It’s not all doom-and-gloom in the North Pacific. We spent plenty of time messing around: groping each other while making bread, taking selfies, inflating drysuits, swinging from the rigging, eating cake.
Footage of the Derry knockdown in the Southern Ocean.
Pacific, Part Three
The Worst 36 Hours of My Circumnavigation
(apologies in advance for some strong language)
My last two Pacific posts touched on some general topics about the crossing. I’d like to think of them as painting a background picture for some more specific stories. Otherwise the stories are a bit out of context. Here follows the story of one of the toughest experiences of my life.
I mentioned low pressure system Colin earlier. He eventually merged with another low pressure system (the name escapes me at the minute) to become —- COLI-TRON. Like a transformer. Really cool, I know. Anyway, Colitron was of course nastier than just Colin or just the other low. And we got hit hard, while right up at the edge of the race course.
It was my watch, on from 0200-0600, when wind really started building. We’d been screaming along downwind with our yankee two (our middle-sized headsail) and one reef - must’ve been maybe 20-25 knots? Mostly I remember the waves. They were the biggest we’d experienced so far. You know when end-of-the-world movies show waves swallowing everything in sight - boats, cars, houses. They were like that - absolutely apocalyptic. We were on best helms only (two of us on my watch), half hour stints. And those waves just kept pummeling us. You’d be driving, flick your eyes backwards to see where the wave is, and - OH HEY - there’s a wall of water off the quarter. Or worse, nearly off the beam. You’ve got half a second to shout “WAVE!” while attempting to shift the boat to avoid the worst before it breaks over the side, on top of the crew, dragging every single one off the side of the deck and into your new swimming pool in the cockpit. Often lifejackets would go off. One memorable morning I took two waves so poorly in a half hour period that I set one person’s lifejacket off twice (it had been re-armed in between and everything).
The problem with the waves is that if you catch them at the wrong angle you don’t surf down them - they just break on top of you. If you happen to catch a big on on the beam of the boat (the side) and it breaks, it’s going to knock you down. The entire boat will end up on its side, sails underwater. The boat will come back up, but it’s not going to happen immediately. And in the mean time things will be incredibly unpleasant. The Derry boat was knocked down in the Southern Ocean and the video is pretty horrific (I’ll post it) - the crew dangle from their tethers, in mid-air while half the boat is underwater. They’re like gruesome puppets.
Anyway, the point is that big seas require serious concentration while driving. It’s hard work and stressful. I am always worried that I’m going to hurt someone or break something, especially when the waves do break on the boat. There’s just not much of a margin for error and it’s guaranteed that I will mess up at some point. Everyone will mess up at some point. All you can do is hope it’s a small mistake.
One other crew member and I are driving. It’s dawn, finally light enough to see the waves properly (the debate being whether it’s better to see them or not, given the size and terror they induce). He’s been on for about 10 minutes when the boat rounds up on a wave, dipping the boom in the water. It happens pretty regularly and there’s nothing you can really do about it. This time though it snaps our preventer. This is a line that holds the boom in place when you’re downwind so it doesn’t swing as you roll back and forth on the waves. Guy absolutely loses it. Screaming, shouting, terrified. About how this is too unsafe, we can’t do this, Matt should be up on deck, what do we do, etc.
Matt pops his head up on deck to see what the noise is about. I explain that we’ve snapped the preventer. He looks at me and asks, “well what are you going to do now?” My answer is to bring the main sheet in and rig up our secondary preventer. Re-rig the first as well if we can get it back. Okay, cool. Matt’s happy with the answer and pops back below deck. Crew member on the helm is not happy. He walks off the helm, refusing to do any more driving. He walks off deck. And I’m left to pick up the pieces and quell the fear he’s just created.
I’m the only person that can drive at this point, so back on the wheel I go despite hardly having a break since my last turn. We bring the mainsail in enough to stop a horrific crash gybe and get to re-rigging the preventer from the bit that had snapped (they nearly always snap at the knot holding two lines together). Meanwhile the wind is seriously building and the boat is overpowered - the helm is heavy and I’m having to put up a real fight.
It’s time for another reef. Right. The guys get the cockpit set up. Matt has found the crewmember sitting downstairs and used strong words to get him back up on deck (“Stop being such a fucking pussy and get back on deck to help”). Crew member is cowering in the corner of the cockpit. We start putting in the reef and can’t get the sail down given the wind strength and nature of downwind reefs. Nobody can get it down. We wake up a crew member from the other watch who has a real gift for this. He can’t get it down. Matt’s on deck, climbs as far up the mast as he can without a harness, and eventually gets it moving. We get the reef put in after about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, the wind is still building. The boat is still overpowered. We’re having a quick breather because I know what’s coming next - we’re going to have to put the last reef in before trying to get the headsail down. Matt’s back at the helm with me briefly. He’s got really cold hands and goes to get his mittens from his bunk.
