“Get me off this boat,” is all I’m thinking.
As I scan the sea with a spotlight in one hand and my other hand jammed into my armpit for warmth, I hear the skipper announce, “I’m sorry to say it looks like we have to abandon the search. You’ve all worked hard and this is a disappointing way to end training, but we have no choice.”
It is 4:00 am. The eleven crew who’ve been shivering on deck for the last four hours respond with complete silence. The tension is so tangible that it seems even the rigging is creaking carefully, so as not to set off any explosions, emotional or otherwise.
My mind wanders, but I’m not thinking of the crew, the ups and downs of the last week at sea or even how we’ve let the skipper down. I am thinking about how cold and tired I am. And how I want more than anything to get off this boat and keep on walking as far as my legs will take me.
The first time I met my Clipper Race Skipper, Eric Holden, was at my Team Building event in the south of England, the weekend before Level 3 Training. He was standing in the corner quietly drinking a beer, watching some of our race crew smack-talk each other over a game of table tennis.
I watched Eric with curiosity, wondering what kind of skipper he would be.
With only four weeks to go until the race start, the Clipper Skippers’ reputations had begun to precede them. I knew my husband Ryan’s skipper, Chris, was a gregarious, laddish Aussie; the Mission Performance Ltd. Skipper, Matt, had a reputation for bullying his crew; Switzerland’s Skipper Vicky was rumored to be extremely rigid and organized; Pete, of the Jamaica boat, was already famous for having skippered in the previous Clipper Race and word on the docks was that my skipper, a reticent, even-tempered Canadian, was the favorite to win, considering his experience doing weather reporting for the Canadian Olympic sailing team.
As my teammates milled around the BBQ, chatting about their training, background and what legs they were doing, I noticed Eric avoided the noisy tables and the loud game of life-sized Jenga on the patio.
Eric was clearly a man of few words. But from the careful way he watched his crew and the intent with which people listened to him, I suspected our quiet skipper might have potential to make a loud impact.
When the wind whips up in the middle of the night, jumping from 10 to 20 knots, the boat becomes hard to handle with its over-powered sails. Our standing orders are to wake the skipper any time we plan to change course, drop sails, tack or reef, so we do exactly that, and suggest to Eric that we reef the main.
I’m at the helm, trying to maintain a port tack while my crew work on raising the boom, lowering the halyard and putting in a reef. The skipper remains below deck, presumably confident that his crew knows how to reef a mainsail.
Yet there’s a problem. I can’t see what it is from the helm, but there seems to be an issue with tangled lines. Twenty minutes into the job, we’re bobbing up and down in the waves with our mainsail thrashing and loose reefing lines whipping the boom above our heads, and the boat is getting harder to handle. It is pulling into the wind and I’m fighting against it with all my strength.
“Are you guys almost done?!” I scream at the crew clustered by the mast.
Looking up at the windex, I realize I won’t be able to keep the boat on a port tack for long. And as the boat continues to pull quickly upwind, I scream, “Heads DOWN! We’re tacking!” The boom swings across with a bang.
The skipper pops his head up on deck and I cringe with embarrassment.
But Eric doesn’t say a word. He looks up at our sloppy mainsail, our accidental heaved-to position and then at me. Then he disappears back down below.
Woefully, it takes us another hour and a half to finish the job of reefing the mainsail, during which time the next watch comes up on deck, providing an audience for our comedy of errors.
In the two hours it takes us from start to finish to reef the main, we do an accidental tack, an accidental gybe and communications grow more chaotic the longer we keep working. So I fully expect the skipper to debrief my watch with a catalog of our mistakes. But that doesn’t happen. We simply tidy up on deck, climb silently down below and fall into our bunks, exhausted.
When asked later why he didn’t interfere, Eric simply says to us,
“Was the boat in danger?” –No.
“Did anyone get hurt?” –No.
“Did you learn something from it?” –Yes?
“Then what’s the problem?” –Um.
The 4 am to 8 am watch is so much better than the 12 am to 4 am watch because at least we know the sun will rise on our watch.
One dull, wind-less morning, just as the sun pokes up over the horizon, we are visited by several pods of dolphins who swim alongside the boat and jump and play in our bow wake.
We squeal like over-excited toddlers and hang over the guard rails with our cameras flashing, pleading for the dolphins to come closer. The ruckus is loud enough to wake the entire boat, but only the skipper comes up to silently observe what’s got us riled up this time. He seems relieved to see it’s not the mainsail flapping violently. Just a few dolphins splashing about.
