It’s difficult to believe that after all the years of anticipation, planning & preparation, leg 1 of my Clipper adventure is already over & phase 2 is just around the corner. How many experiences, emotions, high & lows can be squeezed into 6 weeks – when it comes to Clipper, clearly quite a lot!! Reflecting on my Atlantic adventure, I feel as though I’ve been through a physical & emotional whirlpool – & I appreciate that Nicki & the family were going through a similar emotional rollercoaster.
After all the excitement of our UK departure from St Katherine’s Dock in London last September, the 2-3 days in the English Channel were brutal. I have never felt so seasick & so completely exhausted, both physical & mentally. There were genuinely times in the those first few days when I would have given anything to get off the boat & seriously doubted I would be able to continue after Portugal. Fortunately I didn’t have an alternative other than to carry on & whilst logically I knew it would all pass & that within a few days I would find my sea legs, that was little consolation at the time.
Most of crew were similarly affected & yet we all continued with our watch & below deck duties – the support for each other was incredible & a real help. My resilience was certainly tested – those 120 hour weeks as a junior doctor & sleep deprived nights as a parent was clearly good grounding. The other aspect that kept me going was that when on deck & actually sailing I not only felt less unwell but was invigorated & exhilarated whatever the weather conditions. I ended up doing the majority of the night time helming for my watch during that first week & I will always treasure so many memories of sailing with rough seas & high winds under white sails & stars.
It was a welcome relief to be back on land a week later when we arrived in Portimao. The joy & pride of having completed Race 1 & having come through such tough times, was magnified a thousand times by the complete surprise of my daughter, Jess being on the jetty ready with a great big hug. It was so unexpected that from a distance, I didn’t at first recognise her but once I realised what a sneaky surprise Mrs C had pulled, I was almost overwhelmed. It was lovely to spend a few days with Jess, a rare & precious time which happens less often as the children grow up & especially as she’s now off to university.
During those first few days at sea, as I crawled into my bunk nauseous & knackered, I just wanted the nightmare to end. After a few days in Portimao, with rest & recovery, fresh food & the occasional (!!) beer, I couldn’t wait to get sailing again. It’s wonderful how quickly the rose tinted spectacles descents & your memory can be so selective!!
Portugal to Uruguay would present its own challenges. The frustration & boredom of light winds which when combined with the heat & humidity will nibble away at tolerance levels. The risk of sudden & powerful squalls that bring not only torrential rain but huge winds in unpredictable directions.This race isn’t a 6-7 day sprint, it’s a 4 week, 5000 mile marathon & the teams that do well will be those that can be patient with weather as well as each other and respond quickly to rapidly changing conditions.
Our trans-atlantic, trans-equatorial crossing didn’t disappoint.
The start of our race from Portugal to Uruguay was both exhilarating & exciting. Under clear blue skies & with the old Portimao harbour as our backdrop, the eleven boats raced around a triangular course in the bay. Frantic close quarter tactical racing as the 70 foot yachts tacked & gybed around the marks. The competitive edge of the skippers coming to the fore & the yachts often so close that it was a miracle none collided. The crews working hard on ropes & winches fuelled by the adrenaline rush & the sound of wind & water, until we rounded the last mark, headed towards the horizon & into the Atlantic beyond.
We settled quickly back into the routine of life at sea & our watch system. The mantra of eat, sleep, sail repeat became the natural rhythm of the boat, fortunately without any recurrence of significant seasickness. Our route took us south to the Canary Islands & the Cape Verde Isles where we hit our first major wind-hole. The fickle, light winds meant we couldn’t take the most direct route so ended up making slow progress the long way round. For such a small, but luscious group of islands (I can now understand why the Portuguese sailors who discovered them, gave them their name) they remained in sight for what seemed like an eternity. We’d come up on deck for our watch, 6 hours offer going below & still we hadn’t broken free. It was as if the islands themselves held the wind & us under their spell. At last we left the islands fading away & we turned towards Brazil with the doldrums & equator ahead of us.
