Skipper’s Absence Report! (Better late than never!)
By the time I joined the GREAT Britain yacht in New York, it had been over three years since I signed up for what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime. I’d signed up to do a leg of the 2017/18 Clipper Round The World Yacht Race and become a fully paid up member of the big Clipper family. So the preceding three years had been full of making new friends, learning new skills, five weeks of onboard training, a few injuries, lots of bruises, some crew meets, several trips to boat shows and an extraordinary amount of rum.
What I didn’t realise when I first signed up for the race was quite what a big part of my life it would become, how it would change not only me as a person, but how I thought about the world and crucially, what I thought I could and couldn’t do. When I started sailing, I signed up to sail an ocean, so when I started rowing…….well it seemed obvious to me anyway!
So it was that on the 13th June I abandoned my fellow BrOARds and headed off for nearly 7 weeks in the company of my 2nd family. I spent just over a week as a full on tourist, then the 21st June was crew changeover day and my time was spent helping clean and prepare the boat for the Atlantic crossing ahead and giving boat tours.
We left New York on the 25th June. It was a strange feeling sailing past the Statue of Liberty knowing that the next time we saw land, it would be coast of Northern Ireland we would be looking at.
The race didn’t officially start until the next day so we spent the day doing on the water training and man overboard drills, getting used to being on the boat again and being part of a team. Race start was intense and incredible, you can read my crew blog about it here. Suffice to say there were whales. Lots and lots of whales.
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to going into a watch system. We did 6 hour shifts during the day and 4 hour shifts at night. One from each watch provided a “mother” whose job it was to feed and look after the crew for the entire day. They cooked three meals a day, made endless tea, coffee or “jug juice” (that’s squash to you land lubbers), emptied bilges and cleaned everything including the heads.
At the end of their day as mother, they got a good nights sleep ready to rejoin the watch the next day. For some reason, every time I was on mother we seemed to be heeled over going upwind. You soon learn how to wedge yourself in the galley, how and when to pour hot water into mugs by anticipating the boat movement and how to cook steak and roast potatoes for 18 in a tiny oven!
I could write long passages about the ocean and how beautiful it is. How vast and endless the waves seem to be. How it looked different on every watch and how it changes colour with the weather. Sometimes it’s smooth and glassy when there’s no wind and sometimes it looks angry, roars and is terrifying.
But in all cases, it had me transfixed. I can honestly say I have spent hours watching water rush past the boat. Sometimes heeled over with the toe rail in the water, sometimes with a completely flat boat but I would quite happily spend many more hours doing so.
I love sailing at night, especially with a moon and was probably one of the only people who actually enjoyed night watch. But I especially enjoyed it when there was phosphorescence in the water. The first few times I saw little glowing lights in the water I didn’t say anything. After a few hours of sitting staring at the ocean holding the spinnaker line, you do wonder if you’re imagining things. Eventually someone will whisper “did you see that?” and everyone would nod.
Obviously the wildlife is incredible. There always seem to be seabirds, no matter how far you are from land. Some seem to hang around and follow you. We saw dolphins almost every day and the occasional whale after race start but not nearly so many, apart from one day when a pod of pilot whales followed our boat for hours. Sadly we also saw a lot of litter, everything from balloons to bottles and plastic tubs. It breaks your heart that what should be such a pristine, beautiful environment, just isn’t very pristine.
It took us 16 days to cross the Atlantic, we had almost every weather you could imagine. From a storm with thunder & lightning, to being completely becalmed, hot sun to heavy rain, sleet, snow and fog, sometimes all in one day! We lost satcoms for five days so didn’t have any weather reports or contact with our families at all during that time. Not that we had a lot anyway, the boat internet was on for an hour and a half a day!
We spent 10 days in Derry Londonderry and then were off again, this time round Ireland and then back into Liverpool after a final sprint race up the Mersey. The trip round Ireland was mostly heeled over on the wind. You get used to being heeled over eventually and it becomes the norm. It does make moving around the boat, getting dressed, eating and using the heads difficult. Actually, it makes everything difficult. Trying to get in and out of foulies while heeled over can cause both injury and hilarity, not necessarily at the same time.
One night I had to get out of my bunk to use the heads during one off watch period, my bunk was on the low side (just how I like it!) so I had to climb uphill to get to the heads on the other side of the boat, swinging like an ape from one hand hold to another and hauling myself up.
I brace myself and wedge myself to use the heads and hear the magic words “ready to tack”. Not good. Not only do I have to change position to stop myself being thrown across the heads, but I have to climb uphill to get back to my bunk. Which is now in a much higher position than it was!
The return to Liverpool was an emotional yet incredible experience. We were treated like returning heroes.
There were massive crowds on the banks of the Mersey and around the docks. We were met with beer, prosecco and pizza, the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch came aboard when we came alongside in the Albert Dock. It was the first time I’d seen my family for nearly 7 weeks and it made for an emotional reunion. I will always have fond memories of my time with my Skipper Dave and the rest of the GREAT Britain crew.
Was it everything I thought it would be? Absolutely and so much more.
Would I do it again? Absolutely – if someone else was paying.
Do I miss it? More than I care to admit.
Will I be back out on the Ocean? You have to ask?