It’s a crap shoot, whether you get a good watch or a bad watch, I think.
The four-hour watch system takes about three days to adjust to. For those first seventy-two hours, it’s a struggle to keep myself from curling up in a corner of the cockpit and falling asleep on my midnight-to-4-am watch. And it’s equally hard to make myself fall asleep at 8 pm when it’s still light outside. Especially when I know I have to be up in 4 hours again.
Food and sleep seem to punctuate the days and dictate the rhythm of life on board the boat. And when deprived of either, emotional threads start to fray visibly, manifesting themselves in rolled eyes when the helm is reminded not to veer off course, or irritated sighs when the watch leader requests a headsail change in the middle of the night.
At 4 pm on the last day of training, the two crew on “Mother Watch” (cooking duty) discover with horror that all our canned goods have been left on our previous training boat. Which means there is no chili for the chili-and-rice dinner. Dinner would have to be invented from whatever leftover ingredients we have on board.
Dinner is normally served at 6 pm, so this gives the “mothers” exactly two hours to find a creative way to feed 12 hungry people. There are a few cans of salmon, some packets of couscous and some flour, which the skipper suggests turning into fishcakes.
By 9 pm, dinner still hasn’t been served, two watches haven’t slept in over eight hours and the irritation on deck is starting to show. Communication grows increasingly sharp and abrasive. Demands to change headsails or requests to reef the mainsail are met with collective sighs and dragging feet.
Crew starting shouting down to the galley, “Is there anything we can do to help?” Which is polite speak for, “Are we ever going to get our flipping dinner?!”
We’ve only been at sea for five days. And I’m starting to imagine the horrors of life on board with 22 hungry, sleep-deprived crew after 20 days at sea.
Suddenly, “Mother Watch” looks like the most potentially dangerous job on board.
When I go to sleep at 8 pm on our last day of Level 3, it is with the knowledge that I’ll be woken up at some point in the night for a man-overboard drill.
I know this because a crew member overheard Eric discussing nighttime man-overboard drills with another skipper on the VHF.
“We recovered the buoy in 8 minutes,” the skipper on the radio brags. “It’s easy doing MOBs at night. All you have to do is find the flashing light.”
“Sure, if you haven’t turned off the light before throwing the buoy over,” Eric replies.
As we approach Gosport Marina, a silent, dejected crew stands on deck with fenders and dock lines in hand. It’s been four and a half hours since we lost our “man overboard” and about half an hour since we gave up looking for the lost danbuoy.
Then, just as we turn right towards the marina, someone shouts, “Danbuoy! Holy crap! DANBUOY! STARBOARD SIDE!” from the bow. The crew perks up and shuffles to the guardrails. And there, unbelievably, is the orange, unlit danbuoy bobbing happily towards land, having drifted about 2 miles from its original position.
As we pull the lost danbuoy onboard, relief sweeps over the boat and applause ripples from bow to stern as the crew smiles for the first time since sunset. The mood on board has been tangibly lifted and there’s even some laughter.
But as our boat touches the docks at Gosport Marina, I’m still keen as ever to step off the boat and keep walking.
With the boat docked, I head for the showers without pause. And the further I walk from the boat, the more relaxed I become. Which gets me thinking back to the reasons why I signed up to do the Clipper Race in the first place.
The challenge. The sailing. Taking on oceans. These were the thoughts that came to mind.
I’m up for all that, I think. So why has this week been so hard?
The living. Oh, the living. That was the thing I hadn’t anticipated.
Unlike Level 1 and 2 Training, where we came in to port most nights for a hot shower and a pint, Level 3 showed me what it was like to live on board for a week without reprieve. There was no pub to go to in the evenings. No hot showers to wash off the salt and the frustrations. No phone reception to call home and vent.
It turns out the challenge of ocean racing is more than just sailing. A lot of it is about the living. It’s the provisioning, the cooking, the sleeping, the eating, the not showering, the dozen or so other crew, the skipper, the conflicts on board, the leaks over your bunk, the sails you’re living on top of, the lack of space, the lack of privacy.
Life on board is pretty extreme. I have prepared myself for the extreme challenge of sailing across oceans on a 70-foot racing yacht.
But the extreme challenge of living on a boat with 21 other crew for a month at a time? Now, that’s a different story.
Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race starting September 1st, 2013 from St. Katharine’s Docks in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew