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Cork to Liverpool

August 3rd, 2008

Cork was an amazing stopover and a very fitting finale. Despite a disappointing finish into the pictoresque Irish port, we were soon subsumed into the party atmosphere, especially as friends had travelled from across the world, a world that we had so nearly circumnavigated. The Murphy’s flowed, chased down with the odd tequila and we were welcomed with the friendly faces, hospitality and overwhleming warmth that has been such a feature of this adventure and which is something that will remain with me as an abiding memory of the trip.

Leaving the joys of Cork behind us, Skipper decided on a new watch system: boys V girls! I was hoping that the extra spice might gee us on to another podium. With a good result, fourth place in the overall race was very much in our grasp and I just had a feeling that with the right attitude and a bit of luck, it was a very real possibility and fourth place would have been a huge achievement after our predicaments along the way.

Some ingenious tactics from the skipper saw us leave Cork’s shores in third place, with Irish sunshine blazing down on us. Once more we took an ‘independent’ route and headed away from the rest of the fleet. We were all up on deck, boys and girls together, fighting hard to stay with the leaders. As our penultimate dusk of the race drew in, the boys headed off watch with the fleet sailing along the horizon as the sun set against the green Irish coast. Thankfully we were very much in touch with the lead boat and I went to bed optomistic of our chances.

As the night progressed, it became harder and harder to see the navigational lights of the rest of the fleet and by morning, our destiny was no longer in our hands. We were ninth and I was desperate. Our only chance rested with the tides being against the 8 boats ahead of us and turning in our favour as we criss-crossed our way through Clipper’s course across the Irish Sea. Once more we were playing catch-up, only this time we had less than 24 hours in which to pull off our final and our most remarkable Houdini masterpiece.

July 4th, 2008 was not to be our day. As winds came and went and as they shifted in and out of favour, our main competition came from behind, not in front. Clipper kept the course flexible but time was running out for us and with it went our hopes of a respectable finish.

As a somewhat fitting finale to the voyage and an almost enjoyable reminder as to ‘who is boss’ out there on the ocean, a Force 7 storm was forecast for the evening and for once the weather files were correct! In an ironic way, I was pleased to have some rough weather to finish with, just as we had started with 10 months previous. There were only a few hours left of our mammouth journey. Getting drenched one more time, for old time’s sake, was somehow fitting. It just felt right.

As we reached the buoy marking the final triangular course, as if to rub salt into our wounds, our closest rivals in the overall race were approaching the finish line. I was so disappointed. We crossed the line in 9th and I felt awful. I really felt as though we’d let ourselves and all the other WA crew throughout the race down. Was I disappointed with our position or that the race was over? I don’t know but it certainly wasn’t how I’d expected to feel. I didn’t even go up on deck as we crossed the line to celebrate the end of the race.

After a few hours sleep, I managed to put the disappointment of the race behind me and concentrate on our achievement. The celebrations were fantastic; thousands lined the docks to welcome us home but seeing friends and family amongst them was a very special feeling.

10 months after leaving the Mersey, scared and frightened, the fleet returned safely, happy, triumphant with tales of man overboards, storms, doldrums, losing masts and having formed some extraordinary friendships and part of a very special group that had circumnavigated the globe. I’d done it; the dream had come true.

Thank you to all those who have followed my journey and especially those that have donated to the PGMT. There have been tough times during the race but knowing that I had your support was a huge comfort - I hope to catch up with you soon to thank you in person! 

Nova Scotia to Cork

July 17th, 2008

One big one to go, the third and final Atlantic crossing. Having discovered a very beautiful and picturesque part of the world that I previously didn’t know existed, I was sad to leave Nova Scotia. We had been offered such a warm reception and enjoyed our longest break for months, that I was a little nervous as we set off. No matter how experienced a sailor you are, I think there is always a few butterflies in your stomach before an ocean voyage and I am no different.

 

The start couldn’t have been better. Under clear skies and basking in sunshine we left Nova Scotia under good winds and took with us many happy memories. We were the only ones to go for a Number 2 yankee and it paid dividends as we soured off in second place. Sadly, a mile before we reached the wide open ocean, the winds dropped and we sank like a lead balloon through the fleet. Still, the racing was close, spirits were high and with over 2,000 miles to go, there was more than enough time to catch up and make a third consecutive podium.

 

It wasn’t long before the stark reality of ocean racing hit us hard. We were shrouded in thick fog, the temperatures plummeted and the waves were crashing over the decks.  Suddenly completing a cicumnavigation seemed like a long way off! Dressing for watch every few hours involved finding thermals, midlayers, fleeces, hats, gloves and then plunging my feet into cold, soggy boots. Due to the fog we soon lost sight of the pack but occasionally a boat would appear from out of the mist like a ghost ship. It was great to know that others were still out there and it provided a new impetus to continue trimming and pushing hard. There was a friendly wave and then a competitive focus on getting ahead – a strange blend of fleet camaraderie and racing adrenalin! Although after a few days we were still towards the back of the pack, we were only a few miles behind and there was all to play for.

 

Unfortunately those few miles proved crucial. Just a few miles north of the pack and we hit a wind hole that didn’t show on our weather files, couldn’t have been predicted and seemed to single us out. With the large swell against us and only light winds to power our sails, it was like travelling through quick sand. We sat watching the fleet sail on, leaving us miles behind. First they went double figures ahead, then the leaders stretched their lead to triple figures. Once their lead reached over 230 miles, our race strategy focussed on saving face and trying to get to Cork within 24 hours of their arrival – hardly the stuff of champions.

 

Somewhat disillusioned, a new plan developed. We headed south to find the most consistent winds.  24 hours after we’d hoped, they finally kicked in. It was a blast and a great finale. With over 40 knots (Force 8) from behind and 15ft waves rolling in to offer us surf, we were most definitely back up and running. While the race to the podium was over, there was still a lot of fun to be had behind the helm. I loved it! Not quite at the levels of the Southern Atlantic but 18.3 knots down a wave isn’t bad! After a few days, we’d clawed our way back to a more respectable margin between us and the leaders and even managed to overtake a fellow straggler. Even the weather improved to allow us to dry off some of our gear before we arrived in Cork.

