…………… actually it was Clipper Level 1 training down in the Solent in April and it was 4 Englishmen and women, a Scot (via Eastern Europe), a South American (via Miami), a Pacific Coast North American, an Italian and a Swiss …….. all under the watchful eye (and assessment) of a qualified Clipper skipper and a first mate who had previously competed in the race.
The weather was good, even though visibility in the Solent was a little patchy at times and the wind scarcely above Force 5 (20 knots). The training syllabus was “safety heavy” and comprehensive enough to cope with the mix of sailing experience present – from complete “newbie” to yacht owner and the assessment was rigorous with little or no quarter given. If you got something wrong you failed, and some did.
I’ve given my “first impressions” of a Clipper 68ft yacht in an earlier blog. They were all confirmed by my first experience at sea. My main aim during the week was to quickly learn all the sailing malarkey associated with “main engines” that you have to HOIST, learn the hitherto unfamiliar terminology and hope that my supposedly extensive transferrable maritime skills did, in fact, transfer.
I had made it known during my Clipper interview that I would wish to be considered for additional crew responsibilities if my progress and performance were up to it. Now I was going to have the opportunity to put my “performance money” where my “interview mouth” was.
There were additional benefits from the experience. It gave me more opportunity to think through the practicalities of living, eating, sleeping, watchkeeping, racing and even cooking (Mother Watch) on a Clipper yacht. I found time to think about my kit and about how to pack it and transport it – in my case out to South America, home from Australia, out to China, home from the western seaboard of the United States and then out to, in all probability, New York, in that order. I ticked a whole myriad of otherwise trivial practical boxes – my sea-boots – good enough for training, not good enough for the Southern Ocean and North Pacific. My sailing knife – likewise. My headtorch – just the ticket, but I was probably going to need 4! During this first training week we visited the official kit suppliers for our race and were measured for the race issue clothing and sponsored/branded clothing that we will be supplied with. Final colours and branding will only be known when the boat sponsors are announced and we are all allocated to our race boats. Our crew allocation day will be in Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday 11th May 2019 and is already in my diary ………… oh and in addition to all this …………… I learnt/re-learnt to sail 🙂
The aim of Level 1 was to introduce/reintroduce the basic principles of sailing, how a Clipper racing yacht functions, and stresses safety and the “Clipper Way” of doing things along with the principles of good seamanship. We exercised man overboard daily – with the man overboard dummy falling overboard having not been tethered to the yacht and while tethered to the boat, the latter being much more life threatening than you may first realise. Just think about it for a second or two …… struggling to keep your head clear of water being forced into your mouth and nose while you are towed along attached to a powerful 32 tonne racing yacht sailing at speed …….. Most of us had a go at going over the side to recover the “man.” During training we had the luxury of donning an immersion suit. For real two members of each watch will be expected to be wearing the swimmer recovery harness while at sea; two just in case the man overboard is the person wearing the harness!
We indulged in “tackathons” – tack (altering course putting the wind through the bow) after tack after tack after tack as we rotated positions around headsail, yankee, mainsail, and backstay winches and sheets, We hoisted and lowered the main sail, put reefs in and shook them out, trimmed and retrimmed yankee 1s, 2s and 3s. We gybed (putting the wind through the stern) and gybed again and ran racetracks up and down the Solent, we even anchored which, like everything on as Clipper racing yacht is an entirely mandraulic serial. We worked (and reworked) winches, clutches and jammers and put our agility to the test racing around the upper deck correctly tethering and untethering against the clock. Some of us, but sadly not all, even had a go at helming, something I rarely had the opportunity to do in my previous life! We went in and out of Gosport and enjoyed two nights alongside in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. During evening lectures we learnt the anatomy of a sail, we talked about mainsail and headsail controls, we studied the points of sail, emergency and distress situations, basic collision avoidance and tied endless knots! And then, on the penultimate evening ……. the assessment. More stringent than I had imagined we were tested individually by the skipper and mate on knots (he picked any 4 or 5 out of about 9 – you tied them and explained why, where and how they would be used), other ropework, preparing the yacht for sea and coming alongside, points of sail, anatomy of a sail, correct loading and unloading of winches, tugman’s hitches, identification of all mainsail control lines and explaining their use, and on all aspects of safety including the drill for transmitting a mayday call, man overboard procedures and marking the electronic chart plotter in the navigation area, talking through the significance of the Cockpit Cautionary Zone and other main areas of danger on deck and the correct drill to don a lifejacket, carry out the required life jacket checks and successfully repack it. Most of the Clipper Race agility tests were completed earlier in the week including climbing onto the yacht without the use of a step or fender-step by using a spring line, unassisted. The slight irony of non use of the step was to come back to haunt me right at the end of the week . We were met on our return to Gosport by the Chairman of Clipper Ventures and Founder of the Clipper Race, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail single handed non-stop around the world. More about him and his exploits in a future blog. There then followed our final personal debriefs – I’ll cut a long story short and confirm I will be doing Level 2 training later this year – and then the final training serial – the deep clean. Everything that can come off the yacht to be cleaned comes off and is cleaned. Anything that cannot come off the yacht to be cleaned……. is cleaned anyway! And when I say deep, I mean DEEP. And when I say cleaned, I mean CLEANED. On reflection it’s little wonder that I observed what good condition these boats are in when I first stepped onboard on my interview day.
Oh………. before I forget. Regular readers will know I mentioned “a small accident” in my very first blog post (So How Did It All Start published on 13th May). To put it simply ……… I fell off the boat.
In my haste (first mistake, first lesson) to disembark, I clambered through the gap in the guardrails (to the right of Sir Robin in the picture above) still wearing (second mistake, second lesson) my fully packed and rather heavy rucksack. I “searched” for the step that had by now been rigged with my foot rather than looking (third mistake, third lesson), flipped the step and fell full length between the pontoon and the 30odd tonne 68ft yacht. As I fell I managed (just) to grab hold of the vertical metal stanchions either side of me but hung there up to my knees in water with my sea boots now rapidly filling. I did think that I was about to fall to the bottom of Gosport harbour wearing all my kit and a rucksack that was reasonably difficult to dislodge even when NOT under water and holding my breath. In a matter of seconds I could hold onto the stanchions no longer as the weight of my boots was dragging me down and once more I fell. This time, with a Tom Cruise-like agility for which I am NOT known I managed to catch the wooden step with the finger tips of both hands thus, I thought, prolonging my final drop for a few more seconds. By now I was waist deep, with my rucksack taking on water and rather hoping that the yacht did not choose this moment to move towards the jetty. Even when carrying a little excess weight I would make a poor fender! To my rescue at this 11th hour came Cliff (the skipper) and Lucia (fellow crew member) who rather unceremoniously dragged me clear of the water, the pontoon and the boat, by the straps of my rucksack.
The damage? Pride (fourth lesson – it REALLY does come before the Fall), shock (only really set it when I got home and tried to explain it all to Ruth) whiplash and bruising (it really WAS an unceremonious exit from the water!) and some impressive blood blisters to the fingers of both hands. Still ………… as the saying goes, worse things happen at sea!