I know my wife, my mom, and others have expressed their concern about my safety while at sea. Ocean yacht racing is inherently dangerous, and unfortunately there have been fatalities in past editions of the race.
The Clipper Round the World Race takes safety extremely seriously and has implemented numerous safety precautions in response to past tragedies. I would not be putting my life at risk doing this race if I didn’t believe that Clipper Ventures and our skipper had our safety as their number one priority.
Let’s take a look at what safety gear is aboard a Clipper 70 ocean racing yacht and what systems are in place to help protect the crew.
Anytime the yacht is not tied to the dock you are required to be wearing a life jacket while on deck. No compromises here. The life jackets for the race will be supplied by Spinlock, a UK sailing company based in Cowes. Their life jackets were used by professional sailors in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Prior to each week of training, all the lifejackets are manually inflated and left overnight to ensure that they hold air. The crew then repack them, which is an opportunity to inspect the functionality of the jacket and make sure everything is in working order. This process is done at the start of every training week and at the start of each leg of the race.
The life jacket model we will be using is the VITO Deckvest. It is an amazing piece of kit, that when worn properly, does not feel like you are wearing an ocean life jacket. The inflatable vest is activated upon immersion in the water by a pressure sensor. The vest can be manually inflated as well. The jacket also has a light, that once activated will illuminate the florescent yellow portion of the jacket.
Also integrated into the life jacket is a spray hood that goes over your head. Once deployed, it keeps waves and water from splashing in your face. This may sound trivial but if you are gasping for air and a wave hits you directly in your mouth, the water going down your throat could mean death.
The life jacket also has a personal AIS beacon. AIS, which stands for automatic identification system, uses VHF radio waves to send out a signal that can be picked up by AIS receivers within a few mile radius of your location. This is a critical piece of kit that can help your crew find you if you do end up overboard. Imagine how helpful this could be if it is blowing 50+ knots of wind, 20’ seas, and it’s pitch black out at night.
Below is a video that describes what can happen during the race and the critical role that training and technology play in keeping the race crew as safe as possible when things go wrong. This is from the Clipper 2014-15 race.
In addition to life jackets, we have tethers that keep crew connected to the yacht. This is critical if the yacht broaches or a large wave washes over the deck. The tethers are attached to what’s called a “jackstay”. There are multiple jackstays that run fore and aft with a few perpendicular to the longitudinal of the vessel. They are attached to hard mounting points on the deck of the yacht and rated to hold the weight of multiple crew. The video below is a good visual representation of the tethers in action.
We are required to “clip in” our tethers to the jackstays if the wind is above 15 knots true wind speed, when its dark out (regardless of wind speed), if the Skipper mandates we clip in, or anytime we feel we need to be clipped in and the wind is less than 15 knots.
There are three clips on the tether, one that is always attached to your life jacket, another that is always attached to the yacht, and the third that allows you to clip onto another jackstay before taking the first clip off the existing jackstay. This means you are ALWAYS connected to the yacht, even as you move about the deck to do different tasks.
Clipper conducts safety assessments at the start of each training week and at the start of each race leg. This is to ensure that all crew comprehend and can demonstrate the Clipper safety procedures.
Cockpit Cautionary Zone (CCZ) is an area on a Clipper yacht that has specific rules to be followed. This area is from forward of the helm stations to just aft of the aft coffee grinder. The reason is that the main sheet (the line controlling the boom and mainsail) is under an extreme load. If this sheet were to snap or during an accidental gybe, anyone located in the path of the sheet could be seriously injured or worse. Unfortunately, this is the expected cause of death of a past Clipper race crew member.
While sailing upwind, crew can transit this space on the windward side, but never on the leeward side. While sailing downwind (as soon as the wind is abaft the beam) the only permissible way to transit this space is underneath the main sheet traveler, which requires crawling on your hands and knees.
Captains Standing Orders
On any vessel the captain will always have his standing orders posted. The orders tell the crew at watch what to do in different circumstances if the captain is not on deck. The captain does need to sleep every now and then! The orders are straight forward and to sum it up, if every in doubt, wake the skipper!
