Deafening Silence

It’s been 146 days since I last wrote a post for this blog.

Strangely enough it’s not as if nothing has been going on, either at home, at work, across the country or internationally. Plenty to write about and I admire my fellow Clipper-bloggers who have maintained their writing skills, but, to be blunt, my thoughts are only now beginning to turn to the possibility of resuming the 2019-2020 edition of the Race early next year. Pretty much all the caveats I have touched on before on these pages remain relevant. That said, there is now a draft schedule for completion of the Race, some of my colleagues managed to get afloat in this year’s Fastnet Race, UK training resumed in Clipper 68’s from Gosport a week or so back, “our” insurance has been extended – saving a couple of thousand – and I have signed up to complete my own pre-Race refresher training in the Philippines in February 2022 and I have received my joining instructions. Chinese visas are now expired but US visas – allowing me to arrive by yacht and depart by air, remain valid. We are aware of the latest thoughts concerning COVID testing and potential quarantine requirements. Current Clipper Race Teams had to declare their availability for the new dates, or postpone to a later edition of the Race, at the end of June. Clipper, aided by a return to training, are now working on crew makeup and it is already clear that a number of my UNICEF team mates are no longer able to complete the current extended edition.

My only sea-time since last writing was a trip onboard the MSC GENEVA outbound from Harwich to Hamburg, although I disembarked with the pilot at the Sunk Light Vessel position in the southern North Sea. Everything else has returned to a degree of normality and I’ve even managed to identify my next challenge once Clipper has (finally) completed. More of that later.

In 146 days time from now it will be 18 January 2022 and, by my best current guess, 10 days before I return to the Philippines.

The current state of the potential Race programme is as follows:

Crew Reporting day in the Philippines will be 8 Feb 22 ahead of a planned Race restart on Sunday 20 February – Leg 6, Race 9A.

Leg 6 will then comprise 3 short races (9A, 9B and 9C) and then the longer Race 10 across the mighty North Pacific. For a reminder of what this might be like see Blog 55: This time next year. Leg6, Race 9. A Four Video North Pacific taster, published 27 Mar 2019.

Race 9A will start from Subic Bay, Philippines on Sunday 20 Feb and race to Sanya, China with an arrival window of 24-25 Feb and stopover until 2 Mar.

Race 9B will start from Sanya on Wednesday 2 Mar and race to Zhuhai, China with an arrival window of 4-5 Mar and a stopover until 10 Mar.

Race 9C will start from Zhuhai on Thursday 10 Mar and race north inside the Korean peninsula to Qingdao, China with an arrival window of 18-20 Mar and a stopover until 25 Mar.

Race 10 will start from Qingdao on Friday 25 Mar and race down the Yellow Sea and East China Sea, round the southern tip of Japan, across the International Date Line and across the mighty North Pacific Ocean to Seattle, USA with an arrival window of 18-23 Apr. My contract release date on completion of Leg 6 will be 26 Apr.

Leg 7 (Races 11 and 12) Seattle – Panamas – New York will start from Seattle on Sunday 1 May and the arrival window into New York is 14-17 Jun.

I will re-join the Race in New York and must report to the UNICEF yacht on 17 Jun (Ruth’s birthday!!). Once again I will be required to complete the Clipper Crew assessment. Leg 8, the homecoming leg, will start from New York on 22 Jun (our wedding anniversary!!!) and will comprise 3 races, race 13, 14 and 15.

Race 13 will start from New York on Wednesday 22 Jun and race to Bermuda with an arrival window of 26-27 Jun and then a stopover until 2 Jul.

Race 14 will start from Bermuda on Saturday 2 Jul and race across the North Atlantic to Derry-Londonderry with an arrival window of 16-20 Jul and a stopover until 24 Jul.

Race 15, the final Race of the circumnavigation, will start from Derry-Londonderry on Sunday 24 Jul and race north-about around Scotland for Race Finish off Southend on Friday 29 Jul ahead of a formation return to London up the Thames on Saturday 30 July 2022. I think that’s something like 2 years 11 months since Race Start on 1 Sept 2019 (Blog 87: Another Time Travel Blog, published 12 Oct 2019). For a reminder of what the North Atlantic might look like see Blog 64: This time next year. Leg 8 Race 12 The North Atlantic, published 25 Jun 2019.

Beyond all this??? Well firstly I am aiming to complete my Ocean Yachtmaster Theory qualification by the end of this year and will then look to remain current. I hope to return to sea with the Cirdan Sailing Trust in 2022 (see Blog 48: My Next Sailing ….. but one ….. and a little something for Lord of the Rings fans!, published 20 Feb 2019) and then in 2023 I am planning to walk the 1000km of the Western Front Way, in one go, an altogether different physical and logistical challenge. By then I might just have to re-title this blog!

But for the moment I’m still fundraising.

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see:

and for UNICEF UK see

Please take a look. Thank You

130. 5…4…3…2…1…Blast Off

The most exciting announcement for some considerable time is today’s news about the future of Clipper and a completely new post-COVID, 21st Century expansion of the current franchise. In company and close cooperation with the space-orientated entrepreneur, Elong Mask, Clipper Ventures plc is going into space, or to be more precise, into orbit. Low altitude-space orbit racing around the planet.

Today’s announcement confirms speculation that has been rife for some time. Whilst exact details of investment and sponsorship has yet to be announced, the outline plan will see design and build of a first batch of 6 space-shuttle-like Clipper vessels for the first ever orbital race around the globe. This mirrors the first ever terrestrial Clipper Race of six 60ft yachts of Clipper 1995 with the first of 6 space-age developments with obvious potential to build on initial success and grow the fleet size. Tenders for Space-Clipper designs should be complete in about a year with a view to the first “race” in the northern hemisphere spring of 2031, notably the 50th anniversary of the first NASA Shuttle flight. Race start is being planned for 12 April 2031, the anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch.

