Into the amazing…
Andrew Taylor’s Clipper Yacht Race Blog
The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is the only event of its type. Anyone, even if they have never stepped on a boat before, can join the adventure and circumnavigate the world in a one year marathon.
Taking part in this year’s race as a full circumnavigator is Andrew Taylor.
Andrew is the former general manager of Wembley Stadium with Delaware North Companies (UK) and project director for the Amadeus Olympic Park North team. He has agreed to share some of his race experiences with us via EP and we will be publishing extracts from his blog and some photos from aboard his yacht during each of the race stopovers.
In his latest blog he explains the intense and, at times excruciating, preparation and training for months at sea.
It has been a seriously busy few months. The race start date of 1st September is now confirmed; our boats, teams and skippers are all allocated; and the final team sponsors and race routes are all only a few weeks away from being announced. Races 1 & 2 ports are now confirmed. The first race is a short sprint: 3 days to Brest, western France, followed by 5,500 miles, around 30 days transatlantic to Recife, Brazil. Once in Brazil we will stopover for a few days to repair any damage to the boat (and ourselves), then restock before the 3,600 mile, three week race to Cape Town.
With all this in place and confirmed, training and race strategy work planning activity has massively accelerated and time is scarily zipping past at a rate of very many knots. It is all very, very real and there is virtually no time at all spare now before we join the boats permanently in early August prior to the race start.
“The quickest way to learn is to do something yourself..”
Training with Clipper is intense, immensely enjoyable and pretty serious all at the same time. The trainers are mostly ex or current yacht racing skippers, a mixture of round-the-world racers and Navy instructors. They all have a patience and practical training approach, the like of which I have not experienced or seen before. Skills are built at a brisk and sometimes gruesome pace. Once a skill or manoeuvre is grasped an almost immediate opportunity to take responsibility for this, and our own team’s work and safety, whilst practising these skills is afforded. In the very early stages of training crew take on much responsibility very quickly, and in what seems like no time at all we are out in the Channel sailing through the night in a force 8. Cold and wet, leading our own watch teams on deck, practising what we have learnt without a skipper looking over our shoulder. The quickest way to learn is to do something yourself, and perhaps make a mistake, learn from it, then never make that same mistake again. The trainer skippers are never that far away, safety is absolutely paramount and de-brief, reflection and further learning is frequent and in depth.
With teams of like-minded crew, mostly aboard for similar reasons, we build and bond very quickly. It takes less than 36 hours aboard a racing yacht to be working as one. The ‘form-storm-norm-perform’ process, which normally takes weeks on land in a working team, passes at an extreme rate. I think partly because of the environment and risks associated with being aboard, but probably more so the sense of purpose, common goal and aim of the team. All of whom have made the decision to deliver a personal positive and full commitment before they even arrive at training. We all have a great deal invested – time, emotional and financial – in this adventure, have much to lose and even more to gain from contributing. Grasping this thought and achieving this approach in the land based working environment would be unbelievably powerful for productivity.
Repetition of safety procedures and emergency drills flows throughout the training, and with each drill we get progressively stronger at dealing with potential issues aboard. We received a total ‘beasting’ from the Navy survival instructors on our sea survival training. A totally exhausting session of life raft and life jacket drills in a controlled environment, which left us in no doubt about the scale of the risks we face; how tough it is to get in and out of a life raft at sea, how uncomfortable it is once you are in, and how much we do not wish to do any of this for real!
MOB = Man Over Board
At sea we constantly review and repeat exercise for all manner of eventuality. Casualty on deck, loss of steering, fire, flood, torn sails, loss of mast, capsize and, of course, Man Over Board (MOB). The latter of these is repeated tirelessly. MOB is by far the greatest risk to life, and it is most of the crew’s worst nightmare. As our skills build and the teamwork progresses one of the ’15stone’ life size recovery dummies regularly ‘falls’ off into the sea, assisted by a trainer of course. We all launch straight into our drill; crash stopping the boat, marking way points, rigging harnesses and dropping a rescue swimmer over the side. Recovery is a manic, loud but controlled process and takes anything from 8-25 minutes in the calm waters of the Solent or the relative calm of the Channel. In a big, cold ocean this could easily take longer, and the thought of being the one getting cold and wet amongst massive waves or worse still at night, whilst awaiting the boat to come back is a very unpleasant feeling.
These drills are incredibly realistic, they really make you feel cold and your hair stand up. No-one is left in any doubt about how quickly and positively you need to work to complete this, just how difficult it is and how in the blink of an eye a casualty in the water is lost. We completely lost sight of a fluorescent yellow life size dummy with flashing lights attached to it in less than a minute and in reasonable visibility during one of our less successful practice drills. Going into a search pattern, retracing our boats course to finally locate and recover it some 20+ minutes later.
One of our offshore phases was a 48 hour non-stop sail down to the Channel Islands, around the west and north coast of France then back across the Channel. We split into two watches for this, and worked shifts of four hours on and four hours off in rotation. The first period was calm but very cold and the sunset and stars of the first night at sea were quite astounding. One of the trainers who had previously completed the race suggested we would get bored of sunsets during 12 months at sea, surely not!
The first taste of a storm
Early hours of the next morning the storm we were promised arrived dead on time, the temperature plummeted to around minus six and with the wind at force seven, gusting force eight, it made the actual feel with wind chill a cutting and icy minus 20. Whilst this was something I had hoped for when agreeing to winter train, it was pretty lively at times and a very good taste of what’s to come further offshore. The boat rhythmically crashed down off the big waves, heeled over with half the deck underwater at times; occasionally fire extinguishers would fall off the walls below deck, the galley got totally trashed a few times, and several meals made reappearances for those on board, which meant occasionally we were working on deck quite shorthanded. At times this was pretty hairy, but really quite exhilarating.
On the second day at sea I was on the foredeck with the first mate making a sail change fast as the wind gusts had really increased, the deck was too rough to stand and we were working on all fours strapped to the deck with fluorescent orange tight safety lines. After a while, and some very deep strength and heaving through our reserved effort, we had the sail on deck and were about to secure it, when we both called ‘WAVE’ at the same time. ‘Wave’ is the shout of warning given at any time by anyone aboard for others to hold on. On this occasion we had both seen it coming; I took a breath, dropped my head down as the bow of the boat buried itself in the wave and we were immediately fully submerged, sufficient to lift us off the deck briefly and test our hand grips upon the safety jack stay lines. As the wave passed, after what seemed like quite enough time to be underwater, we were dumped back on deck in a heap. We shook ourselves, looked each other square in the eye for some quick reassurance and then both called ‘yeeeehaaaa’! with big smiles. We secured everything and completed the sail manoeuvre before exiting the foredeck for a breather, job well done and adrenaline really pumping. A few hours later, still very wet and now getting freezing cold, I decided upon purchasing a dry suit for the icy cold southern ocean and north pacific races. My partner Amanda has since very kindly bought this for me. She has written a message inside it, neatly and securely taped over so I cannot read it until we are far offshore – nice touch darling!
Training to be a Coxwain
In addition to the race training as part of the team for the Clipper race, I have also taken on some additional theory training and passed a number of RYA qualifications. Clipper also offered me the opportunity to train as a Clipper Coxwain. There will be one Coxwain on each boat, and should anything happen to incapacitate the skipper, then the Coxwain will assume leadership and responsibility to bring the boat home. On being offered this I considered it very carefully, such a massive responsibility and really not to be taken lightly. With some very tough exams to qualify, I would be required to undertake much additional studying. However having been offered this on the strength of the feedback from my race training I was keen to take up the challenge. I also figured in my own mind if anything like that happened to our skipper, I would like to be in a position to offer as much as I could to bring the team and boat home. After two months of proper hard study, and two and half weeks of examination packed training, including a number of lengthy practical exams offshore, I am pleased to report I have passed out and qualified as a Clipper Coxwain, including my Yachtmaster offshore certificate.
There is no let up during clipper race training, every single moment is filled with something to do, learn, study or practice. When returning to a dock somewhere the evenings are lecture and exam filled, and whilst at sea the sailing and drills continue without rest. During meals we discuss race tactics and emergency procedures, de-brief ourselves, tie knots against the clock and with our eyes closed to simulate doing it in the black darkness we will experience mid-ocean. Whilst it is a great pleasure to learn new skills and we are generally all there through choice, it is not a holiday and as the weeks’ progress mind, body and soul really feels the impact of this intenseness. I consider this to be a part of the learning experience, sometimes needing to dig right down deep into energy reserves just to do so, and this is only training – the real race will be even harder still!
It is a rare opportunity to set yourself about learning a completely new theoretical and practical skill at this level, especially in later life, and I have relished every single minute of it. I cannot wait for the race to start, however that pressure of time is really looming. There are a little over 11 weeks now to race start day, and I am away training and preparing the boat for six of them . . . Gulp!!
Teams are drawn
At our crew allocation day earlier this month, some 350 of the 500 total crew attended a briefing at the Portsmouth Guildhall, where race rules, scoring systems and route updates were announced, together with some encouragement and wise words from Sir Robin Knox Johnston himself. Then, in turn, each of the 12 skippers announced their respective race teams. The tension in the build up to the day was palpable, and as the time drew closer and the team names were read out, I felt more nervous in anticipation than I have for a very long time. There were tears and hugs all around on the day for many, and we spent the afternoon locked away with our new teams starting our now secretive tactical planning for the race, and getting to know each other.
We are now known as ‘Team Sean’ after our skipper Sean McCarter. A two times circumnavigator and professional yacht racing skipper. Sean is however competing as a skipper in the Clipper race for the first time.
We are 55 people in the team; 10 of us circumnavigating, 36 men and 19 ladies from a really mixed and diverse background and experience level. Our oldest team member is 67 and the youngest, Samuel, who is just 17. His last day at school was the day before crew allocation (big up to you Samuel!), and he will be 18 (the minimum age to take part) by the time he joins us in New York in June next year for legs 7&8 and the journey home.
Our race sponsor will very soon be announced and we will then assume our actual boat name. We are not allowed to say just yet who this might be, but with a Skipper from Derry and 13 Irish in the team there may be a clue in there somewhere…
The last few weeks
In the mean time at home the tension is equally building. Packing away my clothes, finalising power of attorney, signing my last will and testament, and meeting up with as many friends and family for as much time as I can spare before we leave in between training is more than filling every waking moment, and proving quite emotional too which I hadn’t banked on dealing with this early before race start.
Keeping fit and healthy consumes any spare time I can find; several half marathons, numerous 10k runs, a few triathlons and a daily strength training routine are now the norm when I am on land. My boat kit bag is almost permanently packed as I travel back and forth from training offshore.
This is not a charity event, but I have been coerced and have agreed to raise some charity profile with my race campaign, so I have added this to my website. If you feel the need to support this, then please do so at www.andrewrtw.co.uk or you can text ‘ARTW70’ followed by your amount to 70070. Any donations very gratefully received.
I have also been asked by a number of organisations who have offered support in return for raising awareness, profile and speaking with them directly about experiences and team building before, during and after the race. If you would like to consider supporting in the return for the same, then please get in touch directly via the website.
I hope to write a short news update just prior to race start date with some quick thoughts on how we are all feeling and how prepared we are. I can also then share some details of how you might stay in touch with the race through the soon to be released app and live boat tracker systems.
Bon chance for now,