Round a Bit of the World

One leg of the Clipper Round-the-World race.

By Dr. Tim Howard, Seal 26 (Ceres, no 16).

Ever since I sailed my first boat (a home built Cadet) I have dreamt of doing a ‘proper’ ocean voyage. As I progressed through GP14s, Wayfarers, Ospreys, and International 10sq metre Canoes to boats with lids (a Seal 22 followed by a Super Seal 26) to accommodate a wife and children, the dream remained unattainable, but partial retirement after nearly 40 years at the coal face of the NHS allowed me to explore the reality. So when an advertisement in the Times for the Clipper Round-the-World Race, caught my eye, I grasped the opportunity with both hands.

Clipper is organised by Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, of  ‘Suhali’ fame. Every other year, ten purpose-built identical boats race round the world, stopping at 12 ports on route. There is a professional skipper, but all the crew are amateur. You can opt for any number of legs of the race, or do the whole thirty thousand mile 10 month circumnavigation. I was attracted to the culture of Clipper, which is to help you to make the best of yourself, whatever your experience. Ages on my race ranged from 18 to 69, and experience from nil to expert. There are 4 training weeks during the year before the race and attendance at these is compulsory. ‘Round-the-worlders’ can opt to do other training in things such as engine maintenance, first aid, sail maintenance, rigging, etc. ‘Leggers’ like me bring only their common sense and experience.

The boats for my race were new. There had been 4 previous races, and the old boats used were showing distinct signs of wear and tear after 150,000 miles of hard racing. The new boats are bigger (68 ft instead of 60) and a lot faster. They are down-wind flyers, designed by Ed Dubois to surf in the big winds and seas of the Southern Ocean and Pacific - as I was to find out! Luxury is not a high priority. There are 18 pipe-cots, a simple (some might say primitive) galley, 2 basic heads, a small saloon and a nav station full of high-tech equipment - the nerve centre of the boat. Sails - and there are lots of them and they are huge - are stowed on the floor of the accommodation, and take up at least as much room as the crew. Also, for much of the time, they are wet. Each boat is sponsored by a city - some in the UK, and some from abroad; Durban, New York, Glasgow, Liverpool, Jersey and others. Each boat developed a close relationship with its sponsor, and in turn received much encouragement and support from them. Crew can apply to sail on a boat with which they have a particular association, but others like me, without any particular bond, take pot luck. I was allocated to Singapore, the only Asian-sponsored boat, and was entirely happy with this. Half the crew came from Singapore itself, and I felt that much of the benefit I got from the whole experience came from contact with this group of highly intelligent and motivated people from a different culture. I made good friends with several, and learnt a lot from and about them. The skipper was Australian - hugely experienced in long-distance racing and crew management; always helpful; occasionally gruff. I developed complete faith in his judgement and great admiration for his sailing skills.

Training was an eye-opener. I had no idea of the huge gulf between sailing a boat of up to 40 feet, and one of 70 feet. The forces on and power of every sheet, halliard, reefing line and winch are extraordinary. Everything is handled by winches; it needs a 3 speed coffee-grinder to get the half ton mainsail up with any semblance of speed.; putting a slab reef in needs the co-ordinated activity of 5 crew and 4 winches. Foresails are hanked on - no roller reefing for proper racing boats. It took 6 of us to drag the No1 yankee on deck and to the forestay. My learning curve was steep and the physical activity relentless, only eased by interesting evenings in the wide selection of pubs near the training base in the Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport.

The race itself starts in Liverpool, and after a short leg to Portugal, goes to Brazil, Cape Town, into the Southern Ocean to Freemantle, and then North to Singapore and Quindao in China - the site for the next Olympic regatta. Then the longest and hardest leg across the North Pacific to Victoria in Canada. After much debate, I decided to join the race there, and do the long leg down the Pacific to Panama, then through the Canal and to a stop in Jamaica. After this, the race goes to New York, and finally back across the Atlantic to Jersey, and the finish in Liverpool. Points are awarded for places on each leg, with a prize giving for leg winners and runners-up, and a cumulative total leading to an overall winner. It became apparent even before the start that some boats were going to race really hard, while others, including Singapore, were going to do the very best they could, but not at the expense of maximising the fun of the whole experience. This was much more my style.