Travelling at approximately 17,500 miles per hour it takes about 90 minutes to orbit the earth, or 1 hour 31 minutes and 12 seconds to be a bit more race-precise when every second it likely to count.. The initial Race concept will be 135 orbits or laps of the planet, 135 being the number of Space Shuttle missions flown by the original programme between 1981 and 2011. Orbits will be conducted at a minimum altitude of 190 miles and a maximum altitude of 330 miles above sea level with the effects of gravity having an effect on choice of Race altitude. Race start will be controlled by the International Space Station . Refuelling stops and crew changeovers will also take place using the International Space Station with teams having to pre-programme their dockings in advance in a kind of Clipper-Formula One pit-stop-like event. Obviously programming for such pit-stops and slick drills through intense training will be a key element of race success.

Each crew will consist of 2 trained astronauts as “skipper” and “mate” plus up to 12 crew on each orbit. In a mirror of existing Clipper rules, each team will have at least 6 crew who will pay to complete the entire mission, including launch and landing. The race will require 8 pit-stops (replicating the current 8 legs of the existing Clipper Race) for crew changeovers and re-provisioning at the ISS, meaning that a crew member signing up to complete just a single leg can expect to spend approximately 25 hours in space or approximately 16-17 orbits. Training will follow an intensive 6 month programme and a specific medical and training programme is being negotiated with 5 rival agencies – the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington DC, the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in Beijing, Roscosmos (the former Russian Federal Space Agency) at their launch complex at Vostochny, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at Bengaluru. It has not been announced when a final selection will be made.

Crew costs for training and participation are yet to be announced. Speaking about this exciting announcement, Sir Robyn Nox-Johnson , founder of Clipper Ventures plc and the first man to sail single handed non stop around the globe said that this latest evolution of “Clipper” sailing from the Flying Cloud and Cutty Sark through Clipper 60s, Clipper 68s and Clipper 70s to the future Clipper-shuttle represents the next step in man’s inherent desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’ll return to the latest update from Subic Bay (received yesterday) in my next blog. In the meantime:

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see:

For UNICEF UK see:

Please take a look. Thank You. Happy 1st of April!

129. Whether to write about Weather (again!)

This week included World Meteorology Day. Of course I’m sure you spotted that. Actually it was Tuesday. Our weather here was pretty good for March and quite spring-like. World Meteorology Day takes place every 23 March and it commemorates the coming into force of the Convention establishing the World Meteorological Organisation on 23 March 1950, so happy 71st birthday WMO.

Rather appropriately, at least in terms of Clipper and this Blog, the theme for World Meteorology Day 2021 is “The Ocean, Our Climate and Weather.” CV 22 Seattle were clearly ahead of their time with their branding

This theme celebrates WMO’s focus in connecting the ocean, climate, and weather within the Earth’s system. It also marks the starting year of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). The Decade galvanises efforts to gather ocean science, through innovative and transformative ideas, as the basis of information to support sustainable development. As the UN’s specialised agency for climate, weather and water, the WMO strives to support understanding of the inextricable link between ocean, climate, and weather. This helps us understand the world in which we live, including the impact of climate change, and helps member States strengthen their ability to keep lives and property safe, reducing the risks of climate related disasters and to maintain viable economies. For more about the World Meteorological Organisation take a look at

‘On reflection, I’ve written about the weather and various related climatic oceanographic stuff already. In fact 9 blogs last time I counted from Blog 22, Florence, Mangkhut and Helene … with memories of Michael Fish, Daria and Luis, published 4 September 2018 to Blog 111, The Drifters, published 22 February 2020 ………………. via

Blog 23, The Weather theme continued …. but spare a thought and a prayer this Sunday for Abhilash Tomy, 23 September 2018,

Blog 27, ‘Twas the night before Christmas … ooops sorry! ‘Twas the night before Clipper, 12 October 2018,

Blog 28, Level 2 Training Part 1, Sea Survival, 25 October 2018,

Blog 37, Bravo Zulu Tian Fu, 9 Dec 2018,

Blog 79, Racing downwind across the Bay of Biscay, 12 September 2019,

Blog 82, Ruth over breakfast this morning … “Explain these Dollydrums to me again.” 21 September 2019,

Blog 83, Dollydrums! WHAT Dollydrums??? 25 September 2019,

plus the odd weather update from Jeronimo in the Philippines.

But what about the (possible) future weather for my remaining Clipper Legs?

Leg 6 across the North Pacific has changed from the original plan of Zhuhai-Qingdao-Seattle in mid February to late April 2020 into Subic Bay-Sanya-Zhuhai-Qingdao-Seattle in late August to late October 2021.

Leg 8 has morphed from New York-Bermuda-Londonderry-London in late June to 1 September 2020 into Bermuda-Northern Europe-London in late December 2021 to late January 2022!

So what?

Well here’s a quick look at the “so what.”

Philippines Climate Graph

Firstly Subic Bay, Philippines. Leg 6 will restart during the rainy season in the Philippines. Average rainfall in Subic (almost rains every day!) is considered very high in August and significantly higher in Sanya and Zhuhai in September. The new schedule is very much in the latter part of the typhoon season across the general area for the early stages of the Leg. The Philippines are prone to Typhoons pretty much any time of the year (and Jeronimo has already reported a “couple of near-misses) and they generally move from east to west across the islands heading north and west as they pass. Average temperatures in Subic, Sanya and Zhuhai are likely to be as shown below and for the Chinese ports these temperatures are up between 4 degrees and 10 degrees C on what we might have originally experienced. Good news then …. even if we can expect to be wetter!

The Race from Zhuhai to Qingdao is likely to involve heavy upwind conditions with increased sea states particularly east of Taiwan with prevailing winds from the north and east sectors and the North East monsoon in play and actually increasing during this period as Asia cools off. This will mean beating into wind and “life at an angle” with all that means for life onboard, particularly below deck. From July to October Qingdao can also be affected by Typhoons. In better news there will be much less chance of the foggy conditions off Qingdao that affected the last edition of the Race, and temperatures alongside in Qingdao will be considerably improved on the original schedule and on the last edition of the Race. Way back at Crew Allocation Day in Portsmouth, one experienced Skipper described the last Race edition in Qingdao as the coldest he had ever been on a yacht! Summer months in Qingdao are generally wetter than winter months.

