The business end

I’ve been watching from a safe distance how things are coming along for the next edition of the race. The indivduals on social media – constantly. It was the same last time; we had them too. Their enthusiam is undeniable. I wonder what their race will contain for them. It will have the same spectrum of enjoyment that ours and previous years will have experiened. I hope some good blogs are written up. I look forward to reading the ups and downs of their odysseys. Bar the eavedropping on the new crew I’m following the business.

I’m particularly interested to see what will happen with boat sponsorship this series. Last year it was a disaster. Boats turned up at St Katherine’s Dock without their branding. It was pretty amateur. I heard one brand manager loudly complaining about Clippers broken promises at one stop over. They were getting nothing like the corporate sails that they had been promised. Over promising and under delivering. Clearly last minute deals had been cut with Clipper suppliers like PSP Logistics and Garmin with Henri-Lloyd apparently only deciding to participate once the Sydney-Hobart race had been confirmed. I would wager serious money these late entries paid a pittance compared to the likes of DLL, Qingdao, Derry and Great Britain.

Coming from a career in these kinds of dealings I spoke with the head about the mess in Albany. He seemed somewhat interested in what I had to say. Basically I know that you know, that I know, that you know, that your sponsor effort for this race (13/14) was a car crash. Give me a few boats and I can do a better job. I already had some ideas of how they could do this better and had already spoken with a colleague in the business who saw the same open goal I did. Nothing more was said of this until Qingdao. I collared the head again and this time we got down to brass tacks. Clipper would need £1.2M net. Emails went back to London. We decided this was do-able, though we had been hoping for 15% commission on the £1.2M. We would have to make our money on a higher gross. Still with our thinking of how this could be done we knew the comparative pricings and felt we could progress. By this time I had obviously been venting my frustrations about the management of the race on the blog. I did feel though that with more revenue perhaps the race might improve for future editions and their crew. Maybe a larger marketing budget to reach a wider audience. Selection process could get then get tighter. Well at least they could have a selection process. Maybe less passengers. Maybe a better race. A better race would be more attractive to more media outlets, that would attract better sponsors and more revenue. This wasn’t rocket science. We’d figured out how it could make us a decent living too.

The communication then went dead. I chased the head on email while going around the U.S. Perhaps he had dropped it. I had managed to speak with one of his advisers in San Francisco. He seemed keen. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Finally I caught up the head briefly when we landed in Derry. I had kept this blog going even though I knew that Clipper stamped on anything they deemed remotely critical. I still didn’t completely trust Clipper after the things I had experienced along the way. There was only one employee I had any time for and she has left the business after the New York stop over. Attitudes and culture flow from the top. Something didn’t sit quite right with me. I wasn’t sure they could be trusted. I decided to keep the blog going. I wanted it left as a record for other thinking about doing the race, especially after the experience I had endured with Volcano and some of the mismanagement that had gone on by the shore team.

My inklings about Clipper were confirmed. Less than 3 months after stating the required £1.2M the price suddenly jumped to £1.5M. No rationale was given. It seemed to me to be just greed or their business plans were a bit wonky. And it made absolutely no sense. Oh remember that thing you didn’t want to buy from me last year? What about this time? This price has just gone up £300,000 by the way. Anyways I certainly wasn’t going to take the blog down now – it seemed a pretty low thing to do. What? We can work with you? OK then I’ll just forget about this thing I was writing and not give others the benefit of my experience. It didn’t seem right. If he found it, he found it. And he did. That was that. I wasn’t bothered. They don’t understand that world that I worked in.  If they did then the sponsorship wouldn’t have been in the shoddy state it was. They didn’t know anyone in it and that’s presumably still the case. The are woefully understaffed to sell in the number of sponsorships they need to sign. These are long cycle sales, they require a lot of hand holding and you simply can’t cover the number of prospects to be successful with a couple of people on the case. This probably explains why their pitch gets included in all manner of irrelevant gatherings like meetings for prospective crew. It smacks of desperation. Worse still they don’t know how to sell it. I saw their pitch. For that price tag other sponsorships out there have a far greater level of detail backed up with statistics from sources that marketeers trust. We realised we’d need to re-work all their materials. The days of hello Mr Chairman, do you like sailing? Fancy sponsoring a boat? Are gone.