Sailing is a physical sport and Leg 5 will be within the tropics, from 20 degrees South in Airlie Beach to 22 degrees North in Zhuhai, China. It will be critical that I keep hydrated.
To aid in hydration, I am bringing Nuun hydration tablets, along with some Hammer endurolytes “salt” tablets. I used these during my Ironman triathlon training and race in 2016. I know they work for me and I am not taking any chances.
Man Overboard Drills
Part of the crew assessments also includes man overboard (MOB) drills. These are conducted daily during the training levels and are done prior to the start of each race leg.
Below is raw video footage of an actual MOB recovery of Andrew Taylor in the North Pacific Ocean during the Clipper 2014-15 race. It highlights how difficult it can be to recover someone. This is why this drill is practiced so much.
The purpose of including these videos in the this blog post is to show the reality of what could happen during the race. For Leg 5, we will be traversing the tropics. Outside of the squalls we will encounter in the ITCZ, I don’t anticipate a large sea state or hurricane force winds.
Pool Sea Survival Training
At the start of our Level 2 training we spend a day doing practical sea survival. This includes a classroom session followed by an afternoon in the pool. We wore a jumpsuit that mimics what it feels like to wear clothing in the water. The instructor had us do multiple drills, including the HELP position, how to swim to a life raft solo and in a group, how to board a life raft, and how to flip an overturned life raft.
The mood during the pool session was lighthearted but the importance of the training cannot be understated. These skills we learnt could mean the difference between life and death.
For me it was a great refresher, as 10 years prior I went through the STCW95 (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Basic Safety Training course when I was working in the private yachting industry as a professional deckhand.
Advanced Sea Survival
At the start of Level 3 training we spent a day back in the classroom discussing advanced sea survival. This course is tailored more to specifics with the Clipper Race and their safety standard operating procedures. The course was taught by past and current race skipper of team Seattle, David Hartshorn. This was an extremely informative course and you leave feeling more comfortable knowing the different policies in place to help keep the crew safe.
What if there is a fire?
Fires aboard any floating vessel is of very serious concern. The key is prevention. This is why daily housekeeping is so important.
If a fire were to start there are a few options available to fight the fire. The yacht has six portable fire extinguishers located strategically below decks. These portable foam fire extinguishers are the first line of defense. There is an additional dry chemical extinguisher located at the skippers bunk to use on electrical fires, at the skippers discretion.
A fire blanket is located in the galley that can be used to fight cooking fires. The engine room also has an automatic fire extinguisher in case of an engine room fire.
The yacht also has a fire pump, powered by the main diesel engine, connected to a fire hose located in the port wet locker at the bottom of the companion way stairs. In my own personal opinion, if we are using this fire hose to fight a fire, chances are we are preparing to abandon ship.
What if we DO have to abandon ship?
It is highly unlikely that we will have to abandon ship, but things can and do go wrong at times. Each Clipper 70 has three life rafts located at the transom. These should be deployed manually, but will automatically deploy if they vessel were to sink before being released.
Each yacht carriers an EPIRB (electronic position indicating radio beacon). This is a small electronic device that is uniquely identified and registered to each vessel. Upon activation it sends a signal (including latitude and longitude coordinates) to a satellite that then notifies shore based authorities of a potential sinking. This is then used to coordinate with rescue services and vessels nearby to provide assistance.
Each yacht carries a Search and Rescue Transponder (SART). This small unit transmits a signal that is picked up by another ships radar, leading directly to the position of the SART.
There is a grab bag that contains important documents including passports, ID’s, prescription medicine for crew (if they are on prescriptions), portable VHF radio, and 2-way radios (to be used between life rafts if needed).
We also have a container with all the legally required pyrotechnics. This includes handheld flares, parachute flares, and smoke distress signals.
The Clipper Race Office is always aware of the location of their vessels. Knowing this, it is critical for us to abandon the yacht into the life rafts, bring enough warm clothing, additional food and water, and then patiently wait for rescue.
Training is continuous and ongoing and I know that I am well prepared for sailing in the tropics. Clipper Ventures has done a great job on getting crew as prepared as they can be for this “Race of Your Life”.
Stay tuned, next Friday will be my last blog post before I depart for Australia!