The North Pacific will be generally warmer than we might have originally experienced (up by approximately 3-4 degrees C) but the prevailing winds will still be driven by low pressure weather systems heading from west to east. The Western Pacific is still prone to Tropical Revolving Storms, but once the Fleet is about a third of the way across the track will be dominated by the usual North Pacific depressions and storms. Large sea states and gale force conditions are still likely to prevail but Hurricanes in the North Pacific are generally further south than the latitudes at which we are likely to be racing. Remind me I wrote that bit when we get to Seattle!

Average weather conditions in Seattle in late October are likely to be a welcome relief!

Not surprisingly Bermuda in December is likely to be a tad cooler than Bermuda in the summer but not by as much as you might imagine. Air and sea temperatures in the North Atlantic are going to be considerably cooler. It is possible that we will be deliberately routed south, possibly with a virtual race waypoint which we will have to sail around somewhere near the Azores. This will add approximately 400 nautical miles to the crossing, and add an extra two days but it will keep us well clear of ice and fog further north and would give us the Azores as a port of refuge as an emergency contingency should this option be taken. In the familiar Northern Hemisphere winter the prevailing south westerly winds will be stronger and there will be much less chance of calms and light winds that we might have experienced in the summer. Depressions are likely to be larger and stretch over a greater area. Sea states are likely to be increased and it is possible for wind speeds to reach hurricane force.

or maybe I should have just summarised the “so what?” as “warmer, wetter and stormy followed by colder, wetter and stormy!?” Time will tell.

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see


Please take a look. Thank You.

128. No Ordinary Race, No Ordinary Year

It’s just a fraction over a year since the Clipper Race was “suspended” with the yachts in Subic Bay, Philippines and unless you’ve spent 12 months in Outer Space, marooned on a desert island, hibernating, or following a programme of self-isolation living in a cave, you don’t need me to tell you what a different year it has been.

This time last year Clipper crews from around the world had managed to get out of the Philippines and get home by various routes as the Philippines and most of the rest of the world went into some form of COVID quarantine-lockdown. I touched on some of the “escapes” of my UNICEF colleagues in Blog 113: Update, published exactly a year ago today and my own “predicament” and feelings were explained in Blog 112: I See No Ships, published 15 March 2020. Regular readers will be aware that “I see No Ships” was a bit too literal for comfort.

Allowing me a little-bit-of-leeway in terms of how I am defining the timeline, for me the Clipper adventure had gone from this

Stafford Station 7 Oct 2019

via this

to this

with plenty of this inbetween:

and then:

and since returning from the Philippines a few “blog-diversions” covering:

and what of my eyesight after all that ………..

……….. well it turns out that at my last “formal” eye test a couple of weeks ago I got down to reading the lowest line I have ever been able to read … with BOTH eyes. My eyesight is now better than before the original haemorrhage back in March 2020. How EYERONIC is that!!!!

So what about the Race? No further update since my previous blog, Blog 127: There is a kind of Plan…. or at least a Clipper Plan, published 15 February 2021.

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see

for UNICEF UK see

Please take a look. Thank You

127. There is a kind of Plan …… or at least a Clipper Plan

With recent events in the United States, the current third National lockdown in the UK, and continuing high UK COVID figures, it seems somewhat incongruous to be writing about Clipper planning. That said the UK vaccine roll-out is going well and although I don’t have a date yet for the jab myself, a number of my family and friends have had at least one jab, as have some of my team UNICEF colleagues. Against that background its time for me to indulge in the latest episode of “Operation Let’s Tempt Fate” and outline the Clipper Plan for 2021/2022 – at least as it is likely to effect me.

Subject to all the usual “watch this space,” “light art the end of the tunnel,” “COVID developments,” “vaccine roll-out,” “international circumstances” caveats (have I missed any?), here is the current plan.

Leg 6 crew (the North Pacific Leg) are planning to be in Subic Bay, Philippines for 16 August 2021 – 183 days from today! A period of extended refresher training will then take place ahead of a Race restart on Saturday 28 August 2021. Leg 6 is now proposed to include races to all three Chinese stopovers (Sanya, Zhuhai and Qingdao) before routing down the Yellow Sea, around the southern tip of Japan and across the North Pacific and the International Date line towards the USA.

The dates and duration of each Chinese standoff have not yet been announced but we will be in Zhuhai on 11 September as that is a second proposed joining date for Leg 6 crew who cannot make the Subic start date. For crew joining in Zhuhai there will be a mandatory two day refresher sail in addition to the Clipper Race Crew Assessment that I have posted a few photos of and completed long ago on joining for Leg 2 in Punta del Este, Uruguay (see Blog 90: Am I Ready????, published 22 October 2019). For my part I’m aiming for Subic. The new arrival window into Seattle is 24-29 October, approximately 4 weeks after leaving the Philippines.

Leg 6, last edition of the Race

Ther Leg 7 Crew Changeover is planned to be on Tuesday 2 November which is the date on which I will leave the team once more. Some time after that I will return to the UK. Leg 7 will start from Seattle on Saturday 6 November and will comprise two races (Seattle to Panama and Panama to Bermuda) with a Panama Canal transit in between. The estimated arrival window is 20-22 Decembere 2021. I will rejoin the team in Bermuda on Monday 27 December ahead of a two day refresher sail and the Clipper Race Crew Assessment. The fleet will begin Leg 8 and leave Bermuda on Thursday 30 December 2021 – Happy New Yerar (almost) and we will see in the New Year of 2022 in the North Atlantic.

The final Leg will comprise two races, from Bermuda to a European stopover (yet to be announced) and then to Race Finish off Southend. The fleet will motor sail up the Thames and into London on Saturday 29 January 2022; 2 years, 4 months and 28 days since Race Start!