We start to put in the third reef. Again, the sail is a nightmare to get down but the crewmember we woke (bless him, he’s staying up with us) manages to get it moving. The sail’s halfway down when the boat rolls very seriously on a monster wave. He’s up the mast, hanging onto a sail-tie, and he swings entirely from one side of the boat to the other, smashing into the rigging.
This is where I lose it. I’ve been driving for nearly an hour and a half, I’ve just caught that wave a bit awkwardly and watched him swing. Watched a 61-year-old man, one of my favorite crew members, smash into the rigging. And I’m convinced I’ve just seriously injured him. This is where I start crying. I’m hurting crew now. Why didn’t I make these calls earlier when the wind started to build? I can barely concentrate on driving and calling the reef. And why is Matt not back yet?
I managed to pull it back together when I saw that the crew member was okay - he swung back to where he had been and kept bringing down the sail. The reef is nearly in. I’m still calling the reef and I ask the crew member who had run off earlier to do a certain job, an easy one. He’s next to the hatch and he’s ignoring me. I shout louder. And again. He turns around and shouts back at me “Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Stop fucking yelling at me.” I shout back, “if you’d do what I’m asking, then I would happily shut the fuck up.”
He continues to ignore me, and the job. Meanwhile the wind is still building. And Matt, where is Matt? Crew member runs off deck again. I’m still driving. Off-watch crew members are waking up because of the noise and violent movement of the boat, popping heads out of the companionway, wondering what’s going on. On of my crew members, bless him, tells them to wake up the other watch leader because someone needs to swap out with me on the helm. I can’t keep driving in this. I learn of this when he shows up on deck and walks straight to the helm and takes over, no questions asked. I could kiss him. It’s been nearly two hours. We need to get the headsail down. Where is Matt?
Most of the other watch is awake and on deck now. The rest are trickling up, getting kit on. It keeps hailing - it’s too cold for rain. Several of us head up to the bow for the headsail drop. It’s the four girls, it’s always us four girls, and one other crew member. We start bringing the sail down, except it won’t come down. Please can it just come down? There are five of us hanging off this sail as it snaps back and forth and eventually it starts moving. Inch-by-inch the sail comes down as we grunt and pant and swear at it. And then it’s down, finally down. It’s unhanked and we drag it back to the cockpit.
By now we’re up to 50-60 knots of wind. We need a headsail back on to get some more stability in the apocalyptic rolling waves. It’s time for the storm jib. The tiny sail is carted up on deck and three of us take it forward. We’re hanking it on when it starts snowing. Everyone stops for a minute - “is that snow?” It’s the first time my Indian crew mate has seen snow. It’s back to getting the sail up. It’s attached and halfway up the forestay when we realize one of the hanks is twisted. Its has to come down. We’re back on the bow dragging it down. Meanwhile one of the girls, a heavy weather driver, gets called back to the helm. She needs to drive. Now.
Eventually the sail is down, untwisted, and taken back up. We were supposed to be off-watch an hour and a half ago. Everyone is exhausted. We’re going to bed and I find out where Matt is. As it turns out, once he’d made it downstairs he succumed to cold shock. I’m not exactly sure what the medical definition is, but basically your core temperature drops rapidly, you get dizzy, and then you pass out. Matt had passed out on the galley floor. The crew member that shouted at me during the reef had just seen him. If only he had thought to tell the rest of us. Matt was put to bed by our medic for the leg, a trauma surgeon (you couldn’t have asked for someone better). Why did nobody tell me? When the girl was pulled off the bow to drive it was because the other watch leader, who had taken over the helm from me, got cold shock as well. He also passed out. Again, nobody shared that information. How am I supposed to do my job if I don’t know these things?
When Matt heard the other guy was down, he was out of bed and back on deck, despite doctor’s orders. Off-watch I’ve never been more exhausted. It took 45 minutes for me to get enough kit off to go to sleep - I couldn’t get it off by myself and had to have help to peel the layers off. I managed two bites of porridge for breakfast before deciding it was too much work and going to bed.
The weather calmed down a bit during the next 12 hours or so. Still big waves, but less wind which meant we could change to our smallest yankee, yankee three. It also meant we could get another few people driving - great since crew member that walked off the wheel was still refusing to drive.