 

The final few days were a mix of emotions. The final leg was so nearly over, the big adventure was drawing to a close. We only had a few days, a few hours left of our life in this bubble, a life that carries with it so few concerns. We don’t worry about our food, our water, shopping, what we look like, what we’re going to do. Our course is dictated to us, we’re fed and watered, our watches are planned and when we’re not on watch, we’re trying to sleep. Even the decision as to what to wear is taken from us – the same as yesterday (and the day before that)! Adapting to life on shore could be tricky but I have a few days to think about that and come to terms with the end of what has been a great adventure. Still, there’s a final fling up the Irish Sea that could still be very testing and then there’s all the excitement of arriving home to look forward to and keep my mind occupied. For now, I’m happy just thinking of the Guinness in Cork and hopefully one last bit of glory on our way to Liverpool.

New York to Nova Scotia

June 9th, 2008

Fresh from celebrating our second place into New York, we left the Empire State building, Central Park, Ground Zero and the Big Apple’s sights behind after yet another stopover counted in hours rather than days. Clouded in thick fog, we were somewhat disappointed not to see the Statue of Liberty in daylight having been welcomed in under the cover of darkness. Once more we had to motor out to the start line due to light winds and a tight Clipper timetable. While I fully understand the need to arrive at ports within a given time frame, the amount of motoring we’ve done recently is becoming very frustrating and tedious (although it’s very useful to catch up on sleep, diaries and blogs!!). Skipper had pulled out 2nd for the Le Mans startline which offered us the opportunity to get off to a great start and we duly took him up on his offer! Winds were variable, sails went up and down and there was certainly no rest for the wicked. However, we were up there in the leading pack as sail plan decisions went our way. It’s always useful when other boats nearby hoist sails just before you and you can see that they won’t work!! For some reason I didn’t have a great feeling going into this race. Maybe I thought that we were going to suffer from a second-place hangover and be too confident. It didn’t help when the predicted strong winds didn’t materialise only to discover that we’d been looking at outdated weather reports! By the end of the first evening, the boat felt sluggish and we were sat towards the back of the pack. Did the Big Blue Boat have time to make the usual comeback – somehow I didn’t think so in such a short race. 

It was make or break. The pack stayed East to avoid some shallow water shoals and we decided to go for it, stay West, make a break and see what happened. Now we’ve done this many times before, with limited success. The weather was pretty atrocious; 5m waves were pounding over the foredeck and going up to the bow meant risking a thorough soaking. While the refreshing waters of the Caribbean hadn’t been an issue, these waters were definitely not part of the warm Gulf Stream. Red and black foul weather gear was to be seen on deck under which was worn an array of thermals, fleecy mid layers and thick socks, which had been dragged out from the bottom of our drybags. Hats, scarves and gloves were definitely required on deck and many kept them on in their sleeping bags. Some thought it was as painful as the conditions going into China but personally I think that’s memories playing tricks, afterall I wasn’t anywhere near tears as my hands thawed this time!  

As we headed across the shallows, the waters turned into a bizarre and surreal but calm array of swirl pools, bubbles and currents. To add to the mystical atmosphere, a thick, cold, damp fog descended upon us. At the start of the race we lost our radar and here we were with less than 200ft of visibility sailing over fishing grounds. Hardly an ideal situation and we had people on permanent lookout for fishing boats, tankers and fishing pots that may appear from within the veil of fog. Thankfully we only had one close call! During our trip over the shoals, the wind varied considerably and we were constantly changing sails. With the rest of the fleet so far away we had no idea what winds they had. If the weather files were correct, we weren’t too badly off, even though the 6-hourly results had us in 8th position.   Over 12 hours we managed to climb up to 2nd position. Suddenly there was a new impetus, a new enthusiasm and there was always somebody changing something desperate to make the boat go faster and hang on for a second consecutive podium place. We had the wind…sometimes.  I was woken for my shift with the great news that we were in the lead and had 12 hours until the race finish. Once more, the race had been shortened and we were all now racing for a ‘gate’. This was it, more intense, nerve wracking sailing. The stuff I loved! The pressure was on, could we maintain our success? As we all converged on a 2 mile wide gate, the wind conditions we all faced were going to be pretty similar. Could we hold our lead? On the helm, I felt good, managing to hold a steady course at a good speed. The pressure of being in the lead is something I haven’t felt much on this race and it was an unfamiliar feeling to know that our success was completely in our own hands. After watch, I went to my bunk a nervous bundle of energy.  

I was woken with half an hour to go, and up on deck the mood was still jubilant. We’d done it – Glasgow, who had been in second place, were miles behind on the horizon. As we crossed the line we all celebrated. Our first first. So this is what success tasted like. A second consecutive podium, we were all exhausted but ecstatic. We’d done it. Since our dismasting, this is what we’ve been fighting for – the full set of flags. There was a huge sense of achievement but as results have gone our way, so we’re now in search of some success in the overall race…maybe, just maybe….

Jamaica to New York

June 9th, 2008

Starting out on the last leg of our epic journey, there was an air of nostalgia among the fleet as we left Jamaica but for me I had unfinished business. It’s been a while since we’ve had success in the race and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure if we were still capable of it. However, with the new contingent of crew, including plenty of ‘umph’ and some good friends, I held onto some hope. However, what materialised over the following week took me completely by surprise.

We had a very exciting race start off the coast of Port Antonio but one poor tack left us in last place. Due to light winds and a tight race schedule we then had to motor for 24 hours to get to a rolling ‘Le Mans’ start, where we were punished for our earlier mistake with the worst position in the fleet.

