Photo by Clipper Ventures, PLC

I’m back! Wow! At the start of January I headed off on an adventure, sailing as crew and assistant watch leader in the 2019-2020 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race on Leg 5 from Australia to China. After 37 days at sea, 6,000 nautical miles sailed between 2 races, crossing the equator, spending hours becalmed in the doldrums, changes of ports due to the corona-virus, a race win and a race loss, I am back home. What an experience it has been!

This blog post will be a recap of Leg 5 of the race. Over the coming weeks I will be releasing more photos and videos of my experience during Leg 5 on team WTC Logistics.

We started on January 20th, departing the Coral Sea Marina in Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia. I had arrived there on the 8th and spent some time exploring the area, including a few snorkeling trips to the Great Barrier Reef and a trip to Whitehaven Beach.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia

The race was originally scheduled to depart on January 18th but we were delayed by 48 hours due to two of the boats not having operational water makers. We departed the Coral Sea Marina on January 20th, but it would be another two days before the actual start of the race. We were to motor through the Great Barrier Reef and start the race just offshore, but the lack of wind postponed the race start. Because of this, we continued motoring North of East, towards the Solomon Sea.

With a LeMan’s start, the race began on January 22nd. It would be light wind sailing for the next few weeks. After about a week at sea we received notice from the race office of the corona-virus (COVID-19) that was being reported as an outbreak in China. We didn’t know the extent of it but we were told it would most likely affect our race. About two more weeks went by before the official word came out that our race finish was being changed from Sanya, China to Subic Bay, Philippines. We were disappointed by this news but understood the reasoning and it ultimately played into our favor.

Another beautiful day for sailing!

As we left the Coral Sea and entered the Solomon Sea, the motoring corridor ahead was the first chance for a tactical maneuver. Check out this link for an explanation of the motoring corridor. Our skipper reviewed the weather forecast (GRIB files) and made the call to delay our motoring corridor start to maximize the amount of northerly latitude we could gain within the hours allocated for motoring. In plain English, we were towards the very back of the fleet entering the motoring corridor as all the other boats motored away and we were stuck in a wind hole.

Luckily the weather forecast was correct and soon enough the wind built and we started to catch up with the rest of the fleet. As the competitors ended their motoring corridor time allocation they were still short of the northerly latitude marking the end of the corridor and they ended up in a wind hole. We continued to motor past them and went from last place to 2nd place. It was a brilliant tactical play and set the stage for the remainder of the race.

Our skipper has a wicked sense of humor as well, hence the photo below of him in a moo moo dress as we motor past our rival that is becalmed off the island of New Ireland in the Solomon Sea.

We continued north and after 12 days at sea we crossed the equator on January 31st at 0 Degrees 0.00′ North, 151 Degrees 5.249′ East. It was in the middle of the night as we crossed but all the crew were awake and on deck to mark this special occasion. King Neptune would hold his court later that day.

A seafarer tradition, all crew that cross the equator for the first time have to attend King Neptune’s court. This is the ceremony where the crew go from being a pollywog to a shellback. This includes confessing a boat sin and having to eat a special mixture from Davy Jones’ galley. Let’s just say, I’m glad I have already crossed the equator before.

King Neptune and his assistant Davy Jones
Pollywogs during the equator crossing ceremony

As we continued heading north of west towards the Luzon Strait, some 2,000 nautical miles away, we went from wind hole to wind hole. This required constant sail changes with the most used light wind sail being the wind seeker. This large light wind sail is a cross between a yankee head sail and a small spinnaker. It is most like a gennaker sail. Once the wind would approach 10kts apparent wind speed this sail would be dropped and a yankee head sail hoisted. In addition, we were also constantly hoisting and lowering the stay sail which only provides benefit above 7kts of apparent wind.

In only 2kts of wind, using the boat pole as a spinnaker pole to hold the wind seeker clew out. It actually worked and we started to build some apparent wind, moving the boat forward.
Another wind hole, not a bad view at least.

Finally, a low-pressure system developed that we could utilize to slingshot ourselves towards the northern tip of the race course.

In a matter of 24 hours we saw the wind build to 25kts+ with a sea state between 3 meters and 4 meters. With the wind just abaft the beam it was great spinnaker weather! So much fun on the helm of a 70′ ocean racing yacht with a spinnaker up in a moderate to rough sea state. I was in a constant state of bliss, surfing down waves at speeds up to 20kts.

Surfing down a big wave, “Yay!!!! Big Wave!!!!!”

Our position on the race course, sitting about 6th at the time, was more favorable to this low pressure system and we saw massive gains on the front runners. Every 6 hours we received an update from the race office on our position relative to the fleet. It was encouraging as we continued to decrease the distance to the boats in front of us. Our skipper reminded us, focus on the boat in front, once we pass them then focus on the next boat, don’t worry about the front runners. At this point we thought we may be able to get on the podium in 3rd place.

As we exited the Luzon Strait and entered the South China Sea, the next tactical choice was to head inshore or offshore. The two lead boats headed offshore, but the weather forecast showed an inshore route that could potentially be favorable. Our skipper opted for this inshore route. It would be a few days of chutes and ladders before we knew if we had made the right tactical choice.

48 Hours later and we were chasing down 1st place. At the same time, the two boats that were leading a few days prior but offshore were now in 3rd and 4th place. They altered course and dove deep inshore, which saw them sneak up on our inside. With only 100 nautical miles to the finish it was going to be anyone’s race. At this point we saw the first place boat head slightly more offshore in search of a little more wind. Our skipper took the helm and was able to keep the inshore boats at bay. All of a sudden, we were sitting in first place.

