As we approach the halfway point of the Clipper Race from South Africa to Australia, the wear and tear starts to show on Henri Lloyd’s crew of marathon ocean racers. We fight the effects of physical and mental exhaustion as we battle it out with Great Britain and OneDLL to stay on top of the leaderboard. But the effects are, well, tearful.
Day 9: Tears of pain…and laughter
Statistically speaking, more crew are injured below deck in the Clipper Race than on deck, sailing.
It’s things like getting pitched out of your bunk while sleeping, falling through an open hatch or slipping when the boat is heavily heeled that will break ribs, crack heads and cause general bodily harm.
But I’m not thinking of this as I stand in a precarious position, trying to hang up my foul-weather gear in my wet locker on the high side of the boat, which is now at a 45-degree angle. I am on my tip-toes, grunting from muscle exhaustion as I strain to reach my coat hook while leaning against the severe heel of the boat.
When we’re pushing the boat hard — like now, as we race for the scoring gate* to pick up points – the simplest tasks (like hanging up a coat or getting into bed) become monumentally difficult. And it only takes one small distraction, a wrong step or a hard lurch from the boat to throw my world upside down.
And being tired and distracted, I’m completely unprepared when the boat is hit by a colossal wave. The floor goes vertical, dropping out from under my feet and in an instant I’m flying from one side of the boat to the other. I try to grab the galley counter as I fall, but it’s like trying to clutch a tree branch as I drop from a second-floor window.
I land with a thud on my knees in the wet locker on the opposite side of the boat, and the pain shoots up from my kneecaps in streaks, rendering me stunned and whimpering on the floor.
As Kevin, the boat medic, rushes to my aid and hoists me onto the settee to check me over, I think of the injuries on board Mission Performance and Derry-Londonderry-Doire, which had forced them to turn back to port for medical evacuations at the start of this race. One crew was thrown into a cleat so hard that it punctured his calf muscle, just missing the bone. And another crew suffered a possible broken shoulder or clavicle – they’re not sure which – when she was thrown across the cockpit in a full-on knock-down.
I rub my knees and search for signs of injury as I think of the unlucky crew whose races have come to an abrupt end. And I sigh with relief when it seems my knees are in one piece, just badly bruised.
Just then, I hear Brian, the Irish videographer/media crew on board shout, “Fecking hell!” as he climbs down the companionway. His face is obscured by his fully inflated yellow life jacket as he exclaims, “I was lightin’ me cigarette and this monster of a wave came over. I’m absolutely SOAKED! Hey… what happened to you?”
I am in stitches as soon as I see Brian’s face enveloped in a ballooned life jacket. I’m clutching my knees in pain, but I’m now also giggling uncontrollably at the image of Brian trying to light his cigarette as a wave smacks him in the face and inflates his life jacket with a pop.
“I think Tasha’s feeling better,” says the medic as I giggle some more and wipe the tears from my eyes.
*Scoring Gate Results: 1st–Qingdao, 2nd–Henri Lloyd (whoop!), 3rd–OneDLL
Day 11: Tears of boredom
As we fight to keep the boat under control in 45- to 60-knot winds for days on end, I find myself saying a little prayer to the wind gods. And it sounds like this:
Hey there, Wind Gods. How’s it going up there? Having fun? Yeah, so I was thinking maybe you could bring it down a notch? Maybe a few hours or half a day of, say, 30-knot winds? I mean, we’re pretty tired, so we’d love it if we could – I don’t know — make a cup of tea without getting third-degree burns, or even get some actual sleep? Not the kind of sleep where I’m awake and hanging onto a cubby-hole so I don’t fall out of bed. I mean real, uninterrupted sleep. Just an hour, maybe?
Except then, not long after begging for the wind to die down, I’m made to regret it. Because as swiftly and furiously as the wind arrived, it dies.
As the wind speeds fall, we watch our boat speed drop from 25 knots to 15 and then to 10. And when it gets so bad that we’re struggling to hold 5 knots of speed, I feel like I might cry. Of boredom.
Because it turns out the only thing worse than hurricane-force winds, is no wind.
Day 14: Tears of exhaustion
Did I say no wind is the worst thing ever?
Scratch that. Fickle wind. THAT’S the worst thing ever. In the last 24 hours, we’ve changed sails from the Code 1 (lightweight kite) to the Code 2 (midweight kite) to the Code 3 (heavyweight kite) to the Yankee 1 (largest headsail) to the Yankee 3 (smallest headsail). And now we’ve got the storm jib up.
And, let me tell you, these sails don’t move themselves. The Yankee 1 weighs 250 kilos (550 lbs), so it takes an army of crew to drag its dead weight up on deck, schlep the thing to the bow and wrestle it, with all its cumbersome folds and hanks, onto the forestay and then hoist it. Not to mention the work involved in getting the thing down again in high winds, with its sheets smacking you in the face and the foot yanking itself out of your grasp.
Repeat that process enough times in 24 hours when the crew is physically exhausted and has had very little sleep, and you start to see the many ways in which people crack up and fall apart.
Some crew stop smiling, while others get short-tempered and hostile. Some stop getting out of bed for their watches, while others take longer and longer to get their gear on and report up on deck.
During one particularly cold night watch, when none of us have slept because of the rough weather, I see a few of the crew rocking back and forth in place the way the mentally ill sometimes do to soothe themselves.
I feel especially sorry for one crew member who seems to well up with tears at the slightest provocation or the mere question, “Are you okay?” And, eventually, after a few more days of no sleep, I can see she is crying as she is sweating up sails, grinding or trimming. But any time I offer to take a job off her, it seems to bring on more tears.
Isak Dinesen may have said, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” But I’d like to raise that one and say that the cure for sweating and crying on the sea… is sleep.
I know this because when the wind finally dies down to a steady and pleasant 20 knots, the crew starts to catch up on some much-needed rest and they start to look a little perkier and a little less like prisoners. The skipper does a good thing and insists a few of the most exhausted crew take a watch off to sleep and, hopefully, rediscover their sanity.
Within a day, the results are noticed. The crew of Henri Lloyd is restored to their smiling, cheerful selves, ready to take on sail changes once again without tears, tantrums or talking to themselves. In essence, Henri Lloyd is transformed from something resembling an insane asylum to something more like a solid, sane racing yacht.
And all it took was a lot of compassion and a little bit of sleep.
Tasha and Ryan both raced in Leg 1 of the Clipper Race from London to Rio de Janeiro and Leg 3 from Cape Town, South Africa to Albany, Australia. Tasha competed on CV21 Henri Lloyd – ahem, the winning boat — with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan competed on CV28 PSP Logistics – ahem, NOT the winning boat — with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew