Tag Archives: Clipper Round the World

Finally Home after 11,000 Miles

Sailing under the Verazzano Bridge and seeing the Manhattan skyline in the distance was a very welcome and happy sight after racing over 11,000 miles and half-way around the world.  It was a grueling ocean race from China across the cold North Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, and then down the Central American coast, through the Panama Canal and finally up to New York.  Granted, the last part of the race was not as grueling as clawing our way across the storm-tossed North Pacific, but it was nonetheless tiring.  Sleeping only 2 1/2 hours at a time does wear the mind and body down.

The final part of the race from Colón on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal to my home in New York was marked by a series of great moments and frustrating disappointments.  To sail through the Caribbean trade winds with consistent breezes day after day was a welcome relief after having no wind on our way down the Pacific side of Central America.  The seas were abundant with dolphins and whales and it was with constant pleasure that I watched these creatures gracefully play and swim around us.

However, there were also days of little wind or finding ourselves becalmed. It was very frustrating winding our way through the islands of the Bahamas and bobbing like a cork in a lake as we waited for the wind to fill in.  One of the most beautiful sights on the last part of the race that I witnessed was just before we crossed the finish line.  As we were sailing off the New Jersey coast, we were treated to a pod of pilot whales leisurely passing within 30 feet of our boat.  Such a beautiful sight!

My not-so-luxurious bunk

Now, after spending some time back on land, there are numerous thoughts that have gone through my head as I look back on my adventure, and it has taken some time to settle back into some degree of normalcy.  Initially, settling into home with a comfortable bed and a full night of sleep felt strange after spending three months at sea on a bunk barely three feet wide while being lucky to find sleep for just a few hours at a time.

Gone is the pain and agony of spending a month battling up the Japanese coast and crossing the North Pacific Ocean.  Now, it is replaced by a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Even though injured (lower lumbar sprain) during that part of the race, it was an experience that I would contemplate repeating again.  Albeit, next time I would make sure I am properly in shape with a strong focus on building the core and back muscles.  I also learned that finger strength is very important in grabbing and pulling down the yankee (head sail) when it is wildly flogging in 25-40 knots of wind.

Learning to coexist with 18 other people in a ‘small’ cramped environment has taught me a lot about tolerance and putting things into perspective.  Petty personal frictions (which were seldom) are not at all important when you are working together as a crew to safely race either in storm-tossed seas in the middle of an ink black night, or during windless days under the hot tropical sun.  All of us had the same goal, if different perspectives.  When I did feel myself becoming frustrated with crew members for what I perceived as their ‘short-comings’, it was a struggle to remind myself to be more compassionate.  These were useful ‘teaching moments’ for me and a great exercise to try to show more wisdom and compassion, two qualities I’m trying harder to develop in myself.

One of the many highlights of the adventure was standing at the coffee grinder (a large pedestal winch) trimming sails  while Sarah would read poetry or Chantal would recite sonnets from memory as the stars sparkled overhead.  Each of the crew members had qualities that I admired, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to sail and develop relationships with all of them.

You also learn a lot about yourself when you think you are at the limit of your endurance.  Your muscles burn from exhaustion, your mind is in a sleep-deprived fog and you just want to give up, curl up in a ball and sleep.  But you cannot.  There are only four of you on the wildly-pitching foredeck, the winds are building above 40 knots and the sail has to come down.  There is simply no other option, so you reach down somewhere deep inside and find the will to power through.  You learn to focus on the task immediately at hand, and just take it moment by moment.  No thoughts for hands that are cramping up, for fingernails torn off, for arms that are past the point of burning up.  No thoughts for the future, not even 15 minutes ahead.  Just focus on the now, and the wildly flogging sail in front of you.  Eventually, the sail comes down and you crawl slowly back to the cockpit, throwing up along the way.

