Racing The Atlantic, Clipper Race, Leg 8, Race 12 (Part 1)

Grab a cuppa, here’s the first part of my diary from the Atlantic Race (Clipper Race, Leg 8, Race 12). I hope you enjoy the story…


Tues 26th June – Race Start
Having slipped lines yesterday morning, I was on watch from 12 – 4am. An uneventful watch, bobbing around in the darkness of the night, approx. 60nm offshore. All of the Clipper fleet are in the area, ready to head to the race start rendezvous point. So it was nice to see the occasional familiar twinkling light on the horizon.

Following a brief sleep, I was back on deck for the 8am – 2pm shift. This turned out to be a very busy morning of ‘refresher’ training and drills. Running through tacks and gybes, as well as a series of safety procedures, including MOB recovery. Our skipper, GT is incredibly safety conscious, he’s also a fast thinker and I fully trust his judgement and ability to do the right thing in an emergency. He instils a strict safety culture on-board. For this, I think we are all thankful.

It’s tricky being on-board as a ‘legger’ (a crew member doing one or multi legs of the circumnavigation), as some of the crew now have vast Clipper Race experience. This leads to a slight issue whereby it seems that everyone wants to be chief. The trouble with this is, no one is giving consistent orders or advice. So who are the newbies meant to listen to?

You do one thing, someone tells you it’s wrong, so you do what they say, and then someone else tells you that that’s wrong. “But XX told me to do this”… “It doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t be doing it like that…” This leads to thoughts of ‘why am I even trying?!’ It’s stressful, and slightly upsetting, as it feels like as a newbie you are under constant scrutiny and criticism. Thankfully as there’s four new leggers, we have each other, and after a little moan between ourselves, we reassure each other that it will get better.

Race start – lining up on the start line

We motor to the rendezvous point, and run through who is to do what for the Le Mans start. The Le Mans start is a unique way of starting a sailing race, inspired by the Le Mans start in motor racing. All crew must stand behind the forward coffee grinder, and when the claxon goes the team sprint to their stations and hoist the foresails as quickly as possible. We drew the unfortunate straw of being the leeward boat for this particular Le Mans start, so being super quick is essential, in order that we don’t get a caught up in dirty wind from the rest of the fleet.

There’s a lot of build up to the Le Mans start with an active countdown over the VHF, led by a skipper on another boat. There is excitement and tension in the air. We need to get this right. I can feel the butterflies leaping about inside me. We’re all in position, crouched behind the grinder, ready to sprint, and as soon as the claxon goes, we’re off. We hoist the sails quickly, with the whole team doing a fantastic job… we’re away in 4th or 5th place. Great result.

Garmin at race start, on a collision course with a whale! (pic credit: Chris Kobusch onboard Qingdao)

Less than a minute passes before we encounter a fishing buoy, followed swiftly by a huge whale which surfaces on our bow. As incredible as the sight of a huge Minkie whale is, we certainly did not want to hit it. A collision could result in severe damage to our hull, and could end our race within minutes of us starting! Thankfully we avoid both and carry on our way, maintaining a constant lookout.

A whale diving on the start line (pic credit: Clipper Race/1080 Media)

Following the excitement of race start, I retire to my bunk. I’m 1.5hrs late to bed, and need some sleep ahead of the 8pm shift.

After a good 2hrs sleep, I feel somewhat refreshed. We can see seven other CV (Clipper Ventures) vessels, which leads to some highly competitive and close racing, with us constantly trimming and keeping busy up on deck. The wind is perfect and we are roaring along, heeled over on our side. Throughout the watch we see whale after whale, and a huge pod of dolphins. I can’t believe the wildlife that we are being treated to, we are truly blessed.

Close racing, shortly after race start

The watch was fun. The people dynamics seem to be settling, with crew having more respect for each other, as people get to know each other more. We’re forming as a team, and life on-board is good.

Weds 27th June – Day 2
On the 4 – 8am shift, we are treated to the most beautiful sunrise. Pastel shades of pink, blue, and gold. There’s a few fishing boats mulling around, and rather annoyingly, a lot of unlit buoys. I’m writing this entry from the bow, where I’m keeping lookout. It’s so peaceful up here. The Liverpool boat is on our bow. We were closing the gap, but the wind has dropped and we’re now ‘bobbing’ along which is frustrating.

