Monday, 11 November 2013

Cape Town

We finally made it to Cape Town after a stormy start and a stormy finish, but in between enjoyed fair winds and generally good weather and cold nights at sea. Our tactics didn't work out so well this time as on the race to Rio because the anticipated wind hole between the boats to the south of us and CT never materialised in time and everyone sailed on to the finish. Unfortunately our own arrival was delayed by very light and fluky winds off the coast of Africa which meant we spent 24 hours looking at Table Mountain as we covered the last 40 miles to the finish line crossing at around 11pm local time. Bizarrely some of our crew were talking to family and friends in port on their mobiles and we could even shout to the Jamaica supporters on land but of course couldn't see anything. Despite our low finish on the leaderboard we all felt we sailed well and fast but sometimes it, in this case the weather, just doesn't work out. Every boat made it into port safely which is the most important thing and you can tell by the way that all the crews turn out to applaud the later boats in a shared respect and experience.
We got a fantastic reception in Cape Town at the Victoria and Albert Marina from the prize giving to the crew reception - a great way to finish my Clipper adventure.
Now that my time aboard Jamaica is over I said my goodbyes to the crew and they are now on their way to Albany, Western Australia. All I can do now is watch the race viewer and worry because this is going to be a tough leg with big seas and strong westerly winds.
Go Jamaica Get All Right.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Home Sweet Home

We are now halfway across the Atlantic and our Code 2 spinnaker emblazoned with "JAMAICA"  is flying proudly and driving onwards to Cape Town. This is the first time our spinnaker has been out for an airing since Leg 1, although this Leg is characterised by its fast downwind sailing. While some boats have followed the traditional route and headed south to the Roaring 40's others, like us,  have stayed north, carefully trying to read the unusual weather patterns and plot a more direct route to Cape Town. 

Today we passed within 7 miles of Tristan da Cunha, the largest of a small group of islands about halfway between the continents of S.America and Africa. The island rises to 2,000 metres above sea level and looks utterly inhospitable, with a snow flecked peak dropping dramatically down to the sea and the only settlement, Edinburgh; home from home! We spent the morning imagining life in such a remote spot and identifying business opportunities! At 1,500 miles east or west to Cape Town and Rio respectively it must be one of the most remote islands in the world.

ETA in Cape Town is Sunday 27th and this amazing adventure will be over for me, but there is a lot of water to flow under Jamaica's hull before then and what is increasingly looking like a close race finish as the boats currently spread across a 100 mile north/south band converge on the Cape; let's hope looking at Jamaica's stern again.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Rio to Cape Town

We set off from Rio on Leg 3 in warm sunshine and choppy seas. As usual all 12 boats did a parade of sail around the harbour and then crossed the start line. After rounding a couple of buoys placed just off Copacabana and Ipanema beaches we headed out to sea into a strong wind which meant fairly tough sailing. Heeled over at an angle with waves crashing over the decks, which means water down necks, up boots and sleeves.  Despite neoprene seals on all openings in the foul weather gear the sea always finds a way in!

The first few days have been fairly tough with many of the crew afflicted by seasickness and minor injuries from being thrown about below deck. We have rigged up a rope from one side of the galley to the other so that you can pull yourself up to the high side, as walking unaided is simply impossible.

The weather has eased now and the dreaded seasickness has left the boat so life is a lot easier, and as I write we are bowling along at 11 knots in glorious sunshine. Jamaica was the first boat to reach the scoring gate, beating Quingdao by 13 minutes (we like narrow margins) and so have picked up 3 bonus points. As
we are further north than most of the fleet the weather over he next few days will determine whether the tactic has paid off, or whether we are sailing into the middle of the S. Atlantic high pressure system where there is no wind.

We have not seen any wildlife so far on this leg apart from some albatrosses, recognisable not just by their enormous wingspan, but also by the fact they never flap their wings, soaring and gliding effortlessly across the skies - just amazing.

