Day 13 Race to Rio: Weather helm

Oh, how quickly things change. I was all set to write in my journal how today was just another dull day in the Doldrums when suddenly it wasn’t.

All afternoon we sit around willing the wind to pick up, blistering in the sun and complaining about the heat. Where normally I’m happiest at the helm, today it is hard to stay focused when boat speeds are fluctuating from a pathetic .5 knots to 1.5 knots.

During the lull in activity, I do my crew a favor by taking my first shower on the stern using our sun shower to simultaneously soap up and cool down, making me a much more pleasant person to be around. But other than a few whale sightings at sunset, nothing much happens except the fleet starts to threaten our first-place position as we sit here with our sails flapping helplessly.

Then, as I report on deck for my 8 o’clock watch, everything changes.

Within minutes of putting my coffee down to take the helm, the assistant watch leader comes up from the nav station to announce there are several squalls ahead on the radar. Which is nothing new since we seem to hit a squall or two every few nights out here in the Tropics.

We are flying our lightweight A1 spinnaker with our full mainsail up since we only have about 9 knots of wind and we’re struggling just to keep that.

When the first squall hits us dead on the bow, I am bracing myself at the helm as the boat dips, touching the rails to the water. I yell for someone to stand by on the vang, ready to release it in the event the boom hits the water. I must look visibly stressed because the skipper jokes, “I love it – Tasha’s got white knuckles in 10 knots of wind. That’s a sign this boat hasn’t moved in a while.”

I look at the wind gauge and laugh, though this 10 knots doesn’t feel like any 10 knots I’ve experienced before. As the sky turns black, erasing the stars, the moon and the horizon, I feel like I’m sailing in a vacuum as the wind seems to punch us with gusts from the side, throwing the boat over in what I know are theoretically light winds. “What the hell would this be like in 30 knots?” I think.

After half an hour, I realize 15 knots is probably the most we’ll see so I start to relax and do my thing. I use the wind gusts to get the boat to a nice heel so we can surf on south as quickly as possible. After all, this is a race, so we need to use the wind for all the speed we can get. With the wind coming from behind at a 130-degree angle, the boat glides along at speeds of 10-11 knots in 11-12 knot winds. Which is a welcome change to sitting still in the water watching the rest of the boats creep up on us on the AIS.

This is just my kind of helming. It’s a game to stay ahead of the wind and predict the changes before they happen and it keeps me 100% present in my mind and body as I focus on reacting quickly to the boat’s movements. Despite having to abandon my coffee to grip the wheel tightly, I am wide awake with my adrenalin pumping, enjoying the storm’s onslaught.

Three and a half hours later, I am still at the helm after three converging squalls have collided directly above us, spinning us around to the west, then to the north at one point, then vaguely moving us in a favorable southwest direction. We need to head due south to get to Brazil, but after sitting in a wind hole in the Doldrums for the last two days, this mayhem of three combined squalls is surprisingly welcome.

What is crazy, though, is what happens when we finally hit the tail of the squalls as they depart. Eric tries to warn me that the wind might get a little weird, but I don’t fully understand until I find myself completely out of control at the helm.

The moment the squall stops, the wind seems to both die and spin us around in circles simultaneously. I try desperately to yank the wheel over to keep up with the spinning wind, but in the pitch dark, this has the effect of making me feel like we are literally spinning the boat in circles like some kind of fairground ride.

I must have whimpered a panicked noise in Eric’s direction because he tells me to look up at the windex to ground myself. At that moment, I realize the boat isn’t actually spinning. It’s like the boat is on some kind of treadmill – as I throw the wheel around to starboard, the wind pushes us just as strongly in the opposite direction, giving the effect that we’re spinning in circles when really the boat is practically standing still.

In the end, the squalls have taken us for a four-hour ride, somewhat in the wrong direction but mostly in the right direction, the final punctuation mark being a drastic surge in wind speed to 25 knots, causing the skipper to call for a spinnaker drop.

“KITE IN THE WATER! ALL HANDS ON DECK!”

As soon as we drop the kite, the wind pulls the boat around and blows the kite into the water. Then, an instant later, it pushes back on the kite, pushing it under the boat. As a sleepy crew emerge to panicked shouting, they quickly read the signs to pull the spinnaker in however they can. And as they pull, the spinnaker catches on the stanchions, causing two small tears. But we’re relieved to have recovered the kite in relatively good shape.

When the spinnaker panic dies down, the sky opens up and we are instantaneously drenched in a downpour. Which, from the skipper’s relaxed stance, seems to signify the end of the squall.

As my heart rate starts to lower, I wipe the salty rain from my eyes and hand over the helm to another crew member so I can stretch out my tense shoulders and stumble down below for a drink of water. I would take a whiskey on the rocks if I could but, alas, water it is.

I find the skipper in the galley shoveling leftovers into his mouth with a wild-eyed look and a slight grin that says he took as much of an adrenalin hit as I did. “Nice job on the helm,” Eric says.

“Thanks,” I exhale, feeling a little stunned.

I am tempted to blurt out with a giggle that I am having the time of my life, but considering the situation, the words sound a little crazy in my head. So, instead, I wipe the rain out of my eyes, pull my foul-weather jacket over my head and go back up on deck.

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Race to Rio: Life in the Doldrums

As if racing and living on board a Clipper yacht weren’t challenging enough, mid-way through our second week of racing, it becomes clear at this early stage in the race that we are stuck in the dreaded Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), better known as the Doldrums.

But it would seem we’re not alone. Where the previous position reports showed most of the fleet covering 50-70 miles in six hours, now they show yachts covering distances like 10, 1 or, worse, -0.2 miles.