I found myself rummaging through my Clipper kit this week, not I hasten to add because I was pining for the yacht, nor getting in some early (very early!) pre-deployment packing, but more because the recent spell of sub-zero UK temperatures and easterly winds sent me in search of warmer clothing. Who would have guessed 18 months ago that the ultra-warm snoods I purchased for the Southern Ocean could also double as face-masks!

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see

for UNICEF UK see

Please take a look. Thank you.

126. If You Insist (a longish blog)

Happy New Year! Following a long(ish) tradition on these pages I will start this first post of 2021 by tempting fate and stating that this time next year I should have finished Leg 8 (and probably the longest yacht race in history (Clipper 2019-2022), with the Race having sailed from Bermuda just before New Year’s Eve 2021 and arrived in London this weekend 2022. Given that this time last year my predictions for what 2020 may entail were hopelessly off the mark, it’s probably time to change the subject immediately. I’ll come back to the possible 2021 programme in a future blog.

A number of people have asked me ………… ok, some people have asked me ………… oh alright, a few people have asked me ………… now you’re just being pedantic …….. a couple of people have asked me, after the previous blog post, why I don’t write more about my Fishery Protection exploits? My standard response of, “this is meant to be a blog about my Clipper adventures” is generally met with the response that, “you haven’t bothered about deviating in the past!” Hmmmm. While I will admit that I might have strayed a little off-piste in the past – baking, bees and beards spring to mind – I’ve tried to make a link with Clipper, tenuous perhaps, and it’s hardly my fault I find myself having to write a Clipper related blog for (potentially) 18 months longer than I had originally planned.

Ok, if you insist. Some recollections about Fishery Protection follow with a tenuous Clipper link to begin and the latest “postcard from Jeronimo” in the Philippines to finish. If all you really want is Clipper News then please skip to the final paragraphs.

Way back in July 2018 I wrote about Level 1 training impinging on normal life in Blog 10: “You know you are “hanging on too tight” after Level 1 training when ……….” published 11 July 2018.

Well old habits die hard and with the onset of Storm Bella in late December I decided to put Clipper Leg 2 experience to good use and put 3 reefs into the Christmas lights!!!!!

“You mean to tell me you have a flagpole …… in your garden!!???? “Well actually…………. I prefer the term “mainmast” but suit yourself.” 😉 Tenuous Clipper link thus established, some paragraphs about Fishery Protection.

The Fishery Protection Squadron used to claim to be the oldest continuously serving front-line Squadron in the Royal Navy, or at least that is what we always used to claim when I was a part of it. It can be traced back to at least 1481 although some sources, including the Royal Navy, date it to 1379. Its long history boasts a number of distinguished and illustrious (and some not so distinguished and illustrious) commanding officers, including the 23 year old Horatio Nelson (as Captain of HMS ALBERMARLE in 1781) and the 27 year old Keith Winstanley (as Captain of HMS UPTON 1988-1990)!

I served in the Squadron twice. First, as the Navigating Officer and Operations Officer of the Offshore Patrol Vessel HMS SHETLAND from 1984-1986 and then as the Commanding Officer of the Minesweeper HMS UPTON.

That latter appointment is already over 30 years ago and while my memory is very good and I have my Captain’s Night Order Books and various reports and signals to fall back on, much has changed since then. The personal reflections that follow do not reflect current operations and, it could be argued, are as relevant today as tales from the age of sail!

The modern Overseas Patrol Squadron (the title replaced Fishery Protection Squadron last year) comprises 8 ships, none of which is more than 10 years old and, as the Squadron title suggests, their duties take them beyond UK’s fishing waters. Back in 1988 I re-joined a Squadron comprising 11 ships (HMShips LEEDS CASTLE, GUERNSEY, LINDISFARNE, SHETLAND, ANGLESEY, ORKNEY, JERSEY and ALDERNEY of the Offshore Division and HMShips BLACKWATER, SOBERTON and UPTON of the Coastal Division. “Coastal Division” was something of a misnomer and I certainly never felt operationally constrained to the coast. My operational constraints largely revolved around keeping a weather eye on ….. the weather … and on the levels in the fresh water tanks as we only had enough fresh water for 4-5 days on patrol before we needed an alongside berth to replenish. Consequently our patrol pattern generally involved 4-5 days on patrol and then 24-36 hours alongside in UK ports quite literally anywhere we could fit, and even some places (Penzance!) where we almost didn’t fit! In two years we visited Blyth, Newcastle (including a rather memorable New Year’s Eve and once when we had to throw our berthing hawsers to passers by when our berthing party hadn’t turned up), South Shields, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Grimsby, Hull, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Harwich, Ipswich (for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day one year), Dover, Newhaven, Shoreham, Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth, Portland, Torquay, Dartmouth, Millbay, Devonport, Falmouth, Penzance, Swansea, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Liverpool, Fleetwood, and Douglas plus informal visits to Emden, Amsterdam and Antwerp. Douglas was my first “alongside” as a CO.

UPTON alongside in Douglas, Isle of Man

We would land small parties by our Gemini inflatable boat (later upgraded to a “Tornado” rigid, inflatable boat) to buy bread, milk and papers when our operating pattern allowed and anchored in countless bays and interesting places around the coast. The Navigating Officer and I tried to find “amusing” places to drop our anchor and my Night Order Book records that we spent the night of 15 September 1988 sheltering in “Abraham’s Bosom” Sadly, 33 years on I can’t remember where that is, or quite how comfortable a bosom it was! It was not uncommon to spend months away from our base port of Rosyth with long patrols broken with a two-week maintenance period in one of the south coast Naval bases. HMS UPTON was already 32 years old when I took over. She had been launched 5 years before I had been born and I was to be her penultimate Captain.

Throughout my time with the Squadron I had nothing but the utmost respect for the fishermen I encountered, both afloat and ashore. It was, and probably still is, one of the most dangerous maritime activities. Although somewhat “after my time”, a research project for Swansea University in 2007 showed that the fatal accident rate for UK Fishermen for the decade 1996-2005 was 115 times higher than that of the general workforce of the UK, 81 times higher than in manufacturing and 24 times higher than the construction industry. We shared some (but not all) of these dangers, particularly when it came to the weather. UPTON was 152 feet long, 28 feet wide and had a draught of only 8 feet. She had no stabilisers to damped her motion and could, I have heard it claimed, “roll on wet grass.” I have written previously about being at sea in HMS UPTON during the so called “Burns Day Storm” (actually Hurricane Daria) – hurricane force winds that battered the UK South Coast on 25-26 January 1990. See Blog 22: “Florence, Mangkhut and Helene …. with memories of Michael Fish, Daria and Luis”, published 17 September 2018.

I also recall a 5 day period operating in the North Sea where a continues easterly gale (on shore) meant we could not safely enter any East coast port nor anchor off exposed shorelines and therefore had no option but to pound slowly into the seas to make sufficient room to then turn (across the seas!) and run downwind and down sea for meal times. Back and fro for 5 days during which time we could only leave the relative safety of our bunks to eat or go on watch – and in my case climb the internal ladder to the bridge to check on the weather and the navigation. I also recorded a three week period in March 1990 when the weather was “out-of-limits” for boarding operations on every single day.

Somewhat earlier, on 4 December 1988, we left the Belgian port of Antwerp for the 5 hour passage down the Scheldt and out into the Scheldt estuary in the teeth of a severe gale. There was nowhere to shelter and it was not safe to anchor on a lee shore in the prevailing or forecast conditions. The weather was so bad that the Belgian and Dutch authorities had “suspended” pilotage by the time we exited the Scheldt and, having given our stranded Belgian sea pilot the use of my cabin overnight, we adjusted our plans to make a rather uncomfortable overnight passage to Dover in order to safely land him. Just as I left the Bridge around midnight we picked up a rather garbled and broken Mayday call and thought we saw distress flares in the distance on our port bow. We streamed down the bearing – clutter on the radar from the storm hid any obvious contacts – and shortly we could smell fuel in the air. Extracts from the 39 page Report of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents published by the UK Cabinet Office tell the bald facts better than I can:

“During the night of 4/5 December 1988 the suction dredger BOWSPRITE (3000 tons, 264ft long, 44ft beam, 17.5ft deep) was bound from a position off Nieuwpoort, Belgium towards the River Thames with a cargo of marine aggregate. Just before midnight, when about 15 miles NNW of Nieuwpoort, the bottom shell fractured. The weather was severe, with strong gale (force 9) westerly winds and very rough seas. The fracture occurred at about midships (half length). The initial MAYDAY was acknowledged by Ostend Radio and logged by them at 0007. Ostend broadcast a MAYDAY relay at 0013 which was received by North Foreland Radio at 0017 and relayed to Dover at 0018. At approximately 0020 or a few minutes later, the BOWSPRITE completely folded in two with both sections going nearly vertical. All lights now went out and the ten crew members were scattered. The forward part of the ship quickly sank and the aft part remained afloat.

There were, by now, a number of vessels standing by including the ferries PRIDE OF BRUGES and OLAU HOLLANDIA who were illuminating the area with their searchlights. The British minesweeper HMS UPTON was acting as “On-Scene Commander.” The first Belgian helicopter arrived on the scene at about 0045 and quickly lifted the Chief Officer and the Master from the still floating stern of the ship. They also winched to safety two crew members who had made it into the only life raft launched in time. The rest of the crew had, by now, gone into the water.

The Second Officer slid on his back into the water, going completely under and then bobbing to the surface. He saw the bow section sink and then drifted away. He was subsequently picked up by HMS UPTON at 0055. He suffered a broken right leg and damage to his right knee, plus extensive bruising to the body. The Third Engineer was picked up by HMS UPTON at 0126 having been in the sea for about an hour. The bodies of the Second Engineer and one Able Seaman were picked up by HMS UPTON. Both had slipped out of their lifejackets and were hanging about a foot underwater. The body of the Extra Mate/Training Master was washed ashore near Ostend on 8 December. The body of the remaining Able Seaman was never recovered.

At about 0130 a further Belgian helicopter winched down a doctor to the deck of HMS UPTON who assisted the warship’s medical team in treating the Second Officer and the Third Engineer. At 0210, while manoeuvring inside considerable flotsam from the wreckage and still searching for men in the water, the starboard shaft of HMS UPTON was fouled by a mooring rope from the wreck forcing her to shut down the starboard engine. She continued to operate on one engine. At 0250 the Second Mate, Third Engineer and the Belgian doctor were lifted off HMS UPTON by helicopter and flown to hospital in Bruges.

The Search and Rescue operation was well handled and had it not been for the sudden violent folding together of the two halves of the BOWSPRITE all ten crew would have probably been rescued, despite the severe weather. Special mention must be made of the Belgian helicopter crews who showed skill and courage in lifting the survivors to safety and also of the Belgian doctor who was lowered on to the deck of HMS UPTON to give treatment to injured survivors. The British minesweeper HMS UPTON assumed the roll of on-scene commander and was handled with great skill by her Commanding Officer throughout. Four of her crew entered the water in extremely hazardous conditions to recover the exhausted survivors. The Master and crew of the BOWSPRITE conducted themselves in exemplary fashion, and the Search and Rescue operation was carried out with skill and courage in very adverse conditions.

The reports key conclusion was “It has not been possible, despite extensive research to establish positively the reasons for the fracture. The most probable explanation is that the ship, heading almost directly into the weather, encountered two successive very large waves so that she was momentarily severely sagged: the concentration of the weight of the cargo amidships acting with inbuilt stress upon an aging hull, led directly and immediately to catastrophic failure.

