It seems that Clipper Race training for me isn’t about gently easing into life onboard a racing yacht but more of a throw-me-in-the-deep-end sort of a challenge! The Clipper Race training programme is intended to do the latter, however the weather has its own agenda…
The first day of Level 3 training was a day in the classroom on an ISAF Offshore Safety at Sea course. This involved thinking about the worst case scenarios of things that could go wrong and discussing ways to overcome the situations. What would you do if the mast fell off? How would you react in the 6 seconds from keel falling off to capsizing? What do you need in the grab bag for your life to continue once you’ve been rescued? What can you do to help prevent any of this happening? (And staying on land is the wrong answer!). Ultimately one hopes that I, or any other Clipper Race team, never need to put this thinking into practice. However I am glad that we have thought about it while on dry land!
We then headed to find our home for the remainder of the week, CV 22 and our training team of Skipper Jan and Mate Dave. This was the first chance to try out a Clipper 70 too, which is the type of yacht we will be racing on. The 70s are a different design from the 68s which I have done my previous training on. The deck is much more open and the crew closer together which makes communications during evolutions a lot easier and also there are two steering gears so you can helm from either side. Below decks the bunks are mainly aft and the galley is in a central point. The sails have a separate sail locker which helps minimise the amount of water coming down below and the navigation station is all the way aft. There are however more low points and therefore risk of banging your head is highly increased!
As we were preparing for leaving Gosport and going through the safety briefs, all twelve of the 2015/16 Race Skippers walked past on the way to their training. It was an odd feeling as I found myself sort of staring at them, like you do celebrities, and wondering which one of them will become my boss for the race? I had to admit that they all looked much friendlier then their official photos make them out to be which is reassuring!
The first day on the water was a great way to get used to the new deck layout and remind ourselves where everything is and what it does. I think I prefer the layout on the 70s as all the jammers which hold the lines are near each other. I know not all agree with me as some found it more confusing having everything so near. There are also two grinders which can either work together or independently for different winches so the learning began in remembering which one was engaged and if they were linked or not! The other noticeable difference is the amount of lean that the boat does. It is a much steeper angle than on the 68s although she still feels smooth going through the water despite the lean. Using the heads however is an increased challenge at the angle! (I challenge you readers to attempt a reconstruction of using the toilet at a 45 degree lean!)
The weather forecast gave indications that the conditions could become a little lively as the days progressed. I’ve come to accept that gale force warnings are the norm on clipper training but this was a new experience for others amongst the crew.
We managed one day of learning about and sailing under spinnaker. For those of you who don’t know, a spinnaker has a massive sail area and is flown at the front of the boat and used for downwind sailing. There are three different sizes designed for certain wind speeds. There is a set way to stow the sails in their sail bag which makes it possible to hoist it without it getting caught in any rigging and so that the sail doesn’t fill with wind until it is up. This involves a process called ‘wooling’ which involves laying the sail out down below and rolling each side up into a sort of sausage and then tying with strips of wool. The wool is strong enough to hold the rolls in place but weak enough to break once the sail is up and filling with wind. Sailing with the spinnaker up involves continuous trimming with the sheets as you have to make sure it isnever too tight, as then you don’t have the power, but not too loose so that it get caught around the forestay. There is real team work involved and it was great to see us all working together even after such a short period of knowing one another. I hope my race crew gels this quickly too.
We continued sailing and started the watch system with the intention of sailing over night to Weymouth. The wind was beginning to build which meant that we were flying along and the lean was even greater. Sleeping during the off watch was a challenge. I’d managed to climb into my bunk and adjust it for the lean with out disaster. However when I was just dozing off I heard the sound of winches and realise the boat had tacked so my bunk was therefore at the wrong angle. After the third time this happened I gave up any hope of managing to get my bunk to the right angle and tried just to sleep at a funny angle. Needless to say this wasn’t so successful (thanks Port watch!) so I returned to watch somewhat bleary eyed. On the race this will be less of an issue as tacking won’t happen as often so you should be able to set the bunk and it remain at that angle for your 2.5 hours kip!
