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.