Of course that actually only tells part of the story. The sinking was actually witnessed by a nearby merchant vessel, M/V WHITEBURN GIRL who first relayed the position to Ostend Radio. She was about one mile to the South. The ferry PRIDE OF BRUGE and UPTON both arrived on the scene at approximately 0035Z to be joined shortly thereafter by the NORDIC FERRY and the OLAU HOLLANDIA. The weather was too rough for any of us to put boats in the water and UPTON was clearly the only ship manoeuvrable enough to get close to the wreck. and we recovered men from the water at 0055Z, 0109Z, 0126Z and 0140Z. The bigger ships were used to illuminate the still floating stern section of the wreck, warn other shipping to keep clear and to assist in the visual search for men in the water. Recovery of the casualties involved manoeuvring the ship and stopping upwind of the men in the water with the starboard beam to the wind and sea. The swimmer-of-the-watch then entered the water on a line and with a recovery strop, rescued the casualty and, once alongside the ship, placed him in the recovery strop to be manually hoisted by members of the crew tending the appropriate line and all standing in the port waist of the ship. The system was only designed to lift one man at a time. While the casualty was being hoisted inboard, the ship picked up considerably leeway (drifting downwind onto the swimmer, who was forced to keep swimming away from the ship to avoid disappearing under the hull. Throughout the recovery of the casualty and then the swimmer we were stopped in the water and rolling viciously.

Not surprisingly this was dangerous and exhausting work and three separate swimmers were used. The oldest was 29, the other two were both 19. During the final recovery the swimmer, on his second rescue, was so exhausted he could not put the strop around the casualty and it was all he could do to stop himself and his casualty disappearing beneath the ship. Realising there was a real danger of losing both men, Lt Paul Haycock, the First Lieutenant, entered the water himself and saved both men. Helicopter operations – winching down to the stern of the ship amongst all the minesweeping gear was pretty tricky at the best of times. Even years later I continue to be impressed that we did it four times that night in those conditions.

The actions of the marine engineering teams in rapidly shutting down the starboard engine when the starboard shaft became fouled undoubtedly saved the engine from damage. That they then quickly hacksawed through the hawser and recovered both ends into the ship and secured them inboard so we could continue operations on one shaft was impressive. It would only be later that day, safely in Dover, that we could be sure there was no damage to the shaft, the A bracket, and the starboard propeller. It was that kind of night.

PRIDE OF BRUGE, OLAU HOLLANDIA and NORDIC FERRY were instructed to proceed between 0315Z and 0335Z and the search continued by UPTON, the Belgian tug SEA TIGER, a Belgian pilot vessel, two lifeboats and helicopters. Although two empty lifejackets were located by helicopter at about 0430Z no one was recovered from the water after 0140Z. UPTON was released to proceed to Dover to land our bodies and effect repairs to our starboard shaft at 0800Z. The stern section of the BOWSPRITE was still afloat and as we left the scene Belgian authorities were preparing to put divers onto the stern section to search for the missing men.

Between 0026Z on 5 December and 1115Z on 6 December I sent 5 signals directly relating to the incident. The second one, at 0102Z was particularly succinct. It merely read “AM RESCUING SURVIVORS IN MY PRESENT POSITION 5122N(0) 00236E(1).” My final signal was equally brief:


It was some time afterwards that I discovered that in the midst of all this chaos the Belgian sea-pilot enjoying the comfort of a cabin I hadn’t seen for quite some time, awoke, roused by the sound of a helicopter overhead, and appeared on the Bridge expecting to be going ashore. I didn’t see him but I have it on good authority that he was “requested” to leave the scene of action forthwith! He wasn’t seen again until we arrived safely alongside in Dover. In the subsequent weeks I couldn’t help wondering if we could have done more to find the missing men? Could we have got to the scene any quicker? Could I or should I have risked putting a small boat in the water? I can’t remember the first time I was aware that the second and fourth men we recovered from the water were dead. With the noise and motion and all the action that was involved it was not as obvious on the night as it now appears reading the official narrative in the cold light of day. A few days later, alongside in Poole, I found myself drinking late at night with one of the 19 year olds who had gone into the water that night. We were recounting our own perspectives on events of the previous week. At one point he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “I didn’t know he was dead.” It turned out that throughout his herculean efforts in the water he thought “his casualty” was struggling to stay afloat. He watched him hoisted clear of the water, awaited his own recovery, and then, exhausted, went below himself to recover before returning on deck to “have another go.” It turned out that the first thing he saw when he returned to the upper deck was the body of the man he thought he had just rescued.

As late as 7 weeks after the incident we were still providing information to assist inquests and enquiries and even in locating the precise position of the wrecked bows, Belgian divers having dived on a wreck on 18 Jan to discover it was, as they put in their signal, “not, repeat not, the BOWSPRITE.” The wreck was ultimately found and marked by buoys. Commander-In-Chief’s Commendations for bravery were received for the 4 men who entered the water that night in September 1989.

That particular patrol started on 28 November 1988 and finished on 5 January 1990. In addition to the BOWSPRITE incident it also included 3 foreign fishing vessel arrests, and subsequent court cases, in the space of a week from 13 December and assistance to the merchant ship GIENY S in the early hours of 21 December. GIENY S had developed a 45 degree list and lost all electrical power when her timber cargo shifted at night in the English channel. We put a boarding team onboard, restored electrical power, and escorted her to Dover harbour. We took “Christmas” leave between 6-22 January and went back to sea on patrol on 30 January, this time remaining away from our base port through to 10 March. This sort of routine was typical.

We had a fair share of “adventures” like BOWSPRITE/GIENY S and, primarily because we were often the first warship on the scene, we appeared to have more than our fair share of incidents as “Scene of Action Commander.” Not all had successful outcomes and I vividly remember a particular search for a “missing” fishing vessel in the southern North Sea and the waters off East Anglia. We coordinated the search of a number of other vessels and helicopter – many of which came and went – over a 3 day period in excellent visibility and pretty good weather. This included HMS BROCKLESBY, RAF Nimrod aircraft, the Lowestoft and Aldeburgh lifeboats and a USAF Jolly Green Giant. We never found a thing. In addition to carrying out boardings there were many occasions where we (and other ships in the Squadron) went to the aid of fishing vessels in distress.