It wasn’t until that night that everything went wrong. I can’t remember what time it was beyond that it was dark out. I was off-watch, tucked up in my bunk. I remember dozing a bit as one of the on-watch wandered down the tunnel (you’ll never have a great sleep in big weather - the boat rolls too much, as do you in your bunk). Next thing I was woken by the most blood-curdling screams from on deck. All I could think was, “that’s Sophie. what is happening to Sophie.” I’ve never heard a sound like that before in my life. I’ve never been out of bed more quicky in my life. Most of the off-watch started climbing out of bed as well. We all heard the screams. We all felt the terror.
Everyone started throwing as much kit on as possible - the cold shock incidents meant that you did seriously need to have warm kit on before getting on deck, no matter what. I remember climbing out of the hatch as the headsail flogged wildly - we must have snapped a sheet. Crew were grinding and grinding on the opposite sheet to bring it in. Meanwhile Sophie is curled up with Claire by one of the helms, crying and hyperventilating. What happened? This is not the time to ask questions. There’s work to be done.
Somebody shone a light on the headsail once we realized the grinding wasn’t making any progress. Yes, we had snapped a sheet. But we had also ripped the clew off (it’s a metal ring on one of the corners of the sail that the sheets tie on to). There were no sheets attached to the sail anymore. It was absolutely trashed. Up we ran to the bow to drag it down. This would turn out to be the nastiest headsail drop of the race as a whole.
Downwind headsail drops are difficult to begin with because the wind wants to push the sail forward, toward the bowsprit, rather than sideways, into the boat. You can control that to some extent with the sheets. When you’ve got no sheets you’ve got no options beyond manpower - but fewer people can get their hands on the sail when it’s flying forward. I was number 1 - the person right at the front of the boat, sitting (well, standing in this case) on the pulpit. Given the size and shape of the yankee three only two of us can even get our hands on the sail. And so we begin.
As you can imagine, the sail desperately does not want to come down. It would move an inch or so. Maybe it would move half a foot. Then it would be violently snapped out of our arms. I remember hanging off the sail at one point, dangling in the air (tethered on of course) with my arms wrapped around the forestay, on top of one of the hanks. I am not a small person, but I physically didn’t have enough weight to move that sail. I remember thinking once as the sail snapped back up, while my arm was on a hank, that this is how people snaps limbs, dislocate shoulders. I should not be doing this. But what other option is there? You keep going because it has to be done. And eventually it will be. Your sail will be down. There’s another to go up. And you’ll keep pushing.
Once the storm jib was flying again I managed to take a couple of minutes to find Sophie. To find out what happened. As it turns out, she’d just switched off the helm and was standing next to it, thankfully still clipped on to the helming strop, when the boat rolled violently on a wave and the sheet snapped. The high side became the low side and she was thrown into the water. Dunked in and out, head under, as the boat rolled. It took about 30 seconds for Claire to get to her, slightly longer for Matt. And it took the two of them to lift her out. She’d been cared for by Claire and the medic, and put to bed while we did the sail change. I found her wrapped in mountains of clothing and her enormous sleeping bag, too shaken to sleep yet.
Man overboards are no joke, even when the man is still tethered to the boat. Drowning is a very real possibility. It was amazing to find Sophie still being Sophie, although clearly still scared. I sat with her, we chatted, made some jokes (this was Sophie’s second tethered MOB), and I passed on a Snickers bar from the victuallers. It’s moments like these where you realize how much you really care for someone. Sophie is an incredible person and a fantastic sailor, but she’s still just a teenager. I’d do anything to protect her. It’s horrible to see her so vulnerable for a change. But hey, it was very clear that she was going to be okay. Some people never recover from the fear after an incident like that. But Sophie? Not a problem.
What made the situation that much more serious is that I’d found out when I came up on deck earlier that night that the Derry boat had an untethered MOB several hours earlier. A crew member had been washed off the boat during a headsail change in big weather. He spent an hour and a half in the water before being recovered. And it looked like he’d be alright.
Untethered MOBs are the stuff of nightmares. Seriously. If you go over in a big sea and nasty conditions (likely if you’re going to go), you can consider yourself dead. Yes, we drill MOB incidents over and over again. The reality is though that you’ll never be seen again in that kind of weather. You have no idea how easy it is to lose sight of someone, even in relatively calm seas. If your boat manages to find you, chances are you’re already dead, whether thanks to drowning or hypothermia. It’s very nasty business. And it’s the reason we’re so vigilant about clipping on. Big weather? I never want to see you on deck unless you’re attached to the boat. It’s quite common to take a wave and be washed somewhere. If you’re clipped on, chances are you’re still on the boat somewhere. If not, at least we know exactly where you are and can get you back on board quickly.