It contributed to a pretty poor first 24 hours but at least the winds were strong, we were sailing in warm waters and the leader’s mast lights were still visible on the horizon! We were desperate to hang on and at least stay in touch with the pack. Every time I stepped on deck we reviewed which boat was where, which sails they had up and had we progressed in the last 4 hours.

There was a real buzz onboard and plenty of excitement and enthusiasm from the new crew. We were working hard and working well. We were constantly looking at the trim of our sails and I really felt as though all these months of trying to learn, learn, learn were coming to fruition. It may seem a little petty but when racing hard has been the main focus of life for the last 9 months, playing with a rope to get some extra speed can provide a real thrill!

The sailing was great; lots of wind, the boat was heeled over hard, we were going fast and the fleet was around us. If ever it was true that life is about the journey, not the destination this was it. I couldn’t wait to be on deck trying to make the boat go faster. I was just loving our very simple life out on the waves. As thoughts and conversations on the boat turn towards life after the race, I’ve often referred to life on land as ‘normal life’ but as my crewmates remind me, this out here on the ocean is ‘normal life’ now and it makes me feel extremely privileged.

Suddenly we ran into a wind hole. Fortunately for us, the leading 4 hit it first which gave us the chance to claw back those 6 miles that had eluded us for the previous few days. It never ceases to astound me how quickly conditions can change. The ocean’s waves disappeared and we were left with a glassy ocean surface without enough wind to propel us. We were making 0.0 boat knots for hours at a time. We weren’t even making enough noise to disturb a pod of sleeping whales until the very last second! Most of the fleet was visible as we bobbed, drifted and prayed for wind. However, unlike other light wind occasions, we maintained our focus and composure. We looked for each and every 0.1 of a knot. Focus was everything. We made ground, we lost ground but most importantly I was thriving off the challenge. Our results were immediate as we could see our progress against the other boats – probably much less frustrating for us than for those watching the race viewer on the internet! Many regard light wind sailing as the most difficult of all conditions and I can see why. We’ve not done well in it in the past and I feared for our chances but we were holding our own.

When we got the all too familiar news that Clipper were calling the race off early, we had 12 hours to go all out. We were sat on the rail most of the way, but not before moving every ounce of transferable weight onto the favourable side of the boat. There was only a matter of a few miles between first and last place. It was so exciting. My nails were bitten to the core! As I resumed my place on the rail with a cup of tea (best way to get rid of the weight of tea bags and our fresh water supplies!!) Skipper called me up to the helm and just told me our course. Now this was pressure and I loved it. Never before have I concentrated so hard for so long. So much effort had gone into this race, there was so much expectation and enthusiasm onboard and I was determined not to let anyone down. I’d been through that disappointment going into Qingdao and I was going to do everything in my power not to let it happen again.

The wind started to build and we were going faster and faster. I felt good and I just hoped that the other boats didn’t have similar winds. Eventually, the wind turned and we had to change sails. It couldn’t have gone better. Maybe, just maybe this was our turn.

As we crossed the line, the sense of relief was amazing. All we could do was wait for the email. We could do no more. There was a nervous tension visible in everyone onboard. As the air cooled with the setting of the deep red sun over the horizon, interrupted only by the small triangular-shaped sail of another Clipper boat, the skipper gathered us on deck. He told us the results in fleet order and we didn’t feature until 5th. While I’d thought earlier in the day that I didn’t mind where we came because I’d enjoyed the race so much, suddenly I was struggling to hold onto that idea. Then he told us that he was joking and hadn’t heard yet…the relief was overwhelming, not to mention the desire for revenge!

While nervous banter echoed around the saloon after dinner, suddenly the Nav Station erupted. Jumps of joy, hugs all around and massive smiles as we’d clinched second place. Another podium, another success. This time the news was for real. Agh…the sweet smell of success and now we’re hungry for more…!!!

Panama to Jamaica

June 9th, 2008

Approaching the Panama Canal, hundreds of huge tankers lined the coastline. One giant tanker-park waiting to go through one 50 mile stretch of water, laden with goods of all shapes and guises waiting to feed, clothe, transport and decorate people around the world. An amazing thought as I pondered just how much cargo was sat there in front of my eyes.

In the harbour, I saw the other side of yachting. Boats worth more than luxury London apartments were full of crew cleaning every nook and cranny, waiting to go through the canal. When we questioned why a marina in such high demand only had one shower, we were politely told that most of the marina’s visitors had all the facilities they could ever need onboard. Good point, well made! It was in stark contrast to the backstreets of Panama, where rundown buildings that could collapse at any second housed numerous families. Still, as ever with such places, there were content young boys dazzling me with their football skills as they weaved their way around the opposition with the tatty, old ball glued to their naked feet. I ended my stroll around the French Quarter when a taxi driver stopped, not to pick me up but to tell me that if I walked any further down the street my life would be at risk…a good reason to return to my single shower before dinner.

If there’s one thing that has impressed me about Clipper it’s that they seem to excel with logistics. While boats can wait weeks before getting through the canal, the Clipper fleet of 10 yachts was through in 3 batches over 4 days. Having swotted up on my canal facts in the museum the day before, I was able to admire the massive human effort and achievement that enabled me to sail between North and South America. My favourite fact was that in building the canal, if all the drilling was in a straight line, they would have drilled through the earth and several hundred miles beyond. Contrary to many expectations the canal is north/south and the Pacific side is further east than the Atlantic side – you work it out!

Due to the time constraints, we motored away from the wind hole surrounding the coast line and tried a Le Mons start, whereby boats line up, turn their engines off and then hoist sails and maintain the same course for 10 minutes. By then, the fleet is spread out enough to go their own separate ways. We had a fantastic start. We were the only ones to go with the largest sail and we were off. We’d said that for the few days to Jamaica we were going to race hard and experience what it was like on other boats. What a great motivation as we sat on the rail, legs dangling over the edge and watching most of the fleet trying to catch us up.

