As you may have noticed from my absence, I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to write about my Clipper Race Training while on the course itself. My four hours on watch at any given time had me schlepping gear, changing sails, hoisting sails, tacking, gybing, reefing, filling in the log book and cooking, while my four hours off watch saw me pretty much fast asleep within seconds of climbing into the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag.
In short, I’ve barely had time to brush my teeth, let alone sit down and write.
So, rather than open up my computer before falling asleep each day, I found myself typing notes onto my iPhone so I could keep a diary of sorts while wrapped up in the relative comfort of my tilted berth.
And this is was the result:
Surprise! I have the same skipper I had for my Level 1 Training! I’m taking bets now on how many push-ups Jim will make me do this week.
Out of the 11 crew on my boat, 9 of them are girls. I wonder if Jim tried to trade in his crew when he saw his roster. I can just see him with his head in his hands saying, “Please, God, let there be no crying this week.”
Sea Survival Training was more fun than I thought it would be. I’ve never seen a group of people so expertly sidetrack an instructor with unnecessary questions. But, really, it’s the instructor’s fault for bringing up sea water enemas as a method for hydration. And, of course, this was the perfect segue to discussion of how shoving a Mars bar up an unconscious person’s rectum could save their life. Apparently, you can do that. I felt sorry for the instructor because we could talk about nothing else for the rest of the day.
As if the discussion couldn’t get any weirder, someone asked what to do with a body if someone dies in the life raft. There were suggestions to tie the body to the outside of the life raft in case there’s a chance of bringing the person home to their family. The instructor quickly dismissed this idea, however, saying we’d all get eaten by sharks. You would think this would be an uncomfortable conversation to have. But in a world where friend-to-friend enemas and Mars bar suppositories are the norm, an open discussion about what one should and shouldn’t do with a dead person in a life raft was just par for course.
FYI, apparently it is illegal to eat human flesh unless you’re at sea. Oh, the things you learn when preparing for life on an offshore racing yacht.
Having Jim as my skipper for the second course in a row means I already know his motivational one-liners (“Grind like it’s Friday night!”, “Pull that halyard like someone’s got your handbag!”, “This isn’t a pleasure boat, it’s a racing boat, people!”).
I also know to expect the unexpected, like having to drop our lunch for a man-overboard drill because Jim tipped the dummy into the water while we mindlessly munched on our sandwiches.
These girls aren’t the Finishing School types, which I’m grateful for. They can dish it out to Jim as well as they can take it. They work hard and laugh hard. And in the pub after a hard day of sailing? I dare anyone to drink these ladies under the table.
Today we finally go out to sea with no plans to return to port for 5 days. We stock up on provisions and leave the docks at 11:30 am in 25-knot winds. My favorite place at the moment – when I’m not earning my dinner sweating up sails or working the grinder – is at the helm. What a sensation to pilot a 70-foot yacht as it hums along at a pleasant 10-12 knot clip.
30-knot winds, it’s pissing down with rain and the boat is bouncing at a constant 40-degree heel.
The skipper throws the 85-kilo dummy overboard for a man-overboard drill in rough seas. I look down and realize I’m wearing the “pants of power,” the harness that means I’m the one who will be hoisted over the side as the waves crash up against the hull.
As I reach the surface of the water, in the trough of a wave, I reach out to grab the dummy floating past just as a wave crashes over my head, dousing me in icy water and threatening to yank the dummy from my grasp. I’m trying to find a strap on Bob (our dummy) that will allow me to attach a tether to him. But the force of the moving boat against the waves threatens to pull Bob away from me as I fumble for a loop to attach the tether to.
“Where the fuck do I grab him?!” I scream.
“Just hook onto anything!” Someone screams back.
I find a space in Bob’s life jacket and hold the tether in my fist while I jam my hand through Bob’s jacket and reach back to clip onto my own chest strap.
“Made!” I scream. “Get me the hell out of here!”
The halyard begins to raise and, to my relief, I’m dropped back on deck while the crew fumbles to drag Bob, soaking wet, over the guard rails.
In my mind, I’m imagining Bob is a real person. And I’m overwhelmed with the responsibility of retrieving a man overboard from what I perceive to be rough seas, though I know this is nothing compared to the seas we’ll encounter in the Southern Ocean. “What if I couldn’t hold on to him?” I think. “What if I couldn’t find a way to tether myself to him while being thrown around in the sea? How could I ever live with myself if I failed to retrieve someone in a real-life situation?”
I shudder from the cold of my wet foulies and at the thought of being responsible for whether someone lives or dies out here on the ocean.