Even through the exhaustion and fog, it takes extra effort to concentrate on just the simple tasks, and not doing so can be life-endangering.  There were a couple times, when I found myself unclipping my safety tether from one jack line (safety line running down both sides of the boat) to clip onto another on the other side of the boat.  Instead, I found that I had unclipped the safety tether from myself and had connected both to the same jack line.  Those were sobering moments.  If the boat were to unexpectedly roll, or a wave(s) were to wash down the deck, I would end up over the side of the boat.  That taught me to – no matter how tired or exhausted – take the time to think through what you are doing, and ALWAYS keeping safety in the forefront.

Indeed, that stood me in good stead another time when I was moving across the deck and asked a crewmate to unclip me from the high side of the boat so I could clip onto the lower side.  Just as he unclipped me, passed that end of the tether to me, and I was set to clip in, the boat rolled and I found myself summersaulting towards, then partially over the rail of the boat. What saved me from going overboard was the old adage, “one hand for the boat, one hand for yourself.”  I had held onto the jack line with one hand, while I was unclipped from the boat during the brief moment of transition. It was that one hand holding on to the jack line while my body was tumbling, which kept me on the boat.

What do I not miss from the experience?  The roar of the angry sea breaking unseen around the boat and the howl of the wind through the rigging during the middle of a fierce Pacific storm.  Having waves washing me down the deck like a little puppet and being folded around winches along the way.  Unable to find sleep as you’re constantly airborne and repeatedly slammed down into your bunk when the boat is beating (heading upwind) into heavy seas.  Trying to sleep in the equatorial heat as the inside of the boat is turned into an oven.  Some of the meals that were hopelessly boiled beyond recognition (having said that, people’s ‘right thoughts, right efforts’ were there, so you cannot fault them for that 😉 ).

I think the adventure also helped to remind me of what I find important in life.  Although I do appreciate my career and the success I’ve had over the years, it is not what defines me.  Without wanting to sound cliché, I’ve relearned how to live in – and appreciate – the moment.  Just sitting there and watching a humpback whale rise majestically out of the water as it breaches, is a magical experience.  No thoughts running through the mind, only capturing the beauty as it unfolds.  Or, watching meteors streaking across the sky at night – and smiling inside. Or, the numerous other times in which I was glad to be experiencing life at that moment.  Now, if I can just take those experiences and try to find satori in daily life back on land.

Like the race, life is truly a journey, and I look forward to enjoying and appreciating each day that it brings …


Sailing through the Bermuda Triangle

Again my apologies for posting this late. Like the Panama Canal post, this was written earlier, but with the hustle and bustle of being back and settling in, it “laid forgotten” on my iPad for a bit.

Ah, the lore and legend of the Bermuda Triangle. A few days ago we entered it and if this blog post reaches you, then we have successfully crossed it. If not, who knows where we’ll end up. Perhaps we will join the Flying Dutchman or be transported to an alternate universe …

For those unfamiliar with the the infamous Bermuda Triangle, it is a body of water roughly encompassing an area from Miami, Florida southeast to Puerto Rico, then north to Bermuda and back to Miami. We sailed through the Triangle on leg 7 of the Clipper Round the World Race from Panama to NYC and managed to come away unscathed, without falling through any rifts in space, or seeing UFOs or other strange craft. However, the other watch on the boat was treated to a relatively common site one evening as a small waterspout formed and passed by the boat. Welcome to the Triangle 😉

The one thing that was missing in the Bermuda Triangle, unfortunately, was wind. Almost none to be had anywhere. There is nothing so frustrating as bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub with no wind to fill the sails. One evening was particularly frustrating as I finished my watch and headed down below. After slowly working our way through the Crooked Island Passage we were off of Cockburn Town on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas when our watch ended and below I went to try to get some sleep despite the oppressive heat. Four hours later, I emerged back on deck to start my watch, and there was Cockburn Town off our starboard side – in the same position I had left it earlier. Argh!!! It felt like the movie Groundhog Day in which you wake up and nothing has changed.

This was repeated again and again over the next several days with a wisp of wind teasing us, then the sails hanging forlornly as the wind left us stranded on a glassy sea. Our ship’s log showed us at times making only 4-5 miles every few hours (we have to write down our latitude and longitude as well as other data every hour in a large official book known as a ship’s log). This was not the ocean racing through the Bahamas that I was expecting. To make matters worse, due to the wind holes we were constantly in, our position fell from 2nd all the way to 10th place at one point! Major argh!!!

Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one frustrated by our lack of progress, and that lack of progress combined with the oppressive heat down below and seemingly endless sail changes on deck had everyone’s patience at an end. I think at one point, we had 18 sail changes in 12 hours! That meant raising the no. 1 Yankee, dropping the lightweight spinnaker down the hatch, dropping the Yankee, raising the windseeker, dropping the windseeker and raising the Yankee prior to rehoisting the spinnaker (you always want to try to have some foresail flying to keep boat speed going which is why the Yankee is raised prior to dropping the kite), then repeating over and over again with minor variations. Oh, and every time the kite is dropped, it has to go down below to be rolled like a sausage, then wooled (light wool tied around it to keep it closed until rehoisted) and replaced in its bag. All this in order to try to take advantage of every little puff of variable wind that was mercilessly teasing us.

But, finally we have wind, and today is a new day and we are once again happy sailors! We have been making great progress of late and in the last 48 hours we have moved up from a depressing 10th place to 6th and are now within striking distance of 4th place with Geralton Western Australia only 11 miles in front of us! With only a few hundred miles to go to race finish, it could be tough to move further up the rankings, but at least there’s hope again – and happy sailors.

Caribbean Bound

And we’re off! At least we were, in the beginning…

After days of waiting around in Colon, Panama for one of the boats to have their gearbox fixed and eventually replaced (hand delivered as pieces in check-on luggage as the other one express mailed was held up in customs) we slipped lines in the early evening. Our goal was to motor through the night until mid-day (roughly 100 miles) in order to pick up the beginning of the trades. The reason for this was that there tends to be little wind on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.

The other boat finally caught up to us by early evening and with fair winds the race officially got underway with a LeMans start. It’s always exciting starting a race, particularly with a LeMans start. For those that are not familiar with a LeMans start, it is one in which all boats are lined up sailing with the mainsail up and all crew waiting behind a certain point on the boats (in our case, the coffee grinder). As soon as the start signal is given, the crews race forward to raise the headsails. Needless to say, those boats in which the headsails are raised and trimmed the quickest, have the advantage. Our first scoring gate or waypoint was 738 miles from the Panama Canal in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispanola.

We had a great start, with the crew working quickly to raise our Yankee in record time! It was also exciting to be sailing again with the trade winds and the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Brisk 17 knot true and 25 apparent winds (the additional wind from the boats forward motion sailing into the wind) and 6-8 ft swells made for some fast sailing. Unfortunately, during a sail change our Yankee 1 was nearly washed overboard, acting as a drogue or sea anchor and slowing our progress as we struggled to bring it back on deck. Finally, with 10 of us pulling for a good half hour, we were able to bring it up on deck with only a small tear on the sail and 3 stanchions (posts on the side of the boat to hold the guard rails) broken. Next time, we need to make sure that as soon as the one sail is dropped, it is properly lashed and brought on the upwind side of the boat.

Unfortunately, the winds did not hold very long and by day 3 they had already begun to ease. Nevertheless, still being in 3rd place helped keep us motivated. I think the crew is very motivated to have a podium finish on this race, and I know I am! After our 2nd place win crossing the North Pacific Ocean, it would be very exciting for me to arrive home with a 1st or 2nd place finish! Then again 3rd would be fine as well. Actually, just the opportunity to race from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal to New York is a wonderful opportunity that I am very grateful for 🙂

Day 4 was, I have to admit, a depressing day. The winds kept getting lighter and lighter and despite multiple sail changes (from Yankee 2 to medium-weight spinnaker, to light-weight spinnaker, to wind-seeker, to Yankee 1) we kept on seeing our boat speed dropping. The biggest fear I had, was after all that hard work in which we had climbed up to 2nd place, finding ourselves in a wind-hole could quickly land us at the back of the pack. Fortunately, it looked like the other boats were experiencing the same weather pattern as we were.