Our joy was short lived. We soon found ourselves with the perfect conditions for our ‘secret weapon’, an unconventional way of flying one of our sails. It was time to reveal it to the world, having previously only flown it when the rest of the fleet was out of sight. Sadly, any interest in our sail change would have been confusion as to why we were letting such a good position slip away. We tried to minimise the damage and join the rest of the fleet with the same sail plan. However the damage was done and we were in the middle of a rainsquall, dampening our spirits, our hopes and any chance we had in this short race. We sat for 3 hours almost stationary while every other boat flew along at about 10 knots. I was so disheartened. All the build up and anticipation only to be let down like this. I couldn’t blame it on anyone as I’d been very supportive of going with our secret weapon. The way that the shifts worked out, I was only ‘off watch’ for 3 of the first 24 hours so I was exhausted and I thought about going to the bow to scream but I’d only have come back soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. I know it’s only a race and there’s plenty more important things in the world but…

Over the next few days there were glimmers of hope now and again and, as ever, as the clouds disappeared to reveal blue skies and warm Caribbean sunshine, life felt a little better. My brother who was waiting for me in Jamaica sent me an email insisting that we arrive at a decent hour and that he would sink a beer and tell an embarrassing story about me for every boat that came in before us. Arriving 10th at 5 in the morning wasn’t ideal! However seeing family for the first time since Christmas was fantastic and our 48 hours in Jamaica gave me long enough to sample aki and saltfish, snapper, Red Stripe beer, a secluded beach (full of WA crew and their families!)  and Port Antonio’s coral reef. A couple of days is the longest we’ve had in port since Hawaii so the break was very much welcomed and we left on time, and back on the original schedule for the first time since our mast broke on March 5th. Let’s hope that normal service resumes for us on the leaderboard!

Santa Cruz to Panama

May 24th, 2008

It was a bizarre arrival in Santa Cruz; off the boat, still with my welcome rum in hand and straight into the brief for the next leg. With less than 36 hours in port and a whole heap of maintenance achieved, we were back out on the ocean. I really felt the buzz of being back in the race, back amongst the fleet and back on a start line. It was great; the jostling, the comraderie, the well wishes alongside the competitive streak. I had forgotten what it was like to race and we had new crew, a fresh motivation and a good atmosphere onboard.

We managed to get a good start given that our sail plan was very conservative and we were off. We had lost our main bowman 10 minutes before we slipped our lines but I was more than happy to try to work alongside one of the other experienced crew to ensure that it didn’t affect our performance. We worked hard, stayed focussed and I really thought that after all our trials and tribulations over the past few weeks, this could be our race and maybe even come in with that elusive 1st place to give us a full set of pennants. After a couple of days, as we left the cold wind behind and left the foulies in the wet locker and exchanged them for board shorts and suntan lotion, we found ourselves sharing second place with the New York boat. For me the defining moment of the race came as we watched the sun set into a glorious array of golds, oranges and reds stretching across the sky. Just behind us Glasgow made a move away from our coastal route out into the ocean and shortly afterwards, New York followed them just a few hundred metres ahead of us. We looked at the charts, the weather information we had and took a gamble. Once again, we would be different and decided to race our own race and stay inshore.

Initially it was fine and the plan worked well but over a few days, the winds died and we had no way out. We were left travelling at less than 2 knots, relying on nothing other than the current to carry us towards the finish line, hundreds of miles away. We were desperate for wind, not only for the race but also to offer some respite from the overpowering sunshine. The further south we drifted, so more and more people slept on deck, taking in the amazing stars and the sliver of a new moon while abandoning the humid sweat pit that our bunk area had become. One of the great things about flat seas is that you can see for miles and anything that moves in the ocean grabs your attention. We spotted hundreds of dolphins many of which came to play in our bow wave, gannets diving headfirst amongst the fish that were making the surface bubble, a couple of whales, flying fish, squid, huge sail fish jumping right out of the water, hundreds of turtles bobbing with us on the surface, flying rays, and we even had a couple of young boobies (birds before anyone says anything!) taking refuge on deck for a few days.

We were hopeful for a while that the afternoon sea breeze might be enough to salvage something from the race but as we received the 6 hourly updates on the race position, so we slipped further and further behind everyone. Our only companions in our predicament was the Durban crew who were even further inshore and suffering even more agony. The irony was that once all the other 8 boats had crossed a shortened finish line, we actually found wind and sailed at good speed. This sailing game can be a cruel business! It had been great to be back in the race and sailing alongside the rest of the fleet but the result was pretty disappointing. However we consoled ourselves with a dip in the 2,000m deep paddling pool we were sailing across, whilst hoping that any resident sharks weren’t feeling too peckish. For safety and with an eye to towing each other to save fuel, we joined up with Durban and motored over 1,000 miles to Panama. It gave us the chance to share stories and we even had a few crew change boats for a night. It was a much needed respite from the same faces we’d been looking at for months, seemingly without a break! We did stop off in Costa Rica for a quick pit stop, some much needed coffee, ice cream and beer - what a treat!! It was great to finally arrive in Panama, just behind the rest of the fleet and eagerly anticipating passing through the canal, one of the greatest feats of human engineering.

Hawaii to Santa Cruz

April 24th, 2008

Arriving in Hawaii came as a huge relief – finally we had made our destination after all the trials and tribulations that the last leg had brought us, 30 days after we had left the perishing cold of Qingdao. It was very obvious to us that the other crews had been in port a while – they smelt fresh, looked clean and were very chilled out. The advantage was that they knew exactly where to go around town!

Fortunately in many ways, our new mast section hadn’t arrived and so we were able to enjoy a few days r ‘n’ r, touring the island’s coastline and taking in the stunning scenery, the beaches, the snorkelling, the scuba diving, the sunshine and all the joys of dry land. It wasn’t long though before our serene and tranquil world was rudely interrupted by the arrival of our mast and mainsail. Suddenly the endless jobs list, which was to engage us for the next week, became a reality.

