125. Advent, Nautical Flashbacks & Happy Christmas

Advent has been a period of flashbacks for me, for reasons I will explain in this blog.

I had a COVID19 test during the first week of Advent. It was my second such test. The first was to get the all clear for my Vitrectomy back in August (See blog 117: “Vitrectomy – everything you didn’t know you didn’t want to know!!!” published 11 August 2020, and Blog 118: “7 post-op paragraphs. If you’re squeamish you might want to skip para 5 AND the video”, published 19 August 2020) – Flashback number one. This latest effort was to give me the all clear to visit the newest edition to the family, Quinn Rebekah Winstanley, born to Alastair and Sarah on the morning of 2nd December. The fact that she was already over a week old when I first met her is not, for me, anything unusual, having been away at sea for her father’s birth thirty-odd years ago and for her eldest aunt’s birth a few years later. Flashback numbers two and three.

With Alastair I was returning to the UK from a short deployment to the Mediterranean in the frigate HMS BOXER. He was born while I was doing the morning watch (0400-0800), and instructing in the joys of longish-range coastal navigation while heading north just outside Portuguese territorial waters. I still have the the Admiralty chart I was using at the time and by one of those quirky coincidences in life, the line of regular navigation fixes is broken at a time coincident with Alastair’s birth, although I didn’t find out about his arrival until much later in the day. It was the 13th of December. Interestingly (to me at least!) the anniversary of the Battle of The River Plate – the one naval engagement I was quizzed about at my Admiralty Interview Board prior to joining up and the subject I selected for a 15 minute “talk” I had to give as a Midshipman at the Naval College. As a major visual aid I spent a considerable time drawing a quite detailed chart of the South Atlantic and the tracks and positions of the various ships involved, in various coloured chalks, on a very large roller-rotating black board. About 10 years later, while visiting the Naval College, I discovered the drawing was still there! Flashback number four. Wind forward a few years after Alastair’s arrival and in the early morning of 13 December 1989 in HMS UPTON I came across a French trawler fishing just outside the UK 12-mile limit. Having illuminated the ship’s Fishery Protection Squadron markings and called the vessel in French by VHF of my intention to conduct a routine boarding and inspection, the vessel in question promptly hauled his nets and took off in the general direction ….. of France! Cue some interesting early morning phone calls to the Ministry of Ag and Fish in London, similar radio calls with my own HQ in Scotland, a high speed chase, the uncovering of our 40/60 Bofors gun on the foc’stle and (my favourite bit) some entirely legal but nevertheless exciting close quarters manoeuvring to “encourage” the fishing vessel to “turn” away from the (relative) “security” of French waters. After the fourth such manoeuvre he realised the game was up, stopped, was boarded, and – on the discovery of undersized nets and undersized fish, was arrested and escorted into Brighton for subsequent court appearance in Lewis Magistrates Court. It has been interesting to observe many “on-line fishery protection experts” on social media this Advent with absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Flashback number five!

And that was all a rather roundabout way of getting to flashback number six and my decision to bake Alastair a birthday cake. To be delivered on the day I first met Quinn, the day before her father’s birthday, thus putting at least some of my Clipper skills to use this Advent – see Blog 20: “Masterbaking ….. or ….. Mother Watch preps …..or ….’If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake.'” published 4 September 2018.

With Geoff and the first cakes baked on Leg 2 from Punta del Este to Cape Town

Meanwhile, back in the Old Vicarage, Ruth’s homemade advent calendar, replete with chocolates, has replaced my “inspirational” Clipper poster, in the kitchen for the Christmas season. Unlike this time last year (Flashback number seven) this advent calendar stays pretty much upright and the chocolates do not, from time to time, deposit themselves over the deck in a heeling or pitching yacht. This time last year the CV31 advent calendar hung in a similar position overlooking the CV31 “kitchen.”

This time last year (pm 23 Dec and flashback number eight) I had just returned to the UK from Fremantle having completed Leg 3 from Cape Town to Western Australia only 48 hours previously. I had been away since 7 October.

Leg 3 started with our departure from Cape Town on 17 November (See Blog 98: “So long Cape Town. It’s been a blast! Leg 3 (Race 4) starts TODAY!” published 17 November 2019, having completed our crew briefings the day before.

