Part 'A' Training - Big Boat Sailing

Gosport  19/10/08 - 26/10/08 

It was with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and partial deafness that I set off from Hull to Gosport to start my sailing training.  Excitement as this was the really the start of my adventure; trepidation as having read the training manual I was sent two weeks previously, I hadn't understood a word of it.... seriously it was a different language altogether and there was no dictionary; and deafness, as a week earlier my ears had become blocked. The doctors surgery had said I had to put drops in my ears for 2 weeks before they would see me.  In desperation, having woken up almost completely deaf the Sunday I was due to leave, I went to the A&E department of the local hospital to see if they would syringe my ears and restore my hearing. I saw 3 different people and sat in 3 different waiting rooms for about 2 hours to finally be told that they couldn't do anything for me.  Great.  I was now an hour late leaving, stressed,  deaf and wondering if on safety grounds Clipper would refuse me permission to go on board.  After all, how was I to take notice of any "Avast Belays" if I couldn't hear?  (I was fairly sure "Avast belay" was a nautical term as I'd played the part of a pirate in Panto a few years earlier.  It was in the script - so it must be right). 

Which brings me onto my sailing qualifcations to none actually. I'd done a bit of canoeing and kayaking before as Venture Scout (a long time ago) and been on some boating day-trips while on holiday...and I'm sure some of those boats did have sails but I think at the time I was more interested in the food and beer!

So it was indeed with trepidation that I arrived at the Royal Clarence Marina, home of Clipper Ventures plc, on Sunday evening, with only partial hearing, feeling somewhat under-prepared for the week ahead. 

The group of other 'trainees' all turned out to be a very decent bunch.  Only one other girl (ok, at 42 maybe I should stop referring to myself as a girl) - Sally, who as it turned out, lives only about half an hours drive from me. There were 8 men,  6 trainees and our Skipper Juan and First Mate Robin. We were to train on 60ft Clipper yachts, slightly smaller than the 68s we'd be on in the race, but more sturdy and forgiving - or so we were told!

Space on the yacht is limited to say the least and privacy non-existent - not a place for the timid or shy and definitely not a place for skimpy, lacy undies. Getting dressed/undressed is either done Houdini-style inside your sleeping bag or in full view of everyone else on the boat. I became adept at wriggling in and out of my highly unsuitable undergarments within the privacy of my sleeping bag. Lesson No.1 learned. Clipper To-do List No.1...go to M&S and buy some 'sensibles'.

The first couple of days concentrate on boat safety, checking that our life-jackets were in good working order, getting to know where everything is on the boat and learning to rig it.  There is a complex system of ropes all with different names and doing different jobs; the 'halyards' pull (hoist) the different sails up, the 'sheets' are used to tension the sails and help to give them the right aerodynamic shape for the current wind strength and direction, the 'guys' are bracers and stop things like the boom (big horizontal pole attached to the mast) and the spinnaker pole from flying around - like the guy ropes on your tent. This in itself was a revelation to me as reading the training manual I had thought that sheets, were in fact, some kind of sheet.  I knew then I was on a very steep learning curve.

My key success on day 2 was to find a doctor surgery that sorted my ears. A 10 minute taxi ride away and an hour later I was back, overjoyed that I could hear again and relieved at not having to say "pardon" after every instruction directed at me.

We set off that afternoon on our first overnight sail.  We were heading to Dartmouth further down the coast to the west. This was to be our first experience of working in a watch system - 4 hours on, 4 hours off through the night. We were all pretty excited and my watch started on the 6 til 10pm shift.  There was a chill in the air and a good strong breeze and we made steady progress while we marvelled at the sky and the zillions of stars that become visible when you're miles away from city lights.

The wind increased and so did my blood pressure as I took the helm of the boat for the first time.  The size of the waves were increasing and I was instructed on how to feel the pull of the boat as she climbed a wave and then to compensate as she slid down the other side. Inside I was in a mild panic as I tried to keep one eye on the compass to check we were on course, keep my eyes on the horizon and keep a look-out for other vessels.  Not enough eyes. Clipper To-do List No.2 - Grow eyes in back of head. My woefully inadequate brain was also trying to figure out which way to turn the wheel to get us back on course when my concentration had slipped. Another fairly simple task made harder by being boss-eyed and standing on the equivalent of an out-of-control see-saw. On the outside however was the biggest grin on my face - I was on top of the world. I felt a freedom and a sense of great promise that I'd not felt for years. I knew at that moment that I had to do the whole race and by doing so I would be heading for a truly great adventure. Any doubts I might have had were literally swept, swiftly by the wind and the swell of the sea from my mind.