We’re floating…literally floating off the coast of Cape Verde, willing it to disappear behind us while our windseeker hangs limply from the forestay like a white flag pleading for mercy from the wind gods.

It’s hard to remember why we’re out here drifting in the middle of the Atlantic since it hardly feels like we’re moving, let alone racing.

The air is so still it suffocates me in the cabin down below while, on deck, my skin bakes and my clothes bleach in the scalding sun. Waking up for my watch becomes an alarming experience, as it takes every ounce of energy to pull myself from what feels like a narcotics-induced sleep. In my hazy stupor, I find myself thinking, “Who the hell drugged me and dropped me off on this floating, festering trash bin? And who’s feet do I smell?”

It’s in these conditions – when our clothes are crusty with sweat and sea water, our skin is raw and sore, the galley is a sauna, and every day feels like three – that patience is in short supply, tempers are sharp and optimism flows quickly into the bilges, becoming harder and harder to retrieve.

Which is why a sense of humor is useful for coping with some of the uncomfortable aspects of life on board a Clipper yacht.

The Heat

It is HOT out here in the Doldrums as we move off the coast of Africa. It seems we’re following the traditional path to the trade winds, the directions for which are: “Go south until the butter melts, then turn right.” The butter has definitely melted, but we’re not moving fast enough to turn anywhere.

At the helm, there is no protection from the sun and the heat gets to me quickly. So, I’ve taken to filling a bucket with sea water and standing in it while steering. It means no one has access to the bucket while I’m helming but, hell, we all have to make sacrifices.

And if I’m going to steer us away from this solar abuse, then I need a bucket of water to stand in.

clipper race sun shade doldrums

The crew hide from the sun under an old sail turned into an on-deck sun shade.

The Smell

After two weeks on board, I’m certain there is nothing in hell or beyond that could possibly smell as bad as 20 people living on a boat in the Tropics.

Every time I come off watch, I wander around below deck in search of a bunk that isn’t located in a hot pocket of foot fungus, choking off my oxygen with smells that smack of wet, rancid Parmesan with an undercurrent of baby sick.

When I spot a pair of deck shoes anywhere near an empty bunk, I know for certain I won’t be able to both sleep and breathe, so I move on to bunks that are located closer to the food supplies and further away from the largest number of socks, shoes and feet.

But there is no perfect bunk.

The forward port bunk is located in an airless room where our sausage supplies hang, earning it the name “sausage bunk,” as it smells of dead, sweaty pig. Which, to some, may be preferable to the odor of dead, sweaty feet.

The sausage bunks, however, are sometimes preferable to the forward starboard bunks, which are located within inches of the forward head and a 3-month supply of Dutch cheese, earning the names “upper cheese bunk” and “lower cheese bunk.” The further south we sail, the warmer the cheese gets and the more it starts to smell like the main crew bunks, sometimes called the “rotten Rockport” bunks since the biggest offenders to the olfactory nerves are, without a doubt, the crew’s Clipper-issued Rockport deck shoes.

Personal Space

Or, rather, lack of personal space.

On board Henri Lloyd, we hot-bunk according to the winds, the weather conditions and where our weight is most needed for racing advantages. This means none of our belongings have a fixed home on board. Clipped to our bunks are dry bags containing all our possessions, which we move from bunk to bunk according to what tack we’re on and where our weight is needed at the time we’re going to sleep.

I find it difficult to sleep in the unbearable heat below deck, so I often try to carve out some space in the corner of the boat where I can retreat into my own head to write, read, listen to music and, generally, distance myself from the 20 crew who are packed into the boat like sardines.

To carve out my space, I put in my earphones — even when I’m not actually listening to anything — to help send signals that I’m taking some time for myself.

Normally, the ear phones work, unless a crew member is particularly bad at reading non-verbal cues. Such a person might see me sitting quietly in the corner tapping away on my computer, avoiding eye contact, and take this as an opportunity to sidle up next to me and read what I’m typing while asking, “Whatcha doin’? Writing? Can I read it?” And then continue to read over my shoulder, even when my response is a sharp “No.”

That person usually becomes the focus of my daydreams about booby-trapping his bunk.

Jon, if you’re reading this over my shoulder, then you only have yourself to blame if you wake up to find some unpleasant bilge growth mysteriously relocated to the bottom of your sleeping bag. I’ll leave it up to you to work out whether or not I’m kidding. 🙂

The Challenge

“There is no change without challenge,” is a phrase that comes to mind often on this journey – particularly here in the Doldrums.

When we’re racing along at 13 knots and the crew is hard at work hoisting, packing and schlepping sails up and down to maximize boat speed, my mind and body are fully engaged, leaving little space for dwelling on the discomforts of ocean racing and on board living.

Here, in the heat and inactivity of the Doldrums, however, negativity starts to take root in my thoughts and taint my perspective. So it’s during the lulls of racing that I have to work my hardest to stay positive and focused on the goal ahead. To do that, I remind myself that adventures aren’t a flat line experience. There are peaks of wonder and excitement followed by troughs of suffering and self-doubt. But, often, it’s the troughs that teach you the most about who you are and who you want to be.

The truth is, if I thought for a moment that sailing over 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean would be a walk in the park, I never would have signed up in the first place. I’m here, racing to Brazil in the Clipper Round the World Race, because I knew it would be hard.

The heat, the smells and the lack of personal space – these are just temporary discomforts. The achievement, the pride and the lessons learned – these are what I’m hoping will last a lifetime.

clipper race not moving doldrums life

When the boat’s not moving, I find myself steering with my face, bored out of my mind at the helm.

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Clipper Race to Rio: There will be blood

Day 8: An anniversary at sea

The Skipper pops his head up through the hatch and says in a serious tone, “Tasha, can I see you in the nav station?”

“Uh oh,” someone mutters. Everyone in the cockpit spins around to look at me on the helm, wondering what I could possibly have done to provoke a private meeting with the skipper.

The look on my face says this is not a good time, as I’m preoccupied with the growing speck on the horizon that is the Mission Performance boat. We’ve been chipping away for two days at Mission’s second-place position, hoping to pass them any moment now. And having closed the gap from 11 miles to 3 miles in this four-hour watch, I am loth to give up the helm now.

“Now?” I ask before realizing Eric’s already disappeared. Concerned I might be in trouble, I hand over the helm to my watch leader and run after the skipper.

“You’ve had a call from PSP,” Eric says when I reach the nav station.

I smile, realizing Ryan must have received the card and gift I left with his crew to give him on September 16th, our wedding anniversary. Since it’s the first time in eight years we aren’t together for the occasion, I wanted to let him know I was thinking of him.

Eric dials the number for PSP Logistics on Clipper’s satellite phone, but when I get Ryan on the line, I only have a few minutes to blurt out a quick “How are you?” “Happy anniversary” and “I love you” before having to hang up. But knowing Ryan is out there on a boat nearby – though not too nearby (after all this is still a race) – comforts me.

As I make my way back up on deck, grinning, a pod of dolphins start jumping and playing in our bow wake, momentarily distracting the Henri Lloyd crew from the intense battle to chase down the Mission Performance boat, which we now refer to as “Mission Impossible.”

Day 9: Chasing Mission Impossible

When I wake up, it is to the news that we are just one mile behind Mission Performance, who are flying their A1 spinnaker. Which is great news because we still have our smaller A2 spinnaker up, and yet we’re moving slightly quicker. Which means we can go faster still.

At the front of the fleet, racing towards the scoring gate, is Derry-Londonderry-Doire in first place, Mission Performance behind them, and us in third. All three of us are battling it out to beat each other to the Clipper scoring gate, which will earn one of us three points for first place, two points for second and one point for third.

I’ve been helming non-stop for two hours with the crew continuously trimming the kite to squeeze every knot of speed out of our boat. Over the last two days we’ve slowly fought and clawed our way up to Mission’s stern until now we are close enough to see their entire crew on deck getting ready to “peel” their spinnaker, which means they’ll hoist their A2 kite without dropping the A1 first, cutting down on lost speed and ground. It’s a rather impressive maneuver to watch, so the crew is distracted momentarily as we watch the process unfold flawlessly.

Mission Performance must have hoped the wind would drop, forcing us to change our spinnaker to the A1 and causing us to lose some ground. But, contrary to their prediction, the wind picked up, forcing Mission to drop their lightweight spinnaker, putting us at an advantage.

As we pull up to Mission’s stern just off their starboard side, my watch comes to an end, leaving me both impressed and disappointed that the competition continues to keep us at bay.

But my time is up, so I start to hand over the helm to the starboard watch leader when the skipper steps in and asks, “Can I have a go?”

Focused and quiet, Eric’s determined stance at the helm tells me he badly wants Mission in his rearview mirror. So I take a seat on the rail with the rest of the crew to watch the ongoing drag race, controlled by the skipper. He shows us how to put up a fight from the helm as Mission drops lower and lower, trying to luff us up and steal our wind. Eric responds by steering the boat high and going windward of Mission Performance, foiling their plan.

After another four hours of match racing, Skipper Matt calls Eric on the VHF, congratulating him on catching up. But, according to Matt, they’re aiming for a different course, so it’s not in their interest to continue racing to the scoring gate.

But as Henri Lloyd moved up to second place, climbing further and further out of Mission’s reach, it doesn’t seem they have much choice but to settle for third.

Day 10: Flying F@#&!

Sea squalls in the tropics seem to be a daily occurrence after 4 pm, whipping up unpredictable winds and inking out the moon and stars with dark clouds, making sailing an almost blind experience.

As we fight to catch up with Derry-Londonderry-Doire before passing the scoring gate, the wind does her fickle thing and throws 25-knot curve balls at me, twirling the wind in mini circles, requiring me to spin the boat to stay with it. In a bizarre feat of helming, I find myself sailing downwind in the dark to a comfortable 140-degree wind angle only to feel the wind suddenly spin clockwise, causing me to throw the helm 40 degrees off the wind to avoid gybing, only to find the wind has now spun 40 degrees back in the opposite direction.

The unpredictable wind, however, makes for thrilling sailing. I get a surge of adrenalin every time the boat’s stern lifts on a wave, forcing me to finesse the wheel towards the middle with dozens of small wrist movements, keeping the rudder friction to a minimum. As I lessen the drag on the boat and let it glide freely, it careens down the wave, picking up speed until I’m surfing at 17 knots in 15 knots of wind.

“GRIND!” Maura, our chief trimmer, yells as the front of the spinnaker starts to collapse.

THWACK! Slap slap slap.

David pauses on the grinder and spins around to look at Maura.

“What?!” Maura shouts, visibly annoyed. “I didn’t tell you to stop!”

“Did you just throw something at me?” David asks, also looking annoyed.

“What the…what? No!”

David shines his headlamp on the cockpit floor, revealing a fluttering, scaled creature.

“Holy…I got hit with a flying fish!” David exclaims, picking up what looks like a winged sardine. A moment later, two more fish flop on the deck. THWACK! THWACK! Slap slap slap.

“EWWWW!” Maura yells, abandoning her role as spinnaker trimmer.

Everyone is now rolling on the deck, laughing hysterically. The boys pick up all the dead fish they can find – 11 and counting – and start throwing them at the girls, who are now squealing and threatening to throw someone overboard.

