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Pacific, part one

Crossing the Pacific was always going to be the biggest, toughest race of this trip. Every circumnavigation had its most serious issue here - dis-mastings, medevacs, major injuries to skippers, etc. This race was no different.

Nobody sails across the North Pacific. There are barely even any cargo ships. Hardly any wildlife. In the middle you’re 2000 miles from the nearest land - as the postcard says, it’s “where astronauts are your nearest neighbor.” And yet off we went, one cold and foggy day from China after a morning full of the same sort of pomp and ceremony we had arrived with. Racing was called within a couple of hours due to the fog. Funnily enough, having 12 large racing yachts competing for space in a very small area with the various fishing boats and cargo ships is a pretty bad idea when you can’t see anything more than a boat length or two around yourself. We started again the next morning when it the wind picked up and it lifted a bit.

Within that first day we experienced our first big weather of the trip. We joke that this was trial-by-fire for the new crew members. It was their first taste of the windy, wavy, and wet (my drysuit came out pretty quickly) as we went around the bottom of Japan. I’ll never forgot coming up on deck one morning after breakfast to see Japan to port, with a snowcapped Mt. Fiji peering out over the cloud cover. Those kind of images are some of my favorite from the race.

Luckily we had a bit of a respite from the weather for a few days after that. Everyone expects to take a beating on ocean crossings, but what isn’t talked about is the way it’s cyclical with a relief period. Most of the time the heavy stuff comes with a low pressure system - it builds prior to the front, ends up with about six hours of really nasty right around the front, and then decreases fairly quickly afterward. There’s always at least a day of calmer weather - our recovery time - to catch up on the basic things that go out the window otherwise (sleep, considering changing clothes, charging various devices, attempting to dry things out, wet wipe showers and other basic hygiene). None of that matters in the heavy weather because everyone is too exhausted to care. We had some really strange weather across the Pacific in that this cycle was taken to the extreme. There was heavy weather - some of the heaviest of the race as a whole - and then there were wind holes. What happened to a happy medium?

Anyway. So we had our respite period as we watched a new low pressure system heading our way. Matt started naming the lows as we had done in the Southern Ocean. It’s easier to distinguish them and discuss features at team meetings - we regularly had weather chats over our lunchtime “happy hour.” I believe this next low was “Colin.”

As Colin rolled towards us, picking up strength, we made our break from the fleet and headed north. Everyone asks why. Basically, given our position and the way Colin was moving, staying south meant we’d have headwinds - very nasty, powerful headwinds. At least 50 knots. That is a horrifically nasty thing to put both a boat and a crew through. Matt made the decision (with support from all of us) to shoot north to avoid the worst of this. The Pacific crossing promised to be a long one - serious damage to either the people or the boat would do us no good. Sailing in that kind of weather will do both.

This is a decision that everyone laughs at. We signed up for a race after all, and that means pushing through that kind of thing. The rest of the fleet did - and they took an absolute pasting. But they took it. I guess our deciding factor had been that we were also attempting to set ourselves up for better weather in a few days as well, as the North Pacific high moved up (meaning windholes).

Weather forecasting though. It’s serious business. Everyday the boat received various formats of information - GRIB files, isometric charts, sometimes various satellite imagery - from various sources. Matt spent a considerable amount of time every day interpreting these. It’s about what’s growing/shrinking, where it’s moving, and what this means for the boat (where to go, essentially). It’s no small task and Matt was the only one on board with any experience. So yeah, maybe navigation wasn’t our strongest point as a team.

We made the decision though, and were going to stick to it. Very seriously stick to it. We powered our way right up to the northernmost limit of the race course pretty quickly - 46 degrees north. Now if you’re UK-based this doesn’t really seem that far north - the UK is parallel with Northern Canada after all. But in the middle of the empty Pacific, the only thing above you is icebergs. The running joke is that we shot north to get a glimpse of a polar bear. The weather became cold. And then it was colder. When you thought it couldn’t get much worse, it was even colder still.

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Leaving Qingdao

So I forgot to mention the prize-giving in my last post. As a rule, they’re mostly just an excuse for a bit of free booze while we watch other boats go up on stage to claim their pennants. This one was especially hard given that we had about 6 hours while we thought we’d nabbed a podium. Clipper sent out a press release saying the first three positions were set, with us in third. Then DLL managed to beat us by about an hour and a half. Can’t fault them for some fantastic sailing, but we were so close! And Clipper should never have sent out a press release until things were actually formalized. Oh well, still our best result.

The prize giving was boozy (as usual) with mountains of buffet food. That’s pretty unusual for us. But it’s poor form to run out of food in China - same reason you should always leave some food on your plate while eating there. Hilariously, the winning teams were all given underwear by the government. Yeah, you read that right. Don’t even know where it came from. There was a big cake for Sir Robin’s birthday, and one for one of the guys on Qingdao as well (hi George!). After the ceremony they started this Chinese kareoke with a very serious Chinese man in a fancy suit singing the most horrific sounding song. You’ve never seen a room empty so quickly. We fled to a favorite bar.

Our departure ceremony (what I intened this post to be about) had just as much pomp as our arrival. The drummers were back, along with the variety of officials. Proper speeches and waving and cameras, etc. Pete, the skipper of Jamaica, passed out. That was pretty scary given that he’s in charge of a crew crossing the Pacific. But it was just heat and all went on. We boarded boats and went off!

Race start was bizarre because we only ended up racing for about an hour. There was some really nasty fog around. It’s unsafe to sail when you can’t actually see more than a boat length around you, so we called the race and motored on, waiting for things to clear. At one point during the night the fog got so bad that it was difficult to see the bow from back at the helm. Sending big boats racing into that is a nightmare. But we got sailing again the next morning. 

And that’s a story for another day.

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06.27.14 ♥ 1

Qingdao Stopover

What was supposed to be quite a long stopover in China ended up short, as usual, after all the difficulties with the forestays and the unplanned stopover in Hong Kong. That meant we had to squeeze what had been at least a week’s worth of corporate work into a few days. Qingdao was the busiest stopover of the race - hands down.

It was also the best party of the race. Everyone stayed in hotels (too cold not to) - the same two hotels, right across the road from one another. And everyone went out the same three bars every night - Lennon Bar, Cafe New York, the Dubliner. Never mind that one of the hotels (the Intercontinental) had several bars down in the lobby that always had people in them. If you wanted to see people, all you had to do was head down to one of them. And then head out to one of the others. Safe to say there was nothing else to do in an enormous city given that we spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English. It was one of the best stopovers in terms of people from different crews mingling as well.

Between the corporate work during the day, and the serious partying at night, Qingdao was the stopover where I slept the least. Generally only a handful of hours a night. Just what you want before the toughest ocean crossing of the race!

We had two days of corporate sailing with Chinese bureaucrats sent sailing by the government. It’s all about the show. Unfortunately, they had no desire to go sailing (most Chinese people can’t even swim as it’s considered a poor man’s activity). We had no desire to sail in the cold, while seriously hungover. But sailing we went anyway. Apart from that we also had one day of boat maintenence (not even remotely enough to get the work done) and one day of school tours for children. I managed to get out of the tour day by going on a homestay instead - each boat had to send three people.

The homestay turned out to be the highlight of my time in Qingdao. I went with a crew member from Derry and one from Switzerland to the home of a really love couple. She’s an English teacher (so thankfully spoke excellent English) and he works for one of the big shipping companies. We had a fantastic day. First it was off to a tea plantation - which was weirdly in the city. Clearly the land had once been outside the city, but was just being built up around. It was part of this strange little mud village — right across the road from some brand-new glass skyscrapers. We met the owner and had a tour around the plants. I learned loads about how tea leaves grow, how they’re graded and picked an such.

Then it was off to the local market - the neighborhood’s equivalent of a supermarket. It was a huge building full of meat stalls and fruit/veg ones. Everything you expect about weird Chinese eating was here - all the various animal heads and offal and strange fruits I’d never seen before, let alone tasted. We picked up a couple of things before heading to their apartment. Only the very wealthy live in houses, given the sheer amount of people. Qingdao isn’t a city you consider one of the big Chinese ones, but it actually has a population of more than 8.5 million. That’s a lot of people. Seriously.

Anyway they lived in the little apartment with her parents - a mostly bedridden father and a mother that basically did the cooking and cleaning while they worked. Chinese cooking is a pretty serious business - most meals take hours to make, all from scratch. We met them both, as well as two of Christina’s English students, there to practice the language a little bit. We did a big exchange of gifts (a traditional hospitality thing). I brought a little baseball bat signed by all our crew members. They gave us all these beautiful paper cuts in the shape of each of the Chinese zodiac - I’m year of the dragon in case you were wondering (and don’t know me well enough to tell). 

