My plan was to write at every stage of my Clipper Race journey. Well, that didn’t happen, obviously, since it is a few weeks since I headed off so tentatively to start my training again.
It was mid-April as I made my way, complete with heavy bag, sailing boots and my oh-so snug Oceanwear sleeping bag, to the Clipper training office in Gosport. It was with some trepidation that I stepped onto CV2 with skipper Emily and first mate Amy and my new crew. Being re-acquanited with the boat, I was horrified to find out how much I had forgotten since October. It’s a steep learning curve, a completely different language, different rigging up a boat of this size, everything is big and everything can break you if you don’t set it up in the safe, Clipper way. I learnt so much that week about the boat, about me, about working in a team and what a great team they were! I returned to London waxing lyrical to my sister and brother-in-law about what a marvellous time I had had and how I had made ten new best friends! I wrote pages and pages of notes but I won’t go into the details – the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets on Level 2 training when we were on watch, the terror of putting up sails for the first time in the dark with only the light of our red head torches to work by, and on Level 3, the feeling of speed with our Clipper 70 pushing through the water, heeled over, life at an angle! And on both levels 2 and 3 I was lucky enough to have more great, interesting people as crew and skippers and first mates who pushed us out of our comfort zones and drummed skills into us. And then there was the Crew Allocation weekend, such fun – that can wait for another day.
I will leave you with the piece I wrote about life as a senior! Can’t quite believe I am a senior, though I think that sounds better than OAP – old aged pensioner, indeed!
“Here I am, in the pulpit. It’s not where I expected to be at my age. In the pulpit of an ocean racing yacht, perched on the top of a thin metal rail. I look down, far below me, green sea rushes past the bow of the boat dizzingly fast, nothing between me and it. I am terrified but mostly exhilarated. I had never imagined I would be capable of this. I am surprised to find myself quietly confident in “The world of adrenaline” as our skipper calls the foredeck area of the boat, mostly a world inhabited by thrill seeking youngsters.
My legs are entwined around the forestay, they, and my clipped on tether, minimise the risk of me becoming a man overboard as I hank on the yankee number 2. I sound like a sailor, don’t I? I am a mother of three now adult children. I have been a scientist, a businesswoman, a wife. But a sailor, no, never a sailor. I am becoming a sailor. A sailor who can cross oceans.
With four weeks of intensive training we go from zero to hero, capable of being crew racing in an around the world yacht race, the only such race open to non-professional sailors. It’s a steep learning curve. Our training includes a sea survival course in which we climb into life rafts and are told horrifying facts about the likelihood of survival in the case of falling overboard (minimal). We have safety briefs, we learn how to maintain our lifejackets, how to care for our boat as she provides for us. We learn how to sail, to understand the effect of wind, water and tide on the movement of our boat through the water. We sleep at strange hours, sleeping through the roar of the sea and through deep, grinding noises as sails are changed, as our bodies adapt to the watch system. We live with strangers in close quarters, our bunks our only private space, knowing that on a race leg we won’t even have that comfort as we will be hot bunking. We learn to cook big, warm, filling meals, wedging ourselves into the galley as the boat heels over. We drill and drill man overboard recoveries, we learn to tie knots, we memorise the names for all the parts of the boat – halyards, sheets, yankees, staysail, and as for the backstays and the foreguys – how do they work and what do they do? it is a whole new language and takes me time to assimilate. It is far more mentally challenging than I had expected. I am relieved that some of the younger crew feel the same.
We bond as we struggle together to work out the sequence of events, which sheets (ropes) to pull and which winches to use, to hoist the different sails. Together we man-handle the sails out of the sail locker, at first with our boat lying alongside the pontoon but as our training progresses we have to change sails at sea as we balance ourselves at jaunty angles. We practice the watch system, night followed by day, 4 hours on deck, 4 hours off, 4 hours on, 6 hours off, 6 hours on. In our off watches, we have not only to sleep, but also to eat, to wash, to maintain the boat and we have to cook. Eat, sleep, sail, repeat. It is all consuming.
I share this experience with adventurous souls who, for all sorts of reason, are taking on this mental and physical challenge, pitting themselves against the sea. I meet people of all ages, from many walks of life, from an 18 year old blacksmith to a fifty year old billionaire in the construction industry, to doctors, some in their seventies, of all specialities, social workers, scientists, people in IT, HR, restauranteurs, retirees, bankers and yoga teachers. My horizons are expanded.
I watch the sun go down. As a blood moon rises, the stars come out, no land in sight, I find a peace out at sea that I have only previously found hiking in the bush and in remote areas of the world. Other times, I am terrified: the first time we have to change a sail at night, our red head torches give us only a small circle of illumination against the dark as we work together, as rain stings our faces, and the wind whips sheets around beside us, threatening to flog us, as stormy seas pitch and roll the boat. We learn that what we can achieve together is so much more than we could achieve individually – we become a team.
And that is why I signed up to the Clipper Round the World Yacht race, an ad on the ferry having caught my eye one morning. I wanted to be part of a team, where what I do, or don’t do, makes a difference to the outcome. To be a part of something much bigger than myself.
Becoming a senior, I’ve become more adventurous. The more adventurous I am, the braver I become. I have hiked long distances, camped in the wilderness, climbed mountains in Peru, crossed England on Wainwright’s coast to coast walk. I’ve abseiled. I’ve been covered in mud as I and my hiking friends completed our first Tough Mudder. I’ve rarely laughed so hard. And now I am sailing.
“Don’t live your life in pastel shades!” 80 year old Sir Robin Know Johnston, thundered at us at crew allocation, as we waited to learn who our skippers will be, the names of our fellow crew and the route we will race. I will set sail from the Whitsundays to China in January next year on leg 5 of the Clipper Race. I will step on board again to race across the Atlantic, sailing from the East Coast of the US to London and I can’t wait. My life is being lived in increasingly vibrant colours and I’m loving it.”