At present this is Friday Day 7 and we reckon another 10 days to Cape Town, cold beers, flushing toilets and showers..... it's the simple things that become so important.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Jamaica Rocks into Rio

Well finally after 28 days at sea we crossed the finishing line first in the bay outside Rio de Janeiro. PSP were in second place and closing fast so the finish line couldn't come quickly enough and when it did they were only 19 seconds behind.Incredible that after 28 days and nearly 5,000 miles of racing it came down to the narrowest of margins and gave the closest finish in Clipper history.  This has Ben such a roller coaster ride of highs and lows and up to a couple of days out we were still fighting for a podium place never mind line honours.  The last 24 hours haven been gruelling as the wind turned on to our nose and meant upwind sailing in up to 35 knots of wind. It seemed to take forever to reduce our distance to finish and when em finally got the angles to tack for Rio PSP were right there with us. On more than one occasion we thought we had seen them off only for them to come storming back at us. In the end the finish line couldn't come quickly enough. Now resting up in Rio nursing bumps and bruises and preparing for Leg 2 which starts on Saturday when we head for Cape Town which is likely to be a thought physical downwind sprint, but quite a bit quicker than the Atlantic slog we have just finished.

This has been a truly extraordinary experience which will stay in my memory forever, but for now it is time to gear up for the next challenge of the race and hopefully another podium finish.  Lots of photos and videos on the Clipper website and my Facebook page and here is one of my favourites.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Tropical Squalls

We are now in the Doldrums or the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) to give it its full title. The place where the prevailing winds in the north meet those in the south and cancel each other out.  It is a strange place of breeze followed by no wond at all except that caused by the yacht rolling around in the ocean swell. Coupled with sweltering hear it is not a pleasant place and puts a strain on the concentration and good nature of the crew. On the plus side we see amazing cloud formations rising vertically into the sky, great stacks of blackened meringue floating on the horizon.  We need to keep a watch out for  rain which means a squall which is quite an experience. One minute it is windless then about 2 minutes before the squall hits the air temperature  drops and the downpour begins; huge heavy intense rain that soaks you to the skin in 10 seconds flat.  Sometimes you can see and hear it coming, the noise of a wall of rain hitting the sea as it gets nearer and nearer.  And then, the wind will rise from nothing to 30 to 40 knots in the space of a minute or so. This is serious wind and if it catches you unaware it will blow the boat over  and start breaking things.  The other night we were unexpectedly hit by a squall at night and it was fairly terrifying (Terrifying Moment No. 3). We had to heave to and drop the yankee as fast as possible. Unfortunately a knot had formed in the halyard so three of us spent about 20 minutes on the foredeck bouncing up and down and hanging on for grim death trying to get half a sail out of the water.  There is so much noise from the wind and rain that you can’t hear each other speak, and are only aware of the skipper screaming his lungs out at the other end of the boat, at who I had no idea so we just hung on hoping it would come to an end before someone went over the side, which it did as quickly as it had come, and we were back to floating around with hardly a breath of wind.  Soaking wet clothes and bruises the proof that it wasn’t just a nightmare, glad to have experienced it but happy not to repeat.


The racing is relentless, as shift follows shift, sometimes sunny and sometimes pitch black. One of the rare changes to the routine is the sighting of wildlife bearing in mind we haven’t seen any other vessels or people since the day after we left Brest. Flying fish are in abundance and scared by the unexpected arrival of Jamaica, they glide across the sea rising and falling on the air over the uneven ocean, travelling considerable distances before dropping back into the sea. At night they are attracted to the boat and we regularly have to clear the decks and cockpit of fish in the morning. Sometimes they arrive with a slap, or even hit  the crew  sitting on deck but often are unheard visitors who quietly perish in the bottom of the boat.  It is rather sad especially when they have made the enormous effort of leaping into a boat that is at least 1 metre above the sea.  Other  visitors include birds that follow the boat waiting for the startled flying fish to emerge so they can dive down and enjoy a snack.

Other sights include dolphins who come alongside for a look and to splash around the boat and we came across a school of pilot whales about 50 m off the port side, languidly rolling over the surface, giving a great view of their unusual dorsal fins. One baby was more enthusiastic leaping out of the water repeatedly.  It is rather strange and humbling to encounter these animals in such a massive expanse of water, and seems such a lucky coincidence that our paths should have crossed.

A couple of days ago we came across three turtles on the water within a couple of hours, who slowly dived below the surface as we approached.  Again I find myself asking what are the chances of our paths crossing out here but perhaps there is a huge abundance of life out here, invisibly going about its business just below the surface.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Sailing By Night

Steering a boat by night is quite a different experience. If there is moonlight or stars then at least you have points of reference to maintain a course by, but when you have neither you have to rely on instruments even when these counter all your instincts.  Tonight we are taking 30 minute sessions on the helm as we speed downwind with our yankee (big triangular in front of the mast) poled out on the opposite side of the boat from the mainsail.  The range of safe steering is quite narrow which all adds to the tension and requires total concentration, hence the short  helming spells of only 30 minutes.  The good ship Jamaica knows when your concentration slips for even only half a second and she will mischievously throw in an unanticipated change of direction for fun; or the sea will come at you with a side swipe wave and  if you don’t respond immediately the consequences can be dear, but more of that later.

So the technical bit is that the mainsail is fully out at almost 90 degrees to the direction of the boat. It is held in place by sheets (ropes) which add tension from behind and additionally is held forward for safety by a preventer which runs from the end of the boom to the bow and back to the cockpit.  This means that if the wind gets on the wrong side of the sail and tries to flip it across to the other side – 180 degrees – the preventer should do what it says and stop it happening. Also known as the dreaded crash gybe.

Monday, 30 September 2013

At the Helm

After a few days at sea I finally get my chance to take the helm which is great.  We are sailing downwind so that the wind is coming at a slight angle from the back of the boat in a good breeze.  The sun is shining and for another day there is nothing in sight except sea and sky.  We parted company with all the other boats in the fleet after about 24 hours racing as each plotted their own course to try to find an advantage, however small, over the rest.

And so here I am at the wheel of 34 tonnes of racing yacht on a glorious sunny September morning, surfing down the front of Atlantic rollers at speeds of up to 17 knots. What a privilege! It is awesome and a real challenge.  There is a narrow range of steering where the boat sails well, fast and true, but veer outside the range and at best you lose speed, incurring the Skipper’s glare and at worst all sorts of horrible things happen to the sails, and the damage experienced by other boats as they suffer from ripped spinnakers, snapped halyards, exploding blocks is testament to that, quite a worry so early in a round the world race.

Leaving Brest

The disappointment of Race 1 has been put behind us as has the sense of injustice when the race was cut short at only 3 hours notice leaving our strategy well and truly scuppered. After a few days rest up in Brest and more repairs to the boats we are ready to set off on the first ocean crossing of the race, all 4,800 miles to Rio de Janeiro.

There is the same ceremony of departure at Brest although much lower key which is fitting for a more serious moment for all of the crews.  We are led, team by team, on the long walk from our boat to the presentation area where there are brief interviews, playing of the team song and the now customary ‘Bolts, for the photos. We then walk back past all the waiting crews who applaud, shake hands and high five.  There is a strange sense of camaraderie, as although we are competitors we are all sharing in the trepidation of our first
ocean crossing.  No-one can  really comprehend 24 days at sea in who knows what conditions and this binds us together in a common unspoken sense of companionship and concern.  It is quite moving, much more so than all the razamatazz of leaving London.