WTF? I am screaming into the wind, trying to hold onto the Yankee headsail as it whips and lashes and tries to wrench itself violently from my grasp. “COME ON, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” I scream at the sail in a last-ditch attempt to muster the dregs of my strength from an adrenalin rush as my left leg is wrapped around the leech of a sail that’s trying desperately to throw me over the guard rails. My whole body and mind is engaged in battle with a force I don’t have the strength to fight alone. Three other crew are fighting beside me to bring the sail down in Force 8 winds while the rest of the boat is either throwing up off the stern or lying in bed puking into galley pots.
When we finally jerk the sail down and safely onto the foredeck, I look around and see a war zone of casualties on deck. One crew member is slumped over the stern, throwing up over the rails. Two other crew try to move forward to help but find themselves slowed by nausea as they try not to spew tuna and sweetcorn all over their fellow crew.
In the moments after we wrenched the over-powered Yankee sail onto deck, I sit in the cockpit and shudder a tearful sigh of relief. I’m not sure what’s upset me so much about this incident, but I think it’s the realization that I’m only as strong as my crew and my training. No amount of weight-lifting was going to get that sail in by itself.
The Skipper makes an executive decision to return to Gosport Marina, having been at sea for less than two full days. The crew is simultaneously relieved and disappointed. As is the Skipper.
What a difference a hot shower and some food makes. After a night in port, a soaked-through, barely functioning crew is transformed into the dry, rosy-cheeked chatty people I met on our first day of training.
Deep, contented snoring reverberated through “the ghetto” (the crew’s quarters) last night, and this morning a happy, healed fully functioning crew is on deck and ready to take on the seas again. The morale is so strong it’s tangible, which proves to us all that even the lowest moments at sea are only temporary.
Jim greets us with, “This was a wake-up call for all of you. Your old level of discomfort is now your new norm. Let’s move on and do some sailing.”
The last two days have been full of sunshine, laughter and jokes about “grinding through the night.” It’s like the crew died a small death and were resurrected as a stronger, hardier team.
By the time we get back to port for the end of our Level 2 Course, we’re joking about Bee having found a new boyfriend in Bob, the man-overboard dummy, since she spent countless hours in his lap trying to stabilize herself as she threw up over the rails. We laugh as we wash the tuna and sweetcorn off the deck, the last remnants of our misery. And we tease Jim, our Skipper, as he begs us to please stop hugging each other so much. He can only take so much femininity on his watch.
We finish off the course with copious amounts of wine in Gosport Marina’s Boat House Café and move on to Tiger Tiger, a nightclub in Portsmouth that could rival anything you might find on the Jersey Shore.
And before you judge, remember it’s Friday night and we’ve been to Hell and back.
I wake up to unfamiliar faces in a berth that’s not my own, cuddling a Yankee sail. WTF? Where am I?
“Tasha. Tasha? TASHA.” A petite brunette is nudging me in the shoulder.
“Huh? WAH?! Where..what?!” I sit bolt upright, turning my head left, then right, trying to make sense of my surroundings as a pain stabs me in the temple. I see Ryan squeezed into the one-man berth beside me. Which explains why I’m hugging a sail. I must have gone to sleep on Ryan’s boat.
“Your crew is looking for you for the deep clean,” the stranger says, explaining why she’s woken me up.
“Wah? Where? What time is it?!” I say.
“Shit!” I say, shaking Ryan. “I was supposed to be up for deep cleaning at 6:30! Owwww!” I clutch my head from the pain that’s just surged through my skull. How many Long Island Iced Teas did I drink last night?
As I stumble out of Ryan’s boat and onto the docks in my club clothes from the night before, I hear laughter from my boat next door. I look up to see my crew pointing, as I stagger down the dock towards my boat, which is swarming with busy crew scrubbing the deck.
“Oh God, is this the yachting equivalent of the walk of shame?!” I yelp.
“That bloke you were snogging last night seems pretty nice,” someone yells, as laughter erupts again.
My head is still pounding, but before long I’m barefoot on deck, sweating out my hangover as I scrub floorboards and piece together memories from the previous night with my Level 2 Crew.
Let’s just say, we had our ups and our downs during Level 2 Training. But we lived through it and, in many ways, we survived it because we had each other.
Looking in from the outside, you might question why anyone would endure the hell we’ve been through and the hellish unknown that’s yet to come. But as I joke around with the extraordinary, resilient, hungover friends I’ve made this week, I realize I wouldn’t trade the bad, life-questioning moments for a million more of the good.
Because without the bad, the good just wouldn’t be quite as good.
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 with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew