Well, after 3 years of prep and planning, I finally joined the Clipper Race for a race across the North Atlantic. I’m going to break my race up in to 4 blog posts, one for each of the 3 races which I took part in, and one (this one) describing the build-up and prep in New York.
Whilst I was on-board and throughout the build-up to race start, I kept a diary. I’ve decided to share that with you, I have anonymised some of it, and also added some further reflections. I hope it gives you a true sense of what racing on the Ocean wave is like.
20th June – 6 Days until race start
The last few days have been a whirlwind. I finished work, and said so many emotional goodbyes to friends, family, colleagues… hell even the postman got in on the action! The worst goodbye was to my children. They tried to be brave, I tried to be brave, we all failed. Seeing them going off in the car to school, knowing I won’t see them until I’m back on dry land, and knowing what I might face between now and then, was heart wrenching.
As well as saying fond farewells, I’ve also been preparing for every eventuality over the last few days and weeks. There have been 3 fatalities on the Clipper Race since I signed up, it would be foolish not to prepare for the worst case scenario. I re-wrote my will, spoke to friends and family about the role I would like them to play in my children’s lives should the worst happen to me. I even wrote letters to each of my children, trying to give some kind of explanation if I didn’t come home. But with all of this now completed and my mind now at ease, it was time to head to New York.
I arrive in Newark, and head straight to a friend’s apartment. Well, not before getting in to all sorts of confusion with the cabby, who ended up dropping me at the wrong apartment block 10 minutes away. This was further complicated thanks to the hassles of modern technology… my mobile decided to not work at all. So here I am, a pile of baggage, no phone, no internet and it’s 10pm… through various methods I make contact with my friend and he kindly comes to meet me and help me with my bags, which we subsequently dump and head straight out to an Irish bar. Any nerves that may have been creeping in, disappear in to the ether after 2 or 3 wee drams.
21st June – 5 Days until race start
I’m wide awake by 7am, and after a relaxed breakfast I head to Liberty Landing Marina. There the Clipper fleet are moored up, dress flags flying, looking radiant. I was expecting the marina to be bustling, but I was quite wrong. There was barely a soul in site. The boats were largely deserted… it would appear that most of the prep had been completed in previous days, and ‘worlders’ (the circumnavigators among the crew) and multi-leggers were taking a well-earned rest. I wonder about feeling slightly lost. After sitting on Garmin for 20 mins alone, I spot 3 Garmin crew at the top of the marina ramp and hurry up to meet them.
One is a familiar face, and I am so pleased to see her. Nell, a worlder, our team doctor, and an absolute remarkable, kindly and all-round lovely lady. ‘Hello Nell’!!! The 3 crew are hauling out a spinnaker (our large downwind sail), laying it out on the grass and checking for tears and repair requirements. I slip off my shoes and join then, stomping about on the grass in the warmth of the New York sunshine. The size of this sail is noteworthy – for it is the size of a tennis court, a reminder of the scale of these boats. These are big boats at 72ft in length, everything on-board them is therefore also big. With size comes power and weight, and with that come risk and danger. I remind myself that safety must come first. I need to get home to my children in one piece.
After a short while, we’re finished with the sail. And a delivery van arrives with Garmin’s dried and tinned food. There are hundreds of bags full of tins, sachets and packets, all on an industrial scale. I never knew that you could get such giant tins of peaches and tomatoes! We have food to cover 20 days, although we are hoping to finish the race in 14 – 16 days. All the food is checked, sorted in to dry bags for each day (which follow a strict menu plan), and these bags are then stowed neatly in mapped out cubby holes all over our beloved Black Pearl. Credit for the organisation of this monumental task goes to our Team Coordinator (TC), Bill. Bill (short for Belinda) is an inspiring woman. She is made of tough stuff, incredibly organised, a hard worker beyond belief and without her I must say that our team would have struggled with some of the organisation, for she was without a doubt our glue.
Job done. We head to a roof top bar in Manhattan to wave off our crew mates who are leaving the boat in New York. In the summer heat, and with a view of the New York skyline, I raise a glass with my crew. This is the start of my adventure.
22nd June – 4 days until race start
Today has been a fairly quiet day. I went back to Liberty Landing for an assessment. All crew must now complete an assessment before they join the race. This was introduced halfway through the circumnavigation, and I’m told that this was following Sir Robin meeting some crew dockside, and them being unable to tie a bowline! Whether that is true or not, who knows, if so then it is quite disgraceful, and I can see why this new measure has been introduced, although I do wonder what would happen if you failed…
The assessment covers a variety of knots, danger zones and critical bits of safety info. Myself and the 3 other new joiners to the team pass, and breathe a sigh of relief.
GT (our skipper) dishes out jobs, there’s maintenance to be done. Winches are serviced, ropes are spliced, and I am given the job of re-painting the black dashes across the deck, which mark out the ‘Cockpit Cautionary Zone’ (CCZ) which highlights the ‘no go’ area for when we are sailing down wind – the area starts just fore of the helm and spans the traveller and ends near the aft coffee grinder. The purpose for staying out of the CCZ is to ensure that no one is in the biggest danger zone should the boat accidentally gybe. An accidental gybe could cause the boom to swing uncontrollably with significant loads and weight from one side of the boat to another. With the weight and power of this, and the lines attached, the consequences do not need to be highlighted. The CCZ is one of the most dangerous places on the boat, and should be respected when downwind at all times.
After a busy day, a wall of tiredness finally hits me. The jet lag, late nights and lack of sleep hits me like a brick. I head back to my friend’s apartment, where I’m staying and as soon as my head touches the pillow, I’m asleep.
23rd June – 3 days until race start
There’s little to do on the Black Pearl today, so I enjoy a long lie in, followed by a workout in the apartment block gym. The apartment is in Jersey City, and the 6th floor gym enjoys full panoramic views of Manhattan. As I whir away on the static bike, I marvel at the view. I am so so lucky to be here.
The only job I need to do today is help with fresh food stowage. I head to the boat for 6.30pm to meet the other helpers for this task. I also use this opportunity to take my kit on-board and organise my bunk and cave locker. Bill has kindly allocated me a bottom bunk, in an effort to help me preserve my knee, by reducing any unnecessary climbing. I am so grateful for this! The bunk is port side, near the engine room. A well-used, slightly mouldy, slightly damp mattress awaits me, and I’m allocated one cave locker for stowing my kit.
I’ve packed light, with just 13kg of gear, so fitting my gear in is no problem. There had been much discussion about the best way to organise kit – some opt for a dry bag for each type of clothing article, others opt for day by day. I went for a bag of toiletries, a bag of medicines (arnica, paracetamol, etc), a dry bag containing my outfit for days 1 -7, another bag with a change of clothes which will have to last me for the remaining part of the journey. I then had a small bag of spares, which included a buff, a couple of pairs of socks and underwear. I had allowed for an underwear change every 3-4 days. Cringe as you will from your arm chair, but on the ocean wave this is a minor hardship!
Fresh food was unwrapped, and unpacked – we wanted to reduce weight, and also risk of rot. Anything that was damp was dried, and then we stored the hundreds of oranges, apples, pears, peppers, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and garlic in plastic crates. The crates were stowed on 2 designated bunks, all under the watchful gaze and scrutiny of our TC, Bill.
Tomorrow is the last day on land. This is all getting rather real.
Sunday 24th June – last day on dry land
The Football world cup is currently on, and while abroad I think there’s even more reason to get behind the national team. So I duly head to the apartments hot tub, located on an outdoor terrace on the 6th floor, and watch the game. England beat Panama 6-1. I can imagine the scenes back home, pubs full of drunken men, shirts off and being wildly waved above their heads, beer flying, and chants of ‘Enger-land’ ringing out. I slip a little deeper in to the tub, I am in my own little slice of heaven.
There’s an all crew briefing happening in the afternoon, so I get any remaining kit together and take a slow walk to the ferry to take me over to the marina. On route I decided to stop for lunch, I ordered a blue cheese burger and fries (it’s got to be done in the USA). The waitress cheerily bought my lunch over and I was surprised to see the burger sitting between 2 bagels… on closer inspection, I was even more surprised to see that they were in fact 2 x Krispy Kreme glazed ring donuts! Only in America.
I continue my walk to the marina, which is slower than normal due to the fact that I was wearing my team kit. Wearing your team kit elevates you from ‘normal civilian’ to some sort of undeserved hero. And as such, I was stopped several times by inquisitive locals who asked a plethora of questions and wished me well as I went on my way.
The briefing was an official event, and Clipper had gathered the 11 crews from across the fleet for this. Various slides are presented, with different race officials walking us through the ice limits, emphasising the need to keep a constant look out for growlers (mini broken away icebergs) and whales, as well as sharing the full course instructions and a few tips. The buzz in the room is electric, we are about to take on a huge challenge. For some it will be a conclusion to their circumnavigation, and for others (like me) it is a once in a life time race across the ocean.
I retreat to the apartment for an early night. We need to be on-board for 7am. I set my alarm for 5am, banking the last bit of quality sleep that I’m going to get for a good couple of weeks.
Monday 25th June – It’s time to slip lines
I slept very well. Bizarrely I find that I don’t feel phased by the enormity of what’s in store. After 3 years of prep, it’s finally here, and I am ready. To steal a line from our team song (Whatever It Takes, by Imagine Dragon) ‘I was born for this’.
