway hatch we discuss the possibility of a man over board drill being sprung on us and all agree that we should sleep in our clothes and keep shoes and life jacket to hand. And sure enough, we guessed right. Shortly after falling asleep, we were woken to frantic shouts of “man overboard”, eyes open with not a second to pause for thought, life jacket on, shoes on. Think! We’re all well drilled on this, and all know exactly what needs to be done. And we perform a seamless drill. MoB recovered, and back to bed for ‘off watch’.
Shifts come and go, we’re remembering past training, and building on it as well as learning new skills. The weather is beautiful, sunny with a nice breeze, we couldn’t have asked for more. Still no news on the May day call. I get on the helm for the 12 – 4am watch. Helming under the near full moon and stars is an incredible feeling. I feel lucky. The wind is perfect, I touch 11.5 knots a few times. The boat is heeled over and the water is skimming on to the deck. This is why we’re here, the rush that this gives is phenomenal. Working as a team, getting the boat going, I’m proud to be here.
I reluctantly head back down below at 4am, not wanting this feeling to end. But am soon up to cook breakfast for everyone at 7am. I am mother for the next 24 hours. My job is to keep the crew fed and watered, a huge responsibility as food is so important when on-board, as is timing of it! After a lot of pot washing (17 empty porridge bowls, and a similar number of coffee cups, along with a giant pot with porridge nicely cemented to its inside edge) I head on to deck for a 2 hour stint on the helm. We’re upwind sailing, and I’ve got the boat over at a near 45 degree angle. We are flying.
Next for some downwind sailing, spinnaker up, lots of gybe’s and another MoB drill – our 1st under spinnaker. And I’m proud to say that we nailed it. In under 15 mins we’d dropped the kite, and staysail and recovered our casualty. My mother duties come and go throughout the day, with my last stint of cooking in the evening, I’m then washing up until 11pm, just in time for my ‘mooring buoy watch’ at 11pm. It’s then more sleep, and up at 5am for another stint. By now my body is aching, and I’m so unbelievably tired.
What day is it?
It’s now Saturday, day 4 I think? All days merge together, with watches coming and going. We have breakfast and are then called on to deck. GT says he wants to share something with us, and then he continues to tell us of a horrendous personal situation that his family have recently gone through and what an impact it has had on him. There is shock upon the faces of the crew, my eyes fill with tears and I am thankful for my sunglasses. GT is someone who we all admire so much, and when you hear of this news that admiration only builds. His ability to do his job and do it so well, even when there are so many other things going on in the background is astonishing. He keeps a calm head and puts us first. He’s an incredibly inspiring man. One thing that I will never forget is, when we first gathered as a crew, at crew allocation he stood in front of us and laid down how he feels, “I will die for you. I will always put you first”. And you know when he says it, he means it. So to hear him sharing such sad news with us, cuts us all in the heart. I want to offer him some comforting words, but I know that I won’t be able to hold myself together, so instead I (like most others) am lost for words and say nothing, we walk away heads bowed and carry on with the task in hand. One crew member was strong enough to offer the supportive words that were needed, and so I was grateful for that. I was also thankful to GT for sharing this personal news with us, he is a super-human, but he is still human.
We finally have news of the May day. A crew member was briefly knocked unconscious, and the coast guard attended. We’re reassured to hear that all is now well.
It’s time to race…
It’s now Sunday morning, and someone accidentally woke me up at 5.30am for anchor watch! Nooooooo! Those precious moments of sleep. Gone. But alas it is race day.
We’re briefed and ready for a practice Le Mans start. We have to stand behind a specific line on deck and wait for a countdown. Following the countdown, we all have to spring in to action and hoist the fore sails as fast as we can. We’re all so excited, I have nervous butterflies, and I just want the countdown to come already. The fleet of CV boats are mustering, we all mill about near the start line, like sharks circling their prey, and then when the 4 min countdown begins we form an orderly line in the water. 10, 9, 8… the countdown comes on the VHF, and then it’s GO GO GO! We hoist like our lives depend on it, and are rewarded with being the first off the line with our foresails up. An amazing feeling. What team work.
A practice race start (different to Le Mans) then follows, we aren’t quite in the right position and winds having dropped to virtually nothing. We cross the line last. Our bubble is burst. We’ve felt success and now a short while later, failure. It does not feel good. But with every failure, comes a learning. The real race start is imminent and we must do better.