At one point, we could see 7 other boats around us which is very unusual after 4 days of racing. Normally by that time, there tends to be quite a spread between the boats as each have their own opinion of where the better winds are. I think that the one difference here, is that in the Caribbean, the trade winds are pretty consistent. 17-20 knots of winds, with gusts up to 25 and wind direction of 90 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees.

The end of day 4 saw us in a neck-to-neck race for 2nd with Derry Londonderry and De Lage Landen with Gold Coast Australia within closing distance. It was a nail-biting time as we were only 60 miles from the scoring gate. Adding to the tension, was our boat speed which at times dropped down to only 2 knots! At least, DL and DLL were experiencing the same lack of wind. Nevertheless, frustrating to say the least!!!

Today, I am starting my mother watch for 24 hours, cooking and cleaning for the crew, but at least I was able to wake up this morning to us taking 3rd place through the scoring gate. Now, New York awaits!

Cruising down Baha Way

After our spinnaker wrap a little while ago and the acrobatics of two crew members up the rigging and the rest of us twisting and pulling and tugging down below, we managed to free it after nine grueling hours. Unfortunately, that cost us dearly in the race standings as we quickly fell to ninth position. Although that was at first disheartening, we remembered that this is an ocean race with thousands of miles yet to sail. And, as we leave Baha California behind us, it will be, to a large extent, a game of luck.

The wind has died down considerably and is expected to be very light to calm as we sail down the remaining coast of Mexico and Central America. I wish I could say that there is some strategy to finding the stronger wind patches, but in reality the GRIB (weather data) files shows a very large area of calm conditions for the next 96 hours. It will likely be a matter of luck as to which boats have some semblance of wind and which could end up being becalmed for hours if not days at a time. If we are fortunate in keeping our wind while others lose theirs, then we could move relatively quickly up the race standings. Here’s keeping my fingers crossed.

Although we haven’t seen as much wildlife as I had hoped for, we were treated to a special treat the other day as a pod of perhaps six pilot whales leisurely passed within 30 feet of our boat. It was another reminder of the beauty that can be found out in and on the ocean hundreds of miles from land. It is for us to see and appreciate. In addition to the pod, I also spotted a large whale about a hundred yards away as it cruised along the surface occasionally sending jets of water up in the air from its breathing hole. I wasn’t sure the type of whale, but the visible part of its back was 30-40 ft long.

The other common sighting of late has been rather comical. We have been seeing quite a few birds seemingly standing on the water. As we draw closer, they mystery was clarified. The birds were standing on the back of turtles with seemingly not a care in the world (for both). An interesting relationship 🙂

Today is April 25th and the past few days have been ones of baking heat and at times becalmed conditions with the ocean looking like a large pond with nary a ripple on it. There is even little relief at night as the ocean temperature is 34 degrees Celsius, providing little cooling at night. And, with no wind even having the hatches open does little to cool the sleeping area down below.

Trying to sail in these light conditions can be extremely challenging. On one watch, we raised our yankee, dropped our light-weight spinnaker, raised the wind seeker, dropped the yankee, raised the yankee, dropped the windseeker, and changed the yankee to another one. All to little avail.

Looking over the side, the squids were swimming faster than we were.

Our hopes did finally pick up last night as the wind filled in moderately (8-11 knots) enabling us to make 7-9 knots towards the first finishing gate with the lightweight spinnaker flying as a large code zero (light-weight reaching sail).

Initially, the race committee had set three finishing gates beginning from off of Acapulco down to Panama in case the wind does not cooperate. At this point, it looks like the race may be called soon as we have a deadline to transit the Panama Canal and it is still a good 1,500 miles away. But, we are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping we can move up more in the race standings before the race ends. As I write this, we are currently in 7th now and we hope to move up into 5th or better on this portion of the race. Time will tell…

Ocean Routing Pt 1, or How do I Cross the Pacific?

