Part 'B' Training - Big Boat Racing

Gosport  15/02/09 - 22/02/09 

Almost exactly 4 months ago I set off from Hull to start my sailing training in order to take part in a Round the World sailing adventure.  A complete novice sailor I was under-prepared in a big way.  I’d taken far too much kit, hadn’t understood a word of my training manual, had left everything far too late and was in a last minute panic.


4 months on and I was on my way to my second week of training. I had a week’s sailing under my belt, still had too much kit, hadn’t had time to read my training manual again and despite being in less of a panic was still rushing around at the last minute. 


As I set off, excited to be on another learning adventure on the high seas, I had that obligatory 'going on holiday' feeling that I’d forgotten something: new Oceansleepwear sleeping bag (well almost new…bargain bought on ebay) – check. Sailing boots – check. Joining instructions – check. Emergency chocolate bars – check.  Relevant sailing clothing for all possible conditions – err – well no. Although to be fair, this was through no fault of my own. Having just lived through the coldest winter we’ve had in years and knowing I was going to be on a boat – with no central heating and the strong possibility of snow on deck, I had been unusually organised. A few weeks earlier I’d ordered proper thermals and the recommended mid-layer Blizzard jacket from Henri Lloyd – along with neoprene sailing gloves and a toasty warm hat.  I was determined to be Little Miss Prepared this time!  Having double checked at the time of order that the goods would be delivered in plenty of time for my training, I was assured ‘yes, no problem’. As it turns out the goods had in fact been delivered in time – just not to me! After a zillion phone calls in the last week (teensy exaggeration), several discoveries were made. I discovered that my order was now sitting in a depot in Sheffield; and the man in the Henri Lloyd shop discovered that his life was not going to be worth living if he didn’t do something about this. Luckily for me he did and with thanks to the very lovely Rob at Clipper HQ for agreeing to wait in at home to receive it, a last minute, next-day delivery parcel was hastily despatched. 


Fuelled by my enthusiasm from Part A training and so I could be really prepared and appear very knowledgeable (girly swot), I had also bought lots of books about sailing. But because of Christmas, working long hours, DIY on the house, and the dog having ate them, I hadn’t got round to reading them. (I don’t actually have a dog). However, I had managed to squeeze in time to read Ellen MacArthur’s books on her life and round the world sailing adventures.  I reasoned that while I might not know which buoys to look out for when sailing in and out of a harbour or which vessel has right of way, I was mentally prepared to keep watch for icebergs. Miss MacArthur had written at length about these and while I was pretty certain that ice-bergs had not been present in the Solent since….well ever actually - or at least since the ice-age - we had just had a very nasty cold snap, so should I spot one in future I’d know what to do. Mainly avoid them. And worry. A lot.


So it was with just as much excitement as Part A, a little less trepidation (no ice-berg would get the better of me) and with both ears fully functional, that I journeyed down to Gosport for the next part of my sailing training.  I was slightly nervous that I wouldn’t remember a thing I’d learned in October (at my age remembering what I’ve had for breakfast is a struggle) but I knew that this time I wasn’t starting from zero knowledge. All would be well. Get the sails up and steer the right course (avoiding ice-bergs). How difficult could that be?


And so 5 hours and 5 motorways passed by, while I talked myself into mis-placed sailing confidence.  By the time I arrived at Clarence Marina I swaggered onto the pontoon with the air of someone who had battled around the Vendee Globe - several times. Well I’d read about it, that had to count for something.


I bounced onto Durban Clipper – the 68ft yacht we’d be training on - with great enthusiasm. I’d remembered that the extra 8ft it had over the 60’s we’d trained on during Part A had looked like it made a huge difference in the apparent space and feeling of luxury on board…. I’d remembered wrong.  The bunk space was exactly the same.  The storage ‘holes’ (there’s no other way to describe them) in the side of the boat were smaller than I’d remembered…I’m talking tiny here…and very wet. In fact everything was wet. If it’s not wet from the sea and rain it’s wet from condensation dripping and running everywhere.  The flimsy bit of covered foam pretending to be a mattress was also decidedly damp (thank God for new waterproof sleeping bag).  The ‘holes’ had an inch of water in the bottom of them.  Even putting belongings in poly-bags (of which I hadn’t brought nearly enough) wouldn’t keep them dry in there…and as my treasured and highly impractical cowboy boots (for going to the pub in) filled one of said holes entirely, I was forced to admit that even with paring down significantly, I had brought far too much ‘stuff’ - again! 

Luckily for me, try as I might over my 40 plus years, I had never grown or stretched myself to my ideal height of 5ft 5” and so at 5ft 3 and3/4s (the 3/4s being very important) I had plenty of room to stow my whole kit bag at one end of my bunk and still stretch out full length. But I knew once under sail, with even a mere moderate wind, a holdall lying on my bunk would not still be in place, contents intact, when I came off watch.

Clipper To Do list No.3 buy lots of very small “hole-sized” dry-bags…and pack much, much lighter next time.


Enthusiasm dampened...although not for long, I spent the first evening getting to know Skipper Matt, First mate Pete and the other trainees.  Having all done their own Part A everyone was fairly relaxed and confident and the banter flowed over our first culinary delight, expertly cooked by Pete, followed by an eagerly attended, first (unofficial) training session that evening at the local pub!


The next day we were up early doing boat checks, safety checks, and learning how to rig. The 68’s have a different lay-out to the 60’s and the benefit of the extra 8ft is at it’s most noticeable on deck.  The ‘snake-pit’, so called because of the mass of ropes leading into it and the area where most of the winches are housed, is further forward – up by the mast, leaving the cockpit area virtually free from ropes.  There is also the addition of the ‘coffee-grinder’ just to the aft of the snake-pit.  This is a big upright winch that can be operated by two people together and can take the load of either the port or starboard primary winches at the flick of a switch.  This was not only a welcome addition but a vital one. The sails on these yachts are vast and the load therefore enormous.  Even with the winches taking most of the load, hoisting the mainsail is still a challenging workout. I’d been working hard on my upper body strength since Christmas (and I was by no means a weakling before) but I still felt woefully inadequate in that area. Clipper To Do list No.4 - Eat lots of Spinach and build muscles like Pop-eye.


The rig although slightly different was the same in principle as on the 60s. The difficulty is remembering which rope runs through which car or block and if they run back towards the stern, do they go over or under the running backstays.  It’s a bit like knitting but with no pattern to follow! 


The running back-stays were things I’d battled with on Part A and still not quite got to grips with.  The Staysail when hoisted, produces a huge amount of forward drive and therefore much forward pull on the mast.  The backstays help to counter this and support the mast, so when on a starboard tack (wind coming over the starboard side so the sail is on the port side) the starboard backstay is brought back to provide counter tension.  When you change tack you bring the opposite backstay back ready to tension the mast and then the first backstay is released and brought forward.   The bringing forward is just as important as it then provides a barrier between the sheets that flap about wildly, mid-manoeuvre and the crew in the snake-pit. In other words if you don’t bring the lazy backstay forward your crewmates get walloped!


It didn’t take at all long for us to get back into the pace of things. I was amazed at how the tacking (turning the bow of the boat through the wind) and gybing (turning the stern of the boat through the wind) which had seemed so difficult to get to grips with on my first week had now quickly become an automatic reaction. 


I was also learning that this was also to be a week of one step forward two steps back!  ‘Reefing’ was the next seemingly impossible task.  The principle of which is, when the wind is too strong to have the full mainsail up, you gather the bottom section of it in to the boom – thus reducing the sail area.  It’s called ‘putting a reef in’. There are 3 reefs on the mainsail….and as far as I could gather, when the weather is such that you get to reef 3 that’s the time to be batoning down the hatches, clutching onto your lucky charm and your vitals and wishing you’d made a will.

The principle is easy….put a reef in, slow the boat and hope you live to sail another day. In practice however this involves lifting the topping lift, easing the mainsail sheet, easing the vang, lowering the mainsail halyard, pulling in the reefing lines – ensuring you don’t knit one, pearl one while doing so - and then grabbing a thing-a-me-jig (I’ll never remember what it’s called) at the mast which attaches to the cringle on the sail before you then re-hoist the halyard, tighten the mainsail sheet and vang, while easing on the topping lift! Confused? Yup, me too! Don’t forget in reality, at the time you’re likely to be cold, wet, tired and being tossed around on the sea like a pancake on Shrove Tuesday. Not to mention scared witless. 


We were practising these manoeuvres over the following few days on - I have to say - a pretty disappointing mill-pond-like Solent.  While it was gratifying to know I would in fact live to see tomorrow, it would have been nice to feel like we were actually sailing.  The reality was that we were having to motor along just to try and create a breath of wind to fill the sails.  So not quite the blizzard conditions I had been expecting and prepared for… We won’t mention that to the poor Henri Lloyd man who, after dealing with me is now in therapy.


As much as sailing is about understanding what you need to do and when, it’s also about teamwork.  The first few days of “evolutions” (changing tack, changing sails etc) were mayhem with everyone telling everyone else how to do something, not to do something or bellowing at them to do something quicker.  Add to that jumping in to do it when it wasn’t being done right or fast enough and the snake-pit often resembled a rugby scrum (only without the hunky guys in shorts)! Remember also the fact that not one of us actually knew entirely what we were doing at any one time and the result was pandemonium!  A sail change that Skipper Matt informed us should only take around 3 minutes was actually taking us about 15! (That didn’t include the 20 minutes it took us to discuss who was going to do what before we started)


The need for really good teamwork was never more apparent than in the Man Over Board (MOB) drills which we did whenever and wherever the Skipper thought we’d least expect it!  Several times a day poor old ‘Bob’ (a fender, not a real man) would find himself tossed overboard while Matt and Pete watched and timed us to see how quickly and efficiently we rescued him. The first few times we were appallingly bad.  We’d all talked through what needed to happen and the different roles required. The first person who spots a man overboard shouts to everyone else and remains ‘spotter’ never taking their eyes off the person in the water and always pointing at them so everyone – particularly the helmsman - can see where they are.  Then you have to ‘heave to’ which basically means turning the boat straight into the wind to stop it, dropping the headsails and hauling in the mainsail. You then get the engine on and head back to the casualty as fast as you can.  Meanwhile someone has pressed the MOB button on the GPS which helps to pin point the position they went overboard and also puts out a Mayday call on the radio.  Someone else is getting in a harness and a spare halyard is made ready on a winch ready to lower the harnessed crew member overboard to collect the casualty.  The hardest thing is to make a slow and controlled approach to the area where the MOB is in the water – so you get close enough to collect but not so close you run over and risk drowning them!  The helmsman is in control of the boat but as you get closer they can’t see the MOB so they rely completely on good pointing and clear hand signals to indicate distance and position.


The first time we tried this it was like a scene from a Carry On film with everyone bumping into everyone else, three people trying to do one job while no-one was doing something else.  On the approach to rescue ‘Bob’, we were all blocking the helmsman’s view and most of us shouting different instructions.  As for clear hand-signals – I’m sure it looked more like we were all rehearsing a performance of The Village People’s “YMCA”! It took three attempts at approaches before poor ‘Bob’ was safely back on deck again. 


However practice makes perfect and as that was very obviously Skipper’s motto, by the end of the week the second ‘Bob’ took a dive, people were falling quickly into doing one job. There was one clear signal, the only person speaking was the crew member in the harness - calling when to be lowered and those not doing anything were well out of the way with mouths firmly shut.  It was a complete transformation. We’d learned what to do and more importantly we’d learned to trust each other to do it. I have to say I was impressed and extremely proud of what we’d achieved as a team that week.  We didn’t quite crack the 3 minute sail change but we were darn close!


Although the wind had not been our friend, the lack of challenging conditions meant we concentrated on other things. Although we’d done MOB drills to death we’d only been plucking inanimate and buoyant ‘Bob’ out of the water.  We needed to see just how different that was when you’re dealing with a real person, so once moored in the safety of the harbour, Phil volunteered to be our “casualty” – in an immersion suit – while Ken – also in an immersion suit was lowered over the side to rescue him.  In our drills we’d literally grabbed ‘Bob’ as we very slowly went by. However as Ken found out, once in the water it’s incredibly difficult to wriggle the rescue harness over the casualty, attach them to your harness and get them into a horizontally supported position as you lift them and yourself out of the water. It made me really appreciate the achievements of the Glasgow crew in the last Clipper race, who had had a real life MOB at night in the Southern Ocean.  To even locate an MOB at night is a minor miracle.  To do it in huge seas with an inexperienced crew and to manage to get him back on board in 6 minutes was an incredible achievement.  The crew member in question was extremely lucky to be alive. Seeing just how difficult the drills had been in daylight, with a stationery boat was a sobering experience and really put me in complete awe of the Glasgow crew and their Skipper Hannah.


The ever-absent wind also gave us perfect conditions to try our first climb to the top of the mast – hoorah! As someone who has an almost perverse love of anything vaguely dangerous, I had been really looking forward to this.  When the opportunity arose to ascend the 81ft mast, I was first in line - with the harness already on before anyone else could blink! It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do...but not really difficult either.  You have someone on the end of the rope winching you up so all you really have to do is hold on to whatever else is around you in order to stay close to the mast.  The views from the top were amazing and made me slightly sad that these yachts didn’t have a crow’s nest. I would have been first in line to keep watch from up there…although I would have to be sure that the rest of the crew would hoist me up tea on a regular basis!!!


Our other key area of learning that week had been about Rules of the road.  I guess it’s a bit like learning your Highway Code but for boats.  Having failed miserably to read the pile of books I’d bought on this (I still blame the dog), I found taking all this in quite difficult.  However Skipper Matt and First Mate Pete (and no there wasn’t a Seaman Staines), who both had tons of sailing experience, had excellent ways of helping and encouraging us to learn. And learn we did. Their alternative method was to smugly quiz you on who has right of way just at the time when you're in a busy channel and have a sailing boat on one side of you, a tanker on the other and a ruddy great Ferry bearing down on you from behind.  Believe me, there’s no greater incentive to think clearly and get it right!

And so with only a few wisps of wind my second week of sailing training passed by.  We were all slightly disappointed by the lack of 'wind action' but nonetheless had had a really enjoyable week and had learned loads thanks to the tireless efforts of Matt and Pete.  But perhaps the most important lesson that week was learned the hard-way by Susan and Elle.  During their 'Motherwatch" shift (each crew member takes turns to do a duty below decks and do all the cooking and cleaning that day) they made us one of our many cups of tea and coffee (vital for any fully functioning crew).  Unfortunately they had used the salt-water tap to fill the kettle which was only discovered on the first gulp of tea.  You can imagine the reaction of the crew!  I doubt they will ever make that same mistake again. However they did fully redeem themselves later that night by baking a very delicious chocolate 'Sorry' cake!

Best moment of the week: Climbing to the top of the 81ft Mast

Worst moment of the week:  Taking a gulp of salty tea!!!

See also Part B Training Photos