A beautiful sunrise

Later in the watch, we were treated to the magnificent sight of yet more whales. These beasts from the deep, surface so silently and with such grace. A black bump in the water is spotted, a tail, or a water spout… This is usually followed by shouts of ‘whale 2 o clock!’ and so it goes on. Whales are both our friends, and our enemies, for we love to see them, yet we absolutely do not want to collide with one.

What a beautiful watch, and what a beautiful day on the ocean. Now for some sleep. I am back on watch at 2pm.

* * *

The 2 – 8pm shift was incredible. One high being a moment when I was on the bow calling trim and was joined by a pod of dolphins. They leapt about and played at my feet for a several minutes. It felt like they were there just for me.  And although I’ve seen hundreds of dolphins, and have many times been joined by dolphins on the bow on other boats, it never gets tired. I smile from ear to ear.

We have a hierarchy on-board, with GT in charge, then we have a professional mate/watch leader, a 2nd watch leader, and 2 assistant watch leaders. Not everyone agrees with who has been chosen as watch leaders and assistant watch leaders, which has led to some slight tension. I’m open to anything, and don’t know what’s gone on before, so I go with it. But it quickly becomes apparent that some of the ways of working that are being enforced are slightly ridiculous and make the entire watch feel like we’re back at school.

An example of this, is one crew member single handedly deciding who is going to do what, and subsequently forcing us all to rotate at 30 minute intervals. Glancing at his watch before saying ‘Sam you need to go on XYZ now’ and so on and so forth. This doesn’t go down well because after 30 minutes, most of us aren’t ready to move, we’re quite enjoying what we’re doing, and further to that if we wanted to move, we’re all quite sure that we would say to someone else ‘Do you mind swapping?’ It also doesn’t work too well because it comes across as very dictatorial, which is leading to us minions rebelling – treat us like children, and we will act like children!

After a couple of hours of this nonsense, I have a chat with the enforcer, speaking on behalf of the whole team. I can’t take this for another two weeks. He agrees that we can decide what positions we go to, but we must rotate. Communication, respect and people awareness on a sailing boat are so critical. I hope we can all move forward after much discussion.

Thursday 28th June – Day 3
Today was an incredibly busy day, and can only be described as a day from hell! For I was on chef duty, arguably the worst job on the boat.

Westy in the galley – you will note how appetising our frittata is looking!

The galley was so unbearably hot, that I found I was not just cooking food, but I was also cooking myself. It was such a stressful experience, with crew continually demanding drinks and bottle re-fills, whilst Westy and I struggled to cook under pressure of the clock.

It can be said, that neither Westy nor myself are ‘chefs’. In fact, I would describe us both as the complete opposite. Rumour has it that my comrade once tried to peel an onion with a potato peeler, such are his culinary abilities! Between us, we swore a lot, and moaned continually to each other for 17 hours. I can only thank Westy for his many jokes, and banter which just about made the day bearable.

At 7.30am we were meant to have made pancakes and bacon. Pancakes for 17 people that is. You try making pancake batter for 17 people on a boat, on a heel, in the tiniest kitchen, whilst the boat slams in to waves! Batter was everywhere. All over me, over Westy, over the floor… the galley was an absolute disaster site. The pancakes were taking forever to cook, and I could feel the eyes of the crew, who just wanted to eat and then sleep, boring in to me. Many more expletives were muttered in the galley, before finally both watches were fed and we were on to the clear up. Following the clear up, there was no rest, we had lunch to make! And so it went on.

By 11pm, we were done. Hot, covered in the remnants of the day, and in thoroughly fouls moods, we turned off the galley lights and closed our ‘restaurant’. The reward? Extra sleep. When you are on chef duty, you don’t return to the watch system until your next 6hr watch, mine was to be at 2pm the next day. Amazing. I head to the boats ‘coffin bunk’, so that Westy can have our bunk, and close my eyes, thankful that the day is behind me.

Friday 29th June – Day 4
My mood is better today. Once Westy went on watch, I moved from the coffin bunk, to our luxurious pile, ahead of slotting back in to the watch system at 2pm. I also treated myself to a change of underlayers, which feels heavenly after 4 days and a sweaty chef watch.

