The start of the 2015-2016 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is exactly 4 weeks away. Which means there are about 250 amateur crew from all over the world who’ve signed up for Leg 1 of the race. And about half the crew on each boat have taken a huge leap and committed to doing the full round-the-world-race, which will take about 10 months to complete.
Right now, these brave souls are packing up their houses, quitting their jobs, fretting, preparing, making lists, ordering dry bags and waterproof gear on Amazon.com and trying hard to explain to confused loved ones why this mad adventure is a good idea. Some may even be trying to explain to themselves why the hell they’re doing this.
But whether they’re ready or not, this race is happening. It starts in London on August 30th and anyone who is racing on Leg 1 from England to Brazil, regardless of their prior sailing experience, will be catapulted into the learning curve of a lifetime.
I know this because I’ve been there.
Yep, that’s me, enhanced by Brian Carlin’s amazing photography.
Ryan and I raced on Legs 1 and 3 in the 2013-2014 Clipper Race; I crewed on Henri Lloyd and Ryan crewed on PSP Logistics. And that was meant to be the end of it. But I loved the experience so much, I got back on my boat for the last race, Leg 8, which finished in London in September 2014, bringing the whole experience full circle for me. It was a privilege to do the final race of the Clipper with my team, who not only won the race from Derry to Den Helder, but also won the full round-the-world race.
So when my friend and Clipper training skipper for Levels 1 and 2, Jim Prendergast, messaged me to say he’d gotten the job as one of the 12 Clipper Race Skippers on the upcoming race, I literally squealed with excitement. I was thrilled he would get to have this experience and I was also interested in following his progress as he makes his way around the world with his crew this year.
Jim and I both have our serious faces on for Level 1 Clipper Race Training.
And then Jim asked if I had any advice for his boat, since I crewed on the winning boat in the ’13-’14 race, and since he now had the weighty responsibility of turning his crew into a winning team. I couldn’t help but laugh nervously. Advice? From me? The woman who cracked her head open on the first day of her Level 1 training, forcing Jim to turn the boat around and take me to the hospital?
This would require rubbing the scar on my head, opening a bottle of wine and having a good, hard think. Which is exactly what I did. So, if you’re crewing in the Clipper Race, or thinking of signing up for Clipper, or you’re at all interested in ocean racing, here are my 7 pieces of advice for Clipper Race crew based on my experiences racing on Henri Lloyd with Skipper Eric Holden and an amazing crew from all backgrounds and ranging in age from 18 to 73.
The amazing women I raced with on Henri Lloyd in Leg 8.
1. Boat harmony is paramount
On land, when you’re warm, well-rested, well-fed and in your right mind, you would probably say that the best way to deal with conflict is to confront it immediately so feelings don’t fester and cause resentment.
But on the boat, everyone goes through periods when they are not at their best. The conditions and general lack of comfort means people can be irritable, irrational and not mentally at their strongest. And putting a bunch of irritable, irrational people together in a small space for weeks, maybe months on end, means that huge conflicts can erupt from the smallest things, like the coffee running out, the best bunks being taken or a spinnaker being wooled incorrectly, so it has to be wooled again. And when a conflict erupts, it affects the mood of the entire boat. And it can turn an otherwise cohesive team of adults into a gaggle of petty children.
A beautiful picture of some very cold, uncomfortable crew.
You do not want to spend weeks or months at sea with petty children, so it’s important to ask yourself this question before you decide to voice your beef with someone:
Will this improve the atmosphere on board?
If the answer is “no,” then hold that thought until you get to port. Sure, your gripes might come gushing out like water from a burst dam between beer #4 and #10, but at least then you’ll have some space in which to get away from all the people you might have just insulted.
Or, better yet, you might not even remember what you were upset about because now you’re on land. And because steak. And showers. Who can stay mad with a belly full of meat, armpits that smell of roses and a scalp that no longer itches from salt-water build-up?
But, more importantly, when you’re in port, take the time to hang out with your crew and get to know them when everyone is relaxed and no longer stressed. By getting to know the people you race with 24/7 for weeks on end at sea, you’ll understand better how to navigate conflicts and defuse them because you’ll have a deeper understanding of the different personalities on your boat.
Conflicts create divisions amongst the crew, which is what creates an unhappy environment onboard. An unhappy crew don’t work well together and crew that don’t work well together don’t race well together. It’s as simple as that.
Remember, your crew are not your competition; it’s the boat ahead of you, just over the horizon.
The opponent. That’s Ryan on the bow, asking for a whooping.
2. Pay it forward
You will have moments when you will wonder what the hell you were thinking when you signed up to cram yourself into a sweaty, fiberglass closet with 20 people you’ve never met before.
But know this: a happy boat is a winning boat. And compassion is the key to happiness on board.
So when you’re having a good day (and there will be incredible days), be aware of the people around you who are having a bad day and make the effort to help lift at least one person out of their misery.
You know someone’s having a bad day when they can’t make it to their bed.
For example, when you’re mother, be the best mother you can possibly be. Serving up a good meal lifts crew morale immediately. Making coffee for everyone when it’s not meal time has an amazing way of making people smile and swell with gratitude for such a seemingly small gesture.
If someone is looking more tired than you are, and you have extra energy, offer to give them an hour off watch and take the hour for them on deck. If someone is sick, maybe let them sleep an extra watch or offer them a better bunk.
These sound like small things, but they can have a huge impact, especially the longer you are at sea and the more uncomfortable the conditions get. And the truth is, in a few night’s time, you’ll be the one who is sick or so tired you can’t keep your eyes open on deck. And maybe all you’ll need is a gesture of compassion to lift you up.
If every crew member takes it upon herself to lift someone out of a funk when they need it, then the whole boat collectively lifts itself out of a funk every day. And, trust me, that boat will go faster as a result.
Whiteboard showing position updates helped us focus on our goal: to do our best.
3. Strive for equality, not uniformity
Equality on the boat means everyone has the right to grow as sailors, enjoy the experience and learn in the process.
What it doesn’t mean is everyone has to contribute equally or do the same jobs.
You will have the full spectrum of backgrounds on your boat — those who have sailed before, those who have never sailed, the strong, the injured, the old, the young, the athletes, those who’ve never played a team sport, the engineers and the leaders.
Everyone on board has strengths and weaknesses. A winning boat doesn’t rotate regardless of ability. You wouldn’t send someone with a fear of heights up the mast in a storm; that would be pointless and unnecessary. Likewise, a call for help on deck doesn’t mean everyone should go up. Those who are willing and able are the best crew to step forward when needed.
This motley crew is made up of people from all ages and background, all of whom have something to offer.
4. Whatever sacrifices you’ve made to get here, this is only the beginning
Everyone has made sacrifices to get on this race. Some have taken out loans to pay for this experience, some have left children and family at home, some have traveled long distances, started a fitness regime or made a major life change to get where they are now.
But these sacrifices are just the beginning. The most successful boats make the most sacrifices to win. Some boats curb their weight limits, some sleep only on the high side and some exhaust their crew with countless and constant sail changes to get the most out of the wind.
Some of the sacrifices you will be asked to make will include cleaning the heads, emptying the bilge, giving the lower bunks to those less able-bodied, cooking in the galley in the sweltering heat and helping out on deck in your off-watch. And that’s just naming a few small sacrifices.
If you know and expect you will make sacrifices on this race, you will feel less put out by those sacrifices in the moment. It is about the long game; the race is a marathon and the more work you put into every aspect of being on this race, the more you will get out of it.
No one loves cleaning the bilge. But crew mate Meg Reilly still does it with a smile.
5. Rid yourself of fixed expectations
Life-changing experiences come to those who are open to learning something new. If you come onboard with a fixed idea of what your experience in the Clipper Race should look and feel like, then you may be shutting out opportunities to discover something new about yourself.
Doing the Clipper Race will open your mind and expose things about yourself and others that you can’t possibly predict. Don’t limit your experience by deciding what should happen before you get on board — do your best in training and understand that the experience of racing and crossing oceans will be completely different from what you might expect. You will learn more about yourself at sea than you can possibly imagine…if you’re open to it.
You might not expect to be at the bow in a storm. Surprise!
6. Be prepared to learn and teach simultaneously
Whether it’s prior sailing experience, leadership ability, physical strength, mental fortitude, or a specific skill, everyone on board has something to offer, something to teach and something to learn.
Open your heart to those opportunities and don’t let your pride get in the way of learning. If you don’t know how to do something, ask questions. If you know how to do something that others don’t, be patient and teach it to someone else. The more skills a crew can acquire from each other without burdening the skipper, the more cohesive the boat will be and the faster the team will progress.
By Leg 8, Henri Lloyd was great at coaching each other and learning new skills.
7. Any boat can win
That is the truth. Regardless of who your skipper is or how strong or weak your crew are, if you adhere to the above six points, then your boat will be in the running to win.
Henri Lloyd, winners of the 13-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
Good luck everyone! And remember to enjoy the experience while you’re in it, and not just in hindsight. Every day will present a new, extraordinary opportunity to learn. Be present in the experience and soak it up.