The Facebook page for the next race lit up when Great Britain announced it was renewing it’s sponsorship. There will no doubt be a lot of disappointed crew. Not everyone will get on, obviously. Qingdao are also in, though this is their last race. I think DLL have backed out. I will be interested to see if Henri-Lloyd renew. They could bow out with a win. I wonder apart from selling a few drysuits after the man over board what they got out of it. Many of the others I suspect got last minute deals and are probably waiting for the same. I know I would. If this was a sold out affair the ink would be dry and Clipper would be trying to make PR hay out of it. Much like “sold out” crew spots. The claims of 70% filled are entry level sales tactics. If it was getting sold out and they were confident of it being sold out why bother telling people? It’s a measure of the panic. When you think you’re falling short make your buyers feel a false sense of desperation too.

I’ll be interested to see if they manage to pull the boat sponsorships together in time. I suspect not. Marketing budgets will now have been allocated for the 14/15 fiscal. Budgets locked away means no cash for things like Clipper. These are not contingency budgets we’re talking about. Especially when you think about all the costs of what you need to do to to upweight the media to support the base sponsorship cost. Branded social media creation and curation, on-pack or whatever is relevant to the sponsor. If they haven’t done the deals by February, absolute latest, they will no doubt be in the same sorry mess they were last time.

Unfortunately. Ain’t that the truth. No-one likes to see a massive potential wasted or at the very least poorly developed. That’s hubris for you. They lack aspiration too or the means. It’s a shame. Clipper could be so much more than it is.

Advertisements

Thinking of doing the race?.

One of my aims with this blog was to leave an account of what is was like living and sailing with a group of strangers for nearly a year. Luckily a side effect of this account is the match up of what I’d heard from Clipper (or not heard as was often the case) with what the reality of partipating in this odyssey became for me. This hadn’t actually been an intention initially. When I had tried to do my research on Clipper and life onboard I struggled to find anything of worth. Nearly a year at sea? Surely it couldn’t be all fantastic. There was a fair amount of sycophancy out there (and still is) but there had to be down sides. Surely. But what were they? There was a complete lack of a balanced view. Good and bad. Or even the ugly. What I did manage to find was then really no use in my decision to race and didn’t give me any idea of what I was about to embark upon. So I took a leap of faith and signed on regardless.

If you read back from the beginning I was highly motivated and excited about what lay ahead of me. The scepticism came later once the race was well under way. Now obviously it’s a subjective and highly emotive topic; everyone’s experience will vary widely on some matters but less so on others. These are some of the things I observed and if I was to hand out advice to the curious this is what I’d offer.

Despite claims about selection for “mental and physical” abilities to take part in the race the process to get onboard is simple. As written about in the blog before they were really only interested in one thing: the state of your bank account. “No Experience Necessary. Fat Balance Mandatory” could probably be their full marketing strapline. As for “mental and physical” requirements, they were certainly debatable. There were no tests for aptitude in either. Which is great news if you are concerned about your readiness before applying. I didn’t hear of anyone in selection who had failed, though who knows there might have been a couple.

The race itself was used to weed those out who couldn’t hack it; especially multi-leggers and Round the Worlders. If you drop out because you can’t handle it you won’t be able to claim any fees back. Injuries, family bereavements and so on were treated differently by the insurer, though I would check this as I heard insurers for the race change. I remember seeing a lady of very rotund proportions in one of the other crews at race start in London. I wondered how on earth she was going to just live on the boat, forget play a part in racing it. She was a Round the Worlder. She left shortly after the series started. One glance was enough to recognise she was not fit to race. She would be a liability to her skipper and crew It was cynical to take her cash. Make an honest assessment of yourself first. It’s a lot of money to throw away.