Sadly my hopes of rejoining the fleet for the race to Santa Cruz were dashed as it became obvious that we wouldn’t make the startline in time. Seeing off friends onboard other boats on that Saturday morning was odd – it just felt wrong to be stood on the harbour waving them off, without any nerves in my stomach and without the buzz that comes from eagerly anticipating crossing another stretch of ocean. On the positive side, at least we had more time on the island and had time to do all the ‘little things’ like washing, emails, postcards, banking etc that can only be done on land.

The big advantage for me was that I could look forward to enjoying my 30th birthday on land, with friends from both WA and the Durban boat, who had also been dismasted on the last leg. I’d planned to go surfing at first light, followed by a champagne bbq before heading out to sea but as progress with the mast went better than expected, we set off a day early. Nevertheless, I had managed to sneak in a couple of surfs as I was determined not to leave Hawaii without checking out the local swell!

Our passage started calmly enough which enabled me to enjoy a great birthday with whales breaching in the distance, a great big chocolate cake and beers to wash it down (the joys of not racing!). The crew very generously surprised me with a surf board I’d been looking to buy in Hawaii – I suspect it’s a little too small and fast for my clumsy skills but now that it’s all signed by the crew, I’m sure it will look great on the wall!

The following few days were pretty rough as we motored and sailed through some very damp, grotty conditions. We were heading straight into the wind, slamming off the choppy waves. It certainly reminded me of our voyage into Qingdao, although it was nowhere near as painful. As usual life onboard became uncomfortable as everything got wet again and sea sickness took a few victims. Crew were either getting damp on deck or hibernating in their bunks. At times like that, there is very little interaction between us – you’re either on watch, or you’re preventing/recovering/suffering from sea sickness in a horizontal position trying not to fall out! Thankfully the bad weather didn’t last the full week that we’d been expecting although it had slowed us down and any remaining hope of catching up with my brother, who had come to celebrate my birthday with me in Santa Cruz, vanished.

While it started to get colder, conditions calmed down a bit and we were able to motor when the winds died down. Even though we weren’t part of the race, we were keen to make the startline for the next stage of the race, which at times was looking doubtful. Now that would have been very frustrating! Without the motivation from the race, it became very difficult at times and dealing with the boredom became a real challenge. Some read books, some slept…I just annoyed people to see who would rise to the bait! The days, hours and watches seemed to go on forever! It wasn’t a completely uneventful trip though and we survived a fishing rope around our propeller, which needed someone to dive down in the cold water to free it and a minor flood in the galley which needed us to bail out water with buckets. There was enough rubbish and debris floating in the water, ranging from fishing tackle and buoys to plastic of every description, to tweak the consciences of even the most sceptical sailor. Thankfully we did see more wildlife than we’ve seen in a while including pods of whales, dolphins, albatross and seals which was a great spectacle.

Thankfully the conditions allowed us to do a lot of the maintenance before we got into port which was a huge help as we only had 48 hours in port before setting off, once more part of the fleet and back in the race…we have some catching up to do!

Qingdao to Hawaii (via Midway!)

March 30th, 2008

…and I thought the last leg was eventful! This time is wasn’t so much the conditions or the people that made the story but our home, the Big Blue Boat, the extraordinary places that we visited and the race itself.

After an emotional farewell to some close friends that we left behind in Qingdao, we headed out to sea once more. The winds were so light that our friends left Qingdao before us. As night drew in a few hours after crossing the startline, we could still see the lights of the city shining brightly a few miles away. We drifted along until the current changed direction and we started to be pushed backwards so for the first time in the race, we dropped our anchor. I was woken for my anchor watch shift at 4am and minutes after arriving on deck, flakes of snow started to descend from the night sky. Over the next few hours there was enough to build snowmen on deck and then we enjoyed one of the most surreal snowball fights of my life – in a yacht race, on deck, on board a boat off the coast of China, and wearing shorts and t-shirts! In fact we had so much fun that Clipper initially refused to publish the video we made of it all.

Once more we were out on a limb tactically. We headed north as part of our ‘Sultana Plan’, to make the most of the sea currents while the rest of the fleet stayed closer to the great circle route (the shortest distance between two points on the globe). We made good progress on the first few days and then we broke our spinnaker pole. Not our best move, although thankfully we do carry two. Occasionally we need them both for some operations but thankfully it didn’t hinder us too much.

A few days later and bang, the most immense crack. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my life jacket instantly. Our last spinnaker pole was hanging precariously next to the mainsail. Even I have learnt that it shouldn’t be there and especially not with a piece of the mast track dangling off the end of it. As well as holding the pole to the mast, the track is needed to move the pole up and down – key to maximising speed. A 6 inch piece had sheared off under the strain and was now at the mercy of the Pacific. There were plenty of rumblings, obscenities and shouts of our race being over. To make it worse, we were in third place at the time and we watched fourth place sail straight by us and a few hours later, they were only 20 miles behind the leaders. A killer blow to morale. Amazingly, with a structural engineer, a doctor of aeronautical engineering and ex-Royal Engineer onboard the mast was useable again within 48 hours. We were back up and running and with nearly 3,000 miles to go alongside our faith in the Sultana Plan, the race was on…

…that is until the 5th March, 2008. For the third time in the race, “all hands on deck” was being shouted, screamed and called down below. However, there was a surreal calm on deck and as I followed the bewildered gazes, I saw what can only be described as chaos. We had just lost over half of our 80ft mast. The top 50ft was now hanging lifeless from just above the first spreader, dangling all the way down into the ocean. Thankfully no one was hurt. The light winds and clam seas made the whole thing even more bizarre.