We had a traditional tea ceremony. It’s serious buisness and more about the relaxing ceremony than the tea itself. There’s a variety of teapots, glasses, bits and pieces. Then we learned how to make dumplings. I can honestly say I’m pretty terrible at it. There’s a very specific way to knead the dough, roll it out, and then fold the dumplings up. The grandmother was teaching us the folding. She kept swatting our hands away as we made a huge mess of things. All of us laughing away and cheering for the occasional nice-looking dumpling. 

The meal we had was fantastic as well - a huge spread of traditional dishes both from Shangdong (the province with Qingdao) and around China. We learned a bit about cooking but much much more about eating. Hilarious times with chopsticks and strange bits of tasty treats. There was also glass after glass of homemade wine - not particularly pleasant but seriously lethal. There’s a tradition to down the whole glass in one after certain toasts as well, so you can imagine that things got a bit sloppy, especially with grandmother dumpling only knowing two words of English - one being “cheers.” 

We went back upstairs for more tea-learning and lovely music from Christina on a traditional Chinese instrument very similar to a harp. I don’t actually know what its English name is. Our last activity was a bit of calligraphy which we were also all miserable at. Then it was back to the boats! Such a seriously fantastic day.

That day sums up my favorite thing about our Chinese stopover - the hospitality. People really did go out of their way to please and impress. Locals were very friendly despite hardly anyone speaking English. We had a whole succession of hilarous cab rides where nobody (including the driver) had much of an idea of where we were going but we all laughed and laughed. 

As for the city itself, I can’t say I’ll be sad if I never return. It’s just very bizarre. Everything is huge - squares, building, restaurants, etc. For most of our stay everything appeared to be empty. Come the weekend though, there were people everywhere. More people than you can imagine. Everywhere. 

This was the first stopover where I’ve actually stayed in a hotel, which was an amazing experience. I’ve always stayed on the boat in an attempt to save some money (this sailing business isn’t cheap!). So that was a lovely change. A real bed and proper shower. Even a bathtub! Sophie and I had a night in with trashy movies and room service - perfect.

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Our Chinese arrival! One serious ceremony.

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Welcome to China

Our arrival in Qingdao was still the best ceremony we’ve seen during the race. We showed up early in the morning, along with GB and Derry. The marina in the city was built (or rather built up) for the Olympics in 2008, so it’s pretty impressive in terms of scale. It’s huge. But so is everything in China I suppose.

Anyway, we moored up and were immediately handed beers and flags while a gaggle of men in army uniforms boarded the boat and attempted to do something with our passports. Mostly they just pulled them all out of order and ran around trying to find us. Didn’t work at all. Total chaos. So they gave up. We were herded off the boat, up the biggest ramp you’ve ever seen, past traditional drummers and cymbal-people pounding out an intense beat, and ranks of military people, and more media than I’ve ever seen before. All at 8am. Onto a prepared stage with a dozen various Qingdao officials. We were given stuffed horses (year of the horse) and soft woolen scaves. Matt was given a ridiculous cape and banner and champagne to spray all over us. We were then herded to the yacht club, down the waterfront. Meanwhile the spectators are following us, taking photos, interviewing us. Sophie and I ended up at the back of the bunch because Chinese mothers kept handing over their toddlers. All of a sudden we’d be holding these adorable children while entire families took photos of us and with us. Meanwhile the officials are trying to drag us down to the yacht club, handing back babies. It was probably the most surreal experience of my life.

At the yacht club they’d set up an amazing spread of sweet treats and beers. More officials, more photos, more interviews. It was so strange, especially given that none of us had showered in however many weeks and we wearing everything - full foulies, boots, midlayers, filthy thermals.

The Chinese did this arrival for every single boat, albeit with different spectators. How much they paid to have all those people there is beyond me, but it made for one hell of a show. As planned.

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I’m writing more blogs. I promise. I’ve just had access to all our photos from the entire race as well, so expect loads. At some point. Going through them at the moment is just emotional. Really emotional. We’re so close to the end. And it hurts.

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Arrival into China

Those of you paying attention will have noticed I didn’t mention arriving into China or post photos. That’s for a very good reason - the arrival ceremony was spectacular and absolutely deserves its own blog.

Another time! (hopefully in the near future - can’t do it now as I’ve got to be on the boat in 15 minutes. it’s race start day!)

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Some photos of the trip up to China (all from Mike, one of our Brisbane to Qindgao crew members — thanks!). As you can tell, we went from the heat of Singapore to the freezing cold of a northern China winter. The smoggy sunset is just outside Qingdao!

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Hong Kong - and replacing the bottle screws on the forestay (dearest Skip hard at work!)

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