I wrote for a while early on in the race about a passenger on our boat. Truth is we had many of them scattered around the crew, leg to leg, as did the whole fleet. They were either not physically capable of doing tasks, especially on the foredeck, or were unwilling to get involved in them. Without these jobs getting done, which were demanding, the boat would not sail nevermind race. If you are considering doing the race take this into account.  It is just a consequence of the fact there is no real selection process. I can guarantee this will be a fact that every “team” needs to negotiate. There will be crew who do next to nothing to sail the boat you’re on. Quite simply you’ll have to come to terms with it or try to ignore it.

Though the truth of it was, for our boat, we could have all been athletes and it still wouldn’t have made a bit of difference to our final standing. The balance between grunt and brain is crucial. I think we had all the grunt we needed to do far better maybe even win, inspite of carrying passengers. Without the brain you will never really compete. If you do anything study and learn all you can about weather systems. That’s what will win you races. Learn what you can to keep those making the decisions on your boat on their toes. For us? That came too late. Trim is also another crucial aspect. I learned more about trim from Lebowski in one month than I did in eleven from my skipper. Clipper won’t really teach this. Its all about safety which is fair enough. Learn all you can about trim for big boats and ocean racing. You will be invaluable to your watch and team race effort.

Unfortunately the skipper you get is down to luck. I think you can put in for a particular one pre crew allocation but chances are if they are popular from training you might struggle. I can’t say how important it is to get a good one. There were three other skippers I would rather have raced with and a handful that would have been preferable. It may seem an obvious point to make but the skipper really sets the tone for the boat. Some crews were happy and some were not. Much of that rested with the skippers attitude to the race and to their crew. I am grateful to him that I got round in one piece. What I was disappointed with, especially as the race wore on, was that our race strategies often put us towards the back of the fleet. This was more to do with his inability to weather route wisely. That handicap lay on top of a very mecurial temperament. It was a frustrating mixture. If you are thinking about applying then try and do some homework on the ones that have been selected, ask around during training and just try and gather as much information as you can about them. Then lobby Clipper as hard as you can to get the one you want.

The sponsor also has a part to play. Ours put on some pretty to very useless crew on who were somehow connected with the sponsor. We had more than our fair share of passengers from their alloted number. They also took more care with their own, for instance buying their home crew dinners at stop overs and generally giving them preferential treatment. From my experience I would strongly suggest you try and get on a European or American sponsor entry. Those boats generally had a better time and were better treated by their sponsors than we were.

On the subject of money. The recruiters at Clipper will gloss over the true cost of the race. It’s expensive. Very expensive, especially if you add in loss of earnings. On top of the base outlay for the race, which I understand has gone up again for next series to £45,000, you need to consider insurance, kit, living expenses and other onboard costs like email. Insurance set me back £4,200. My kit costs were around £3,000 and that was without a drysuit which I would definitely recommend if you are considering doing round the world. A new drysuit costs around £1,200. I will talk about kit in detail later. Living costs around our crew probably averaged £1,100 per port, excluding those who stayed onboard which I wouldn’t recommend. Some stops were way more expensive than others. Australia with the exchange rate and duration was very expensive, a stop like Qingdao considerably cheaper. Do some research and make your budget. I can’t emphasise how important that is before you sign. Once in and past your level one payments cannot be reclaimed. If you find yourself way over budget you can’t pull out and get your money back. They may make claims about how cheap it can be done but honestly I would not recommend that kind of trip on a shoe string budget. Your costs are obviously on accommodation, meals and drinks, replacing broken or damaged kit and so on. Also many of our stop overs were cut short due to this being the new series of boat. The Clipper race team had a poor grasp on their speeds, especially in upwind sailing, when they set the race calendar. Stop overs for the next race will probably be longer, weather permitting, so expect a hike in onshore living costs. Email was a good example of a hidden cost. I averaged a boat email cost of roughly £100 per month during the race and only a few people had access to my email address. This was based on a flat fee and a per kilobyte cost to send and receive messages via satellite. At selection make sure to prepare a good set of questions to which you have answers to a few already, just so as to check the validity of their responses. Answers might be slightly economical, especially around the subject of cost. The recruiters role is to get berths filled. It’s a business after all. I estimate the cost of the round the world race to me, without loss of earnings, was in the region of £65,000 (plus).