We just stood there and waited for the skipper who was busy downstairs reporting the incident. None of us had ever been in this situation before and weren’t sure where to start. After numerous attempts we managed to clear the sail that was wollowing in the water and trapped under the boat. Then we cleared the pole away. By this time it was clear that we needed to cut the mainsail from the mast and so I set about cutting the sliders that attach the sail to the mast. Then came my first real moment of panic. The shout of “clear out” came and everyone around me moved but I was stuck. I landed on the deck and knew that something above me was going horribly wrong. Thankfully when I tried again my legs were free and I escaped. Looking up I saw the mast start to make its way towards the ocean. It was falling and with it came wires, spreaders, rigging and lines – more than enough to give you a headache if you were caught! At this stage any chance of salvaging the mast had gone. It was now making its way towards the bottom of the Pacific and we needed to act fast. Skipper and I just cut at the mainsail to free it from the rest of the boat. Then came the realisation that the mast is firmly attached to the deck by a number of wires. The hydraulic cutters came into play and minutes later we were almost free. As Skipper tried to cut the last wire at the bow, the guard rail gave way and he followed. Now was not the time for a man overboard, especially not the skipper! Thankfully he clung on and a couple of the crew helped him back onboard – a close escape but there was no time to ponder on it. As great as the cutters are, sadly they don’t float and had gone overboard with the skipper. So while the deck attachments were being taken apart, so half a dozen of us had to throw the attached sail overboard. Watching it float away was a sad moment indeed.

Finally we were almost free and as the mast bounced against the side of the boat, seemingly trying to worsen our predicament by blasting a hole into our hull, we cut the final ropes. There she went in a matter of seconds. 50 ft of bright white mast disappearing into the dark, blue, Pacific Ocean waters, leaving no trace.

The decision was made that we should set up makeshift sails and motor when necessary (we didn’t have enough fuel to motor all the way) to Midway Island, 1,500 miles away. Our other option was to go back to Japan but thankfully the weather ruled that one out - I want to sail around the world and I feared that we would then fly to Hawaii and shatter my dreams. Conditions were no longer easy and the waves grew to around 25ft+. Reports from on deck suggested that knees were trembling and lips were quivering as we reached speeds of up to 22knots with our jury rig! We battled through for about 10 days and eventually we were warmly welcomed to Midway Island, an ex-naval base for the USA. However today it is home to some 2 million birds including 1 million albatross. They are everywhere and as they have no predators, you can get close enough to touch them. Unfortunately the brown, feathered hatchlings are difficult to see at night as they nest on the paths, which makes cycling home after a night in the bar its own little adventure!

30 hours after arriving we departed with extra fuel drums lashed to the deck and a revived (but slightly hungover!) crew. Conditions were appalling. We had huge swells and strong winds (I can’t tell you how strong as our wind instruments are now 4,000 metres below sea level!) and water poured over the decks from every angle.

200 miles out I was once more lying in my bed and heard a very distinctive ‘clunk’ and then the engine died. Our gearbox had just fallen off! We were now at the mercy of the ocean without proper sails and without an engine. We were now vulnerable, although with a functioning water maker and enough food to last for weeks, there was no need for panic just yet. So with the wind behind us, we returned to Midway. Thankfully we hadn’t burnt our bridges and we were welcomed back once more. It was a real privilege to have been once, but not many people can say they have been twice, especially under jury rig!!

Thankfully our third attempt to get to Hawaii was a far more successful endeavour and with the sun shining, we motored all the way, enabling us to relax and rest prior to all the hard work that needs to go into restoring the boat in preparation for the next race. The decision as to what happens about points and what happens if we’re not ready for the next race (amazingly another boat also lost their mast and so we’re not alone in this scenario) has yet to be taken. It has caused a fair amount of stress already as our overall race could effectively be over but that decision rests with Clipper. I don’t know if I’ll even get to Santa Cruz for my 30th but at least I’ll have a story to tell you all in the pub!

 

 

Singapore to Qingdao

March 21st, 2008

1 fractured skull, 2 cracked vertebrae, 1 slipped disk, 1 upper arm broken in 5 places, more broken ribs than I can count, 1 sent home due to severe frostbite, 2 hospitalised with serious infections and 1 crew member with a case of ‘cabin fever’ that demanded 24 hour care and tranquilisers. This is just a sample of the injuries sustained on this leg across the fleet – yep, conditions were tough!

 The leg hadn’t started well for our Big Blue Boat as 3 of our ‘Round the Worlders’ pulled out until Qingdao for personal reasons. That’s quite a heavy blow when you are left with just 13 crew plus a skipper but the show had to go on. Despite leaving those 3 behind, we only said cheerio to 1 other and she’ll be back later in the race so spirits were high after a great stopover and a good rest in Singapore and Batam, where I’d thoroughly enjoyed visiting a night zoo, splashing around in a water park, drinking Singapore Slings in Raffles, mountain biking (yep, I’m officially unfit!) and gate crashing a gala Burn’s Night dinner.

Navigationally, this wasn’t intended to be a particularly demanding race and it was a pretty straight forward upwind slog past the Phillipines, through the Luzon Straits keeping Taiwan on our left and then up through the China Sea to Qingdao, host to this year’s Olympic sailing regatta. After the obligatory ‘fly by’ for the press, we passed through one of the busiest shipping lanes with more massive tankers than I ever care to see again to arrive at the start line. We started well, up there with the leading pack for the first hour but then the wind died on us while those closer to shore picked up breezes that never made it out to us. After only a couple of days we were already chasing the fleet. Position in the race and morale tend to be directly related and conditions were not conducive to comfortable living. Temperatures were well over 40*C and humidity was sky high. Within days my bed sheets were soaked through from sweat. We had to have the hatches closed as sailing into the wind, water was crashing over the decks. The only relief from the stifling heat was a trip to the bow to check trim and hope that you got caught by a wave that would cool you down. Sleeping was a luxury that few were afforded. As Watch Leader I had been looking forward to trying my hand again but with a little more knowledge and confidence than the first leg of the race. However, my watch of 4 was soon depleted to just 2 of us as crew went down with heat exhaustion. The overpowering heat and humidity seemed to last for weeks but in reality it was probably only about 10 days. I still remember my last day of wearing shorts; I made a trip to the bow for a few photos late in the afternoon, had a very pleasant drenching but made the mistake of leaving it too late to dry my shorts in the sun. They lay wet, next to my bunk for another 2 weeks.