About to pass a tow

We provided all sorts of assistance including, on one night, the transfer by small boat, of a portable generator to a French fishing vessel taking on water (sinking!) in the middle of the English Channel. As a Captain I often dreamt of going to the assistance of a fully laden 200,000 tons diamond carrier inboard for Amsterdam and claiming my share of the “prize money” from a successful salvage operation. “Prize Rules” were suitably archaic and the Captain’s share most definitely larger than anyone else’s (we were, you must remember, defending democracy, not practicing it!). There was, however, a tacit understanding that ships of the Fishery Protection Squadron never submitted a “salvage claim” after assistance to a fishing vessel, no matter how lengthy or complicated the assistance.

Battleship UPTON!!!!!! One of my favourite newspaper clippings.

The Commanding Officer and the First Lieutenant of each Squadron ship were both qualified British Sea Fisheries Officers (BSFOs) having completed a training course under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), and taken a MAFF BSFO to sea to be assessed, observed, checked out and “passed fit for service” – all; this before being turned lose on the fishing community writ large. My own course was undertaken in London, Lowestoft, Grimsby and Rosyth and covered everything from the complexities of the regulations for fishing within the UK’s EEZ – the so called “Blue Book”, a rather large , thick and complicated tome unimaginatively blue in colour – containing different regulations for different areas within British Fishery limits – to logbook and quota recording rules (again different for different areas) – to the correct way of measuring nets and the legal (and illegal) use of net attachments, the details of reporting procedures, arrest and court procedures, and finally fish recognition training! Fish recognition training included practical exams at the MAFF Fish laboratory in Lowestoft – a collection of rather old samples which was quite as unpleasant an experience as it sounds. More fun was had in the early pre-dawn hours hours at Grimsby fish market onboard a recently arrived trawler, knee deep in the fish hold moving fish around and calling out “cod”, “haddock”, “saithe”, “pollock”, “pint fish”, “whiting”, “monk fish” ……. “pint fish” being the accepted cry for a species you couldn’t identify as, by that time on the course, failure to identify a fish cost you a “pint” for the course instructor! My practical assessment took place after I had joined HMS UPTON and was conducted over a 10-12 day period in the Irish Sea and the Lundy and Fastnet sea areas.

Getting on (and off) a fishing vessel making way was always hazardous, even more so at night, and there was not always anyone on deck to assist the first amongst us making the effort. There were plenty of bruises and the odd cut, numerous slips, falls, tumbles and “near misses” but only one (as I recall) man overboard (safely recovered). It wasn’t me but to the delight of some (again not me!) it was the Coxswain!

We always respected the fact that these men were earning their livelihoods and made every effort to have the minimum impact on the way they conducted business. I do not recall EVER ordering a fisherman to haul his nets ahead of when he had planned. If necessary (and sometimes it was) the boarding teams would simply wait. The FV would, more often than not, be engaged in fishing with her gear in the water, while we boarded. This required considerable skill on the part of our small boat coxswains and boats crew and a fair mix of courage and agility on the part of our boarding teams. It wasn’t necessarily much safer to board after nets had been hauled (depending on the fishing vessel type) with the boat stopped and several tons of equipment swinging around and wires all over the place. It was a young man’s game and thankfully most of us were! When conditions and sea room allowed we would endeavour to give the boarding teams a down-sea run to the fishing vessel and, in due course, a down-sea return to UPTON once the boarding was complete. An “average” boarding would take between 45 minutes to an hour, not including transit time to and from HMS UPTON, and include inspection of the fishing vessels logbook, checking of nets and attachments, and checking of the quantity, sizes and species of fish in the hold. We did carry out some boardings at night but rarely, if ever, did we conduct more than 5 or 6 boardings in a 24 hour period. The vast, vast majority were legal, honest men going about their lawful business often in extremely dangerous and arduous conditions. The majority were friendly, gregarious, and generous – sometimes with their “hospitality.” We were not permitted to accept anything, other than perhaps a cup of coffee, until the inspection was complete and no infringements were found. On some occasions, as we disembarked, we would be offered fresh fish. In these instances “first call” went to providing a meal for the ship’s company with anything left over being offered, in the first instance, to the boarding teams. You had to “prepare” the fish for freezing yourself so, over the space of two years, I became a dab hand at filleting fish.

Sadly, not all fishing vessels were this generous nor, as HMS UPTON’s arrest record will attest, all this honest. Failure to accurately record the amount of each species caught meant that the excess amount did not come off a country’s quota for a specific species in a specific area. Estimating fish quantities was never an exact science for fishermen or boarding teams and we always gave the benefit of the doubt to the fishermen. That said, I arrested a number of fishing vessels for significant under-recording including the “runaway” French stern trawler I mentioned in Blog 125: Advent, Nautical Flashbacks & Happy Christmas, published 24 December 2020. In my experience fishing with deliberately undersized nets was a fairly rare occurrence but fishing with illegal attachments, in some cases fitted with quick release mechanisms – effectively restricting net size was rather more common and provided an interesting degree of additional fishery protection challenge.