We had made it to Weymouth and were sailing around the bay. When we got the latest weather forecast the decision was made not to go in to Weymouth but to head back towards the Isle of Wight as the weather was turning and predictions of gale force 10 winds coming our way! The fog and rain decided to join the party which made the Needles look impressive as they appeared through the mist on the approach to the Isle of Wight, but made navigation harder work. Dave however helmed us through seamlessly making us all hope we would be that good at helping one day too. We all learnt a valuable lesson about sailing with reefs in when it’s raining. If you tack and are near where the sail bags up as the boom goes over you get a load of water dumped on your head. We all thank Peter for experiencing this on our behalf so that we could all learn from his experience!
Arriving in Cowes was quite fun as you forgot how big the Clipper 70 is compared to the average yacht in the marina. Everyone watched us come alongside (no pressure there then!) and we had a regular stream of people on the pontoon standing and staring at us! When you’re at sea you don’t feel big at all but in fact quite insignificant compared to what Mother Nature throws at you but by land you become imposing and large in the yacht world.
Because of the weather we stayed sheltered in Cowes overnight and for most of the next day. We used this time to learn more theory about racing (on level 3 you are meant to experience racing but as we were the only level 3 out we won everything by default!) and the type of racing starts that happen during the Clipper Race. A group of us got acquainted with the nav station and learnt what every single button and switch is for and how it is used (there really is a switch for everything on the switch panel). We also learnt how to maintain a winch by taking it apart and putting it back together again and did some winching drills.
As the weather eased (it was now only a force 9…!) we headed out on to the Solent for one final sail. We had the storm jib and trisail up which are designed for stormy weather. It was amazing that even with such small sail area we were still making 7.5 knots and even managed a spell of downwind goose winging! (When the jib floats to the opposite side to the main sail, as the wind is directly behind you).
Before we knew it we were back in Gosport and safely tied up once more. The only thing left for us the following day was the joyous deep clean. It’s a bit like a reversal of an IKEA flat pack furniture build just without the instructions on how to re assemble! Everything is taken off the boat and along with everything left it is cleaned and anti backed and then returned to the right place. This is a massive team effort and you can really smell the difference when it’s complete!!
I also got to have my first taste of the top of the mast on a Clipper 70 as I was lucky enough to do the rig check. It’s impressive looking down on the yacht from the top of the mast and I can’t wait for the first chance I get to do this at sea!
Now readers I’m sure your all wanting to know what the vomit stakes are like on this week of sailing. I’m happy to report that I remained vomit free for all the time! Let’s not read into the fact we did a lot of down wind sailing nor the sea state being less then on level 2 but take the positives that maybe the vomit tunnel will not always be something I have to contend with (famous last words and all..!).
I have met another great group of people and enjoyed sailing with them. Being on a clipper 70 makes the Clipper Race all the more real. It’s not long now until Crew Allocation when I will find out who my skipper and team are. My focus will then be completely on the team and preparing for the race. I wonder how many of the people I have sailed with will be teamies and how many competition? Will we remain friends if we are on separate teams or will the competitiveness take over? I hope that we are still all talking to each other and that isn’t the case!
Thank you to my level 3 crew for building my confidence, inspiring me and firing me up for what is to come. Jan and Dave were a great teaching combination, Starboard watch made watches fun (myself, Nick, Allen, Sergej and Trudy) and to Port watch were all lovely too even if they tried their best to throw us out our bunks (Jo, Peter, Mike, Sharon and Paul).
I am looking forward to the challenge ahead, the people I will meet, the times that will test me and times I will grow. I have learnt so much thus far and hope that this continues throughout the race. The next stage is daunting and exciting and I hope you continue to read my progress as I (hopefully) make it through. Now to go and nurse my peeling hands!