Let’s Do This!

After spending a few weeks back in the USA it was time to again fly across the pond for Clipper Level 4 training. This is the capstone course, where all your skills are put to the test and you will be sailing on your teams yacht, with your crew and with your skipper and AQP (Additionally Qualified Person – aka 1st Mate).

Last time in Portsmouth

An adventure blog to the United Kingdom wouldn’t be complete without talking about the local pub scene. The traditional English breakfast, eggs, ham, saute’d mushrooms and whole tomatoes and a serving of baked beans. You can go to any hotel or restaurant in the UK and this meal is on the menu.

Musto Kit

Day 1 started by checking in at the Clipper Race Training Office in Gosport. All the AQP’s were standing outside checking in their crew members. It was great to see Dan Jones and Sam Cooper, both race AQP’s that I sailed with in my level 2 training. Once signed in, I was instructed to gather my race kit at the other end of the marina.

Awesome! It’s finally here, well partially at least. Part of the fee that is paid to participate in the Clipper Round the World Race covers your team kit. This includes a team branded Musto BR1 lightweight jacket and a team polo shirt, both of which I will be receiving when I start leg 5 of the race in Australia. Today I get to pick up my Musto long-sleeve T-shirt, sailing shorts, and the main foul weather gear the Musto HPX salopettes and smock. For those non-sailors, salopette is a french word for coveralls and a sailing smock is like a heavy duty pull over water proof jacket. Musto is a UK sailing brand and the HPX series is their top of the line Gore-Tex ocean foul weather gear.

Team “Uni-Mark”

For level 4 training each skipper and their crew spend the week on board the boat they will be using in the actual race. For the third week of level 4 training (the week I was there), team UNICEF on CV31 did not have a boat ready to go out (the new water maker was being installed on their yacht). Clipper Training put their Skipper, AQP and 8 of their crew on team WTC Logistics boat. Mark Burkes, team WTC Logistics skipper, would be the skipper for the week and Ian Wiggin, team UNICEF skipper, would be the first mate. Their AQP’s, Dan Jones and Mike Miller respectively, would help in the watch keeping and training.

Skipper of WTC Logistics Mark Burkes in the foreground wearing all black and Skipper of UNICEF Ian Wiggin in the background wearing all black and in shorts.

We move on board yacht CV23, team WTC Logistics and are split into two watches, with each watch being representative of their official race team. This week we unofficially self nicknamed ourselves team “Uni-Mark” after team UNICEF and Team Mark.

A note here, at the time of my level 4 training we did not have our official sponsor WTC Logistics named yet. All the teams, prior to their official sponsor release are named after the first name of their skipper. Since Mark Burkes is our skipper we were known as “Team Mark” until our sponsor was named. That happened two weeks after the completion of my Level 4 training.

Level 4 training was going to consist of repeating skills until it was ingrained in our DNA, including tacking, gybing, sail hoists, sail changes, spinnaker flying, man-over-board drills, and sailing at night. Each of the yachts were allowed to travel around the English coast for the first few days, but on the morning of day 5 we were to meet at 0900 at a specific waypoint for the race start. Each level 4 training week ends with a 2 day race of about 300 to 400 nautical miles. This is to simulate racing conditions with your team over an extended period of time. It is the capstone of the training, I can’t wait!

Boat to Boat Transfers

After moving our kit aboard and going through the mandatory safety orientation we kitted up and prepared to depart the dock after only a few hours on board. No time to waste, there is a lot of training to cover this week.

Unique to level 4 curriculum, is to conduct different drills as they relate to passing equipment, stores or people from one boat to another. This involves inflating the dinghy that each boat has onboard, connect it to a long mooring line, and slowly tow the dingy behind with either equipment, stores or maybe even a person. For this training we used our man-over-board (MOB) simulation dummy “Bob”. Bob is really a life-size dummy that is thrown overboard during MOB training and floats like a real human would in the water.

The receiving boat has to setup a crew member to pick up Bob in the dinghy. This consists of rigging the person as if they were going to be doing a MOB recovery. The crew member going over the side wears an immersion suit, harness, hardhat, and a special lifejacket that does not automatically inflate. The reason for this is if the crew member goes into the water an inflated lifejacket can make the task at hand difficult to conduct. At all times the crew member over the side is attached to the boat by way of a halyard connected to the harness the crew member is wearing.