On a beautiful heel – flying along

Peering up out of the companionway, it is still sunny, we are heeled over, and the spray is washing over the deck. We are flying along. I think we are first, although news is limited. We get a schedule every 6hrs, which allows us to calculate our position versus other boats, although not much of this info filters down to the crew.

There is much shouting on deck among the other watch, and GT confirms that we’re 1st, but that we have 4 boats closing on us. To add to his angst, we are 15 degrees off course, and he is understandably annoyed. The pressure is on. “Shake out the reef” comes the order.

Below deck, an on-watch crew member is milling around, she slowly kits and up and heads on deck, with no urgency in her stride. GT is riled. This is all costing us miles. It is unbearably frustrating.

As I head on deck at 2pm, the situation has calmed, and although we can’t see any other boats, we apparently have the Queen Mary within our vicinity. A rather important and very well spoken voice crackles over the VHF “Garmin, Garmin, this is the Queen Mary. Over”. The ship’s captain has a brief conversation with GT, explaining that he has some Garmin fans on-board, and he wants to confirm that CV22 (our ship name) is indeed Garmin! Having been out here on our own for a couple of days, and then getting called up and fan-stalked by the Queen Mary, there’s a lot of laughs and the mood on-board is great. We joke about the conditions on-board the Queen Mary vs the conditions on Garmin. We’re 4 days in, and with no shower on-board, a limited menu, plus the hard work (with resulting aches and pains), we still conclude that we would rather be on Garmin. For, we are living. Ocean racing is utterly exhilarating

Saturday 20th June – Day 5
I’ve just come off the 12 – 4am watch. I got soaked through, as it was raining for the duration. I enjoyed a mixed watch work-wise, with some trimming, pit work, and some reflective time at the stern.

Enjoying some thinking time behind the helm

One person must always be on duty at the stern, standing or sitting behind the helm. Their job is to trigger the AIS, throw a dan-bouy and marker immediately over-board, if someone goes over. I enjoy this job, as it gives you a break from the craziness, but also allows for quiet reflection, alone. Tonight in the dark of night, I sat at the back, watching the phosphorescent twinkling in our wake. Completely mesmerised, with not a care in the world. Just me and the Atlantic Ocean. The illuminous sparkles appear as quickly as they fade, it really is so magical to witness. The wake is roaring, a constant flow of white water, passing beneath our hull and then raging off the stern. My mind is completely clear of the stresses and strains of ‘land life’. It’s true what they say, the ocean really does cleanse the soul.

I’m in my bunk now, feeling very damp. Hopefully I’ll dry off a little as I sleep. Both of my arms have also flared up in bad case of heat rash, no doubt caused by the damn chef duty. Hopefully it will clear soon.

Sleep time.

A short while later, I’m awakened and it’s time to head back on deck. There’s no rest for the wicked.

Back on deck, waves are still crashing across the bow. During the watch, we spotted 2 signs of life. One more welcome than the other…

A huge cargo ship passed us, 5nm to port, the first boat we’ve seen in days. We all stand on deck, straining our eyes to see it. Watching eagerly, talking about what might be on-board and where they’re headed. It’s nice to know there’s some company out here.

The second, well that is our ‘frenemy’, UNICEF. We spotted the unmistakable silhouette of a Clipper vessel on the horizon. Together we have the scoring gate in our sights. We’re currently first, but it is going to be close. We need 100% focus now to stay ahead. Come on team Garmin!

* * *

As I lay in my bunk, I really struggle to sleep. The temperature has suddenly dropped and it is now quite cold below deck. I ask a passing crew mate what is going on, and he informs me that we have reached the Grand Bank. An area notorious for fog, not far from where the ill-fated RMS Titanic met her destiny. I snuggle down in to the fleece lining of my sleeping bag, and await my wake-up call in half an hour. Tonight is going to be an interesting watch I think!

Sailing in the fog of the Grand Banks

Sunday 1st July – Day 6
Not good news. I was on the 4 – 8am watch. It’s 9am and I’ve just this minute come off watch. It was a cold and foggy start to the day on deck. The ocean below us looking deadly. A friend, Prashant aptly described it simply as ‘Death’. It is grey, and pearly, still, cold, and deadly, like nothing I’ve seen before. Prashant is a New Yorker, he’s highly competitive, and we get on incredibly well. We’re like minded in what we want to achieve here, and have a similar way of going about things. We stare down at the grey water, discussing survival chances, and agree that they are nil. This part of the ocean is quite frightening in its appearance, and it’s astonishing how much it has changed in the last 24 hours.

