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Sailing The Beast From The East

When you find yourself working on the bow in sub-zero temperatures, in force 7 conditions, amidst some of the most severe weather the UK has endured in recent years, you can either go one of two way’s – quit or carry on. Last weekend, I was faced with this challenge and I made the choice to carry on. Overcoming so many challenges – the cold, the wind, de-icing the boat, and in fact just getting to the boat! I sailed the Beast from the East.

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Spot the winch handle

The Beast from The East and Storm Emma
Last week the UK was hit by a freezing cold weather system, known as the ‘Beast from the East’, at the same time a cold winter storm from Europe (Storm Emma) hit Southern England. This created a powerful combination of sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds… not exactly perfect sailing weather. Nonetheless, I ventured out (against a lot of very carefully considered advice) on a weekend of Clipper refresher sail training.

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The drive to the boat alone was a challenge, loading the car up with food, a shovel and vital supplies, I set off on what should have been a 2 hour journey to Gosport, 5.5-6 hours later I arrived. But alas, I had overcome the first hurdle… I had made it to the boat!

The crew
I hadn’t met or sailed with any of the crew before. We were the usual mix of a sailing crew (male skewed as standard). 6 men, 1 lady and myself. As well as a skipper and a mate, both highly skilled, dynamic and interesting professionals, it was a pleasure and honour to sail with them.

The crew were all Clipper crew (like me), with most prepping to join Leg 6 (China to Seattle, North Pacific). One of the most challenging legs of the race, they will be faced with extreme seas, weather and temperatures, as well as an endurance challenge. They are joining the race in less than 2 weeks’ time.

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On deck for refresher training

I was fairly surprised by my leg 6 crew mates – they’re about to face an enormous challenge, the race of their lives, and most hadn’t stepped foot on a boat for 6 months and had done no training outside of the 4 weeks that Clipper provide. Additionally to that most had only been focussing on physical fitness for the last 6-8 weeks. But that’s the Clipper model I guess! Clipper say that no further training is necessary, and fitness is down to the individual’s choice. For me, and my own personal peace of mind, I like to know that I’ve done all I can – both in terms of on the water training, and also fitness-wise. (If you read my recent blogs you’ll see what training I’ve been doing, what I’ve been up to on the water, and what I’ve been up to in terms of getting fit for sailing).

They were a great bunch of people to sail with, all with their own stories to tell, and I enjoyed a couple of quiet chats and great moments with some of them. Incredible, how you can bond so quickly with people when you’re thrown in to a tough situation or when you all have a common goal.

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An icy deck… job #1 before we went sailing was to de-ice it!

The weekend
With the mercury hitting -16.1C on Thursday, the Beast from the East and our lovely Storm Emma, bought some of the coldest conditions to the UK for many years. Thrown in for good measure were gale force winds, with enormous gusts.

Temperatures where I live in Kent hit -16.1c!

Arriving at my home for the weekend, I was met by a snow covered pontoon, and an ice covered boat. Our first job as a crew was to re-familiarise ourselves with the boat, to de-ice her and make her safe. Several of us set about hauling bucket after bucket of freezing cold sea water up on to deck by a length of rope, and sloshing it systematically over the ice. Whilst others used brooms to brush and scrub away at the solid ice. This was a tough job, a baptism of ice cold fire if you like.

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Walking on the pontoon was a challenge in itself, the snow covered a blanket of sheet ice

The work was physical and got me moving, which was great for heat, but with every bucket of water I bought up I had to pull up the soaking wet and cold rope. My hands felt frozen to the bone. Gradually through the 7 layers of clothes I was wearing, I got colder and colder, to the point of pain. After an hour and a half we were finished. The deck was clear. We felt proud, but in all honesty, I have never been so cold in my life.

We warmed up and started working through dry drills and procedures on the dock. We made a decision not to set sail as the wind was blowing 45kts (gusting 55kts), and with the extreme cold (and the fact that several of the crew hadn’t sailed for some time), we felt it was safer not to venture out. It was great, as it meant we could have a dry run of many of the processes on-board, and also get to know each other better before an early start the next morning.

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A rather chilly snake pit… we had some ‘fun’ de-icing this bad boy!

Saturday and Sunday seemed to merge in to one. We set sail early on both days (thankfully the boat didn’t re-freeze). Heading out in to the Solent we went through various evolutions, tacks, put reefs in, got a chance to helm, and also practised safety drills. Interestingly, for the first time in my Clipper training we were briefed on how to respond to a tethered MOB. Unsurprisingly, we all listened and paid a lot of attention. A moment of sombre reflection followed for most.

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Tethered man overboard (MOB) training on Clipper Race refresher weekend (we had de-iced the pontoon)

What do you wear when sailing in freezing weather? 
In terms of what I wore for the weekend… layers were king.

On the bottom half – merino wool thermal trousers, fleece lined (double layered) over trousers and salopettes.

On my feet – 2 pairs of thermal socks, and Dubarry cross haven boots.

On the top half – sports bra, strappy vest top, merino wool base layer, compression top, thermal base layer, fleece top, another fleece top, technical jacket by Henri Lloyd, oil skin smock.

On my head – Fleece neck buff with built in balaclava, merino wool neck buff, additional buff over my hair, and a fleece lined North face woolly hat.

On my hands – I tested various gloves and nothing kept me warm or dry, my fingers and hands were cold for most of the weekend, which is far from ideal when working ropes, winches, or helming.

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Was it the right gear? – next time I sail in freezing weather, I would probably add another base layer of trousers, and I think another base layer top. Possibly another pair of socks too! I would also test alternative gloves – I have some North Face Gore-Tex gloves on order. Surgical gloves underneath lighter weight gloves worked well, so I would do that again.

Out-takes from the weekend…

A video from the foredeck…

Overall the weekend went very well. I was pleased to get back on-board a Clipper boat, to work hard and focus my mind. Grinding on sheets, sweating at the mast… these boats are physically demanding. It’s given me the drive to push myself harder with regards to fitness and also my learning – for example racing sail trim, rig tuning, alongside sea survival and general seamanship.

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Hanking on the fore sails

One thing I also took away from the weekend is that, we are all capable of so much more than we think we are. In extreme situations (like this extreme cold), if you focus you can push yourself and get things done that aren’t comfortable, that you don’t particularly want to do, and that most others wouldn’t do. And it’s that physical and mental challenge, that drives me and that I thrive on. The thrill of the achievement, the memories that are made, and the journeys that are followed are the outcome of perseverance and determination. And all too often blood, sweat and tears.

It was an impressive site to see HMS Queen Elizabeth moored up in Portsmouth

A note to my crew mates who are about to take on Neptune: Good luck, I am with you in spirit and will be following your progress. Stay safe, and sail hard. You got this. x

Have you ever been sailing in freezing cold weather? Let me know how you got on below in the comments…

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