I wash my hair, shave my legs, and slip in to my sailing clothes. This is the best it’s going to get for a while!
My apartment buddy (a crew member on rival boat, Nasdaq) and I grab a cab and head to the marina, which is an absolute hive of hustle and bustle. There’s lots of last minute prep going on, families and friends in supporter t-shirts are gathered, waving flags with teary eyes, trying to smile through it, waving excitedly and hoping for one last embrace. I’m grateful that no one is here for me specifically, emotions are running high, and I just want to focus on the job in hand, without any upset. It’s a hot day, at 22C and it’s only 7am!
After much waiting around, photo-calls and pep talks, we finally slip lines at 9am. Line slipping is part of a well-orchestrated and well-rehearsed process. Each boat has a specific time slot, and these slots are 3 minutes apart. This means that we don’t bore the crowd, but gives each boat just enough time to move from the berth, giving the next boat enough water. It also means that the person on the PA system has enough time to briefly talk about the boat/team and for the team song to blare out.
The fleet circle (for what feels like a lifetime) in the Hudson River, again we’ve got a specific time slot for a parade of sail on the river, and also for a photo opp as we sail by the Statue of Liberty. We all just want to get away. The fanfare is flattering and fun, but we want to set sail. We want to race. ‘Wave and smile guys, just wave and smile’ is the most used phrase on board.
The crew are so welcoming, friendly, and freely giving of information. Some of them have been on-board for 10 months, and I’d heard from past Clipper crew on previous races, leg 8 is the hardest to join, due to the team that is already formed. This was not at all true of Garmin, I felt most welcome, and like part of the team from the onset.
I readily listen and absorb all that they have to offer. Some offer information which I don’t quite trust/know isn’t right. I have a fair amount of sailing experience myself, more in fact than some people that have done previous legs on-board Garmin. And so without challenging or being rude, I just choose which information to take in and who to learn from, for many on this boat seems to believe that they are an expert, and the newbies on-board are their fresh meat.
We wave our final farewells, and begin our long motor to the start line. Race start is tomorrow, but before that we need to complete a number of safety drills, including a MOB recovery. I take the helm for 2 long stints, it’s great to be on-board. The sun is shining, the sky is cloudless and blue, what a beautiful day it is.
At around 6pm, land slips away from the horizon. I strain my eyes, trying to prolong the last sight of land that I will have until we arrive in the UK. But it escapes me, and I retreat to the stern of the boat to take in the 360 degree view of the Atlantic Ocean. Wow. This really is something.
For dinner we are having curry. 2 designated ‘chefs’ (crew members rotate chef duty, working in pairs to cook for a 24hr period each time) are busy beavering away below deck. The smells wafting up from the galley are tantalising. But alas, not everyone agrees, as a few have been struck down with nausea and sea sickness. I keep taking my Sturgeron (sea sickness tablets) and keep my fingers crossed that the green monster doesn’t pay me a visit.
One thing that I find remarkable is the rubbish that is floating on the sea surface. We are 60nm offshore and the sea is plagued with helium balloons. It’s a horrible reality, and I really do believe that these should be banned.
We are now in a watch system. The crew has effectively been split in half, and we will work together in our watches with one watch on deck, and one off watch (below deck sleeping, eating and resting) until the race finishes. The watches run from 8am – 2pm, 2 – 8pm, then from 8pm – 12am, 12 – 4am, and 4 – 8am – this is known as a 6, 6, 4, 4, 4 watch system, and it means that when it’s dark and colder on deck you work shorter hours, and because of its design you’re rotating through the process. So if you have sunset and sunrise one day, you will have the 12 – 4am graveyard shift of doom the next day, before returning to the sunset and sunrise watches the next day. Consensus across the fleet, is that this system is generally the best, although some boats have deviated and operate alternatives.
I head to bed at 8pm. Ready for the graveyard shift, it’s been a long day and tomorrow is race day. The bunks are small and fairly claustrophobic. I share my bunk (hot bunk) with a worlder called ‘Westy’, an old-school Londonder, and die hard Millwall supporter, Westy is on watch while I sleep and visa versa. We pass each other like ships in the night, with the odd joke or muttering passing between us. I’m pleased to have him as my bunk mate, he’s clean, tidy and a nice guy to share a space with. If I can’t be on watch with him, then being his bunk mate is the next best thing, I guess.
Below deck is hot and airless, as the North American sun beats down on the deck. I climb in to my bunk, tie up the lee cloth to prevent me from falling out and opt to lay on top of my sleeping bag in a bid to stay cool… do I remove my clothes, do I not… what’s the score here?! I opt for stripping off, it’s too hot and we’re all friends here. It’s sleep time.