A dirty secret of the race? Nearly all the boats had tethered MOBs. Usually more than one. It’s unavoidable in the big weather. You’ll think you can prevent it, by holding on or watching the waves, or something like that. I promise you’re wrong. When your’e hit by the force of these waves you’re going to be knocked off your feet and go somewhere. Most of the time it’s just somewhere else on the boat. You’ll feel the tug on your tether as it catches, the slam when you hit the forestay or the rail or some miscellaneous bit of boat, the weight of a body on top of you, the power of the water rushing past and the shock of the cold. And then? You get up. You press on. There’s work to be done.
Asked by Anonymous
Hi! It’s always great to hear from people reading the blog.
The honest answer is that I’ve been quite lazy since the race finished up. I’ve always been the type of person that accomplishes far more once I’m already busy, so finding myself with an inordinate amount of time on my hands means I’ve not been very productive.
That being said, I’m adding another two posts about the Pacific. The one I’m about to post was the most difficult story I’ve ever written, about a very tough time. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, debating whether I’d done it right. And I think I have.
Enjoy the stories. Go RTW. It is so worth it. There will always be ups and downs - anyone who tells you they enjoyed every minute is either lying or delusional. Now that we’ve finished the race it’s easier to look at RTW attrition as well. Probably 60 - 65% completed the race. Some boats (like mine) lost nearly everyone (two of us finished). Other boats only lost one or two people. Luck of the draw maybe? Who knows. Nobody can say what’s going to happen!
Just never forget that Clipper is a business. They’re out to make money. And that’s okay. The race they’ve set up is amazing - there’s nothing else like it. On the whole they do a very good job. But there’s always something to grumble about, eh?
Best of luck!
Pacific, Part Two
I should start by telling you how much I hate the cold. Growing up in Atlanta, we don’t have much cold. Sure, it dips below freezing on winter mornings and there’s the occasional ice storm, but the weather is mostly alright. I’ve never wanted to be around cold (skiiing for a holiday? snow? you must be joking) and . never enjoyed anything cold. Yet here I was, in the middle of the North Pacific on an unheated boat. I wore two pairs of thermals (both tops and bottoms), a lightweight midlayer jacket, heavyweight midlayer salopettes and jacket, two buffs, a hat, my drysuit, gloves. Sometimes a balaclava. Sometimes another fleece. Enough clothing to look like a bright yellow marshmallow and lose some of the ability to bend. Still cold. During off-watches I usually slept in thermals and part-midlayers, inside an incredibly heavy sleeping bag (Ocean Sleepwear - love it) and in the warmest bunk on the boat (there are perks to being chief-of-staff and doing the bunk allocation). There were still plenty of times I would be too cold to sleep (it could take up to an hour for me to warm up enough to stop shaking and fall asleep).
The thing that made the cold even worse was the wet - it was everywhere. Life on deck was always wet with waves breaking over the boat. Consequently outer layers (drysuit, foulies) were always wet. If you weren’t wearing them they were hung in one of two wet lockers, surrounded by more wet kit and managing to get damp on the inside as well (if you hadn’t already taken waves down the neck and up the arms/legs). Boots were soaked, and consequently so were socks - people regularly wore plastic bags over socks in an attempt to keep things a bit drier. Water seeped into the boat itself from various chain plates (where the big bits of rigging attach to the deck), stanchion bases, and toe rails. We stopped being able to dry off. You’d have to sleep in (or on) wet kit so that at least it would be warm and wet, instead of absolutely freezing. I think the worst moment for me personally was the realization one morning that even my thermals were damp. How does that happen? I constantly had layer after layer of water-resistant and waterproof kit on top. The damp just set it.
So here you have us cold and wet. The other half of the equation? Exhausted and starving.
Heavy weather sailing is incredibly phsyical work. Heavy weather sailing with a short-handed crew is even worse. We had a crew of 14 for this race. It’s not the shortest we’ve ever been, but it still doesn’t make things easy compared to boats with 18 or 20. 14 means two watches of seven, with two people on mother duty at any one point in time. You’ll effectively have a maximum of six on deck at any one time. A heavy weather headsail change needs a minimum of eight - one driving, one or two in the cockpit, and five up front (three forward of the inner forestay). We’ve done it with less, but it’s going to take a bare minimum of half an hour to drag a sail down when you’ve got 20+ knots. And it will destroy every single person on the bow.