I managed to get myself around the whole race. If you cannot commit to that due to time or money I would think very carefully about the legs you do pick. My favourites were the race to Rio (Leg 1), the Southern Ocean (Leg 3), around Australia (Leg 4) and the Pacific (Leg 6). These were stood out due to the conditions and probably us doing OK in races standings. From my experience I would not suggest the race to Cape Town (Leg 2) though this is probably down to the bizarre route Volcano decided to take us on (we came last). Perhaps find someone’s elses feedback on that one. Another forgettable race was China via Singapore (Leg 6). We motor sailed vast sections, especially from the southern tip of the Philipines all the way to Singapore, making it feel more like a cruise in a fibreglass oven. The races around the US (Leg 7) were also frustrating for the amount of motor sailing. If you are thinking about Legs 6 or 7 I would really do some deeper research. The engine was turned on to get us places far more than I ever expected. I listed a breakdown of these in an earlier blog you can read here. Also try and stick with the leg(s) you do go for. One crew member on our team had to change a couple of times. She was stung with a hefty “admin fees”. Ouch.

On the subject of kit I would recommend taking fewer items but paying for better quality. Common sense I know but I bought a few things out of ignorance and corner cutting to save cash and regretted it. You can stay within the standard crew limit of 20 kilo’s if you are careful about what you bring. Some skippers enforced this to make sure boat weight stayed down giving them another advantage. Ours did then somehow relented.

Make sure you have a great pair of boots. My Henri Lloyd Ocean Extremes were poor, though apparently they have offered to crew who bought them replacements. If you don’t know your brands then I’d go with a pair of Dubarrys. Crew that wore them never complained about them. I constantly had wet socks, when spending periods on the foredeck, despite the claims of a guy from Henri Lloyd who said the gaitors were so good I’d have dry feet even in the Southern Ocean. Nonsense.

For the warmer climes I wore a pair of Keens. An inspired buy. A number of others wore them. They were hard wearing but kept your feet cool and prevented soles from getting singed on a scorching deck. The deck shoes Clipper provided (well not me, apparently Rockport “ran out of material”) were pretty useless. Most got tossed as they began to stink in bare feet. Best get a back up pair.

Next to boots are socks. One of the best bits of kit I bought were my Sealskinz socks. With my leaky boots they at least kept my feet reasonably dry and warm. With a pair of hiking socks underneath my feet stayed warm and dry even at the coldest parts of the North Pacific. I’d buy three pairs. Two knee length and one short pair. Base layers were also incredibly important.

Another great buy I made was with Icebreaker kit. I could wear these for up to a week without changing or getting discomfort. They dried quickly if they got wet or would even dry if you slept with them in your bag. I bought more than I needed. I would recommend getting three long sleeve tops, two long johns and two boxers.

An essential piece of kit was my midlayers. I shelled out the extra money to get Musto and didn’t regret it. They were a couple of my favourite pieces of kit and were essential to staying warm in the colder sections. They also dried quickly and using Gore-tex didn’t get wet on the fleece inners. Definitely worth the money. As mentioned above I’d recommend getting a drysuit, especially if you are going to take on the circumnavigation. Crew that had them had a far more comfortable time in the Southern and Pacific oceans. One trip up to the foredeck in the Henri Lloyd kit you are supplied with and you will understand why. Sail changes can take up to 40 minutes in heavy weather. In that time you will be wet through on your arms and legs in the foulies supplied, especially as the series continues. If you are doing one or two legs and not Southern or Pacific oceans the foulies will get you through. If you are doing Southern, Pacific or multi-legging then better pay for the drysuit. Every drysuit on our boat was Musto. Their owners loved them. Though the Henri Lloyd one saved a guys life so it’s clearly a good buy too.