Departing Cape Town

We were probably a little over-powered in terms of our sail configuration for Race Start and found ourselves towards the back of the Fleet as we sailed south out of Cape Bay. We were, however, still ion the race until Punta del Este and Sanya who, in the close quarters manoeuvring during the race in the Bay, had collided and both yachts had to return alongside for damage assessment and subsequent repairs. Thankfully no one was injured but it served to prove the old adage that you can’t win the leg at Race Start, but you can soon lose it. We had escaped injury completely as, working opposite Mike Willis on the main grinder during the opening, I had managed to cut open part of the top of my right hand. The cut, about 3cm or so long, wasn’t too deep and I hadn’t even noticed I had done it until we settled down to watchkeeping racing. I got it cleaned up and covered and didn’t think anything more of it.

The first few days saw us beating south followed by some downwind sailing, passing the southern tip of South Africa and heading further south towards the Southern Ocean. It was a “bit bouncy” onboard at first but not as bad as it had been for the second half of our South Atlantic crossing and spirits were high. We rather fell out of the back of the first wind system on Day 4 and lost some ground but by that time we had completed a full round of sailing manoeuvres – tacks, gybes, kite hoists and drops and Yankee changes and by that stage our final two cases of Leg 3 seasickness were back on deck. We were well placed. Day 5 had started well under grey, windswept and drizzly skies, beam reaching under white sails and making good speed once again towards Australia. In even better news, the Mother Watch had located the Golden Syrup to go with the porridge that morning. Unfortunately Andrew Toms was to develop fairly severe appendicitis and after just 5 days we were left with no choice but to “put about” and head back to South Africa.

On Day 5 it was my turn to write the crew blog for publication on the official Clipper website. My title – “Here We Go …. Back to South Africa” was both a play on words – quoting our crew signature tune/song (see Blog 80: “Here We Go” published 7 October 2019) and an announcement of our about turn. This is what I wrote:

We really are one big UNICEF team family. Race crew afloat, those crew members who have already finished their Clipper Race adventure and those waiting expectantly for their adventure to begin. Our extended UNICEF team includes ALL our families, friends and supporters, some who provide fantastic personal support including victualling and even helping out with sail repair during stopovers, and those who support is geographically distant but just as strong and just as welcome. Today, some family plans are on hold as the UNICEF family team afloat does what it is really good at and looks after one of its own in need of help and support. We are sailing back towards South Africa – ion the general direction of Durban. A prudent measure to seek timely external medical support for crew member Andrew Toms, the detail of his condition having been released by a Clipper Race press release earlier today. Andrew is comfortable and resting. Our onboard medical team of Skipper Ian, Holly, Anthonie and John are giving Andrew excellent care, ably supported by long range advice from PRAXES. We are in good shape and hope to re-join the race to Australia just as soon as we can. But first things first. Andrew needs us to sail as safely, accurately and as fast as we always do, only this time not quite in the direction we had intended. But the family comes first. The Race will still be there when we next turn around. We will be back.”

It took us slightly longer to get back to Durban, even than I had calculated, due to a combination of things including unhelpful weather (not ENOUGH wind) strong currents, and a requirement to preserve fuel which limited our ability to motor. It was the evening of Day 9 (26 Nov) when we finally made it alongside into Durban, escorted over the last 15 miles by two NSRI lifeboats. The local harbourmaster and customs and immigration teams coordinated things with commendable flexibility so we could land our casualties without the time consuming immigration clearances. Rob Stewart, a local who had just completed Leg 2 on Imagine Your Korea, arranged for fuel and victuals which we loaded in double quick time.

By this time, unfortunately, Andy was not our only “casualty.” Sandra Marichal had badly cut her right hand during a sail change. The cut was bad, and deep, and required stiches from our medical team led by Holly. Sandra was to be confined below decks for a couple of weeks. The very next day I awoke with my right hand badly swollen. The wound I had picked up on Day 1 was now badly infected. Holly opened up the wound using a scalpel, cleaned it all up, strapped my hand to an empty plastic bottle to immobilise it and put me on a course of anti-biotics. I was confined below decks for 4 days and, thereafter, wore a very fetching blue marigold glove on my right hand to keep the dressing dry when working on deck. Much, much more seriously, Thomas Henklemann had already suffered a very series fall on deck, somersaulting through his safety tether and planting his face on the deck on the other side of the boat. His face was horribly bruised and he lost 5 teeth. He was also landed in Durban and we subsequently discovered he had broken his jaw.

The first day of Advent (flashback ,,,, I’ve lost count!) was also a Sunday and John Dawson (JD) and I were on Mother Watch, the original watches having been shuffled after landing Andy and Thomas. It was also Funday- Sunday and I’ve explained a little of what that entailed in Blog 106: “Sophie’s Choice” published on 20 January 2020. Santa (in the form of Kiwi Keith) was due at lunchtime and I had been “selected” to argue the case for Seb Ramsey to be given his Christmas presents. Someone else was argue the case against. It was during Funday-Sundays that we also wrote, practiced and finally performed our own Leg 3 version of The 12 Days of Christmas.

My somewhat “spirited” advocacy on behalf of Seb
The 12 Days of Christmas. The words can be seen in Blog 99: “The 12 Days of Christmas (ish!)” published on 9 January 2020.

JD was definitely the “brains behind our Mother Watch team. That evening we “celebrated” Advent Sunday by producing a very passable attempt at a full roast dinner but (in my view) our culinary piece-de-resistance was our version of Kedgeree produced largely based on tuna and onions – pretty much all we had left when we cooked this treat up on the evening of Day THIRTY TWO. Actually I was continually impressed with ALL the cooking produced by my crew mates. There were some stunning soups, pizzas, all sorts of treats and plenty of cakes. Standards never dropped even when the store cupboards got increasingly empty with no obvious signs of the Australian coast. My own performance was not flawless. I did once put day-old milk into the “resting” porridge soaking for the following morning. While I, and can I suggest the more robust-of-stomach, found the resulting taste – “interesting” – it clearly did not suit those with more discerning palates. My cake and bread making was generally successful but my single attempt to produce a gluten-free loaf late one evening produced something that a brick-layer would have been proud of. When it was unceremoniously confined to the deep I wasn’t concerned about the impact on marine life but I did consider it might be a danger to shipping.

On day 23 (10 December) it was my turn again with the official crew blog and this time I wrote:

Okay so…… do I tempt fate? The $64,000 question for me over the last 24 hours or so is not about ETAs or about rearranging pre-Christmas travel plans. It’s much simpler than that. Is this the last blog I will write before we arrive in Fremantle and, by extension, is this the last blog from the BigBlueBoat until I re-join in Zhuhai for Leg 6 across the North Pacific? And if it is my final blog until next Spring, what do I say? Or is thinking aloud like that really just tempting fate? Are there yet more twists to play out? A confident prediction of an ETA in Western Australia would undoubtedly help but you will search in vain for one of those from me just yet…. There is a poster out there somewhere with the strap line “No Ordinary Race, No Ordinary People” or something very similar. I suspect it can be applied to every boat in the Fleet. It can certainly be applied to this boat and most definitely to this leg. To quote a numerically challenged football pundit, for UNICEF this leg has been a race of three halves. The circumstances of each “half” have been well documented elsewhere. From my perspective our first half was not unlike our start to Leg 2 and I remained quietly confident that we were well placed to move up the leader board as the distance to Fremantle fell. We had already achieved something similar in challenging conditions on the way to Cape Town. A repeat was on the cards. Cue twist number one and our “second half” – the medivac to Durban. That Andy was safely and successfully operated on within four hours of our arrival is testament to the urgency and the prudence of our diversion. That we turned the BigBlueBoat around, refuelled and re-provisioned within two hours is testament to fantastic support from a myriad of sources. Oh ….. and to our own efforts.

We are not the first Clipper Race boat to carry out a diversionary medevac and we won’t be the last. Let’s hope all futute medical diversions will be as successful. Cue the “third half” of Leg 3, our “endurance non-race” to Fremantle. Sure, we are not experiencing the 5m – 8m swells, the cold, the surfing conditions and the breaking waves/wash downs that we experienced in the South Atlantic. Sure, for many of us this is not now the leg we signed up for. But to think our race is not challenging right now is to underestimate the mental and psychological challenges of uncertainty at sea. Of not knowing when we will make Fremantle. Of not knowing how long we will have available to turn the boat around in preparation for Leg 4 to give our round-the-worlders some kind of a break and to give them and our new-leggers the best possible shot at a successful Leg 4. On a personal note I hadn’t realised how much the racing aspect of the Clipper Race and competing against the leading boats meant to me. Not until we stopped doing it that is. And at that time we still had over 4000 miles to sail. And we are still in a most inhospitable and potentially dangerous environment, still over 1800 miles from Australia. No Ordinary Race. You can say that again!

For Anthonie, Mike, Sophie, Rob, Tim, and Kiwi Keith the end of this Leg (whenever it comes!) will mark the end of their Clipper adventure. For Kiwi this started on the last edition of the Race and will mark his successful circumnavigation. Getting HIM away from South Africa has been quite an effort. We are ALL looking forward to help him celebrate. Seb, John Dillon and I also disembark in Australia but the three of us will return for the North Pacific leg next year. Sailing with these people (plus Jez, Christian, Sheila, Gareth and Joe who left after Leg 2, and those who will join me on Legs 6 and 8 next year) has been what the Clipper Race has really been all about for me. Being part of THIS team. These people, and people like them, make this the fantastic, unique experience it is. I don’t know when I am getting off the UNICEF boat but I already can’t wait to return. No Ordinary People? You can say that again, too.

