I flew into London Heathrow and took a train to Portsmouth Harbor the day prior to the start of my level 1 training. I thought taking the London Underground (aka the “Tube”) would be like taking BART. Yeah, I was wrong. We got half way to Paddington Station where I was supposed to pick up my pre-booked train ticket before taking the Tube again to Waterloo Station. Due to someone jumping onto the tracks at a station further along the line they stopped all trains and kicked everyone off. Watching the time, I realized I was not in a good situation if I were to make my train. I opted to take an Uber during morning commute pricing to Paddington. Oh, and it started raining on me while waiting for the Uber. Welcome to London! Luckily it all worked out in the end and I made my train. I was falling in and out of sleep as the train made its way to the Portsmouth Hard.
Before checking into my hotel for the night, I made a stop at the Musto Lighthouse Store in Gunwharf Quays. This is the shop that carries technical race clothing. As Clipper crew we get select Musto gear as part of our paid fees. There are plenty of items one can buy in addition to what is supplied. I was ready to swipe my card and get some gear!!! The store staff were extremely helpful and I walked out of the store with a new pair of Musto deck shoes and ocean racing boots. Christmas came early!
Value Added Tax (VAT) notice: The store staff were accommodating and did the paperwork for me to claim back the VAT, which is sales tax, at the airport when I was flying home. I decided to claim back my money once I went through security. I did this on a trip to South Africa before and didn’t think anything of it. The lady processing the paperwork asked to see the items I was claiming the VAT for, and I explained they were in my checked luggage. She told me I should have claimed it back before checking my bag and going through security. WTF? News to me. So, I was out a small fortune, well enough for a nice meal out at least. Lesson learnt, don’t be like me if you find yourself in a similar situation.
After the Musto store I checked into my hotel, had a shower, then walked around exploring the Portsmouth Area. That evening I had a traditional pub meal; fish and chips with mushy peas and a beer. That’s one enjoyable thing about the UK! I slept like a log that night. The next day I had a few hours before reporting to the Clipper Training Office, so I went and toured the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It’s an active naval dockyard which is also home to the HMS Victory, which was Lord Nelson’s flagship vessel in the Battle of Trafalgar against the Spanish. It was pretty amazing to explore a 241-year-old (as of 2019) naval warship that is still commissioned. I highly recommend a visit if you are in the area.
Clipper Race Training!
I arrive at the Clipper Race Training office in the Gosport marina. Excited, nervous, anxious, but most of all ready to start this journey that had been planned for months. There are four levels of compulsory training that all crew must go through before being allowed to race. The training takes place in the UK, with the option of doing the first three levels in Sydney, Australia. Due to timing I opted to do all my training in the UK.
For level 1 I was placed on boat CV8. CV stands for Clipper Ventures and the 8 denotes the boat number. This is the legally registered vessel name. In the actual race you will see boats referred to as their sponsors, like “Garmin” or “Hotel-Planner.com”. It’s important to note that the actual race will be taking place onboard a Clipper 70, which has been used since the 2013/2014 race. The Clipper 68, which the first two levels of training take place on, were used starting with the 2005 race.
CV8 is a mixed bunch of crew, with varied experience. But that doesn’t matter, as long as someone is excited and willing to learn anyone can be great crew. Our boat also has a lot of people from China that are part of the Chinese Ambassador Program.
China is becoming more active in global sailing and there are three Chinese cities hosting stop over ports for the Clipper 19/20 race. These cities are Sanya, Zhuhai, and Qingdao. As I will be doing Leg 5 of the race, I will get to go to the first two cities. Each city is also a title sponsor of a race team. Locals were encouraged to apply and go through a rigorous program to be selected to go and do the mandatory Clipper race training in the UK. On CV8 we had a school teacher, restaurant owner, technology marketer, TV producer and government employee. It was really amazing to see the commitment that each crew member put into the training. Not only were they learning how to sail, but they had to learn all the sailing terms in English, of which a few of them spoke very little. It was inspiring to see them flourish through the week of training.
As we stepped aboard CV8 for the first time the skipper and mate went through the initial safety briefing. This included how to board the boat, safety precautions to lookout for when walking around the cockpit, how to climb down inside, how to use the toilets, where our bunks would be, emergency exits, muster points, and fire extinguisher locations. The crew accommodation on a Clipper 68 is also where the sails are stored. The area has been nicknamed the “ghetto”. Since it was May the weather wasn’t too wet or cold so the space wasn’t as bad as what others had made it out to be.
Day 2 was spent orienting ourselves with the boat and the “Clipper Way” on how to handle lines, winches, hoisting sails and anything else sailboat related. My initial reaction was how large everything was. This was big boat sailing, with large winches, lines and loads. If you screw up here you can seriously injure yourself or a fellow crew-mate. With the initial training complete, we do an assessment and sign off that we understand the basic safety procedures on how to sail the boat. Now it’s time to set sail!
