Surfing at 22 Knots!

Clipper Level IV Training

If there is one word to sum up the week I spent in July racing in the English Channel, it is damp, damp, damp. Dampness that permeates everything. Your clothes, your bunk, your sleeping bag. Dampness drip, drip, dripping down on you from the bunk above your head. A week, never dry, just different degrees of damp. Either damp out on deck from the rain, or soaked on the bow as waves crash over you trying to wash you down the deck. Damp!

But, it didn’t start out that way.

I arrived in Gosport under sunny skies a day early to victual for the coming week. That includes planning a menu for 15 people for 6 days and then going out food and supply shopping and staying within budget. Not an easy thing to do! Luckily Tom helped in the evening with the menu planning and Tim and Dale helped with the shopping the next morning. It was quite a challenge, but we managed to stay just within budget and hopefully had enough provisions for 15 hungry sailors for a week (fingers were crossed!).

Our first day started out pleasant enough with sunny skies and nary a breath of wind. The rest of the crew showed up during the morning while we were shopping and by noon, all were assembled for our safety and race briefing prior to the start of the week of the races. It was great to see some familiar faces. Andrew, Dale and I had sailed together previously and we were looking forward to sailing again this week. After the crew briefings, all 10 boats slipped their lines at 3 pm and headed out into the Solent for some ‘skills and drills’ before starting the race on the next day.

One of the drills we practiced with Visit Finland was a boat-to-boat person transfer in case we needed to move a casualty to another boat where a doctor may be onboard. This consisted of one person being lowered into a dinghy and a then a line being let out with the dinghy trailing further behind. The second boat comes up slowly on the windward side to provide protection and a line is then handed/tossed over and made fast. Once that is done, the line to the first boat is let free. Once the dinghy is trailing right along side our boat, the person is then lifted up into the boat with a spare halyard (rope) that is attached to his harness. Transfer complete! I’m sure much easier to do though in the calm waters of the Solent then in a Pacific storm with waves the size of townhouses. Once we had him transferred, it was time to send him back to Visit Finland. After all, we didn’t want him to stay onboard and hear any of our pre-race strategies!

Another drill we practiced, was learning how to properly tow another boat, in case one boat was disabled. This entailed setting up a bridle (a rope going from one side of the back of the boat to the other side) from our stern. The other boat’s line was then tied onto that and it was towed behind us, with the rope long enough to account for the distance of the waves between us.

The day of the race started out nicely with all 10 boats lining up south of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel for a helicopter photo shoot.  It was great to see all boats lined up for the start. Unfortunately, I was on mother watch at the time, so was downstairs preparing tea and cookies for the crew (who said ocean sailing isn’t civilized). It was a typical summer day in England with mixed sun and clouds with hints of rain on the horizon. Just before the race start, we found out the details of the race. It was an upwind dash across the English Channel to one of the islands off of France, followed by a reach to a mark past Eddystone light and then a downwind run back along the south coast of England to the finish of the Needles, the western entrance to the Solent. All in all, a 350 mile run.

Bang! And the race was off. We had a good start on the line and quickly settled into a comfortable 3rd place lead to the first mark. As the wind and waves began to build, it was a case of trimming the boat as well as possible, tactically plotting the best route (best VMG or velocity made good), and helming as steady a course as possible. Because we were in race mode and it was before we settled into our watch system, the time not spent changing tack or adjusting sails was spent hiked out on the rail, adding our collective body weight to the upwind side of the boat in order to help her sail flatter. For those that haven’t experienced that in the Channel with six to eight foot waves, it is a wet experience. At least we had a great view of the other boats with dozens of legs hanging over their sides. We were in good company!

As the day wore on, the rain began, initially as a light drizzle, then building to a comfortable, pitter patter on the deck, on the sails and on ourselves. Did I say comfortable? Well, at first, we were happy with our Clipper-supplied foul weather gear, as the Henri Lloyd ocean smocks were warm and dry. But, even the best gear will eventually surrender to the relentless English rain. By the evening, we were happy to go inside as the watch system started for a little sleep.