Once the dingy is alongside the the crew member is lowered down into the dinghy, attaches a second halyard to Bob’s lifejacket, which also acts as a harness, and then the two are hoisted simultaneously back onto the deck of the yacht.

This photo depicts the red boat in the background towing the dinghy with “Bob” inside. On WTC Logistics we have a crew member already over the port side of the yacht ready to be lowered into the dinghy. Note that the recovery is always done on the port side as the port helm station is where the throttle for the diesel engine is located.

In addition to the dinghy drill we also did towing drills. If a yacht ever needs to be towed, which has happened during the race, there is a specific procedure that needs to be done in order to minimize any potential damage to the yachts. It is critical when being towed as to not have the bow bridle longer than the bowsprit, otherwise the tow line could rip the bowsprit off.

Friendly Competition

It’s not all work and drills aboard WTC Logistics. We have an amazing Skipper and AQP and what better way to break up the day than to have a friendly competition between the two on who can do the running backstay evolution the quickest. For those non-sailors, a back stay is what keeps the mast of the sailboat from falling forward. It’s run from the transom (back of the boat) to the top of the mast. On larger sailboats, in addition to the backstay, there is a running backstay. This back stay is always “loaded” or under tension on the windward side of the vessel. Without the running backstay the mast would buckle due to an uneven amount of tension with the stay sail and yankee hoisted, leading to catastrophic failure. Therefore, it is imperative that the leeward running backstay is moved into position before the yacht tacks. It is then winched tight as the boat starts the tacking evolution. The video below is of our Skipper Mark racing our AQP Dan on who can move the running back stay into position the quickest and most efficiently.

Mike on Mother Watch – MOB

It was my turn to be on mother watch and I was in the galley doing meal prep for dinner. All of a sudden I hear a call on deck for “Man-Over-Board (MOB), this is a drill.” Given that I was in the galley and closest to the MOB kit that is stored by the companion way (companion way = hatch leading from below deck to on deck), I stopped meal prep and started putting on the immersion suit, harness, lifejacket, and hardhat.

I’m ready to go to work! I’m wearing the immersion suit that we use in training. In the actual race whoever is the rescue swimmer is going into the water in their gear, there is no time to put on the immersion suit. During the race one fore deck crew member will always be wearing a harness, so someone is always ready on deck in case of a MOB.

I go on deck and prepare myself with the fore deck team at the port spreaders. The halyards have already been taken off the head sails and are ready to connect to myself and the large hook to connect to the MOB.

As we approach the casualty (another word we use to describe the MOB), I go over the lifeline and am lowered down towards the water. We are alongside the casualty now but are slowly drifting apart. I tell the crew on deck to drop all the slack in the halyards, effectively dumping me into the water. This way I could swim to the casualty which was about 10 feet away. I got to put my lifeguard skills back to work! I was able to wrap my legs around the casualty and then place the large hook on the casualty’s lifting strap of their lifejacket. Once connected I yell “contact” which is the code word used to communicate to the team on deck to start winching us back on deck.

Back aboard, crew help to remove the gear I’m wearing. I then head back down to the galley, wash up, and go back to work doing meal prep. All said it took about 15 minutes from start to finish. Just another day at the “office.”

24 Hour Bug

It wasn’t long after dinner when the first crew member succumbed to a gastro “bug”. About an hour later a second crew member fell ill. Both were quarantined to the forward bunk space adjacent to the starboard forward head. Luckily on board as crew we had two medical doctors and two registered nurses who immediately stepped into action taking care of the ill crew and instructing all others of what needed to take place.

The entire boat was “anti-bac’d” which is the slang word used to describe using disinfectant spray to wipe down the entire interior of the boat. This included all places hands could touch, the floor, ceiling (a.k.a. deck head), bulkheads, and any other surface. With 20 people living in tight quarters, any sort of illness can get out of hand quickly.

The two ill crew weren’t the only crew to succumb to the gastro bug. Our Skipper was the next to fall. Luckily it was a 24 hour bug and the original crew and the skipper rebounded the following day.