Following the ups and downs of the race on line was almost as exciting as sailing in it. Twice daily position downloads, charts of relative positions and a regular crew diary all helped to keep one updated on how things were going. Singapore performed well in the middle of the fleet, and I started to make arrangements to join her in Canada. Beating into 30 knots of wind half way up the South China Sea, however, disaster struck. Not pirates, but loose keel bolts. One boat noticed water over the floorboards, and inspection showed a frightening delamination of the floor round the keel mounting, and on checking 4 other boats found the same problem. The fleet motored gingerly to the nearest port with large enough lifting facilities, Subic Bay in the Phillipines, and a frantic race to repair all 10 boats began. A team of laminators flew out from the UK, and after working like demons for 6 weeks, all the boats had completely new bottoms and keel mountings, and passed a stringent safety check. The race was on again! I managed to rearrange my dates, and flew to Victoria, BC at the beginning of May to join Singapore.

I was a bit anxious about joining an established crew, but the 2 other ‘leggers’ and I were made very welcome. The leg from China to Victoria had been “a killer” in the words of the skipper. Relentless head winds and unusually cold conditions for 5,600 miles had taken its toll on boats and crew, and they definitely needed the 2 weeks R & R that the stopover allowed. There was an endless list of repairs and maintenance to undertake, as well as the task of victualling the boat for a month at sea with 18 hungry mouths to feed. I learnt how to strip a coffee-grinder, reeve a new main halliard (from the top of a 94 ft mast) and repair the water maker. I found I was sharing my bunk with a hundredweight of rice and two hundred Mars Bars. “Don’t worry” a fellow crew member said, “we’ll be hot bunking anyway”. We did.

Starting day arrived all too soon. The last few hours were a flurry of stowing personal kit, fuelling, planning watches, and watching the opposition. Leaving Victoria was a big occasion; the Canadian public turned out in force to cheer us off, bands played, helicopters flew overhead, and there were lumps in many throats as we left. The start, delayed for 10 hours by freezing fog, was almost an anticlimax. My memory of the first few days of racing is a blur of impressions, but above all, the cold. The sea off Vancouver never rises above 50 deg F, and for 5 days we beat into 25 - 35 knots and a lumpy bitterly cold sea. The resultant sea-sickness, bumps, bruises, loss of sea-legs etc was challenging, but gradually I settled into the routine of 4 hour watches, interrupted sleep, taking twenty minutes to get into 4 or more layers of foul-weather clothing before venturing on deck (and most important, remembering to use the heads before getting outer layers on!), and getting deluged with seas while changing headsails. One person from each watch was allocated to ‘mother watch’ for 24 hours - responsible for all domestic chores for the day. I was more nervous about cooking for 18 hungry sailors than I was about steering or going up the mast, but both tests were passed, though my first effort at baking bread was a disaster that looked like porridge and tasted like nothing on earth.

Gradually the wind backed, and as we got south the sea felt less cold. I got used to the thunderous noise of a 70 foot boat jumping off a wave at 12 knots and hitting the next with a jolt that felt as though it would shake the fillings from one’s teeth, let alone damage the hull. Life at 40 degrees heel became manageable, old friendships from training were renewed and new ones made. Team work developed, and gradually a competitive and cohesive crew evolved.. I learnt that a big element of racing a boat of this size was trust. Trusting the members of one’s watch to control the enormous sails safely, to put safety turns on winches, to hang onto you as you struggled to free a jammed halliard in breaking seas, to put up with one’s bad temper or bad jokes. We learned a great deal about each other, but even more about ourselves - our personal strengths, resources, tolerances and limitations.

After a week the wind went astern, and the air temperature rose. We had made a tactical decision to sail along the continental shelf about 200 miles offshore, and this seemed to be paying off as we were just in the lead. The Clipper boats were designed to be down-wind flyers; one, Glasgow, claimed to have recorded 34 knots downwind in the Southern Ocean, and Singapore had achieved 31. As the following wind rose, we started to show our paces.