With just a couple of weeks to go until I jump aboard the Clipper yacht Singapore for a grueling race almost halfway around the world from Qingdao, China to New York, thoughts turn to the North Pacific part of the race and more specifically, how do I get to California from China?  On Google Maps (or most flat maps, known as Mercator projections) the route – at first glance – looks fairly straight forward.  Simply round the southern tip of Japan and head east straight across the Pacific, passing a tad north of Hawaii on the way to California.  Unfortunately, the Earth isn’t flat, so such a route isn’t practical.

Because the earth is round (technically, an oblate spheriod) the great circle route will actually be the shortest distance between two points.  To visualize this, imagine a sphere with the top and bottom representing the poles.  A great circle would divide the sphere into two equal hemispheres.  If you did the math (which I will spare the reader here) this cut would represent the shortest distance between two points on the surface of the sphere along that line.

What does that mean for the Clipper Race on the leg from Qingdao, China to San Francisco?  It basically means that the shortest distance (great circle route) will take us relatively close to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.  Any thoughts I initially had of idyllically sailing by Hawaii on the way to California were unfortunately just whimsical fantasies.  Instead, it will be a cold slog through the North Pacific at a time when storms race across the ocean from Japan and even Siberia to Alaska.

Having realized that late last year, I had begun to have second thoughts.  Do I really want to be sailing across the Pacific at a time when winter gales could easily bring cold, driving snow or sleet?  And, not just for a couple of days, but potentially for weeks at a time.  Cold, wet snow and slush and 30-40 ft waves washing across the deck with no place to hide above, and no heater down below.  Where is the fun in that?  When I have those second thoughts, I try to remind myself that I’m taking on the challenge of a lifetime and it will be an experience that I will cherish for decades to come.  As Sir Robin Knox Johnson is wont to say, “more people have climbed Mt. Everest than sailed around the world.”  Then again, perhaps I just need to take a more zen-like approach to it and repeat over and over, “cold is just a state of mind.”

It’s not just the Great Circle Route

Although the great circle route is the optimal route for crossing oceans, there is actually much more to plotting a route across the North Pacific then just following the great circle.  For sailboats, weather plays a large role in ocean routing.  Being found under a high pressure system with associated sunny weather, can typically mean little to no wind.  Not the best conditions if you’re trying to win an ocean race.  Conversely, being stuck under an intense low pressure system can mean gale or hurricane force winds with reduced (or no) sails and being tossed about to-and-fro at the mercy of the weather gods.  That’s also not ideal for winning a race.  The happy medium lies somewhere in between, and here is where planning is essential both for winning a race or a podium finish and for safety.  For offshore racing, optimal route planning takes into account the great circle route as a first step.  Then, prevailing or forecasted ocean currents should be taken into consideration, and last but certainly not least, forecasted weather.

The race in detail

Leg six from Qingdao to San Francisco can be broken down into three sections for route planning.  The first is from Qingdao, down through the East China Sea to the southern tip of Japan.  The next section is along the coast of Japan and the Eastern North Pacific to roughly the international dateline.  The third and last section is the Western North Pacific and offshore the U.S. coastline to the Golden Gate bridge.

On the first section, leaving Qingdao and sailing through the East China Sea to the tip of Japan, the route is fairly straight forward.  Just head southeast towards the southern tip of Japan and avoid any islands along the way.  The currents in the East China Sea are primarily wind-driven and thus do not hold much tactical advantage.  As far as the weather is concerned March tends to be the busy time of the year for lows to develop near the south coast of Japan.

Rounding the southern tip of Japan, the route follows the Japanese coast midway up threading between various islands southwest of Kyushu and later, south of central Japan.  Flowing along the coast of Japan is the Kuroshio current, one of the largest ocean currents in the world. The Kuroshio current typically flows around 3 knots, but can flow at speeds of 4 knots or more in some places.  Because of the swift speeds of the Kuroshio current (it can travel 75 miles or more in a day), it can play a major role in gaining a tactical advantage in the race up the Japanese coast and out into the eastern portion of the North Pacific. Finding the swiftest part of the current can quickly spring a boat into a decisive lead.

