Hang on and Sail!

Clipper Level III Training

Back to the UK for the next level of training, which was designed to be four days and nights of ocean sailing. This time, I flew in a day early in order to adjust a bit to the time difference, which ended up helping considerably. I was actually very excited for this training, as for the first time, I would be sailing on Singapore, the same boat that I would be racing from Qingdao to New York on, and with Ben, our skipper who will be captaining the boat around the world in our quest for first place.

We all met Wednesday on the boat for an afternoon/evening of orientation and to meet the other team mates we would be sailing with for the next four days. Again, it was a great crew and included this time a number of people from Singapore who will be sailing on the boat on different legs around the world. Also on this training level was one other ‘North American’, Stephane from France. Actually from a small island, St. Pierre, which is just south of Newfoundland and is still part of France. The history goes back hundreds of years, but the island is perhaps most famous for adopting and rechristening the Happy Adventure as Itchatchozale Alai, which was the starring character in Farley Mowat’s humorous tale of sailing adventure, The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float.

Thursday morning began early with our crew divided into two watches of seven each. As with the other two training levels, we started the day preparing the boat for our adventure, rigging the sheets and lines (ropes) in preparation for our sail. Our skipper then informed us that our planned sailing route would have us heading south, rounding the Isle of Wight and then heading west to Eddystone Light, rounding it and heading back. A trip of roughly 160 nm as the crow flies. However, as the lighthouse was upwind, we would not be able to sail directly but would need to tack (zig zag) upwind which would add considerable distance to the trip.

With the boat prepared, and everyone eager to cast off, we motored out of Gosport and headed out of the harbour and into the Solent, the channel that runs between the Isle of Wight and England. Once we were out in the Solent, it became clear that this would be an interesting day with a rather stiff breeze greeting us. Actually, already a rather stiff gale with steady winds of 30-35 knots (33-39 mph). The forecast was for the winds to remain strong out of the southwest for the next 24 hours then slowly tapering off. Given that some of the gusts were in excess of 40 knots, we rigged the storm jib (a very small sail on the front of the boat that could be compared to a handkerchief), something that does not happen often, and thus we began our journey.

We also started our watch system, which is a system whereby the two groups of crew trade time alternating up on deck sailing the boat and down below sleeping. It is imperative that crew members begin this as soon as possible for long voyages and even if not tired, get used to lying down during the day and trying to get some sleep. The watch rotation that Ben our skipper set up was four hours during the day and three hours during the night. There are many permutations, but this rotation does seem to be the best – IMHO – as it allows the two watches to rotate through the various night shifts.

With the watch system started, those of use who were not on the first watch headed down below and into our bunks to try to catch a few winks of sleeps. Lying in my cramped bunk with the lee cloth up (a fabric curtain designed to keep a person from falling – or being thrown – out of the bunk), I could feel the wind and waves pick up in intensity as we rounded the eastern side of the Isle of Wight and were exposed to the full fury of a force 9 gale in the English Channel. A bumpy ride it was! I did manage to catch a few winks of sleep, but all too quickly it was time to rotate watches and head up on deck to relieve the other crew members. As we rose out of our bunks, there was a rush of sea-sick crew mates hurrying past me to the heads (toilets) as the boat was being tossed side to side by the waves.

Heading up on deck, I noticed that most above fared little better, and there were many faces that seemed a tad pale if not a shade green. Many of the crew members had done most of their sailing in the sheltered waters of Singapore, so they were not used to these types of seas – or the temperatures. Once up on deck with the other watch relieved, we set about – those few of us who still could – on our course. However, our skipper wisely decided, that it would be better to turn around and head back into the sheltered waters of the Solent and find a place to anchor off of the Isle of Wight, giving the crew a chance to recover before continuing our voyage. Those of us who were able to could’ve continued, but for the rest of the crew, it would’ve been pointless in terms of training to continue if all they could do is lie in their bunks waiting to recover.

With that in mind, we put in a tack and headed back north towards England, rounding the Isle of Wight and turning west towards Cowes. Eventually, we arrived in the evening and set about picking up a mooring only to have our the connection between the throttle/gear lever in the cockpit and the transmission break, leaving us with no way to shift from forward to neutral or reverse. We were able to jury rig a solution, but our skipper decided to head back to Gosport for the night to pick up a much needed part in order to repair it as well as give the crew a chance to have a calm night’s sleep so they could recover from mal de mer. So ended a very adventurous day one!