Spinnakers. You either love them or hate them. I happen to love them, and had been the downwind helmsman when I did one seasons’ serious RORC racing years ago. We had three - light, medium and heavy. The medium was 4000 square feet, and we ripped it comprehensively the first time we hoisted it. The sewing machine died after 10 stitches, so it was needle and thread and a palm, and after 20 hours sewing we hoisted it again - and ripped it again. Eventually we got the right spinnaker for the conditions, and really began to fly. The north-east Pacific trades began to build from astern, and with 18 to 25 knots over the deck we started to clock up 250mile days. We moved into an area of bright sunshine and increasing wind - 40+ knots at times. The sea built, and we had 3 of the most exhilarating days sailing one could imagine, surfing for many hundred yards down 20 foot breaking waves at over 20 knots . Helming was challenging, and only those with experience were allowed to drive. The maximum speed I managed was 24 knots, and that felt like balancing on a high wire at the receiving end of a hosepipe.

Pride goes before a fall, and inevitably we had wipe-outs. The chafe on the spinnaker controls was amazing. 24mm Spectra sheets actually melted on the winches, and guys broke with monotonous regularity where they passed through the beak of the pole, despite huge parcelling. Halliards had to be changed every 2 hours to prevent the working halliard overheating! Gybing the spinnaker was a huge task, and needed at least 12 crew. It usually took us 10 to 15 minutes; how the Americas Cup boats do it in 30 seconds is beyond me. We avoided the ultimate hazard of a Chinese gybe, but another boat did not, and broke both spinnaker poles and the vang, and damaged all 3 spinnakers beyond repair.

A new hazard appeared. A tropical revolving storm - the precursor to a hurricane - appeared on the weatherfax 500 miles ahead of us. We had to decide whether to go outside it - a detour of several hundred miles, or to try and squeeze between it and the west coast of Mexico, leaving no room to escape from it. We were still in the lead, and nerves were beginning to show. Finally, race control decided that discretion and safety were more important than valour, and shortened the race to a finishing line between waypoints well away from the predicted course of the TRS. Tantalisingly, the wind decided to drop. With 200 miles to the finish, we were 100 miles in the lead. With 100miles, 50 in the lead, with 30 to go, 15 in the lead. We drifted on at 3 knots, trimming sails frantically and praying for a breeze. We could actually see the chasing boat - Durban - , and measure her progress on the radar. With 5 miles to the finish we were 3 miles ahead, and Durban was overhauling us steadily. The last mile or so seemed endless, and then - amazingly - we crossed the line, just 2 miles ahead of her. After over 3 weeks of hard racing, we had won! We threw the skipper overboard to celebrate, but hauled him out rapidly when a shark immediately showed interest. He was only slightly amused.

We sailed to Panama through the tail of the TRS - strange confused clouds, big winds, and torrential rain which rain straight into my bunk via the chain plates - and were welcomed to Panama by the shore team and the first cold beer for a month. The rest of the fleet followed us in over the next few days, and we progressed through the Panama Canal under motor - an unforgettable experience made a little whimsical by the knowledge that my grandfather had ridden along it’s bank from the Pacific to the Caribbean a month before it opened in 1913. The next leg started from Colon, a seriously lawless town at the Eastern end of the Canal. It was a short ( 900 mile) dash to Jamaica, and was a beat nearly the whole way. We started well, then did badly, and rounded the eastern point of Jamaica 20 miles from the finish in 8th place. A fierce downwind tacking duel in the dark in light winds followed, and we amazed ourselves by overtaking 4 boats, and finishing just 50 yards in front of our arch-opponent, Victoria. A huge party followed in Jamaica, made even better by the presence of my long-suffering wife, who had flown out to meet us. Then it was time for the race to move on to New York. I watched rather wistfully as ’my’ boat, with many good friends, left for the start. It was the end of a big episode in my life - one not to be missed and never to be forgotten.

What did I learn? A lot about sailing big boats; a huge amount about sail trimming, a black art that I still don’t really understand. Perhaps most important, a lot about human behaviour, my own and others, and how one reacts under stress or when at one’s limits from tiredness or cold. How to work as a team, how to make friends and to tolerate close-quarter irritations. Finally, how to have fun and to escape from ‘ordinary’ life and live a dream. If you ever have the chance, go for it: it is worth every penny!