When the shock of being attacked by flying fish subsides, we get back to the task of pushing towards the scoring gate and catching Derry-Londonderry. And in doing so, we set a record for most miles covered in a 24-hour period in this race so far. We cover 270 miles with 70 miles of that distance covered in the last 6 hours, since we spotted Mission Performance on the horizon.

Though we are fast and furious, we aren’t quite fast enough to catch Derry-Londonderry-Doire in the end. When we reach the scoring gate, we are in second place, a mere 4 miles behind Derry.

But we have a long way to go still before we get to Rio. And there’s no telling how the Doldrums will shake up the fleet.

I just know when a boat appears on the horizon, we will have them in our cross hairs. And there will be blood…

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 The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Day 6 Race to Rio: Finding my niche

“I really struggled with that and you made it look so easy,” Jon, the assistant watch leader, says to me after I’ve finished helming through a gusty night of 25-30 knot winds. “I mean, really. You made me look like a twat.”

I shrugged and smirked, not really sure what sort of response Jon was looking for. Is that a compliment, or is he just airing his frustrations?

Since we started the race in Brest, most of the night helming on my watch has been done by the watch leader, Nick, and the assistant watch leader, Jon, while the other crew have rotated on and off the helm during daylight hours so everyone could get comfortable helming in the dark. Especially since the pattern of the Tropics seems to be champagne sailing by day, and unpredictable squalls by night.

On this particularly windy night, with swells lifting the boat and rolling us from side to side as we sailed downwind, Jon grunted loudly as the boat pulled him hard upwind while he pulled away with all his might to keep the boat on a steady course. But by throwing the wheel over to fight the wind, he found himself too far off course and having to throw the wheel back the other way, setting off a pendulum effect that swung the boat to and fro uncomfortably.

As Jon gritted his teeth, I could see he was struggling to balance the boat and suspected he might be steering to the digital instruments, which showed the true wind angles lit up on the mast. Except the instruments had a 3-second delay in registering changes, meaning they didn’t so much tell you where you were, but rather where you’d just been.

When the Skipper called me up to the helm to give it a try, I tried to keep in mind what I knew about the wind, the instruments and the boat heel, and tried to ignore the fact that the skipper was standing right beside me, overseeing all my mistakes.

The thing I’ve discovered about helming these 70-footers – which is obviously different to sailing my little Catalina 34, whose top speed is about 5.5 knots — is that if you get them on the right heel with the right sail trim, they just glide and surf at speeds that nearly match the wind speeds, if not exceed them. And from what I’ve seen so far, that can be as fast as 30 knots on the right wave with the right winds.

But there are so many signals to read from the boat — the wind on the sails, the tension in the rigging, whether the boat is heeling or flattening out, the feel of the rudder when it’s in the middle and the lift of the stern right before it starts to ride out a wave. And on top of that, there is always an ideal course over ground (COG) to maintain which, in the race to Brazil, is pretty much 180 degrees due south. Which may or may not be attainable, depending on the wind angle.

But when all the elements come together perfectly – like when the boat’s stern is lifted with 20 knots of wind in the spinnaker and I’m surfing down a wave at 18 knots — I am grinning like a kid on a go-cart track. That feeling of riding a wave as far and long as it will take me brings on an adrenalin rush that reminds me of the long, fast turns I used to slice through the snow when downhill ski racing, a sport I’m much more familiar with.

When racing downhill on snow, my skis are like an extension of my body and I can feel in my core when I have to lean hard to counterbalance the speed of the skis coming around a turn. Which feels similar to the moment I feel the boat lift up and tilt away from the wind just before it rides down a wave. The instant heel of the boat brings on a momentary twinge of uncertainty in my gut, but once the boat starts to glide, my shoulders relax and I enjoy the ride while I work at the rudder to keep the surf going as long as possible.

With ski racing, my goal is always to trust in my training, my experience and my equipment, as well as to lower my inhibitions and let the skis ride out at the speeds they were designed to do. Which is not so different from the feeling of helming during a squall. If I trust the sail configuration and I know the speeds the boat can do, then I just need to take a deep breath, trust in myself and the boat, and ride the waves to the height of their speed. The goal in racing – both in skiing and sailing — is to push for speed as long as possible without prematurely putting on the brakes or damaging any equipment.

I was in a world of my own — thinking about yacht racing vs. ski racing while nudging the wheel back and forth with the hundreds of small wrist movements needed to keep the helm steady — when the skipper popped up beside me and said, “Tasha, you’re a natural.”

The compliment took me by surprise. So, rather than say thank-you, I brushed it off with, “I don’t know about that. I’m working quite hard!” Which was true — I was sweating so much I wished I had worn less clothing. But, perhaps I was more surprised to find that I might have found my niche on the boat.

When I signed up for the Clipper Race, my expectations of myself were quite low in that I wanted only to survive without injury and learn a little more about sailing. But to be good at something? That was rather unexpected.

Of all the jobs on board the Clipper yachts, helming was one that I was sure I would avoid. It seemed like such a great deal of responsibility to take on for such a large boat and crew. And having had no experience racing big, fast yachts, it seemed to me that the helm was a position for a much more experienced sailor. Plus, I loved being the go-to person for grinding, sweating up sails, trimming, working the bow, or doing any of the jobs required of me on deck.

But it’s amazing what a vote of confidence and some experience can do to develop one’s skill. Now, the crew has to practically pry my fingers off the wheel to get me off the helm. And the hairier the weather, the bigger the buzz I get from helming. Every squall poses a new challenge with unpredictable winds and rolling waves that often come with speed and an adrenalin surge.