The Kuroshio current carries warm water up from the equatorial region, and because of this, it has a major impact on the development of weather systems over the Pacific Ocean, in particular in the early spring, when Mongolian cold weather meets the warm waters of the Kuroshio current.  The area south of Japan is one of the areas where low pressure systems (i.e. rain and wind) develop before the storms generally move northeast towards the Bering Sea and Alaska.  Because of the swiftness of the northeasterly flowing current, strong winds out of the north can quickly lead to steep waves that are bone-jarring as the boat drops off the back side (wind against tide tends to form rather steep choppy waves).  Trying to sail through these types of waves can also slow the boat down considerably, so finding the balance between riding the current and optimal wind angles become critical.

Midway up the Japanese coast, the great circle route begins its long arc across the North Pacific crossing the International Dateline at around 44° North.  However, during March winter conditions tend to prevail (i.e. strong storms!) which will demand a more southerly route with us likely crossing the meridian around 40° N.  Through much of the Pacific crossing, the currents are generally easterly with no real difference in location or speed (the North Pacific Gyre is relatively constant here).

The trick on this section of the race is to find the sweet spot between not going too far north and risk being beset by fierce Pacific storms or going too far south and being becalmed by the Pacific High.  As the synoptic chart (large-scale weather chart) below shows, lows (L) with hurricane force winds can develop around 44° N, while the Pacific High (H) and associated light-to-no winds can reach up to 38° N.  Successfully threading the way between these type of moving weather systems in mid- to late-March will be the key to either gaining or maintain a leading position.

After crossing the International Dateline (which separates the Eastern and Western Hemispheres), the sailing route will likely continue due east for a bit before beginning to dip south.  Weather patterns on this side of the Pacific tend to be more stable and are really determined by the Pacific High (technically known as the North Pacific subtropical anticyclone) which tends to be a relatively stationary weather system over the mid-North Pacific Ocean.

Roughly, 300 miles from the US coast, the California current (which is the eastern component of the North Pacific Gyre) runs down the western coast at a relatively slow speed of about half a knot. As with other currents associated with the North Pacific Gyre, eddies or counter-currents can spin off the main current stream.  While generally weak, they flow in the opposite direction of the direction you want to go and if caught in them, could slow the boat down enough to drop back in race standings. Weather-wise, there is little to worry about on this section as the fierce Pacific storms are well north of our track, so our route will likely follow rather closely to the great circle route until we finally sail under the majestic spires of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Kitting out for an Ocean Race

Is that a wave or a mountain?One of the questions I am often asked, is what do you bring with you for a race across one of the biggest and coldest oceans in the world?  One thing I can say, is that it will be a challenge, as I’m limited to just 25 kilos of clothing and gear to bring with me for a five- to six-week race across the North Pacific Ocean on a route that could take me closer to the Aleutian Islands than Hawaii.  This will be a race across seas where the waves can be the size of four story buildings, and temperatures can drop below freezing.

Kingsbury above Lake Tahoe

Layering for the cold is vital

Luckily, having grown up in Canada and other cold places, I can say that I am somewhat familiar with the concept of layering to keep warm.  In the case of the Clipper Race, the concept is the same, the only difference is that rather than having a closet or two of clothes to survive the winter months, I’ll only have one duffel bag to carry everything I need.

So, to start:

Sleeping Bag

Ocean Sleepwear – Thanks to fellow Clipper sailor, Paul Rayner, I had the opportunity to try this out for a week of sailing in 38 to 48 degree weather in the English Channel.  All I can say, is fantastic.  I stayed both dry and warm in the bag, notwithstanding the constant drip of condensation on my forehead.


Base Layer: Icebreaker – For base layers I am bringing Icebreaker 260 leggings and a combination of an Icebreaker 200 t-shirt, Icebreaker 260 half zip and Icebreaker 320 full zip.  Why Icebreaker?  Simple, it’s merino wool.  Actually, it’s because I think it is one of the best base layers that can withstand a week of wearing day in and day out without smelling!  And, it is great at staying warm even when wet.  I have tried various synthetic base layers before and although helpful in wicking moisture away from the body, tend to smell more and more with each passing day!

It may not be obvious, but sailing across an ocean in a stripped-down racing boat does not give much opportunity to wash clothes.  The only chance you will likely have to do laundry is roughly once a week when you are on mother watch and spend the day down in the boat cooking and cleaning for the other crew members.  But, it is hand washing only, and with no heat on the boat, the chance of anything drying on a northern ocean crossing in March is slim to probably non-existent.

Mid-Layer: Henri Lloyd Nero Jacket and Salopettes – The jacket and salopettes are waterproof and windproof and the jacket has a nice thick fleece inner lining.  I will try to bring a second set of mid layers as a backup so I can stay semi-dry as long as possible.  I find nothing worse than being wet through-and-through when it is nasty and cold up on deck.

Paul & Shark Watershed sweater – Not for everyone, but I do love this sweater!  It is warm, does not hold water, and has been a constant companion under my foulies for many a year on those miserable cold days when the rain comes horizontally.

Outer Layer: Henri Lloyd Ocean Pro Smock and Ocean Explorer Trousers – Henri Lloyd is one of the sponsors of the race, so these are the foulies you will get.  The smock is a challenge to pull over your head (both on and off), but it is warmer and drier than having a zipper to contend with.

Shoes: Dubarry Ultima boots – expensive, but, oh so worth it!  My feet have stayed warm and mostly dry in these on many a cold weather sailing trip.  I’ll see how they fare though on the race.

Also, keep a dry pair of shoes down below for walking around and going to the head (bathroom).  It can be a tad wet in there and you don’t want to be in socks!

Other Essential Gear

Spinlock knee pads – Great for kneeling over winches when it’s time to grind. These are often overlooked by people, but at least for my aging knees, much appreciated.

Gloves – I’m bringing two pairs.  Gill Helmsman gloves which I’ve used before and are not too bad (they’re not 100% waterproof but are mostly warm) and new to try are a pair of Sealskinz waterproof winter mittens.  I am hoping these do a better job at keeping hands warm for those long, cold, wet nights at the helm.  I don’t like to use gloves for ropework, instead I find it’s better to use my bare hands and then put them back in fleece lined pockets to keep warm.  Sailing gloves just get wet and stay wet.

Toques and balaclava – Bring an assortment of balaclavas and toques (also called beanies for the Americans).  You will lose a few, so bring spares.

Sunglasses – A few pair.  Knowing me, I will lose one or two on the trip.

Spex Amphibious Eyewear – Basically goggles for watersports.  These are great for at the helm when it is raining horizontally or when waves are breaking over the bow and rushing down the deck.

Petzl Headlamp – LEDs are the best, and you will need one with a red lens for night sailing.

Waterproof flashlight – Having a spot beam for checking distant objects (top of mast, the end of the spinnaker pole) is better than a headlamp which tends to disperse the light.

Multitool – I’ve had the Alinghi multitool from Wenger for many years, and this is a necessary tool for the boat (has a shackle key).  Make sure it is tied to you so you don’t accidently drop it overboard.

Handwarmers – These are air activated and good for 8 hours. They really work well when you slip them in your gloves when you’re at the helm or in your pockets when working the sheets or lines (ropes).  After your watch is done, they add warmth in your sleeping bag.

Quick dry towel – Not that it is likely to ever dry on the trip.  Also, it is unlikely that you will have a shower on board. Wet wipes will be your best friend!

Fanny pack – And you thought these things went out of style!  Great for keeping things in (chap stick, sun/wind cream, snacks, flashlight, spare toque) when heading up on deck.

Waterproof notebook – Good for jotting down notes/thoughts/musings while up on deck.

Skin protection – sun cream, moisturizer, or whatever protects your skin. It’s not just for sun burn, though.  Wind burn can be just as damaging for the skin as the wind dries out your skin and can irritate it.

Carabiners – These are good for organizing and hanging things from the bunk.

Dry sacks – The one constant on the boat is that everything will get wet if not stored in dry sacks.  Have several with different colors or that are see-through for organizing your clothes.  It’s much easier to find what you need when you are waking up to go on watch and don’t have a lot of time.

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.