In thick fog, we pushed and we pushed. All the while, we could see UNICEF (on AIS) closing in on us. We trim and we trim, but the situation is frustrating. We’re giving this everything to no avail. Muscles screaming out for a break, mind ignoring those screams, we have to push hard now.

At 0755, 5 minutes before we are due to go off watch, GT appears on deck. He’s been closely monitoring the situation from the nav station (our navigation area, which houses state of the art equipment, with which GT works to put us on the best possible course). He shouts for the ‘code 3’ (our largest spinnaker) to be hoisted. A few crew mates drag the heavy sail up. The off watch emerge for handover, and the deck is duly crowded. There’s a slightly chaotic feeling in the air, with roles blurred between the 2 watches. I take my place on the coffee grinder, ready to help with the hoist.

The sail is rigged, and the call of “hoist!” comes. It is all systems go. This new sail is going to power us up and give us the edge we need over UNICEF. Everyone springs in to action, the sail goes up and fills immediately. But within seconds, there is an almighty BANG!!! The sail explodes, ripping in all directions, pieces of tattered sail whipping and flogging in the wind.

Below deck, crewmates Nell and Lyndsay get to work inspecting the sail

It quickly becomes apparent that we have hoisted the wrong sail. We carry out an emergency drop. Get the Yankee (a large fore sail) up, drag the spinnaker down, get the real code 3, rig that, hoist it, drop the yankee, and breath again. This whole debacle takes about an hour. Sheets and lines are everywhere. Everyone is grinding, trimming and working hard. I have never ached so much in my life, pushing through the pain in my muscles, and in my mind unable to comprehend what has just happened. We all know what this means…  we slowed down considerably throughout, and although we’re now back on track, we have without a doubt lost more ground.

As I come to terms with what has just happened, and the danger that we have just come through, I look up in to the fog, and can make out the dull profile of UNICEF a mere 20 metres in front of us. They’ve over taken us, and in dangerously close quarters. With that, they silently glide away in to the fog. I am lost for words.

The crew is deflated, exhausted, and soaked with sweat. Tears fall on the deck, for the lost place, for the drama, and for those that are riddled with guilt for the mistake that arose. But we are all to blame for this. We should have spotted that it was the incorrect sail. We should have acted. It’s quite unforgiveable. I am absolutely kicking myself, as are the rest of the team.

GT is fuming. And understandably so. It was a dangerous mistake, which cost us places. Further to that, it has cost the crew dearly, as several crew will need to work around the clock for the next week, sewing and trying to repair the dilapidated sail in an effort to avoid penalty points.

* * *
After a much needed sleep, I return to deck for the 2-8pm shift. Coming on deck, it feels like worlds away from this morning’s disaster. What a great watch, the sun is out, the fog has lifted, and the water looks less deadly than it did.

A beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic

We were joined by two huge Sperm Whales for a few minutes this afternoon, what an incredible sight. Slowly going about their business, their huge black bodies gliding effortlessly along.
I spent a good while on the bow, one of my favourite places, and was joined briefly by 10 or so playful dolphins. The leapt, and rolled, and put on a great show, just for me. Dolphins can always be relied upon to elevate the spirits.

UNICEF has now re-appeared, at first she was on the horizon, and now she’s to starboard, and we’re edging closer and closer. We’re 6nm south of the ice limit, and 500nm from the scoring gate. There’s all to play for.

Our huge main sail powering us along

It’s funny how the watches, days, and nights blend in to one, and all sense of time is lost. We’ve really started to come together as a team, the couple of niggles of the first couple of days have long since disappeared. We have a great team, with much laughter amidst the hard work, and I’m so lucky to be part of it. We’re out in the ocean, fighting our own battle with no other cares in the world.

The ocean is so good for mind, body and soul. Looking around and seeing ocean, 360 degrees around you for days on end, it really is something special. I feel so privileged to be here.

I must go, dinner is served. It looks like carbonara. A boat favourite.

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6 thoughts on “Racing The Atlantic, Clipper Race, Leg 8, Race 12 (Part 1)”

  1. Sam, great blog. Brings back lots of memories, especially standing at the transom just watching the stars in the middle of the ocean.

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