There’s no doubt I have a lot more to learn about helming a racing yacht. And, for sure, the Southern Ocean has a few tough lessons in store for me. But, there’s no point in doubting myself now; I just have to keep learning.

Like other sports in my life, there comes a time when I just have to trust in my training, my experience and my equipment. And once I’ve done that, I can just let ‘er rip.

post-line-divide

The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew

Day 5 Race to Rio: Slow and steady wins the race

Horror stories of shredded spinnakers, crash gybes and spinnaker poles ripping out of masts have been making their way around the fleet via the daily Skippers’ Blogs, giving us something to talk about each day during our dog watch (the only time all the crew are awake at the same time).

I thought of our sailmaker, Sarah, when I read Team GB wrapped their spinnaker around their forestay, tearing it to shreds within a few days of leaving Brest. The damage was so severe it took them a week to repair it.

And I cringed when I read PSP Logistics (Ryan’s boat) had crash gybed with their Yankee headsail poled out, causing the pole to come whizzing across the boat, ripping the track clean out of the mast when it hit the other side. And that was on Day 2 of the race, with about 4500 miles to go. And that’s 4500 miles of downwind sailing now made even more difficult for Ryan and his team since they won’t be poling out any more headsails.

As I’ve been doing more and more helming for my watch, I think of PSP every time the boat pulls hard up into the wind and I have to fight the boat with all my might to bear away again. It feels like a desperate battle to keep the boat safe, and to fight for every chance at stepping on the podium in Rio. I don’t want to give anything away to human error, much less my error.

It’s a huge responsibility, being at the helm on a 70-foot racing yacht. Unlike sailing in the Solent, with tame seas and predictable winds, out on the open ocean we’ve had everything from 10–40 knots of wind close hauled, sometimes from behind, sometimes calm seas and sometimes huge, rolling waves that threaten to pitch the boat on its side, putting undue pressure on the preventer and our pole, if we’re sailing downwind.

Any time I have to scream “VANG!”, signaling for the crew to ease the boom vang as the boom is about to dip in the water, my adrenalin levels surge and my muscles tense up, as I’m fighting with every ounce of strength and concentration to not let the boat pitch sideways, causing any damage.

Eric, our skipper, seems to have a good sense of the crew’s capabilities, which is why we sailed a fair while longer than most of the other boats without putting our spinnaker up. He didn’t want us taking on more than we could handle.

So, we watched patiently and a little nervously as most of the fleet passed us in the first few days of the race from Brest. Most of the other boats had raised their kites and pulled ahead of us, leaving us behind in 8th place. But with five crew laid up with seasickness to the point where they were either in bed most of the day, slumped on the stern with Bob (our man overboard dummy) or lying on the floor throwing up into garbage bags, both watches were seriously under-crewed for manning a spinnaker, which requires quite a few hands on deck.

So we waited until we had a fully functioning crew to raise our kite, and then we reigned in each boat mile by mile, until we’d clawed our way up from 8th place to 1st place. And like a flashback to the race to Brest, Derry-Londonderry were hot on our heels in 2nd place when we reached the top of the leaderboard.

It’s true, we could have pushed hard at all costs from the get-go, using what few crew we had and what little experience we had with night sailing, squalls, rolling seas and the four brand new spinnakers we had on board.

But could we have done it without the errors that would have cost us the race in the long run?

By the Skipper’s estimate, no. So, we pushed on with what we knew at the start of the race, waiting for the crew to recover to 100% before we took on more. And then we slowly learned about night navigation, flying spinnakers, helming in rolling seas and working together as a winning team.

Which is what makes our current standing in first place so rewarding. It came with a lot of patience and hard work.

Sure, the race has only just begun and we still have the Doldrums to contend with before we get to Rio. But, you know that they say:  Slow and steady wins the race.

post-line-divide

The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Clipper by numbers: 48 hours into the race to Rio

If the purpose of the Clipper Race to Brazil was to show this fleet that our 380-mile race to Brest was mere child’s play, then the smack-down we got in the first 48 hours of our 4800-mile Race to Rio certainly set the tone.

On board the Henri Lloyd yacht, we are a little data-obsessed, analyzing position reports every six hours and relentlessly asking our navigation officers to provide stats on the distance between us and our competition, who is averaging more miles per day and what route each boat is taking. Amazingly, the crew’s hunger for constant updates hasn’t yet seemed to annoy our navigators, who have been incredibly patient with the crew’s constant stream of questions.

But, perhaps our navigators are more annoyed than they let on, as they have now taken to posting and updating a leaderboard in our galley each day in an effort to minimize the barrage of repeated questions.

Henri Lloyd Clipper Race Leader Board

Henri Lloyd Clipper Race Leader Board.

So, in the spirit of continuing my obsession with Clipper Race stats, I’ve decided to use the numbers produced on board Henri Lloyd so far to reflect on my first 48 hours in the Clipper Race to Rio.

Record wind speed: 48 knots
Record boat speed (on Henri Lloyd): 30.7 knots
Clipper all-time speed record: 30.7 knots
Most miles covered by HL in a 24-hour period: 247 miles
Injuries: 2 (Pete – smacked in the eye with spinnaker sheet; Kevin – severe rope burn from releasing a riding turn on the winch)
Seasickness casualties: 5
Gear broken: 2 stanchions, 1 GoPro mount, 2 winches, 2 spinnaker halyards
Number of sails on board: 11
Number of sails torn (on HL): 0
Boats ahead of HL 24 hours into race: 7
Boats ahead of HL 48 hours into race: 0
Record number of spinnaker changes in a 4-hour watch (on HL): 3

Record boat speeds

“Everyone GET DOWN!” Our watch leader shouts as the stern is suddenly lifted into the air, pointing the bow straight down a steep cliff of water. No one is sure what will happen once the boat bottoms out in the massive trough before us, so everyone ducks, including the helmsman, Jo, who’s visibly concerned about keeping his pants dry and the boat steady as it screams forward.