My very first arrest was a large Dutch beam trawler encountered on the edge of British Sea Fishery limits, and the boundary with Dutch limits, at 0645Z on the morning of 1 November 1988. Conditions were pretty good and, giving “conduct” of UPTON to my First Lieutenant, I decided to do this boarding myself and boarded the vessel prior to him hauling his nets and recovering his catch. At the time we were about 40 miles ESE of Lowestoft and some 4 nautical miles inside British Sea Fishery limits. So far so good. In the course of the boarding I came across a number of irregularities including illegal and undersized attachments to both nets. Communications with MAFF London were not good but eventually, following discussions with London and the Dutch authorities, the First Lieutenant relayed to me that UK and Dutch authorities also suspected that this fishing vessel had a false (and hidden) fish room. I was therefore tasked with finding it! The more the boarding party and I searched, the less cooperative the skipper and his crew became. Without the ability to take his existing fish hold apart – an impossible task for a three man boarding team at sea – the search for hidden compartments proved fruitless and I was ordered to arrest the skipper for the more obvious offences and order him to accompany UPTON to Lowestoft for further investigation. He refused. Not just once either. He even refused when I reverted to the use of cards specifically printed in Dutch. He refused THREE times. He was big, burly, bearded…. and at least twice my size! His crew outnumbered my boarding team three to one. Tricky. Unfortunately, in the course of a rather protracted boarding, I had allowed the Dutchman to leave British Sea Fishery Limits and pointing to his position on his chart systems he ordered me to leave his boat. Even more tricky. I say “I allowed” because I accepted full responsibility. As I put it in my official report some days later “Responsibility for failing to order the fishing vessel to remain within BFLs and for the failure of the Bridge team to appreciate the situation must ultimately rest with the Commanding Officer. An objective reconstruction of the incident leads all involved to the conclusion that during the course of a protracted boarding, aware not only that he had committed offences but also that a search for a false fish room was in progress, the skipper made a deliberate, and in the event skilfully executed, attempt to leave BFLs before being ordered alongside for further investigation. None of the boarding team noticed any movement.” As this was being reported to various HQs in London and Rosyth consideration was given to ordering me to return to my ship lest the Dutchman hightail it for home with a Royal Navy Commanding Officer onboard, HMS NURTON (not a Fishery Protection vessels) was ordered to my assistance “with all despatch” and I was ordered to “consider” trying to take the fishing vessel under tow. When that particular advice was relayed to me I remember thinking that maybe sending the First Lieutenant to do this boarding might have been a better idea after all!

Eventually, after increasing pressure from Dutch authorities, the skipper relented and came into Lowestoft where, the following day in the local Magistrates court he pleaded ………. Not Guilty to all charges and claimed illegal arrest. The term “piracy” was used. It was an interesting court case. Made more interesting because, if truth were told, his modern navigation equipment was far superior to the kit we carried. Nevertheless he was found guilty on two charges and fined £4000.00. As I put it in my official report, when the term “piracy” was used in court “it was reassuring to note that at the moment critique Lowestoft Magistrates Court was prepared to remind the defence council that it was the skipper of the JORIS SENIOR and not the Commanding Officer HMS UPTON who was on trial.” I suspect it had been a couple of hundred years since an RN CO had been accused of piracy!

For the record, during my time in UPTON we carried out 258 boardings (75 British, 64 French, 76 Belgians, 23 Dutch, 17 Danish, 2 Irish and 1 German. We issued 5 formal warnings and carried out 22 arrests (9 British, 2 French, 10 Belgians and 1 Dutch) If “success” is measured in “arrests and warnings” then I do not believe any other ship in the Squadron was as successful. What do I put that success down to? Well, in short, I kind of cheated, although I prefer the expression “operated at tactical advantage.” So it is true that I did, on occasion, operate at night with “deceptive lighting” rigged to make my identity as a warship less obvious. We did perfect the skills of “long range boardings” i.e. launching our boarding teams from a range in excess of the 6 mile radar limit on which most (but not all) fishing vessels operated their radar and we did, on occasion, board fishing vessels without telling them by radio that we were coming. This latter tactic could even be successful in daylight (the visibility from a fishing vessels bridge can be quite restricted) but at night is obviously fraught with additional risks and difficulties. It was not a task I asked my team to undertake without, from time to time, doing it myself. There was a period when we achieved a “hat-trick” of arrests – three arrests from 3 consecutive boardings, at least two of these from the use of “covert” procedures.

These tactics arose out of necessity rather than as a pre-meditated ploy. On a number of occasions we came across otherwise “innocent-looking” fishing vessels who, in the face on our standard overt daylight approaches, would alter course to open the range and hurriedly haul their nets. This might have been fine had we not, on occasions, also witnessed frantic activity on deck and, on more than one occasion, the rapid ditching overboard of what appeared to be illegal net attachments. Following one such incident I chose not to carry out a boarding of the vessel concerned and, after boarding other vessels in the vicinity, withdrew over the visual horizon as night fell. Under the covert of dark, deceptive lighting and a non-direct approach, followed by a long range boarding, complete surprise was achieved and the same vessel boarded at first light. Surprise was complete. When told the boat was not planning to haul his nets for a number of hours, the First Lieutenant told the skipper than was fine and we would wait. Not surprisingly, when the time came, the skipper reported his winches as defective. We despatched an engineering repair party and offered to transport other fisherman in the area over to assist. At one point we even offered to haul his nets ourselves using our mine sweeping winches if he passed his wires over to us. From study of the fishing vessels drawings we identified the location of all the emergency stops on his gear and, surprise surprise, once we put sailors in all locations the winches miraculously cleared their defects and the nets were hauled. Imagine our surprise when both nets contained illegal “blinders” (effectively illegal nets within the normal nets) and both rigged with a quick release mechanism. In this particular instance Lowestoft Magistrates Court not only fined him on both charges of using illegal attachments, plus costs and an interpreters fee, they also ordered the confiscation of his catch, valued at £19,560.

When we weren’t enforcing fisheries legislation, coping with bad weather, assisting merchant vessels, yachts and fishing vessels, we kept “our hand in” as a minesweeper in both “mechanical” and “influence” modes. Mechanical sweeping used the standard Oropesa sweeps – a wire or wires streamed from the port and/or starboard quarter of the ship fitted with armed explosive cutters designed to “cut” the wires of moored or tethered mines. Influence minesweeping used a contraption called a “Combined Towed Acoustic Sweep and Loop” comprising a towed Acoustic Hammer, and Acoustic Displacer combined with a towed magnetic loop designed to combat acoustic and magnetic mines. Streaming this kit was a significant seamanship evolution in itself and involved deploying pretty much every piece of minesweeping equipment and float that we possessed. It turned a 152ft minesweeper into something like a super tanker in terms of length and manoeuvrability. I even managed to use an armed single Oropesa sweep once in anger against a submerged danger to navigation – but as we were responsible for putting the navigational danger in position in the first place that is probably best as a story for some other time!

There you go, the literary perils (your perils not mine) of having too much time on your hands (mine not yours) in which to blog during a third National lockdown.

Meanwhile, for Clipper devotees, the latest messages from Subic Bay, the second one received at the end of last week:

For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see:

for UNICEF UK see:

Please take a look. Thank you

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