I bought a Gauss bag which was fine but a bit bulky. Many of the crew had the Ocean Sleepwear one which was less so and just as warm. That’s really just a matter of taste and getting a test if you can manage before buying. On hotter legs some crew had silk liners to sleep in. I didn’t but they were popular with those who used them. Other sleeping kit bought and brought included eye masks and ear plugs. Get these if you are a light sleeper. There were a few heavy snorers in our crew and if you have to motor sail long stages like we did, the noise of the engine is pretty deafening especially in the port side accommodation. You’ll need your sleep; do what you can to make sure you get it.

For personal safety kit I’d make sure to get a good sailing knife. I needed mine in a few emergencies when seconds counted. It will be with you the whole way. Get a good one. Mine was Gill and worked great with a good clean at each port. The subject of personal AIS has now been won with the man overboard in the Pacific. He would have been dead without one. I bought the Kannard R-10. Thankfully it wasn’t needed but served as peace of mind when dealing with some of the more insane moments on the foredeck.

The rest like beanies, hats, sunglasses, gloves etc are personal choice really. Make sure to buy a couple of each. Things tend to go missing for days onboard, especially in big weather. For a watch I just used my Casio G-Shock. Saw me round. Some guys had expensive sailing watches that fell over and stopped working. Best not to go crazy on that one.

Some things will come down to pure luck. How the weather plays out will be a major one. I griped about motor sailing many parts of the race. Some were due to bad routing and some were not. The ones that were due to little or no wind can’t be accounted for. It’s just what happened at that time and place. There is nothing you can do about it obviously, though it didn’t make the experience any less frustrating.

So despite the extra cost, having drawn a shorter straw on skipper and sponsor, I’d still recommend doing the race if you are looking for something completely different in terms of an adventure. I had some of the best times of my life, saw some amazing sights, brought on a heap of new skills, witnessed some incredible shows of nature and met some great people. If you think you can do it (and it is very hard!) give it a go…their application is here. If you have any questions on my experience I’ll be happy to answer them. You can use the comments field below or use the contact form on About This Blog

Home – Den Helder to London

And so it was after a welcome spell off the boat in Holland we rejoined for the final race. Volcano’s authority to keep the crew tied to the boat to run tasks was weak and had been weakening at every stop over since Jamaica. He was now fretting how the boat was going to get cleaned after we left in London. To compound his problem there were no crew coming forward to deliver the boat back to Gosport. By comparison I heard stories of other round the world crews signed up to a man to help with that final sail as a thank you to their own skippers.

We slipped lines for the final time and rafted up with Derry and PSP in the lock which would let us out into the North Sea. It was a beautiful day and we had the option of a kite start, the last time we had run this was our first off Southend pier some 304 days previous. The boats jostled in the lightish airs after the gun. We had a reasonable start, mixing it up with Switzerland in close quarters as the afternoon wore on. It was all mid table stuff. Henri Lloyd had yet again managed to pull away from the chasing pack and were some miles in front.

I don’t really remember the next days racing. The wind blew up for a final time to give us some proper speeds. So good in fact the race committee decided to send us out north, towards Great Yarmouth at the top end of the course, again to make sure we were not milling around Southend and our final race finish for too long. So we raced on into the afternoon and evening. We were somewhere mid fleet but in this line procession the places were all but made up. It took Switzerland and Mission to make the mistakes. Missing a mark on the course they had to double back which cost them places. GB’s skipper, who comes from London, had some local knowledge which came in handy. He set the boat across some shoals which acted like a travalator. They leapt from 8th to 1st and stayed there till the end.