Seemingly overnight the weather changed. Welcome to the Luzon Straits. Helming suddenly became something that was exhausting. There were times when just keeping a grip of the wheel took more strength than I could muster. On more than one occasion I was flung from the helm as the wheel shook me around like a rag doll. Just returning to the deck time and time again took courage, real courage. But, that is why I believe that this challenge is different – once we leave port, there is no turning back. Once we’re in a storm, that’s it, we’re there to the bitter end where the only option to leave isn’t worth considering. On one occasion I lost my footing and slammed the inside of my knee against the deck and I couldn’t move. I knew that in 30 mins time, I’d be fine but for those 30 minutes I was immobilized. I yelled out to the other half of my watch to take the helm, at which point her life jacket inflated as yet another huge wave came crashing over the decks. Waves were growing with each day, as was the wind strength. Doing anything on deck took immense effort and life down below was no easier as walking around, eating and going to the loo with a boat rocking to around 35* angle is no easy task. Making a cup of tea becomes a long task requiring quite a few pairs of hands! Dealing with these levels of discomfort is something that you can become accustomed to but the difficulty comes with the constant, unending and perpetual continuity of it all, with no sign of a break for weeks to come. Where my bed sheets had been wet with sweat, they were now cold and wet from the condensation. Everything was wet; the cushion covers, clothes, boots, floor, sails, bunk mattresses, sheets. My pillow was so wet and mouldy that I through it into the bunk storage and didn’t see it again until I arrived in China! 

Amazingly, on the racing front, we were doing well. I kept telling myself and those around me that everyone was experiencing the same thing and that if we can just stay slightly more motivated and put in just a little bit more effort than others, then we’d do well. Slowly we battled up the fleet, taking one boat at a time. Incredibly after hundreds of miles of racing and in the middle of the ocean, we had to call right of way over another boat. However, at times like that knowing that there are others out there in a similar position is comforting. It was great to see them, especially as we sailed past!

Then life got tough. To be honest, most people went into survival mode for the last part of the race. I was astounded that more people didn’t find the experience too much. I have never felt cold like it. Time up on deck was limited to 30 minutes to prevent frostbite. However, having been on the helm for 30 minutes and returning below deck to thaw out, I cannot describe the pain as my fingers slowly came back to life. They had gone numb and I wish they’d stayed that way; I just held them close to my face in the hope that somehow the pain would dissipate. Eventually it did thanks to others warming them in their palms and dipping them in what I was assured was tepid water – I had absolutely no idea as I could only feel the cutting pain. The pain from cold is like no other and I’ll never forget that feeling.

By this time, we were crashing into waves that were well over 20ft high. Going into them was one thing, coming out of them quite another. Each wave was a lottery as to whether we slid smoothly back down it, enjoying a little surfing or crashing 40 tonnes of boat onto concrete. Down below, the G Forces whilst lying in my bunk would literally lift me so that I nearly hit the ceiling. On another boat, one crewmember was thrown up and over his Leecloth (a piece of material about 1 ft high to prevent you from falling out when the boat is sailing at an angle) and onto the floor. Sleeping wasn’t really an option, even for me, the world’s most talented sleeper!  People were literally thrown all over the boat and ribs were being broken and bruised all over the fleet. Cracks started to appear on the boat and with every crashing wave came the concern as to whether or not the boat would hold together. It wouldn’t have been a huge shock had the boat split in two – that’s how big each and every crash was and there’s lots of waves in 24 hours of sailing let alone 20 odd days of it! Helming in these conditions was a challenge, but in many ways I thrived off it. Many understandably did not want to do it and it was left to a few to take it on. It was me against the elements, trying not only to survive but to keep everyone safe, to steer a good course and to race. There were some enormous waves coming over the decks and I regularly stood at the helm with water pouring over my boots. Night time brought its own additional difficulties. Without being able to see the waves, we had no chance. Sailing into such waves with the wind in your face without being able to see anything beyond the bow is quite an experience. For all I knew, I was going to fall off the end of the world – are you sure it’s round?!? I can only describe it as mountain biking along a downhill track in the pitch black. Sometimes I’m sure I took off into the air and I was just praying that I could land this thing that I was clinging onto for dear life. And then, 5 seconds later, I was back thinking the same thing, and again and again. It was neverending.

They say that sailing is the easy part – living conditions and dealing with people is the difficult bit. Despite everything I’ve just said, I think it’s probably true. We had an incident whereby one of my watch suffered what I can only describe as cabin fever and after an argument, he made a dash for the decks without a life jacket and in shorts and t-shirt where sub zero temperatures awaited him. Thankfully 3 of us managed to pull him away but then he made a dart for the Man Overboard button in the Nav Station. He was put under 24 hour care and sedated for the rest of the trip but once again, my watch was down to 2 crew to cover the 3 hour watches where frostbite, large waves and howling winds were periously close. 

The support that I received for the rest of the leg was quite simply phenomenal. If I’d taken all the help offered, I don’t think I’d have needed to go back up on deck. Despite the conditions, people were offering to go up and assist with my shifts in a way that blew me away. I will never forget that. People didn’t whinge or even pass comment, they just helped in any way they could and I was touched, very touched. People’s true colours come out at times like that and I was fortunate to be sailing with some great people who I’m privileged to call fantastic friends.

After such traumatic times, the racing element almost got lost. With a few days to go we were in 6th position and decided to take a gamble tactically. We knew we’d lose ground to start with but then with the right wind shifts, we hoped to make up all the ground we’d lost and more on the final run into Qingdao.

