I have been asked to write a little bit about my adventure last Christmas in Australia sailing on a racing yacht in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. It was, let me assure you, a fantastic experience. It was challenging on so many levels, physical emotional and psychological, and before you ask “would you do it again?”
Emphatically no I would not!
The Clipper race is a really full on ocean race. It is not a gentle sail, it is not delivering a boat and the competition is intense. It is much more like the Volvo round the world yacht race than anything else, except the sailors are at best amateurs and in my case absolute novices. There are 12 identical sponsored 70 foot racing Clippers racing from London to Rio, Rio to Cape Town, Cape Town to Albany (in Western Australia), Albany to Sydney, Sydney to Hobart (in the iconic Sydney to Hobart yacht race), Hobart to Queensland, Queensland to Vietnam, Vietnam to China, China to Seattle, Seattle to New York, New York to Derry (Northern Ireland), Derry to Holland, Holland to the finish in London. Some people do the whole round the world trip which takes almost 12 months most do one or more legs. For myself I chose leg four, the Australian leg because that’s where I grew up and that’s where my family is.
My epic adventure began in 2014 when the Clippers of the last race came into Derry. It was a beautiful sunny week and the excitement generated in the town by the arrival of these beautiful boats which were completing the last part of sailing round the world was intoxicating for me. Looking at some of the video footage of the Seas which they had conquered planted the seed in me that here was something, a challenge that I could really get my teeth into. The more I considered it the more it seemed irresistible. I was painfully aware that at the age of 64, if this was something I really wanted to do then I’d better do it soon. I signed myself up. Now I understand about people running away to join the circus. My dear wife, God bless her, considered that I must’ve gone completely mad. Whilst she was sensibly, and emphatically against the idea, nevertheless she gave her full support to me in the process (much the same as if I had come down with some dreadful disease). Let me give some context here. The 70 foot boat might seem quite big to some people, but compared to the vastness of the oceans it is crossing it is tiny and vulnerable. People die on these races (two people died on this one), on my boat, the Derry Londonderry Doire, we had damaged hands, fractured ribs, split foreheads with blood everywhere and plenty of other knocks which in any other circumstance would probably put you off work for a day or two. It is mandatory for all sailors competing to do four levels of training on the Clippers. These are week-long sailing/learning cruises out of Gosport in the south of England and Clipper training is 2nd to none – I learned a lot, not least because I’d never been on a boat before. There is an awful lot to know and my learning curve was steep. The big takeaway from this whole episode is meeting with these fantastic people who are also doing the training, sharing the experience with them. There is something about the environment of a sailing ship which welds people together. The saying “we are all in the same boat” takes on a new meaning. Everyone with whom I came into contact through this whole Clipper adventure expressed tolerance, patience and kindness which is rarely found in such abundance in normal life. The skippers though, it must be said are in a category of their own. Their resourcefulness, patience and calm in the direst circumstances, their leadership and direction introduced me to a type of person I have rarely encountered in 60 years. Oh yes! And there were many dire circumstances!
I am conscious that I do not want to turn this article into a ponderous tome going into too much detail so I will move on to my own trip, leg four round Australia.