The next 24 hours were intense. Not only from a sailing perspective, but from a mental perspective. We knew we were capable, but with the variable wind and the top boats breathing down our transom, we knew we couldn’t ease off until we crossed the finish line.

I remember going to bed that night, hearing the whooshing sound of water along the hull adjacent to my bunk. That was a positive sound, a sound that we were moving through the water at a good speed towards the finish line. Then the sound stopped.

Another bloody wind hole. I came on deck for my watch at 0200 with only 25 nautical miles to go. I started praying to the wind gods, and literally the wind started to pick up. It was a very surreal moment. The wind started to build and back, which gave us a lift towards the finish line. With no other Clipper boats in sight the thought of a 1st place was getting more and more real. A few tacks and a few hours later we crossed the finish line in 1st place. It was a feeling and a moment I will never forget.

Crossing the finish line in 1st place. Photo courtesy of Clipper Ventures PLC.

Once across the finish line it was time to drop the sails, put up the sponsor flags and prep to enter the marina. 50 Minutes later and we were dockside, celebrating 26 days at sea, 4,300 nautical miles, and a win of Race 6 in Leg 5 of the 2019-2020 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. It doesn’t get much better than this!

Arrival photo, courtesy of Clipper Ventures PLC.

We spent the morning celebrating, drinking champagne, beer and then gorging ourselves at the all you can eat buffet located at the Subic Bay Yacht Club. That afternoon I checked into my hotel and had the first proper shower in 26 days. One word, luxury.

Our stopover consisted of doing a deep clean of the yacht, followed by a few maintenance days. We ended with the prize giving ceremony, another moment I will never forget.

Prize giving ceremony – photo courtesy of Clipper Ventures PLC

Due to the corona-virus, Clipper made the choice to not continue on to Zhuhai, China where Leg 5 was supposed to finish. Instead we would do a 1,600 nautical mile race up towards Japan and back, ending Leg 5 in Subic Bay, Philippines. I was bummed but knew it was the right choice for the safety of the crew, Clipper employees and supporters.

The race course shown on the Navionics app on my iPhone.

We had a few days off before the start of the next race. Half of our crew opted to go on vacation together and we flew to Boracay Island in the Philippines. Some well deserved R&R was in order.

Back to the boat on February 21st, it was time to go racing again, departing on Sunday, February 23rd. We were in high spirits coming off our race win and knew we were capable of potentially getting on the podium again.

This race course would see light wind sailing up along the east coast of Luzon before the wind would build near the Luzon Strait. The race started and it was close quarters racing for the first 24 hours.

Close racing after the start of Race 7.

As we entered the Luzon Strait, we opted for a more easterly route that showed promise based off the weather models. This was a tactical move we thought would play in our favor. As in life, if you follow the masses you may or may not make marginal gains on your competitors. If you take calculated risk you may make massive gains, or fail miserably. We made a choice and went with it. It would be four days before we knew if our decision would pay off.

Adjusting the stay sail working sheet – photo by Maeva Bardy

Upwind sailing can be exhilarating, with the boat heeled over at 45 degrees, powering through waves, green water over the bow, it’s absolutely amazing being on deck. Below deck it’s another story. Half your time while ocean racing is spent below deck, living. Simple tasks such as cooking, eating, sleeping and using the bathroom become a laborious task when heeled over. Now spend days in a row doing this. It became a true test of mental and physical resilience. It also gave me major respect for those that have done the big ocean crossings and those doing the circumnavigation. It is not easy.

Heeled over sailing upwind

Unfortunately for us, the weather did not play to our favor this time. We rounded the northern mark of the race course in last place. Disheartening, but we knew we were fast and could start focusing on the next boat ahead. We spent the next few days trying to reel in the boats in front. Sometimes we would cross paths, and pull ahead, only to be overtaken again. This went on all the way to race finish. With less than three nautical miles separating us in last place to 10th place, we hit a wind hole.

Warm weather sailing – photo by Maeva Bardy

And that was it. The course had been shortened to ensure we all arrived in port in time for the crew change over on March 6th. My Clipper journey had come to an end. Our team was not discouraged by the defeat of finishing in last place. We knew we raced hard and in racing sometimes tactical choices don’t pay off. It was a life lesson and we were content with the outcome. We agreed with our skipper when he said he would rather have a first place and last place than two mid-fleet finishes.

The experience exceeded my expectations. I grew as a sailor, focusing on my helm work, spinnaker work, weather routing and directing a team as Assistant Watch Leader. I also developed friendships with my crew and crew on other boats that I know will last a lifetime. I was fortunate enough to be able to do this experience and it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my loving wife. We both agree, live life with no regrets.

Photo by Mike Holmes

Over the coming weeks I’ll be releasing more blog posts, photos and videos that highlight the day to day life during the race. Stay tuned for more content and stories! It’s been epic!

Make sure to follow along on my Instagram as well at my handle regularmike10.

COVID-19 UPDATE: The 2019-2020 Clipper Round the World Race has been postponed as of March 16, 2020 due to the rapid and dynamic global issues associated with the spread of the corona-virus. The latest news is that the race will be postponed for 10 months and then restarted to finish legs 6, 7, and 8. The next edition of the race, scheduled for summer 2021 will be pushed back to summer 2022. All crew and Clipper staff currently in Subic Bay are booking travel to leave the Philippines before March 20th, when the government there closes their borders. All crew support the decision by the race office and we look forward to the restart of the race next year.

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