We worked with a standby system to make sure we had enough crew on deck but also protect the off-watch. If we had made an all-hands call for every headsail change, there would’ve been days where nobody had more than an hour or two of sleep. The way standby worked was that the two mothers would be on standby from 0600-1800. If the on-watch crew needed a hand, mothers would stop what they were doing, kit up, and help. Then they had the entire night to sleep, barring an all-hands call. From 1800-0600 two of the off-watch would be on standby. If the on-watch needed help, they would wake the standbys first (and give them some of the easier deck jobs). Once you had been called up on standby, you’d be off it until everyone else on your watch had taken a turn. There were times where we wouldn’t call standbys for a week, and then times where we’d call them every single watch. You never knew what you were going to get, how much sleep you’d miss, or when you’d be woken. On the whole though, it worked out really well as a system.
Standby helped with the exhaustion, but it couldn’t prevent it. One of the most tiring things for me personally was helming. Beyond keeping your balance, heavy-weather driving uses your entire upper body to both turn the helm and keep it in place. There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve actually had to cling to the wheel with my entire body as it tries to rip itself out of my grip. We always keep a secondary helm (a spotter) nearby in case things get out of control. Upwind my greatest concern is usually being bounced off as the boat slams down a wave. Downwind it’s a combination of being taken out by a wave and not being able to stop a vicious round-up into the breeze. My watch had two of us who could drive in the worst of the worst and another two who were fine in bad weather. We’d swap out every 30 or 40 minutes, for both a physical and mental break. I always ended up slumped next to the helm afterward.
The biggest factor in my exhaustion was more than that though - it was my job as watchleader. It’s the constant watching - what’s the wind speed/direction? what’s our course (both the aim and what the helm is actually steering)? do we have the right sail plan? etc. It’s heading downstairs regularly to check the chart, the AIS, and our data spreadsheet to see averages (course and speed) and make the calls on sail plan from there. More than that though is watching the crew - how do they feel? what do they want? what can I do better? have we rotated the tough jobs enough? who is next on standby? etc. We’d go for a tough evolution and I’d try to have a tea break or snack break afterwards, situation permitting. Inevitably this meant I’d come back from doing some job, exhausted, and swap into another job, usually driving, to give that person a break. Then it was onto some other job. It was a rare watch when I’d have a tea break and actually have the chance to have a hot drink.
I vividly remember a moment after two incredibly tough days where I sat down briefly after an evolution, slumped over and staring into space. One of the guys came up to me and asked what was wrong. All I could say was, “I’m just so tired.” He sat down, gave me a hug, and said, “you don’t always have to be Wonder Woman, doing everything.” I looked at him - “yes I do. If I don’t lead the way when we all feel like this, then nobody will follow.”
And I’ll stick to that belief. As much as I hurt, I’m still 25, in relatively good shape, and very comfortable with my sailing ability in those sorts of conditions. There were several people on the boat that had joined for Leg 6 and never experienced these things. The great majority of the boat was also older than me - and bounced back more slowly from the various bumps, bruises, and basic muscle pain. I can take a bigger beating and recover more quickly. On top of that I’m not afraid of the heavy stuff, at least in terms of my own personal safety. Maybe it’s just the arrogance of youth, but I know I will be fine no matter what. That can’t be said for all the crew members. When I’m scared for the boat or for my watch, I can’t let the fear show because it scares other people. Fear is seriously contagious. The fact remains that I am a leader on board and I need to set an example of what I expect from crew. I firmly believe that if I wouldn’t do a job myself then I have no right to ask anybody else to do it either. When Matt calls for a job to be done, now (usually on the bow), I am one of a small group of people that will always be there first, without complaining. Stepping back because I’m exhausted simply isn’t an option.
The last factor, the one that compounded the exhaustion, was the hunger. We had overspent our victualling budget (3.50pounds per person per day) in Australia and consequently had a shortage in China. We ended up not really having enough food. Meals were all small portions - no seconds. You had to fight for an extra spoonful or two. Seasickness was great for the rest of us as it meant an extra portion to divy up. We hardly had any snacks either. As silly as it sounds, they’re a really important part of the sailing. Not only do they give us a bit when we’re hungry in between meals, but they also provide a huge morale boost. But this trip we only had a packet of crackers or biscuits to share between the watches every other day or so and occasionally a Snickers bar each after a really terrible watch. I can’t fault the victuallers (it’s certainly not a job I would ever want to do), but it was really tough. You just never had enough food to repair muscles. Everyone arrived in San Francisco having lost a ton of weight. The boys looked skeletal. Most of the girls looked a really good thin (the exception being Claire, who looked scary-thin).
It’s that combination - cold, wet, exhausted, hungry - that made the Pacific constantly difficult. It just wears you down so quickly and there’s no such thing as recovery in that kind of environment.
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.
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.
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.
Our Chinese arrival! One serious ceremony.