All the training in the world could not have prepared me for the actuality. At the end of November I flew to Perth and then to Albany. Dr Ian Squire and his lovely wife Marieke very kindly put me up for five days as we prepared the boat for departure. Racing across these oceans takes its toll on the boats and in every port there is a lot of repair work needed to prepare for the next stage. Whilst they may be in port for 10 days or more the crew are often only allowed one or two days free time. On 2nd December leg four of the race began. In Albany the weather had been quite cool, even raining at one point. As we set out through the mayhem of “race start” – this means all of the 12 boats are vying to cross the line 1st but are only able to do it as the gun goes off. To me it was utter chaos these massive boats being flung around like toys passing within inches of each other people roaring and shouting and all the time pulling sails out of the locker below, taking down sails putting up new sails, the boat at a slope of 45° and more and being soaked the whole time. Now I was thanking God that for the previous 18 months I had been training and exercising at least four times a week. To be in that situation was difficult enough, but to be there and not be fit would be pretty much impossible. Before long we were in the open sea and at the front of the pack. Those first three or four days were as hard as any days in my life. I was seasick, I was emotionally in a dark place (my father who I was to visit in Australia died just before we set out) and I found myself in an utterly alien environment. As night began to fall we entered into a storm which was to last four days. There was no moon and the sky was black as coal. Now I have to talk in cliches – apologies. The wind was howling, apparently 60 to 80 knots at times, the waves were massive and were pounding us. The word “unrelenting” comes to mind. Did I mention that I was seasick? I was lucky in a sense in that although I was seasick I was still able to function. The routine is two watches (teams), eight members in each, starboard (right hand side of the boat) and port (left hand side of the boat). Each watch is four hours. Four hours on deck being pounded thrown around, soaked, putting in reefs to slow the boat down taking them out to speed us up, putting up the foresail to increase speed, taking it down as the wind became dangerously strong. All this and clinging and climbing because the boat is at 45°. If you imagine being on the roof of your house while it leaps 20 m into the air and then immediately crashes down 20 m coming to an abrupt halt at the bottom and then repeating it as the shrieking wind and rain sting your face, hour after hour day after day week after week. It has been likened to being inside a giant washing machine. All the time you have to be moving around to accomplish the various tasks necessary to keep moving forward at speed. You are hampered and hindered by your harness attached to the boat to keep you from going over the side. The word “lifeline” takes on a whole new meaning. If you are washed overboard the chance of you surviving is very, very small. And people are washed overboard and die much more often than you might think. The thought definitely did occur to me “Kevin you could die here” and at one point I must say I was feeling so low that the proposition of dying was quite attractive. In the midst of this violent tempest way beyond any previous experience of mine in which I am clinging on for dear life and trying to do my duties, the skipper, (Dan) keeps excitedly sticking his head up out of the hatch and shouting that we might go a bit faster if we did this or that. My first thought was that this man that I trusted and admired so much had actually gone insane. My suggestion would be wait till the storm calms down. But what I could not have learned in training and didn’t understand until now was that this really is a race. Every half and knot per hour is important even in the midst of a hurricane (apparently). So back to the routine. Four hours on a 45 degree deck is hard work even just moving about or staying in one place. Then the shift ends and the new team come on deck. Now you have four hours relative comfort below deck. 10 minutes to get out of your wet gear, go to the toilet (head), climb onto your bunk on the high side, into your sleeping bag and fall into an exhausted coma. If you want to have something to eat before you go back on deck for your next shift you have to wake up an hour and 10 minutes before you are due. No one wants to be late for their shift on deck where the exhausted opposite watch is ready to go below. Four hours on, four hours off day after day week after week. Amazingly you settle into a pattern and a routine. The race is everything. Your world shrinks, life becomes very simple. Despite The fact that you don’t change your underwear for weeks at a time, there is no shower and using the toilet is more often like an Olympic gymnastic routine than anything else, despite the difficulties, the danger and the isolation you begin to feel more alive than you have perhaps felt for years. The vast canopy of the sky at night and the Southern Cross, the sea animals, the luminosities in the darkness, unbelievable sunrises and sunsets and the ever changing ocean have an effect which is impossible to describe, but whoever has felt it hungers to feel it again. At one point I realised that we were closer to the astronauts on the space station than to anyone on land. The bonding which goes on with your shipmates, particularly your fellow watch members is very deep and personal.
What did I gain from this adventure? I must say it seems to be revealing itself in layers as time goes on. When I finished my leg four I had lost 10 kilos and was pretty much exhausted emotionally and physically. If anyone asked at that time I would certainly say “I’m glad I did it” but in my heart of hearts especially considering my father’s passing I was not a bit sure that I really was “glad I did it”. Now almost a year later I can truly say – “yes – I am glad I did it”. Meeting those wonderful people, sharing that adventure, testing my limits, experiencing parts of the earth which very few people have ever experienced and regaining my fitness are some of the products. If anyone is considering doing this race, I would encourage them but I would also say think very hard especially about the physical preparation.
Having said that I think I would also say “Yeah! Go for it”.