At 10pm the next watch came on deck to take over and after a hot drink I took to my bunk to get some rest.  Sleep was not an option. There was far too much adrenalin pumping through my veins to sleep and the boat was periodically slamming against the waves in a rather loud and alarming fashion. That was going to take some getting used to!

What seemed like half an hour later, Sally came in to get me up for my next watch. The expletives and the unfashionable drowned-rat look were clues that the conditions on deck had worsened - and the last watch had had rather a rough time of it. We started our watch, leaving a very exhausted and distinctly green-tinged group to the comparative comfort of their bunks.

On deck the scene was a very different one to the tranquil 'starry, starry, night'  we had left a few hours earlier. 'Lively' would be the understatement of the year and 'challenging, fierce and unfriendly' would be far more accurate. Add 'downright wet and very, very windy' and you start to get the picture. At least the noise of the wind disguised the gentle gurgle of a vommiting relay which came from the rest of the watch. Sheer stubborness rather than anything else kept the contents of my stomach firmly on the inside that night. I know my time will come...

After a pretty scary sail change due to the 'lively' conditions - at which point we had to get the other watch up to help (cue sense of humour failure - for which I don't blame them at all) the morning crept in, Dartmouth drew closer and the conditions calmed.  We arrived into the very welcome safety of harbour at about 11am and after mooring up and breakfast, Skipper Juan ordered us all to bed to rest. No-one argued.

Rested and almost dry, we later set about learning how to rig a spinnaker pole. On the face of it a simple manoeuvre involving 4 or 5 crew clinging onto the pole, some slapstick Cannon and Ball style 'to me, to you' to-ing and fro-ing and Hey- Presto, one pole attached to one mast.  Then we had to attach what had been the port side staysail halyard to the pole, now making it the uphaul, what had been the preventer was now the downhaul and the guy and the spinnaker sheet (2 new ropes to me) had to go through the beak on the pole but only in a certain way or else we'd all be doomed!  At this point my brain went into meltdown. It was a rope too far. Perhaps I should stick to Pooh Sticks.  I comforted myself with a fun trip shimmying up the downhaul to the end of the now raised pole, in order to practice spiking the sheet. If you have no idea what I'm talking about at this point, don't worry - I didn't either, but trust me if you like dangling upsidedown by a rope, then defying the forces of gravity to clamber onto a pole that is stretched out from the boat, over open water at a not inconsiderable height - you'd agree it was great fun!

I was sure spinnaker poles, uphauls, downhauls, sheets, guys and the sail itself would all become clear to me over the next few days.  I was equally sure that rigging the pole and spiking the sheet - would all become 10 times harder and perhaps not quite so much fun when we were bouncing around on the open seas rather than moored in the beautifully serene Dartmouth harbour.

The trip back to Gosport the following day was a complete antidote to the outward bound voyage-from-hell.  Blue skies, sun shine, some steady downwind sailing and the absence of a row of bottoms lined up on the leeward side of the boat (while their owners jettisoned the contents of their stomachs), all made for a far more pleasant experience. Instead a happy row of smiles and sunglasses sat on the windward side watching the sea slide past us; any vows of ditching the race were now completely forgotten and instead talk turned to dolphins, whales and other wildlife we might hope to see on the various legs of the race.

A final day of racing headsail changes against another Clipper training yacht (we lost) and a deep cleansing of the yacht (any nails I still had at this point were likewise lost) and we headed to Landers for our final training session entitled 'How much alcohol can you consume in 8 hours' (we finished at about 4am).  I have to say I think the efficiency, teamwork and attention to detail that we'd all worked so hard on during the week, finally paid off in that last session.  We did our Skipper and First mate proud!

Worst moment of the week:  The Sail changes at 3am en route to Dartmouth                                                                    Best moment of the week: The Sail changes at 3am en route to Dartmouth

See also the 10 Things I Learned on Part A and Part A Training Photos