Winds teeter away to nothing, this is frustrating. The claxon goes over the radio and we’re off. 3rd across the line, we look back and see several boats struggling to get across the line. We work hard, trimming, and every small gain we make is great for morale. Spirit on-board is at a high. When it comes to ‘off watch’, it’s difficult to leave deck – I need the sleep, but don’t want to miss a beat. I have spent a lot of time on the bow and have to pass the baton on and step away to conserve my energy. This is a long race. We’re heading from Gosport to Portland Bill, then over the channel to France and back again.
The longest four hour watch (ever)…
After 3 hours sleep, I’m back on deck for the 12 – 4am shift. I’m pleased to see that we’re still in 3rd/possibly 4th position. We’re 8 miles off the mark. As soon as we round the mark, we plan to hoist our spinnaker for a downwind run. We heave the tennis course sized sail on to deck and rig her ready to fly. We are very close to 2 other boats, and intermittently you can see torches on the bow flick on and off, as other crews check their sail trim anxiously. Every time one boat lights up their sails, the other boats do too, not wanting to miss a trick or lose position. It is utterly nail biting, the pressure is building. We could overtake after the mark. We’re now 3 miles from the mark.
GT does a final deck check, to ensure we get the quickest possible hoist, when a series of expletives in Flemish can be heard from the foredeck. The bobstay is swinging wildly in the water. The shackle which should be holding the stay in place, gone. We have no replacement on-board, just a smaller version, that will have to do. The shackle needs to be fixed just above the waterline on the bow. This requires someone donning a harness and going over-board. GT duly kits up and we are now on the mark. We round the mark and then lower him over the edge. I’m with him on the foredeck controlling the halyard on which his life depends. We’re all frustrated. And watch as the lights of the other 3 leading pack disappear in to the distance. Our opportunity is gone. GT is hanging just above the water, under starlight he successfully manages to attach the mini shackle. The bobstay is fixed and we hoist our kite.
But the drama is far from over. The spinnaker nearly collapses a few times, and then we notice that one of the sheets is trapped under another sail that’s lying on the bow. I head up to the bow, clipped on with a tether. I heave and heave at the sail. It’s heavy work. I call back and others join me. On calls of “2-6-heave” we shift it. And after a 15 minute struggle in the darkness of the night, we are now alone in the channel, but the sheet is freed. A crew member, Dave bares a war wound as his blood spills on to the deck. My whole body is sweating, and I am shaking with the physical exertion of the last couple of hours. But we’ve done it! We fixed the bobstay, we freed the sheet, and all in darkness. It’s time to smile. The ‘off watch’ appear in the companionway, bleary eyed and oblivious to the drama that has unravelled as they slept. We gladly head to our bunks, safe in the knowledge that all is good, and we are now back in the game and on the hunt for our competitors.
The hunt is on….
Before long, it’s time to get back on deck. We’re still sailing downwind, and unfortunately make some helming errors which cost us dearly. With the wind shifting repeatedly by 90 degrees we struggle to keep up and start to lose our ground. Slowly we find ourselves sliding to the back of the fleet. Yet again our bubble is burst. We’ve worked so hard and are physically exhausted. But we can’t give up. We debrief and draw a line under the last few hours. It’s now upwind sailing, we keep an eye on the AIS and competition ahead of us, we begin to chase them down one by one.
We have Qingdao in our sights next, after passing two others in close succession. We’re on a roll. The wind is really picking up now, it’s 25 – 30 knots, and we’re heeled over. We chase them for hours gaining ground slowly but surely. Finally after a battle, we pass them. The feeling is immense. The hard work is paying off. But moments later they’re fighting back hard and making attempts to pass us.
We’re neck and neck. The seas are lumpy and seasickness has returned for some of the crew. All this, while the mothers are cooking our evening meal! Life at sea is relentless and unforgiving, and what-is-more racing life at sea is even tougher, it’s not just a battle against the elements, but against other boats. It’s exhausting.
The battle with team Qingdao continues all evening. As darkness falls we can see their tri-colour light twinkling on the mast in the distance behind us. We’re ahead, but they’re hunting us down. At times we make ground, and then we lose it. This is a fight to the finish line. It’s 12.30am and they’re roughly 5 miles behind us, but are gaining ground. We’re roughly an hour from the line. We dig in and persevere and finally cross the line at approx. 1.30am. We held our position and came in 3rd. what a feeling! To have come back from last place, we couldn’t have wished for more. A short motor to Gosport, flake all the sails and put them to bed. We head to bed at 4am. And then are up at 6.45am for a deep clean.
The week is done. There’s been highs and lows, and stresses and strains. We’re all battered bruised and exhausted. But on a high nonetheless. Our only wish… we want to do it all over again. Level 4 Clipper Race training, you were amazing.