I was woken for a shift having fallen asleep in the saloon to be told the devastating news. The race was being cut short to make sure that all the fleet, some of whom were hundreds of miles behind, would make it to the opening ceremony on time. I was gutted but we had a few hours to go all out. 4th place was within our grasp. We tried everything in our power. The following day, Skipper gathered us together to tell us that we’d failed in our quest. We were 1.5 miles behind 5th place and 3 miles behind 4th. Some crew looked on the positives of having arrived in one piece, some highlighted the gains we made coming from 10th to 6th but I was devastated. After all the courage, the strength, the teamwork and the effort, I just felt as though we deserved more. It hurt, it hurt a lot and I spent a few hours on deck just mulling over everything.

With two days of motoring still to go and some great friends around me, by the time we arrived in China I’d picked myself up. It was quite an emotional arrival after everything we’d been through as a crew. The arrival ceremony was spectacular with hundreds of press, drummers, fireworks, champagne, Harry Potter style capes, dancers and Olympic mascots. It surpassed everything we’d had in other ports by a long way. Everyone wanted photos with us and we took on z-list celebrity status. It was great! After the 2 day boat cleaning and repairing ritual, I headed off to Beijing for a much needed break. It’s very strange to feel so close to people that were strangers two months previous and yet, the entire relationship is based onboard a boat so spending time on land with people you feel so close to is new and slightly surreal, but very, very enjoyable.

It was a leg that will be unforgettable for so many reasons; the good, the bad and the ugly but mostly for the friendships that were made in some very trying times. I just hope it’s true that things that don’t break you make you stronger. If ever I need to look back on events for strength and courage, I think I have one in the bank!

Fremantle to Singapore

January 20th, 2008

Gobsmacked, I’m lost for words to describe the atmosphere as we left Fremantle. After a fantastic 2 week break over Christmas, in which I caught up with friends and enjoyed a fabulous time with Mum & Dad, it really was a tremendous departure. Following a tall ship around the harbour with thousands lining the dockside, it was reminiscent of leaving Liverpool, only this time with a little less fear, a little less trepidation, a bit more confidence and really looking forward to returning to what I almost now consider home, the wide open ocean. Cheered on by the hundreds of boats in the flotilla following us, as the home port boat we dutifully rounded the last mark and set off for Asia leading the rest of the fleet after a great battle. A fitting start to a fantastic few hours, owed mainly to the phenomenal local support we’d received throughout our time in Freo (and a bit of local knowledge!)

Sailing alongside Western Australia’s beaches seeing the thousands of miles of pristine coastline was spectacular. Sadly our local knowledge and weather files meant that we stayed a bit too close to these wonderful places and as the predicted winds never materialised, we slipped back into 7th position. On such a short race it was always going to be tough to get back into it but we battled on. However, “the sooner you slip back, the more time you have to catch up” as our America’s Cup celebrity had told us on a corporate sailing day.

We were soon back into the swing of life onboard and our 2 watch system. In complete contrast to the weather we had for our Aussie arrival, we were on deck sailing in bordies and not a lot else! The sun was hot, the winds were fair and our position apart, all was well onboard Western Australia 2011.com. With 7 new crew onboard for this leg and a 7:10 male to female ratio, the dynamics were very different and there was plenty of new conversation to be had and the exciting buzz of the unknown.

In conjunction with my position as Assistant Watch Leader, having so many new crew helped me to grow in confidence in sailing terms as I was able to help and guide those new to the boat. There were also plenty more opportunities to work up on the bow, which I have to say is much more inviting when the sun is scorching hot and a wave dumping on you is a pleasure rather than a chore! I also thrived on the helm and when my time was up each watch, a crow bar was generally required to get me of it!

The dominating feature of this leg though was the heat. The deck was too hot to walk on in bare feet, standing on the helm demanded regular buckets of water poured over my legs to cool them off and my tan has developed to the extent that most crew suggest that if I want to return and live in Oz, I could apply for indigenous population status! Sleep isn’t something I often struggle with but lying in a pool of sweat in over 40*C and over 75% humidity is no easy task. Thankfully there is no shortage of water around us and so I was able to freshen up with a salt water shower at least once a day!

Navigationally, it was a fascinating race and generally we did extremely well, although I can’t take any of the credit for our tactics. On other races we haven’t seen other boats for 3 weeks at a time but on this race, we were regularly in sight of each other, which added to a heightened level of competition onboard. We managed to claw our way back into the race and initially enjoyed a great dual with Glasgow. We made up lots of ground sailing East of Christmas Island while they were becalmed on the western side. We finally lost sight of them as they went into a massive storm cloud on the horizon and weren’t seen again until they arrived in port! After passing the plumes of smoke emitted by Krakatoa, reputed to be the loudest explosion on earth when it erupted, we were engaged into a battle with Hull & Humber. To make things more interesting, we also had to negotiate the numerous ferries, 200,000 tonne tankers, debris, random unlit fishing sticks and fishing vessels laying miles of unlit fishing nets. The first time we encountered one of these, we ran straight over it! (Unfortunately I was on lookout duties!) We watched, we held our breath, we watched some more as the floats just bobbed in the water, we breathed again. Others we came across in the daytime led to us going miles out of our way to avoid becoming entangled. Rumours are abound that our next passage up to China is even worse… we’ll see!  

Unfortunately our detour came shortly after we thought we’d broken away from our rivals onboard Hull & Humber. We were back tacking, covering and tacking some more just a few hundred metres from each other. It made for a fascinating final week with lots of tacking and lots of fun. We were very relieved to cross the line in one piece and in third place, another podium position, brilliant!

A great race, with some very competitive sailing and we managed to avoid both the tropical cyclones and becoming becalmed as was expected (I think our experience in the Canaries is enough to last us a lifetime!) It meant that we arrived into Indonesia a few days earlier than expected so we’re currently enjoying some ‘r and r’ in a luxury resort prior to heading over to Singapore, where we’ll pick up our 2nd pennant of the voyage. There is a new air of confidence onboard and a realisation of what it takes to achieve a podium position but there’s a steely determination to get the full set by the time we arrive in Qindao – just need that elusive 1st place!


[Pi]
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