For the race, I was asked by our skipper Ben to be watch leader, a position that I was initially somewhat hesitant to accept. Although I appreciated the opportunity, because of the responsibility it entails – ensuring the safety of your crew and that the boat is constantly trimmed properly – it means that I could not be hands-on with much of sailing the boat. Being watch leader requires being constantly aware of all that is going on with boat and crew, and working sails requires a singular focus. The two do not mix. Nevertheless, I settled in the role and quickly realized that it is quite a challenging role as you are tactically responsible for sailing the boat as optimally as possible.

Although I have had considerable experience sailing prior to joining the Clipper race, it was primarily solo, often with the auto pilot set as I sail up or down the Eastern Coast of the U.S.. In contrast, being watch leader was one of constant attention to detail. Was the helm set on the optimal course? Were the sails beginning with the yankee, then staysail, then main properly trimmed? Could we squeeze out a tenth of a knot by sheeting in a tad? A tenth of a knot or 0.1 miles per hour may not sound like much, but over the course of a 350 mile race, it could work out to a half-hour lead over the nearest boat by the time we reach the finish line.

Of course, besides seeing that the boat is optimally sailed, one of the other key responsibilities is ensuring the safety of the crew. Nowhere is this more important than up on deck during a moonless, starless night. One of the key first steps to undertake is to ensure that everyone coming on watch is clipped on to the boat with safety tethers BEFORE they even exit out of the companionway and come up on deck. In addition, I require every one of my crew to loudly announce their names when they come up on deck and when they head back down below. I also do a head count periodically during the watch to see that everyone on the watch is accounted for. Sometimes that can be a challenge – particularly at 4 am – when we’re tired and exhausted, and I find myself having to recount several times.

During the night, we ended up losing several places and dropped from third to seventh at one point. That was disappointing to hear as many of us came up on deck later in the morning. Nevertheless, I understand how that can happen. Helming at night is a challenge during the best of times. With the moon and the stars present, it is possible to pick a point (or star) on the horizon and steer for that for a period of time (keeping in mind that the stars move over time). However, when the sky is cloud covered at night, there is no horizon, no star to aim for, so it is a matter of feeling the wind on your face and the boat as it moves through the waves in order to best steer a course. One mistake some people make is to be fixated on the compass and steer by that. However, by being fixated on the compass, you lose a feel for the boat, for the wind and for the waves. In addition, the compass tends to swing slowly with the result that you end up reacting to the compass, steering slightly to and fro.

Need I mention that it was still raining? Damp, dampness everywhere. Rain stinging your face as you’re helming the boat. Dripping off your nose in little rivulets. A relentless pitter, patter, beating a quiet rhythm on the deck. Down below, the dampness collects on the walls, the bunk you’re sleeping on, and the bunk above your head. Slow drips landing on your head. Ah, the joys of ocean racing! Why wasn’t this in the brochure?

By early morning, we  rounded the mark and quickly raised the spinnaker for a downwind run back to Cowes. It was a close race rounding the mark with two other boats on our heels. Fortunately, we timed it well and quickly distanced ourselves from the two.  With the rain finally stopping for a bit, the race was heating up. We managed to crawl up in the standings slowly but surely. It was a grueling time concentrating on sailing the boat as smoothly as possible with the spinnaker out and some moderate following seas (six to eight feet with the occasional ten foot wave). Grueling, but at the same time exciting! Nothing like feeling one of these stripped-down racing boats accelerating as she surfs down a wave. At one point, I felt her accelerating and accelerating, and the feeling was exhilarating as I felt ‘at one’ with the boat (hard to explain, without experiencing it). Then I heard Ben say with surprise that I had hit 22 knots (approx. 25 miles/hour), the fastest that he had ever seen these boats go.

Eventually we crossed the finish line early the next morning in second place. It was a great climb back from seventh and a great testament to the will to win that our crew exhibited. But more importantly, I think, was a will to win in the proper spirit of fun and camaraderie.

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