Race to Rio: Life in the Doldrums

in Clipper Tales / Life at Sea / Sailing the World
doldrums clipper race to rio

As if racing and living on board a Clipper yacht weren’t challenging enough, mid-way through our second week of racing, it becomes clear at this early stage in the race that we are stuck in the dreaded Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), better known as the Doldrums.

But it would seem we’re not alone. Where the previous position reports showed most of the fleet covering 50-70 miles in six hours, now they show yachts covering distances like 10, 1 or, worse, -0.2 miles.

We’re floating…literally floating off the coast of Cape Verde, willing it to disappear behind us while our windseeker hangs limply from the forestay like a white flag pleading for mercy from the wind gods.

It’s hard to remember why we’re out here drifting in the middle of the Atlantic since it hardly feels like we’re moving, let alone racing.

The air is so still it suffocates me in the cabin down below while, on deck, my skin bakes and my clothes bleach in the scalding sun. Waking up for my watch becomes an alarming experience, as it takes every ounce of energy to pull myself from what feels like a narcotics-induced sleep. In my hazy stupor, I find myself thinking, “Who the hell drugged me and dropped me off on this floating, festering trash bin? And who’s feet do I smell?”

It’s in these conditions – when our clothes are crusty with sweat and sea water, our skin is raw and sore, the galley is a sauna, and every day feels like three – that patience is in short supply, tempers are sharp and optimism flows quickly into the bilges, becoming harder and harder to retrieve.

Which is why a sense of humor is useful for coping with some of the uncomfortable aspects of life on board a Clipper yacht.

The Heat

It is HOT out here in the Doldrums as we move off the coast of Africa. It seems we’re following the traditional path to the trade winds, the directions for which are: “Go south until the butter melts, then turn right.” The butter has definitely melted, but we’re not moving fast enough to turn anywhere.

At the helm, there is no protection from the sun and the heat gets to me quickly. So, I’ve taken to filling a bucket with sea water and standing in it while steering. It means no one has access to the bucket while I’m helming but, hell, we all have to make sacrifices.

And if I’m going to steer us away from this solar abuse, then I need a bucket of water to stand in.

clipper race sun shade doldrums

The crew hide from the sun under an old sail turned into an on-deck sun shade.

The Smell

After two weeks on board, I’m certain there is nothing in hell or beyond that could possibly smell as bad as 20 people living on a boat in the Tropics.

Every time I come off watch, I wander around below deck in search of a bunk that isn’t located in a hot pocket of foot fungus, choking off my oxygen with smells that smack of wet, rancid Parmesan with an undercurrent of baby sick.

When I spot a pair of deck shoes anywhere near an empty bunk, I know for certain I won’t be able to both sleep and breathe, so I move on to bunks that are located closer to the food supplies and further away from the largest number of socks, shoes and feet.

But there is no perfect bunk.

The forward port bunk is located in an airless room where our sausage supplies hang, earning it the name “sausage bunk,” as it smells of dead, sweaty pig. Which, to some, may be preferable to the odor of dead, sweaty feet.

The sausage bunks, however, are sometimes preferable to the forward starboard bunks, which are located within inches of the forward head and a 3-month supply of Dutch cheese, earning the names “upper cheese bunk” and “lower cheese bunk.” The further south we sail, the warmer the cheese gets and the more it starts to smell like the main crew bunks, sometimes called the “rotten Rockport” bunks since the biggest offenders to the olfactory nerves are, without a doubt, the crew’s Clipper-issued Rockport deck shoes.

Personal Space

Or, rather, lack of personal space.

On board Henri Lloyd, we hot-bunk according to the winds, the weather conditions and where our weight is most needed for racing advantages. This means none of our belongings have a fixed home on board. Clipped to our bunks are dry bags containing all our possessions, which we move from bunk to bunk according to what tack we’re on and where our weight is needed at the time we’re going to sleep.

I find it difficult to sleep in the unbearable heat below deck, so I often try to carve out some space in the corner of the boat where I can retreat into my own head to write, read, listen to music and, generally, distance myself from the 20 crew who are packed into the boat like sardines.

To carve out my space, I put in my earphones — even when I’m not actually listening to anything — to help send signals that I’m taking some time for myself.

Normally, the ear phones work, unless a crew member is particularly bad at reading non-verbal cues. Such a person might see me sitting quietly in the corner tapping away on my computer, avoiding eye contact, and take this as an opportunity to sidle up next to me and read what I’m typing while asking, “Whatcha doin’? Writing? Can I read it?” And then continue to read over my shoulder, even when my response is a sharp “No.”

That person usually becomes the focus of my daydreams about booby-trapping his bunk.

Jon, if you’re reading this over my shoulder, then you only have yourself to blame if you wake up to find some unpleasant bilge growth mysteriously relocated to the bottom of your sleeping bag. I’ll leave it up to you to work out whether or not I’m kidding. 🙂

The Challenge

“There is no change without challenge,” is a phrase that comes to mind often on this journey – particularly here in the Doldrums.

When we’re racing along at 13 knots and the crew is hard at work hoisting, packing and schlepping sails up and down to maximize boat speed, my mind and body are fully engaged, leaving little space for dwelling on the discomforts of ocean racing and on board living.

Here, in the heat and inactivity of the Doldrums, however, negativity starts to take root in my thoughts and taint my perspective. So it’s during the lulls of racing that I have to work my hardest to stay positive and focused on the goal ahead. To do that, I remind myself that adventures aren’t a flat line experience. There are peaks of wonder and excitement followed by troughs of suffering and self-doubt. But, often, it’s the troughs that teach you the most about who you are and who you want to be.

The truth is, if I thought for a moment that sailing over 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean would be a walk in the park, I never would have signed up in the first place. I’m here, racing to Brazil in the Clipper Round the World Race, because I knew it would be hard.

The heat, the smells and the lack of personal space – these are just temporary discomforts. The achievement, the pride and the lessons learned – these are what I’m hoping will last a lifetime.

clipper race not moving doldrums life

When the boat’s not moving, I find myself steering with my face, bored out of my mind at the helm.


The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 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

0 Comments... Be the first to comment

Leave a Comment