Day 1: Off to a good start
The horn sounds, announcing to the fleet that it is ten minutes to race start. I am standing on deck with the Henri Lloyd crew, all of us in our pristine, matching white jackets, all too aware of the media crew zipping around in their red ribs looking for good PR shots of the Clipper Race Fleet.
As we nudge our way towards the start, I notice we’re one of few boats who haven’t raised our spinnaker at this early stage. The other boats are all flying their branded kites proudly out front , like body builders puffing out their chests before competition. And most are off to a smooth start, apart from Mission Performance, who manage to hour-glass their spinnaker just before the start line.
Eric, my skipper, is at the helm looking dead ahead, focused and serious, and I’m watching him closely for any indicator of how we performed as we cross the start line in the top half of the fleet. I don’t have much to go by, though, as he seems utterly unconcerned with our position, which is somewhere between third and sixth.
“Have we started yet?” Someone asks.
“I don’t know… I assume so?” A crew member says – an exchange you wouldn’t expect to hear on a competitive racing yacht. It makes me wonder how good a spectator sport yacht racing is when the crew can’t even tell where the start line is.
For spectators, it must be even more confusing. I imagine them turning up to the docks expecting a sporting spectacle similar to watching Mo Farrah run 10,000 meters to victory in the Olympic Stadium, and being sorely disappointed. With a dozen boats sailing towards an invisible line that has no discernible markers or audible gunshots marking the race start from a distance, it can be hard to tell whether they’re watching a parade or a race.
On board Henri Lloyd, we all know the drill when it comes to hoisting and trimming sails. But, like most of the crew, this is the first time I’ve ever raced a boat this size or done any major offshore sailing. So it’s not lost on me that this is no weekend beer-can race I’m starting out with. Soon, I’ll be racing across the Atlantic Ocean.
But not just yet. First, we test our skills in this 380-mile race to Brest.
Day 2: Half way there and we’re in the lead
For two days, we battle to stay out in front of the fleet, gaining distance on the boats behind us, though we’re unable to shake Derry-Londonderry-Doire from our side. The crew is pushing hard with sail changes and sail trim to gain any advantage over the fleet while we carefully monitor the AIS boat positions to see where we stand.
When the wind drops off and the fog rolls in, though, our badass-looking black and yellow boat isn’t such a speed demon anymore. And the back of the fleet seems to be riding good winds, as they quickly gain on us. We change spinnakers three times in a four-hour watch in an effort to keep up with the fickle wind, all the while hoping vigilance will be the key to victory.
At one point, in the dead of night, as we cut through a fog so thick we can’t even see our own bowsprit, our AIS alarm goes off, letting us know that Derry are less than a mile away, somewhere off our starboard side. Yet we still have no visual on them.
Suddenly, out of the fog, the white and pink hull of Derry appears from the haze like a ghost ship, headed straight for us. From the shrieks heard on board Derry, I guess they are just as surprised to see us as we are to see them. As they quickly head up and pass us to our stern with just half a boat length between us, the Derry crew wave and snap photos.
It’s a close call and one we’ll surely share a laugh over when we meet up in the pub in Brest.
Day 3: Bad news with 130 miles to go
I’m starting to realize that a large part of ocean racing has very little to do with sailing. When each watch isn’t sweating, hoisting, grinding and trimming sails, there is a full schedule of hourly checks that need to be diligently attended to.
There is the hourly log, which requires someone to write down the boat’s position, speed, wind speed, wind angle and host of other navigational information, as well as plot the boat’s position on a paper chart. At the same time, someone needs to check and manually empty four different bilges and gray tanks every hour, as well as check the fuel levels, the generator, whether the water maker is working and a host of other mechanical systems.
And then there are the less frequent checks – once a day, someone has to open up the crash bulkhead in the forepeak and pump out the water that collects there. And every day, twice a day, the heads need to be thoroughly cleaned, all handrails need to be wiped with antibacterial spray and the toilet paper bin needs to be emptied over the side.
None of these are jobs are ever snapped up by enthusiastic volunteers, but we all know they need doing, so we get on with them.
About 1 pm on our third day of racing, it is my turn to go down and fill in the log and do the hourly checks. But, when I get to the nav station, I find the Skipper looking intently at the chart plotter with a look on his face that says “Now is not a good time.”
An hour later, the Skipper requests the starboard watch gets woken up for an urgent team meeting. Once we are all up on deck, he explains that because of the lack of wind and because Clipper has a deadline to get the fleet to Brest by a certain time, the race will end at 4 pm today, 130 miles short of Brest, with podium places being awarded to those boats who are closest to Ushent at that time.
As the Skipper speaks, the crew glances at their watches, trying to analyze how far we can possibly get in two hours. Especially since we are now stuck in a wind hole on a long-term course that has just been made redundant by Clipper’s announcement.
With just two hours to work with, we head south as quickly as we can. But as we count down the minutes to the early race finish, the mood on board becomes decidedly quiet and heavy.
“Five…four…three…two…one… That’s it. It’s four o’clock.”
There is no clapping or cheering. And not much is heard on deck but a few exasperated sighs. The fact that we pushed really hard, or that we were the front-runners for most of the race, doesn’t seem to be any consolation to the crew of Henri Lloyd, who officially tied with Derry-Londonderry-Doire for 7th place.
One thing is clear: it is going to be a long, quiet 130-mile motor to Brest.
“Suck it up,” says Skipper Mark Burkes on my Facebook Page, where I whine loudly about the race results. “I once sailed in triangles for 1800 miles. Shit happens.”
There’s nothing like getting slapped with the truth: no race is over until it’s over. A yacht race is both a marathon and a sprint – you have to set yourself up for the long haul, but you also have to sprint hard when the wind is with you. Because you never know when it might die on you.
Henri Lloyd did well in this race, but not well enough. And no amount of self-pity will change that. So, we will suck it up and get our heads in the game for the next race to Brazil.
Because that’s how you win. You never give up.
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/