And finally, at least for the moment, a huge shout-out to everyone following our progress. A special thank you to my eldest daughter Heather and one of her “clients” in particular,; to my son Alastair who will not be surprised I am at sea for his birthday on the 13th given that I was at sea the day he was born; and to my autistic daughter, Rebekah, whose ability to overcome all the challenges in her life gives me the inspiration and motivation to dig deep when required. To Emma and Kate for their support to their Mum and to my wife and No1 supporter, Ruth. See you all (sometime) soon.”

Ironically Ruth posted to these pages that very same day (See Blog 96: “A Message From Mary” published 10 December 2019) in which (amongst other things) she wrote:

“However its great to see they have support from so many people – the video below was sent out to the boat via Keith’s daughter, Heather,. The crew have all seen it with a big thanks to Heather and to Mary it was a great boost to morale. Let’s hope the cooking onboard goes from strength to strength – and Keith shares his new found skill when he gets home!”

And the sailing went on …….. and on …………. and on. Spectacular sunsets and sunrises, abundant wildlife, great star-lit celestial canopies and even the odd lightning storm. But we didn’t see another living soul until we were overflown by an Australian coastguard aircraft “Rescue 440” on 19 December (Day 32). We were still about 200 nautical miles from Fremantle at that stage.

There were many many other highlights in the sailing that followed including an all night, all-hands sail repair effort to a damaged spinnaker, the biggest pod of dolphins I have EVER seen, the sterling efforts of Geoff McGillivray and Andrew Eells in mustering every last morsel of food (and potential food!) onboard to see us through to Australia and the amazing inventiveness of Mother-Watches- various to turn it into something delicious. We didn’t escape further injury and I remember seeing my good friend Mike Willis being knocked over by a wave and falling as he and I went off watch one night. I was in the hatchway just going below when Mike fell, breaking his ribs. Mike had left England at Race Start with the aim of completing Legs 1, 2 and 3 and thus sailing to Australia. He was in considerable pain for the last couple of weeks and spent the first full day in Australia in Fremantle hospital where he also discovered he had punctured his lung. I helped him buy luggage he didn’t have to carry on the Saturday and on the Sunday he and I made it to Perth airport together for our separate return flights.

The last few crew blog entries were, understandably, quite reflective as Australia appeared on our electronic charts and land grew closer. On the final day at sea the skipper recorded in his blog that “another great chapter comes to an end.” “After 33 days and 6500nm at sea” he recorded that his “salt encrusted keyboard” needed “a rest.” He closed by saying, “I consider this leg to be an absolute success. I am extremely grateful for the UNICEF crew efforts and proud of our achievement.” I remember standing by the starboard sheets in the dark as we approached Fremantle to port with a number of my colleagues, laughing and joking and reminiscing about what had been something of an epic passage. Virtually everyone of us leaving the boat this time around had missed flights and had made re-arrangements one way or the other. That night we were eventually met by the Australian immigration and customs officials who cleared us for entry by confirming our identities against our passports under flashlight at the front of the boat. A pretty interesting exercise given what we all looked like at the time. The Leg had one final twist for us all. Unable to clear the BOAT fully for customs so late at night, we were only allowed ashore in what we were wearing plus ……. one wash bag. We would need to collect and land our kit the following day. Undeterred we headed for the yacht club and a “welcome to Fremantle party.” Finally, at gone midnight, I made it to the hotel Ruth had managed to book for me and walked pretty much fully dressed into the shower. After all – I was wearing the same clothes tomorrow and, like me, they most definitely needed a wash!

Met by Angie at the Fremantle “welcome party.” This might have been pre-beer!
Andrew Eells, Rob de Gidlow, Geoff McGillivray, me, Keith Williams and Danny Lee at Fremantle yacht club the following day. Definitely post shower, post beard trim (for some!) and during beer!

Stafford train station to Manchester airport, 10,597 nautical miles at sea and a journey via … Buenos Aires, Argentina … Montevideo, Uruguay … 4050 nautical miles across the South Atlantic … Cape Town, South Africa … a medical emergency diversion and 2 hours alongside in Durban, South Africa … 6547 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean/Southern Indian Ocean (should have been 4750 nautical miles WITHOUT the diversion) … 48 hours in Fremantle Western Australia … and 9 hours in Dubai airport!

Merry Christmas!

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see




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