Before long lines have been slipped and we are outside Brest Harbour circling in formation for the cameras before heading further out to the start line where conditions are euphamistically described as ‘fruity’.  This is sailing shorthand for very bouncy, very wet and seasick inducing all of which are achieved in a short space of time.  But then we are off heading for the Bay of Biscay and beyond.  Jamaica rears up and then ploughs into the waves, her bowsprit driving forward like the lance of a medieval charger and then again and again.  I am working on the foredeck clipped on as it falls away beneath my knees until the deck is in the sea then up again. I imagined this before we left and so it is exciting to be actually experiencing it, but it is more severe than I had thought.  It is like being power hosed from every angle and even our high tech foulies can’t keep us dry. This goes on for several days at which point around half the crew are suffering from seasickness to varying degrees.  As Skipper says if you don’t get seasick you haven’t been to sea enough.

And so we continue to race across the Bay of Biscay heading for Cape Finesterre where we will head south with hopefully following winds down the coast of Portugal and then on to Africa.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Preparing for our first ocean crossing

Tomorrow we set off for Rio and there is some apprehension around the Clipper boats as for most of us an ocean crossing is a step into the unknown involving around 24 days at sea.  The forecast is fairly rough to begin with as we cross the Bay of Biscay into forecast south westerly winds, exactly the direction we are trying to sail. So there is lots of dosing up on seasickness pills etc prior to race start at 12.30pm UK time tomorrow.

We had a race briefing today when we were advised of the departure procedure including saying farewell to the mayor of Brest, chat about the route, the weather and arrival in Rio de Janeiro about 24 days later. The reality of the challenge ahead is sinking in but we need to get going and once across the Bay of Biscay better downwind conditions are forecast blowing us south towards the Equator, where strange rituals are observed for those who haven't sail across it before, the Doldrums (where the race will be won or lost apparently) and onwards to Brazil.

You can follow progress of Jamaica and all the boats on the Clipper race viewer, and if we disappear it is only because we have gone into "stealth mode" for 24 hours so that the other boats can't see our tactics.

Friday, 6 September 2013

After a hectic week in London we finally departed St Kat's on Sunday to large crowds of family and friends which was surprisingly emotional. A few laps up and down the Thames and we headed downstream accompanied by lots of spectator boats coming in close for finally shouted goodbyes.  After we left them behind a quiet reflective mood descended on the crew, especially the round the worlders who would not be returning for over 10 months.

We moored up on Sunday night off Southend and then prepared for the race start on Monday at 9.30 am.  While the norm is 2 watches, or shifts, we were all on deck for the downwind start and it was a little chaotic, not helped by a tangle on the mainsail halyard 10 minutes before the start.  Anyway all was sorted and we crossed the line in a good position and all was going well in a strengthening breeze until we noticed the mast moving alarmingly in a way it wasn't meant to!  Sails were dropped and we spent about 2 hours putting a makeshift solution in place by which time we were at the back of the fleet. All very frustrating but as Skipper Pete pointed out this is a marathon not a sprint and there was plenty time to catch up which is exactly what we did until a wineglass ( that's a horrible twist in the middle)  in the spinnaker slowed us down again.

We decided the tactic to get to Brest was to stay to the north and pick up favourable tides carrying us west until diving south to Brest, which would have been fine had the course not been shortened at 3 hours notice. No time to do anything about it and so a very disappointing and frustrating finish to our first race.  We then motored towards Brest through some thick night time fog which was completely surreal, keeping a close eye on the AIS system as well as radar and two watch keepers on the foredeck, our entire world limited to the boat as beyond there just seemed to be nothing.

With sunrise the next morning, the mist cleared and our spirits rose as frustration gave way to a determination to make amends on Race 2 to Rio, departing from Brest on Monday 9th September.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Gosport to London

The Jamaica Clipper is now safely berthed in St Katherine's Dock in the shadow of Tower Bridge having been safely delivered on Friday afternoon along with the 11 other Clipper yachts. We set off from Gosport on Monday afternoon with a practice race across the Channel to France then back up to the Isle of Wight then eastwards past Dover, north and then west up the Thames estuary to Southend Pier where all the boats rendezvoused for a carefully planned procession up the Thames past the Millenium Dome, Greenwich and Canary Wharf.  We were expecting a quiet entrance to St Kats but were really surprised to see quite a crowd there to welcome the boats in, and after some very careful manoeuvring all were safely moored up.  Sails were packed up, decks were cleared and hosed down but before too long the local pub was bursting with thirsty sailors having a well earned drink. I headed back to Edinburgh but am back on board on Tuesday for a busy week of boat preparation as well as a reception at the Jamaican High Commission, official naming ceremony, race briefings and of course the crew party before we get down to the serious business of Race 1 to Brest.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Gosport Boat Prep

Set off from Edinburgh on Thursday morning getting to Gosport mid afternoon.  No sign of the Jamaica boat but headed off to and empty office which had been commandeered to do the victualling, which involved sorting out all the food for the crew for 29 days plus trip up to London.   A massive logistical challenge which involve planning every meal and then bagging up each days menus in numbered bags plus all the regular items, snacks and hot drinks. Not sure how much coffee is going with us but we do have 2,200 tea bags!  Lots of savoury spicy sauces to keep the food interesting as well as providing a range of meals for all diets.  It has all then to be stowed on the boat but not yet!

The boat arrived from the yard on Friday looking a bit naked and so the last few days have been spent  fitting out and loading up ready for the trip to London and then onwards to Brazil.  Departure from Gosport is scheduled for tomorrow provided we are ready but it has been a massive effort by all the crews so far and the Barinas is an absolute hive of activity.

Once in London we have our reception at the Jamaican High Commission and then on Thursday the official naming of the Jamaica boat and possibly a Jamaican celebrity - he's hoping!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Nearly there

One more day at work and then I head down to Gosport to help out with the race preparations on the Jamaica boat, then departing Sunday for a last training week/delivery to St Katherine's Dock where the boats will remain until race start on Sunday 1st September.  No doubt all will go smoothly as St Kats is managed by GVA. The arrangements are all falling into place with briefings, a party or two and the details of the start procedure.  On Tuesday 28th we have been invited to a reception by Her Excellency Aloun Ndombet-Assama, the High Commissioner for Jamaica at the Jamaican High Commission in London which is exciting and is a real sign of what it means to be representing that country.

Packing is almost complete having whittled down my original pile of " essentials" to the 20 kg limit imposed on all crew to keep the racing weight down. When you start with sea boots, foul  weather gear and sleeping bag, base layers, mid layers and wet wipes, leaves about 50 g for everything else.  The excitement and trepidation are growing in equal measure and really just can't wait to start racing.  First stop Brest in Brittany and then across the Atlantic to Rio.  Let's go!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Team Jamaica Weekend

Just returned from a really good weekend meeting future team mates and planning for the race which is now less than a month away.  The team is getting stronger by the day and developing a strong Team Jamaica identity which is great.  Before long we will be into boat prep in Gosport customising our boat and then it's farewell to Gosport as we head up to St Katherine's Dock at Tower Bridge in London for race start on 1st September; and that is shaping up to be a massive event.
On Sunday I headed home via London and couldn't resist a short diversion to Trafalgar Square to have a look at the Great Britain Clipper sitting proudly outside the National Gallery.  Absolutely stunning and drawing the crowds who hopefully will support the start and parade of all 12 Clippers down the Thames.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Level 3 Training

Just finished my third week's training with Pete Stirling, our skipper on Team Jamaica, and new crew mates. We set off on Tuesday afternoon and, apart from a brief re-stocking visit to Gosport, spent the week at sea on one of the brand new Clipper 70s. We had everything from baking flat calm conditions ( are we moving?) to Force 7 in the black of night.  The hardest part was definitely getting used to the 4 hours on 4 off regime which is standard for the  race, but also pretty exhausting.

On Friday we had a "Le Mans" race start just outside Portsmouth for the Clipper boats and raced hard for the next 33 hours to a first win for Team Pete. Let's hope that is a sign of things to come.

Next stop is Gosport in mid August to help with the boat prep and then delivery up to London for race start, and no doubt some last minute practice en route.   It is suddenly feeling very real with the excitement, anticipation and some trepidation all building up to race start in 35 days time.