For the last 12 hours, the ocean swells have grown progressively larger, pushing the boat’s surfing speed up to 21 knots when I was at the helm, then 24.5 knots with the skipper at the helm, until finally we struck the oh-shit chord with 30.7 knots surfing down a mammoth wave, as my crew mate Jo grits his teeth and clings to the helm.

Having poured buckets of blood, sweat and tears into the production of the new fleet of 70-foot Clipper racing yachts, the Clipper team have been standing by with chewed up nails, no doubt, hoping to see their expensive new boats smash their previous boats’ records.

The speed record for the previous fleet of 68-foot Clipper boats was 28 knots, and that was surfing down waves in the Southern Ocean. So, I imagine raucous cheers sounded from the Clipper office when news hit the grapevine that the Henri Lloyd boat smashed the Clipper all-time record just two days into their second race. And off the coast of France, no less. Which begs the question: What will these boats do when they hit the 50-foot swells of the Southern Ocean?

I’ll let you know when I get there….

Crew and boat preservation

“GRIND!!!” Someone screams as the spinnaker sheet whips the boom with a sickening “CRACK!”

We all duck our heads in the cockpit, instinctively, as the sheet snaps over our heads.

Buzzz. CRACK! Buzzz. CRACK!

The helm drifts off course in gusts of 40 knots, and the trimmer reacts, yelling “GRIND!” a little too late, as the sheets are already flogging the paint off the boat. The buzz of the grinder punctuates the deafening snap of the sheets as the cockpit is a hive of movement and nerves, desperately trying to stop the damaging noise.

Sparks fly like fireworks from the starboard side as the spinnaker sheet whips the stanchions so violently that one of them explodes in orange fire.

“BAM! BAM! SNAP!”

The impact of the sheet whipping against our starboard aft stanchion sheers it clean off its base until all we hear is clanking metal and see the stanchion now hanging limply from the side of the boat.

Pete, one of our crew, is doubled over in pain, holding his hand over his left eye. He’s been hit in the face with the flying sheet.

Pete would later turn out to be okay, and would even earn the nickname “Pirate Pete” because of his eye patch. But the blood on deck is a clear warning to us that we need to work on our spinnaker skills and get our technique under control, or we will find ourselves down both equipment and crew.

It’s one thing to train on these Clipper boats while sailing in the mild conditions of the English Solent, as beginner errors have minor consequences when winds are light, seas are calm and the boats are not actually racing.

But, 2 days into the race to Rio, ocean squalls kick the wind speeds up to 48 knots, which means every line, sheet and halyard on board is suddenly under immense pressure, making precision and technique especially important for keeping the crew and the boat safe.

Of course, we want to push the boat and ourselves hard to win. But there are limits to everything. If we push so hard that we break our equipment, hurt our crew and lose valuable time trying to make up for our losses to both boat and crew, then we will lose out in the long run.

Unlike the race to Brest, the race to Rio is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to make sure we pace ourselves and our boat for the long haul. Every mile counts in this race.

But then so does every mistake.

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Clipper Race to Brazil: D-day

Hi everyone!

This is a little unorthodox of me to be writing to you all like this, but it’s come down to crunch time and I’m panicking.

I haven’t gotten all the blog posts written that I wanted to post up before I left, but I’ve now literally run out of time. In T minus two hours we’ll be slipping our lines and departing from Brest, France, setting sail for Rio de Janeiro. That’s a 4800-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Eeeeek!

The satellite phone I bought has yet to be tested because I’ve had no time this week to test it with all the work we’ve been doing on our Clipper boats to get ready for departure, so I guess the beta testing will have to be done at sea. Sigh.

So hopefully you’ll be seeing blog updates here on this site, though they will probably be without photos since I am charged per byte when sending info through my satellite phone. And that is only if the system works. Nothing like living by the seat of your pants, eh?

You should also know you can actually follow our boats online on Clipper’s Race Viewer by going here: http://raceviewer.clipperroundtheworld.com/

Clipper will be updating the boat’s position every hour, so if you keep hitting “refresh” on your browser you’ll see us move along over the next 25 days towards Brazil. Exciting stuff, eh?

Also, you should know that each boat has the right to exercise a 24-hour “stealth period” where we go offline, our AIS is turned off and the other boats can’t see our position. This also means you won’t be able to see our position on the race viewer. But don’t worry – it doesn’t mean we’ve sunk or gone in the wrong direction. It just means you’ll find out where we really are 24 hours later.

I am racing on CV21, Henri Lloyd 50 Years of Pioneering Spirit and Ryan is racing on CV28, PSP Logistics. So I’ll leave it up to you who to root for!

That’s it, folks! I’m either going to step onto that boat with confidence in a few minutes, or I’m going to puke on my shoes. Either way, as of 10 am this morning, I’ll be setting sail for Brazil.

Wish us luck and I’ll see you on the flip side!

Love,

Tasha (& Ryan)

Video: Clipper Race Training

By the time I’d completed my Level 3 Clipper Race Training, it was officially announced that my boat — CV21 with Skipper Eric Holden — had secured a sponsor and would be hauled out of the water immediately to be branded loud and clear: Henri Lloyd 50 Years of Pioneering Spirit.

I’d watched with envy as the other boats in the fleet were all branded before us – One DLL, with their pretty turquoise hull and a sponsor with seemingly bottomless pockets; Old Pulteney, the whiskey company that has a policy of providing enough whiskey for their team to bathe in, and the various city sponsors like Qingdao and Derry-Londonderry-Doire, with their colorful red and pink graphics.

I had wondered, at this late date, if we’d ever get a sponsor, or if we’d have to start the race with our painfully white hull, like a lone seagull in a flock of peacocks.

And then, as luck would have it, we got our sponsor – the UK’s largest sailing clothing company. No doubt, the rest of the fleet would be jealous of all the Henri Lloyd swag we’d be receiving. Not to mention that Henri Lloyd himself provided foul-weather gear to the Clipper Race Founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968 when he set the record as the first person to ever complete a non-stop circumnavigation. So there was history in this transaction, to boot.

It was the perfect reward for a challenging few weeks of non-stop training on Levels 2 and 3 of Clipper Race Training.

A few days after the Henri Lloyd announcement, Ryan’s boat – CV28 with Skipper Chris Hollis – also had cause for celebration. His predominantly Aussie boat would be sponsored by PSP Logistics.

It’s taken me a few weeks to do this, but having sifted through hours of memories and video footage of my Clipper Race Training in the Solent, the English Channel and on the boat delivery from Gosport to London, I finally managed to put together this video to give you a little taste of what race training is like on board a Clipper Round the World yacht.

What do you think? Would you sign up, if you had the chance?

Clipper Round the World Race Video – Training 2013 from Tasha Hacker (Turf to Surf) on Vimeo.

Featured Photo Credit: Julia Ramsay

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race starting September 1st, 2013 from St. Katharine’s Docks in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew

“Suck it up” – Clipper Race to Brest

Day 1: Off to a good start

The horn sounds, announcing to the fleet that it is ten minutes to race start. I am standing on deck with the Henri Lloyd crew, all of us in our pristine, matching white jackets, all too aware of the media crew zipping around in their red ribs looking for good PR shots of the Clipper Race Fleet.

As we nudge our way towards the start, I notice we’re one of few boats who haven’t raised our spinnaker at this early stage. The other boats are all flying their branded kites proudly out front , like body builders puffing out their chests before competition. And most are off to a smooth start, apart from Mission Performance, who manage to hour-glass their spinnaker just before the start line.

Eric, my skipper, is at the helm looking dead ahead, focused and serious, and I’m watching him closely for any indicator of how we performed as we cross the start line in the top half of the fleet. I don’t have much to go by, though, as he seems utterly unconcerned with our position, which is somewhere between third and sixth.

“Have we started yet?” Someone asks.

“I don’t know… I assume so?” A crew member says – an exchange you wouldn’t expect to hear on a competitive racing yacht. It makes me wonder how good a spectator sport yacht racing is when the crew can’t even tell where the start line is.

For spectators, it must be even more confusing. I imagine them turning up to the docks expecting a sporting spectacle similar to watching Mo Farrah run 10,000 meters to victory in the Olympic Stadium, and being sorely disappointed. With a dozen boats sailing towards an invisible line that has no discernible markers or audible gunshots marking the race start from a distance, it can be hard to tell whether they’re watching a parade or a race.

On board Henri Lloyd, we all know the drill when it comes to hoisting and trimming sails. But, like most of the crew, this is the first time I’ve ever raced a boat this size or done any major offshore sailing. So it’s not lost on me that this is no weekend beer-can race I’m starting out with. Soon, I’ll be racing across the Atlantic Ocean.

But not just yet. First, we test our skills in this 380-mile race to Brest.

Day 2: Half way there and we’re in the lead

For two days, we battle to stay out in front of the fleet, gaining distance on the boats behind us, though we’re unable to shake Derry-Londonderry-Doire from our side. The crew is pushing hard with sail changes and sail trim to gain any advantage over the fleet while we carefully monitor the AIS boat positions to see where we stand.

When the wind drops off and the fog rolls in, though, our badass-looking black and yellow boat isn’t such a speed demon anymore. And the back of the fleet seems to be riding good winds, as they quickly gain on us. We change spinnakers three times in a four-hour watch in an effort to keep up with the fickle wind, all the while hoping vigilance will be the key to victory.

At one point, in the dead of night, as we cut through a fog so thick we can’t even see our own bowsprit, our AIS alarm goes off, letting us know that Derry are less than a mile away, somewhere off our starboard side. Yet we still have no visual on them.

Suddenly, out of the fog, the white and pink hull of Derry appears from the haze like a ghost ship, headed straight for us. From the shrieks heard on board Derry, I guess they are just as surprised to see us as we are to see them. As they quickly head up and pass us to our stern with just half a boat length between us, the Derry crew wave and snap photos.

It’s a close call and one we’ll surely share a laugh over when we meet up in the pub in Brest.

Day 3: Bad news with 130 miles to go

I’m starting to realize that a large part of ocean racing has very little to do with sailing. When each watch isn’t sweating, hoisting, grinding and trimming sails, there is a full schedule of hourly checks that need to be diligently attended to.

There is the hourly log, which requires someone to write down the boat’s position, speed, wind speed, wind angle and host of other navigational information, as well as plot the boat’s position on a paper chart. At the same time, someone needs to check and manually empty four different bilges and gray tanks every hour, as well as check the fuel levels, the generator, whether the water maker is working and a host of other mechanical systems.

And then there are the less frequent checks – once a day, someone has to open up the crash bulkhead in the forepeak and pump out the water that collects there. And every day, twice a day, the heads need to be thoroughly cleaned, all handrails need to be wiped with antibacterial spray and the toilet paper bin needs to be emptied over the side.

None of these are jobs are ever snapped up by enthusiastic volunteers, but we all know they need doing, so we get on with them.

About 1 pm on our third day of racing, it is my turn to go down and fill in the log and do the hourly checks. But, when I get to the nav station, I find the Skipper looking intently at the chart plotter with a look on his face that says “Now is not a good time.”

An hour later, the Skipper requests the starboard watch gets woken up for an urgent team meeting. Once we are all up on deck, he explains that because of the lack of wind and because Clipper has a deadline to get the fleet to Brest by a certain time, the race will end at 4 pm today, 130 miles short of Brest, with podium places being awarded to those boats who are closest to Ushent at that time.

As the Skipper speaks, the crew glances at their watches, trying to analyze how far we can possibly get in two hours. Especially since we are now stuck in a wind hole on a long-term course that has just been made redundant by Clipper’s announcement.

With just two hours to work with, we head south as quickly as we can. But as we count down the minutes to the early race finish, the mood on board becomes decidedly quiet and heavy.

“Five…four…three…two…one… That’s it. It’s four o’clock.”

There is no clapping or cheering. And not much is heard on deck but a few exasperated sighs. The fact that we pushed really hard, or that we were the front-runners for most of the race, doesn’t seem to be any consolation to the crew of Henri Lloyd, who officially tied with Derry-Londonderry-Doire for 7th place.

One thing is clear: it is going to be a long, quiet 130-mile motor to Brest.

“Suck it up,” says Skipper Mark Burkes on my Facebook Page, where I whine loudly about the race results. “I once sailed in triangles for 1800 miles. Shit happens.”

There’s nothing like getting slapped with the truth: no race is over until it’s over. A yacht race is both a marathon and a sprint – you have to set yourself up for the long haul, but you also have to sprint hard when the wind is with you. Because you never know when it might die on you.

Henri Lloyd did well in this race, but not well enough. And no amount of self-pity will change that. So, we will suck it up and get our heads in the game for the next race to Brazil.

Because that’s how you win. You never give up.

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK.Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew

Day 1 of the Clipper Race: Mother Watch

The Clipper Race Kicks Off

The big day has finally arrived: It is the start of Race 1 of Leg 1 of the Clipper Round the World Race.

It’s been an intense week in London for the hundreds of Clipper crew about to start Leg 1, considering the boats have been under construction up until the 11th hour. My schedule has been full of boat prep, guardrail installations, sail checks, deep cleaning, winch servicing, boat naming ceremonies, media interviews and desperate gear purging to make sure my belongings fit within the 20-kilo limit per crew on board Henri Lloyd. Which has left little time for visits from friends and family or spending much time with Ryan before departing for the high seas.

The last week has been so stressful, in fact, that it isn’t until London grows smaller in the distance, and we are finally motoring towards the start line, that I begin to relax for the first time in months. As we hoist our sails and wait for the cannon shot that will kick off our first 380-mile race from London, UK to Brest, France, the adrenalin kicks in and I finally start to enjoy myself.

Mother Watch: A hell of a job

When you think of yacht racing, you probably think of high-pressure moments like the ones seen on YouTube, where a boat tacks around a fixed race marker with the crew grinding on the winches or scrambling across the deck to the high side, each boat coming within what seems like inches of each other.

But, despite all the pressure of performing on deck, it’s the crew on Mother Watch – the 24-hour below-deck rotation in which two crew at a time are responsible for all the day’s meals – that bear the mother lode of high-pressure responsibility.

Just imagine, if you will, the look on my skipper’s face at 6:40 am on Race Start Day when he’d asked for the crew to be fed and on deck for work by 6:30 am at the LATEST. And yet I and, Jo, the other “mother” on duty, had to admit that the hot porridge was nowhere near ready to be served.

Lesson #267 in onboard living: When the porridge package instructions say “2-4 minutes to cook on the stove” they are NOT referring to a 20-person serving.

Having thoroughly disappointed the skipper during the morning shift of Mother Watch, Jo and I were determined not to screw up lunch and dinner. So we made sure to be below deck, cooking away in the galley at least an hour and a half before each meal serving time.

This, unfortunately, meant missing out on a lot of the first-day-of-Clipper-Racing action (I had to pop my head up on deck every half an hour to check what the status was – were we beating or losing to my husband’s boat, PSP Logistics? “Priorities, people! I’m slaving away in the galley – the least you can do is make sure we beat Ryan!”)

This also meant Jo and I were forced to spend most of the day below deck, which is a sure-fire way to kick-start seasickness. So, it was lucky that one of our Leg 8 crew members, Emma, had provided the boat with homemade meals to get us through the first two days of racing without having to do any heavy cooking. I’ve never been so happy to see a frozen catering tray full of chicken Thai curry. Reheating and serving was about all I could handle by dinner preparation time, considering the 45-degree tilt and the bouncy conditions.

The winds kicked up in the English Channel, making tacking a violent experience below deck. Bowls were flying out of the cupboards at our faces, a bottle of olive oil smashed all over the floorboards, Jo (the other Mother) was lying face-down on a sail retching into a garbage bag and I was crawling periodically to the head on my hands and knees to vomit, while emerging now and then to check that the rice wasn’t burning.

Let’s just say we were not the same ravenous crew who, the previous night, had scarfed down two entire chocolate cakes for our first Clipper Race birthday on board Henri Lloyd.

As I pulled my head from the toilet, I thought to myself that it may be a while before I see chocolate cake again. But then again, it may be a while before I want to see chocolate cake again.

Either way, there was no turning back now.

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The Clipper Round the World Race

Tasha and Ryan are competing in Legs 1 and 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which started September 1st, 2013 in London, UK. Tasha is competing on CV21 (the Henri Lloyd boat) with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan is competing on CV28 (the PSP Logistics boat) with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ crew