Day two arrived early with the Rolex watch up on deck at 4:30 am to set off once again. Those of us on the Omega watch (typically each watch has a distinguishing name) continued sleeping until 5:30 am, at which time we awoke, had breakfast and headed up on deck to relieve the other crew mates for the 6 am watch rotation. The wind, while still quite brisk, had begun to lighten – much to the relief of many of the crew members. Once again, we set off, this time through the Needles (the western tip of the Isle of Wight) to our destination, Eddystone Lighthouse. It took us most of the day and through the night sailing up wind in a fresh breeze to reach Eddystone.

With the waning light, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset. However, at times, the wind had fallen off considerably which made it a bit of a challenge helming while still maintaining the optimal speed to our destination (otherwise known as velocity made good or VMG). I should point out, that although it is generally faster to sail slightly off the wind, it does not mean you will reach your destination faster if it is upwind. The trick – or art – is to sail as much upwind as possible without losing too much speed. Not as easy as it sounds, in particular with light winds.

Early in the morning just before the dawn, we rounded the lighthouse and began our 160 mile downwind sail to Cowes where we would meet two other clipper boats for a day of racing in the Solent. As the other crew came on deck to relieve us, we worked together to hoist the spinnaker for the downwind run. Having done that, it was off to our bunks for some much needed rest. However, sleep was not to be had. Within an hour, we were back on deck to help the other watch with a spinnaker gybe. Coming up, we noticed that the wind had freshened a bit and was blowing a good 25 knots with a following sea. At one point we reached 17.5 knots (almost 20 mph) surfing down a wave. What an exhilarating feeling!

As we were raising the other spinnaker pole to begin the gybe (a downwind turn) the wind and seas continued to build, and the situation became much more interesting. The building waves were catching the stern of the boat and pushing it off to one side, raising the danger of a broach (a condition in which the boat suddenly turns upwind and rolls on its side). Midway through the gybe, the spinnaker halyard snapped, sending the spinnaker into the sea and forcing us to scramble and quickly pull it out of the water. What a challenge! On top of that, our steering failed forcing us to rig the emergency tiller for an 80-90 mile run back to Gosport.

For those of you not familiar with how an emergency tiller operates, it is quite a difficult job to operate, in particular with a 30 tonne boat. There is a pole that goes through the boat from the cockpit and attaches directly to the rudder post. At right angles to this pole is welded another pole that points to the front of the boat (think an upside down L). On this pole is attached a series of pulleys from which two people stand (one on starboard and one on port) and alternate pulling and releasing the ropes in order to steer the boat. Even with the 4:1 purchase of the pulleys, it was still very difficult to steer and required a lot of strength. Eventually, we made it back to port late in the evening and ended an even more adventurous day three!

I must say though, that as adventurous or demanding as the past few days had been, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated it. It was reassuring to see how the boat handles in good breezes and lumpy seas, and how to steer the boat in a real situation with the emergency tiller. These are experiences well-worth gaining on training and helps build confidence in the boat’s – and your own – abilities in case of an actual emergency thousands of miles from land in the middle of the ocean.

On day four we were fortunate – and grateful – that Gordon (my skipper from Level 1) allowed us to use Edinburgh for our day of racing with the other two boats. Although the wind was still fresh, we had a lot of fun sailing as the entire crew of temporarily transplanted ‘Singaporeans’ raced in the Solent and practiced man overboard drills.

Because the winds were still brisk, the decision was made to race the three boats with only the staysail (smaller sail between the mainsail and the forward sail called a yankee) and a third reef in the mainsail. It was great to see our crew work smoothly and quickly on the tacks and gybes. As a result (and with a good start) we took the lead over Qingdao and widened it through the course. Because the other boat had torn its staysail, it flew a larger yankee and stayed in the lead.

For the race, I had a very important position, affectionately called ‘rail meat’. Those crew members who are not manning the winches or sheets (ropes) during manouvers or evolutions, are encouraged to sit on the windward rail (edge) of the boat and hang the legs over the sides in order to get as much weight on the windward side as possible. This helps to keep the boat flatter and sail faster. Needless to say, this is a very wet position, as any waves that break on the bow, travel right down the sides of the boat directly towards us. Thank goodness for good foul weather gear!

All too soon, our sailing ended and it was time to deep clean the boats and head back home.

Link to Photo Gallery Below

Clipper Level III Training

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