Every level 4 finishes with a race among all the other level 4 boats. It was the night before the race and unfortunately I started to feel ill. It can’t be! After nearly 4 weeks of training I am going to be sick for the big race?! I was gutted, figuratively to speak. All I could do is let it run its course over the next 24 hours. Bummer.

The Race

The next morning I felt extremely lousy but found enough energy to come on deck to witness the race start. I felt guilty that I wasn’t going to be able to help support my team by contributing on deck. If there was any solace in this, it was that I got to stand at the stern of the boat and take photos and video of the race start.

The level 4 race start consisted of 2 different start types. The first was the Le Mans start. For Clipper this sort of start is where all the boats line up perpendicular to one another, just making way, with the mainsail up and no head sails. The sail plan is predetermined for the fleet, and in this race it was going to be a yankee 2 and stay sail, both of which were rigged, ready to be hoisted.

At the call the race director the crew moves from the pit forwards and starts to hoist the sails. The boat that hoists and then trims the sails the quickest is normally now the lead boat. The race rules require all boats to hold the sail plan and heading for 10 minutes before they can deviate, if they so choose.

The second race start consisted of the more traditional timed line start. This is where there is an imaginary starting line that no boat can cross until a countdown clock hits zero. These types of starts are fantastic as it requires a boat to be tactful on how they position themselves against other boats and the line, with the goal being to cross the starting line at full speed at the zero mark, and not a second earlier.

This video highlights our line start, which would immediately lead into the 2 day race along the English coastline.

With a clean start it was off towards the first mark. Upon rounding the mark I was given the opportunity to helm the boat by the skipper. It was such a blast helming a 70′ racing yacht in an actual race. In my current condition I only lasted about 20 minutes though, and had to excuse myself to go back to my bunk to rest. I slept for the next 18 hours.

In the middle of the night I was awoken by the watch change. Still not feeling capable of getting out of my bunk I rolled over and looked out the small porthole that looks into the pit of the boat. I was sleeping on an upper starboard bunk and the boat was on a starboard tack so I could see the crew in the pit, the English Channel behind them and the dark night sky. All of a sudden there was lightening in the sky and it looked like daylight outside. It must have been such an exhilarating experience to be on deck through this storm. I told myself, don’t worry, I’ll have my time on Leg 5 in the tropics when we will be dodging rain squall after rain squall in the inter tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a.k.a. the doldrums.

I do want to share with you one of the latest videos to come out of the race. This video was taken as the yachts were closing in on finishing leg 1 into Punta del Este, Uruguay. It shows what can happen when the weather changes. Make sure to watch the whole video clip!

At 0745 the next morning my watch was getting ready to go on deck by 0800. I was feeling much better and was able to get dressed and go on deck. So weird, I felt “almost” normal again, even though 24 hours ago I had an EXTREME case of man-flu (yes, that’s a real thing, ask my wife). The sailing was great but as forecasted the wind was dying down. At 1200 we were off the coast of the Isle of Wight and the wind shutoff. In addition, the tide changed to an unfavorable direction and our skipper made the right call of dropping our anchor. Yes, dropping our anchor, in the middle of a race. Sometimes this is the best way to ensure you hold your position against the other teams.

With no wind in the forecast the race director called the race and each yacht was to report their latitude and longitude position, and then head back into port. From what we could tell we were 2nd or 3rd. It was a bitter sweet end to my training.

Time to say Goodbye

All good things must come to an end, our level 4 training was now complete. We cruised back into Gosport, tied up, and took a shower, the first in over a week! It was then off to the closest pub to the marina, The Castle Tavern. Its a staple of Clipper crew and I’m not sure what the pub owners do when the Clipper fleet is racing around the world for 11 months.

The Boat House restaurant in Gosport, UK.

We did the end of training week deep clean in record time. My training debrief with the skipper went well, it’s a shame I’m not doing the full circumnavigation. But I know I will be able to add value to the team on Leg 5. Bring it on!

After signing off it was time for our last meal together. In true Clipper training fashion we all had a lunch together at the Boat House restaurant in the Gosport marina. I’ll miss the crew, the training, and surprisingly the Gosport / Portsmouth area. It’s been special spending four weeks here, an area steeped in navel and maritime history. But it’s time to go back to the “real world”. I can’t wait for January 2020 to be joining the team again in Airlie Beach, Australia for the start of Leg 5 of the race!

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