“DROP AND GIVE ME FIVE!” Skipper Jim yells as I freeze and look up to realize I’ve just run below the boom on the low side of the boat — a major sailboat safety no-no.
“Shit! My bad!” I say, unloading the runner line from the winch. “Can I do my push-ups after the race?”
“DO YOU WANT ME TO ADD A ZERO AND MAKE IT FIFTY?! Give me five NOW!”
“Damn it!” I drop on the deck, cursing myself for wasted time while pumping out five push-ups as fast as I can. An instant later, I’m back in position at the back-stay runner, with taut muscles and high adrenalin beating my heart against my rib cage.
My boat is competing against Ryan’s boat in a racing headsail change to test our mettle and see how much we’ve learned this week on our Level 1 training for the Clipper Round the World Race. And right now I’m focused on nothing more than winning. Which means doing each job quickly, efficiently and without mistakes.
“Ready to TACK!” shouts the helmsman.
“Runner coming BACK!” I scream, pulling in the runner line, alternating hands and rotating my shoulders as fast as I can to make up for the seconds lost doing penalty push-ups. “READY!”
“HELMS TO LEE!”
As we tack, the boat zings with sheets being pulled in on the headsail, mainsail and staysail. I grind in my runner until it creaks under tension and I look over at Ryan’s boat. His team is still crouched on deck, flaking their sail. They’re nowhere near ready to tack.
“YESSSS!!!” My crew shouts victoriously, rushing to the rails just as our boat passes closely enough for our opponents to see the whites of our teeth. Jim chuckles as the other skipper shouts to his defeated crew, “Feel the PAIN!”
Sure, it’s not an official race, and it’s only a race to see how fast we can change our headsail, but this minor victory means a great deal to me. It means I have officially fallen in love with ocean racing.
Which is quite a statement from a girl who wasn’t convinced she even liked sailing a few months ago. And here I am, counting down the days until I’m standing on deck with my fellow crew, poised to hoist our sails under London’s Tower Bridge and race off to France, and then Brazil.
When I say, “I can’t wait,” it is a gross understatement.
I have learned so much this week during my training, and it has whetted my appetite for victory on the high seas. I still have a long way to go, but here is a little taste of what I’ve experienced and taken away from my first week on a racing yacht:
Lesson 1: The only similarity between cruising and racing is that they both involve boats.
Nothing else is even remotely the same. Where cruising boats are designed to be comfortable and easy-going, racing boats are designed to be fast and working hard at all times. Comfort is of minimal importance.
I learned this my first night on board when I had to climb over a heap of sails to squeeze myself into my Spartan top bunk. It didn’t look like the most comfortable resting space, but I was so exhausted by the time I unfolded my legs inside my sleeping bag that it took no more than five minutes for me to pass out cold. I don’t think I even changed out of my thermals, which means (1) I was too tired to care, and (2) my bunk was exactly as comfortable as it needed to be.
Lesson 2: When it comes to crew, determination and technique are more valuable than youth and big muscles.
The ages of my fellow crew ranged from their twenties to their sixties and our physiques ran the gamut from small and light to big and stocky. But everyone, and I mean everyone, brought something to the table in addition to their bold determination. Small girls hoisted large sails, learning how to use their full body weight to sweat the heavy halyards. Large men crawled into small spaces and developed nimble fingers for tying knots quickly. And everyone worked the winch grinder until they thought their arms would fall off. And then they ground some more.
And we all watched in awe as our oldest crew member, Gil, volunteered to be hoisted up to the top of the mast, calling out periodically, “Higher! Take me higher!” And when she was lowered safely back onto the deck, we eagerly asked, “How was it?”
“Fucking BRILLIANT!” Gil exclaimed with a grin as wide as her face.
Which just happens to be how I feel about my first week on a racing yacht.
Lesson 3: The skipper is the boss in more ways than one.
The skipper is less like a manager and more like a military general. His job is to keep his crew safe and motivated while engaged in battle at sea. That might be battle with the sea, or it might be battle at sea against other boats. It depends on the seas and the circumstances.
By making us drop and do push-ups anytime one of us breached a safety protocol, Jim showed how seriously he took our safety. And he repeatedly drove home the fact that we were on a racing boat, not a pleasure boat, giving us challenges that came with time constraints. “You’ve got 6 minutes to get that sail flaked and stowed!” He’d shout, while adding, “And THEN you can have lunch!”
On the docks in the Isle of Wight one morning, when Jim noticed the other Level 1 boat was getting ready to cast off, Jim interrupted our morning coffee to dole out jobs and get our boat off the docks before the other boat.
“Do they even know we’re racing them off the dock?” I stupidly asked Jim.
“WHENEVER THERE ARE TWO BOATS, IT’S A RACE!” Jim shouted. “Do we have everyone on deck?”
I quickly did a head count. “Wait, we only have 8! Where’s Gil?”
“She went to the pharmacy to get a bandage,” someone shouted.
“SHE’S LATE!” Jim shouted. “Slip those lines!”
“What?! We can’t just leave Gil behind!” I exclaimed (again, stupidly).
“We’ll come back for her,” Jim said. “But we’re leaving this dock NOW. I WASN’T KIDDING WHEN I SAID THIS IS A GODDAMN RACING BOAT!”
Lesson #4: Safety really is no joke. An injured crew member affects the whole race.
I learned this the hard way on my second day of training when I slipped on the companionway steps, holding a sandwich in one hand and a soda in the other. I disappeared down the hatch like I’d been yanked, hitting my head on the steps on the way down and landing in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Luckily, the pool of blood that had formed under my head was nothing more than an eager-to-bleed small cut. Nothing a little super glue at the Minor Injuries Unit in Gosport couldn’t fix.
But because of me, everyone’s training was cut short that day, as the crew quickly downed the sails, got the Coast Guard on the radio, sped the boat back to port and got me checked into a clinic. Not to mention that two additional crew members were taken out of commission to look after me and make sure my condition didn’t change. In short, it was a major bummer for the whole boat.
So, what did I learn from this? I need one hand for me, and one hand for the boat AT ALL TIMES. Oh, and I am officially a hazard to my own health (remember that time not long ago when I ended up in the ER in Cabarete?). I should really look into wearing a helmet, like, all the time.
As of now, Ryan and I are on our way back to the Dominican Republic to get Hideaway hauled for hurricane season and to prepare for our Level 2 and 3 training in England in a few weeks’ time. We have a lot of work to do until then. Not to mention we need to get our cats back to New York, where my parents will look after them while we’re gallivanting around the world on sailboats, planes, trains, buses, motorcycles, RVs and what-have-you.
Most importantly, though, this week has stoked a fire under me that has me racing through the many jobs on our long to-do list. Because come September 1st, I want nothing more than to be totally mentally and physically prepared to cast off from St. Katharine’s Docks.
All I can say is, “Let’s DO this!”
For more photos of our first week of Clipper Race Training, check out this photo album on Turf to Surf’s Facebook Page. All photos in the Album (not the photos above) are courtesy of Jason Parlour at www.jasonparlour.com. Jason is doing the full Round the World Race.