Man Over Board – This is not a drill!
Not long after leaving the Cape Verde Isles that we experienced our most significant incident. It was 3.20am & I’d not long climbed into my bunk, exhausted after a 6 hour watch, when I hear the shout from the deck that we have trained for but never wanted to hear – “MAN OVER BOARD!!!” The off watch team leapt out of their bunks & resisted the urge to race on deck. We had no idea what had happened but trusted that the ‘on watch’ crew would be following the well practised drill & knew that sometimes, especially at night additional crew can just complicate things, get in the way & add to the risk. There were also plenty of jobs to do below deck – getting on the radio & sending out a mayday call, sending up the necessary equipment to the deck crew, accessing medical stores & preparing a bunk with warm dry blankets, a sleeping bag & clothes for the casualty.
The mood below deck was somber but focused. We could hear the instructions & noise of the deck crew but had no idea about what had happened or who was involved. Deep down we all understood the seriousness of the situation – recovering the casualty in the middle of the night with building winds & unstable seas was a real challenge & survival in water under these conditions would realistically be less than an hour. The news then filtered down – the man over board was our skipper, Ben!!! Whilst his life was in reality no more important than any of the crew, nevertheless the stakes suddenly seemed much higher.
The whole crew worked so well together. The first mate, Ineke, took over at the helm, the sails were dropped & the engines turned on. There were 2 crew whose sole job was to maintain a visual on the casualty, whilst another crew member, Glen, was getting ready to be attached to a halyard (one of the long, strong ropes that’s used to hoist the sails) & jump into the water with an additional rope to attach to Ben’s life vest so they could then both be winched back onto the boat & safety.
Ineke did a great job. She remained calm & in control, turning the boat around & bringing us next to Ben on the first pass under guidance from the “spotters”. Glen was already over the side of the boat, feet against the hull in an abseil position hovering above the dark icy cold waves.
As we approached Ben, Glen leapt into the water alongside him & quickly managed to attach the extra halyard to his life vest.
It was then up to to the crew on the winches to bring them home. As they reached the level of the deck, extra crew helped them over the rail, into the boat & then down below to the waiting warmth & reception team.
Ben, not surprisingly, was very shaken, but talking & able to stand with support – both good signs. As the only medic on board I instinctively got on with an overall comprehensive assessment with great support from Alec, one of our circumnavigators & a retired military paramedic & intensive care nurse. Ben was helped out of his cold & soaking wet clothes, wrapped in warm blankets & put in a warm, dry sleeping bag on a lower bunk close to the saloon so it was easier to monitor him. He was mildly hypothermic & had sustained a minor head injury with a cut just below his right eyebrow. He had also swallowed a lot of sea water, so we were mindful of the risk of delayed secondary drowning.
Each yacht has an excellent & extensive range of medical supplies on board, so we were able to not closely monitor Ben’s oxygen levels, as well as other vital signs, but also give him oxygen & inhalers to help his breathing. And just like at home there was a mountain of paperwork to complete with the additional but necessary regular satellite communications with Clipper HQ reporting the incident, recording Ben’s status & updating them on his progress & how the crew were coping.
It took several hours for all the team to get over the shock of what we’d experienced & achieved. Everyone’s initial response was pure adrenaline & training. Once it was over we felt washed out & exhausted & it took a huge effort to regroup, get back on course & into the racing mindset. It was still 48 hours before Ben felt up to being up & out of his bunk & 3 days before he could be up on deck without feeling dizzy. It was a great boost to the team to see Ben back on the helm & in his absence Ineke led the team from the front with her usual Dutch efficiency & good humour – the lady is a rock star!!!
You can follow the race and learn more about the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race at www.clipperroundtheworld.com but be warned – you might find yourself signing up for a leg or two!
Thank you for reading my blog. If you are able to support and encourage me on my way by sharing my adventure or contributing to my fund raising for UNICEF UK, it was be a great help and much appreciated.
Look out for the next episode!