All of the Clipper training takes place in the English Channel and the Solent. The Solent is steeped in maritime history and current British sailing. Gosport is the home port of Alex Thomson’s IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss. You may be familiar with his boat and stunts on YouTube. Look up “Hugo Boss Mast Walk” or “Hugo Boss Keel Walk” and his latest stunt “Sky Walk”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4loB_UGxw8
Portsmouth is home to Sir Ben Ainslie’s 36th America’s Cup British challenger INEOS Team UK. Cowes on the Isle of Wight is the Meca of sailing in the UK. Cowes week is at the start of August every year and hosts 1000 boats, 8000 sailors and has been held since 1826. The annual Round the Island race attracts upwards of 1500 yachts each year. The Fastnet offshore race starts in Cowes and goes out past the Needles on the western tip of the Isle of Wight.
As we left Gosport and headed out into the Solent I was like a child about to enter Disneyland for the first time. Months of anticipation, reading as much as I could about the boat, watching as many YouTube videos as possible (there are a lot!), I was finally on the water on a Clipper yacht. The sun was shining, there was 12kts of breeze and it was a cool spring day in early May. We spent our day doing “evolutions” which is practicing doing different functions on the boat. This could be raising or lowering the mainsail or headsails, tacking, gybing, and man-over-board (MOB) drills.
On the foredeck (the forward end of the boat by the bow) there is a staysail and jib, or what Clipper likes to call a “yankee”. There are three yankee sizes, a yankee 1 which is the largest sail, yankee 2 and a yankee 3 which would be deployed when the wind picks up above about 30kts.
Just to hoist the mainsail takes at least five crew. The mainsail weighs about 400kg. Two crew stand at the mast to “sweat” the halyard, while a third crew member is on the winch tailing in the excess line that the sweaters are pulling down. The role of the sweaters is to hoist the sail as high up the mast as they can go before there is too much weight for them to pull up. This is normally about 2/3’s the way up the mast. At this point the remaining two crew use the “coffee grinder” to grind the sail the remaining way to the top of the mast.
You may be wondering how a kitchen appliance is applicable here. Let me explain. A coffee grinder is the nickname given to a pedestal grinder that looks like a bicycle turned upside down that has handgrips where the foot pedals would be. A team of two crew standing opposite one another places their hands on the grips and then crank or “grind”. The pedestal is connected to a primary winch which is the largest and most powerful winch on the yacht. There is a superior mechanical advantage over using a coffee grinder compared to placing a winch handle in the top of the winch and using one arm to turn it. It’s a tough job which is both strength and cardio based. It’s definitely a workout using one.
Each day we would hoist the sails, do evolutions and then head back into port at night. Evenings were spent at the pub sharing stories over a pint or two. The days started to meld together and before we knew it, we were on our last day.
Deep Clean and Debrief Day
The last day of Clipper training involves what is called a deep clean. This consists of removing EVERYTHING from the boat, cleaning the boat and then putting EVERYTHING back onto the boat. A well-organized crew can accomplish this in about 4 hours, a disorganized crew can do it in 8+ hours. Luckily our crew was organized.
So, what comes off? Sails are hoisted out of the sail locker and onto the deck. All the spare lines are removed from the line locker and placed on the dock to be rinsed with fresh water. All the bunk cushions are brought on deck to be wiped down. All life jackets, tethers and foul weather gear are brought on deck to be organized and dried out. All the floorboards are removed and placed on the dock to be washed. While the floorboards are out we then vacuum and scrub the bilges, ensuring all water is out and they are wiped clean. The heads (toilets) are cleaned, the galley has all the food removed and is scrubbed down, and all the crew accommodation areas are wiped clean. Once the bilges are cleaned the reverse process starts. Floorboards are put back in, cushions, mattresses, life jackets, foul weather gear, sails and lines are all put back into their place neatly organized. The deck is then scrubbed clean and the 1st Mate goes up the mast to do a rig check, ensuring the yacht is safe for the next training class.
While all of the cleaning is going on the skipper does a debrief with each crew member and completes their individual assessments. This is to ensure the student has learnt what’s on the training syllabus and can demonstrate competency in general sailing terminology and knot tying. I was never stressed about the debrief however you can understand how some of the crew who had never sailed before would be concerned about this test. The days leading up to the test were spent quizzing each other and spending extra time with those that were concerned. Nothing can bring a crew closer together than ensuring no one is left behind on this skills assessment. We could be in the pub quizzing each other or using a small piece of rope to practice tying knots with. In the end all crew passed the assessment and we were all moving on to Level 2!
With cleaning complete, we all exchanged contact information and started to depart the marina. Some crew were headed back to their normal lives, taking their next level of training in a few weeks’ time. For most of us however we were all coming back in two days’ time for the next session. Can’t wait for it!!!