We ended up in a tight squeeze over the final stretch with Old Pulteney, Invest Africa, PSP Logistics and Jamaica. There was a chance to sneak in and grab a couple more points at the end but we didn’t make the choice to drop the kite and go to headsails quick enough.

Final mother watch
Final mother watch

So here I was back at the start. Around 6pm on the final day I crossed the track of our outbound race to Brest. I had circumnavigated the planet. All the oceans, all that mileage and experience. Hundreds of memories now lay within that loop and around my mind. I expected to be dealing with a surge of emotion but I didn’t. I surveyed Southend pier as dusk settled in and imagined me there at the start. Excited, nervous and with hindsight, unsurprisingly naive about what I was about to encounter. But now it was finally over. I couldn’t do it again but was glad I had. Yes it might surprise you, having read previous entries, but I was very pleased I had stuck it out. After Brisbane I knew there was probably little chance we would finish in contention for podium, we had only contended for it twice since then but had failed. This had all been about getting around and I had done it. Sir Robin told the band of remaining round the worlders in Den Helder (around 100 left from 200) that only about 3,500 had ever made it round on the vast route we had taken. Far fewer than have climbed Everest.

I went round patting backs and shaking hands as we settled into the evening. ADHD, Wiseman,’Oskins, Doris I can’t remember all the ones but I knew the crew I had to thank for keeping me sane on this voyage. We decided not to anchor and slowly motored around through the night.

Procession up the Thames begins
Procession up the Thames begins

Early next morning we got ready and in order for our procession up the Thames. We were headed back to St Katherines Dock, the spot by Tower Bridge where this odyssey had begun. We passed the docks, factories and fields slowly but surely making headway up the river. A champagne toast was handed out by Hipster. Soon enough a supporter craft appeared. Its decks stacked with wildly cheering family and friends, more joined. We were surrounded on our port side by these boats passing up and down. The Thames Barrier came into view and then Canary Wharf. We were back in London. Finally we rounded the bend I had been waiting for and there she stood. Tower Bridge. I had made it. We had made it. I had imagined this moment for months, especially when I was hanging on by a thread mentally and my mojo was drowning. I expected to have a bit of a wobble, a lump in the throat, a smarting of the eyes, something. Nothing. I was just happy to be back, to be home.

The end.
The end.

More milling around at Shad Thames and then we finally entered the dock. After a few three point turns Volcano finally got us in. There on the dock was the crowd and in that crowd was Leslie who had put up with all this nonsense for nearly 11 months. There too were my parents, Trish, Iain, Sandy, Olive, Harris and a bunch of friends. Now I just wanted to get off the boat. First though we had to take the stage. The congratualtions were handed out. Sir Robin at the foot of the stage in shades, beaming a smile, shaking the crews hands. Then the announcement we wanted but were not sure we’d get. We had finally received recognition for returning to aid Mission outside Hobart all those months ago. We had won the Seamanship Award for the race. It was a good consolation and one Volcano deserved for quickly taking action and reacting faster than the rest of the fleet to the situation that unfolded that evening near the race start to Brisbane.

We returned to the boat along the pontoon. The sun blazing, the crowds cheering from a packed dock. I stepped on the boat for the last time and got my bags, patted the deck and stepped off. My race was over.

Nearly home – Derry to Den Helder

The send off from Derry was the best of the trip. It felt like the whole province had turned out to line the quayside down the Foyle. We made preparations to slip lines. A recognizable gent strolled up along the pontoon with his poodle. He smiled. I smiled back. “Good luck” he offered. “Thanks” I replied. It was Martin McGuinness, ex IRA commander, Gerry Adams right hand man and latterly negotiator of the peace that made a stop in a city like Derry possible.

The fleet paraded out along the Foyle to the best send off we’d received so far. It was as humbling as the enthusiasm the city had shown for our arrival. This was continued out down the Foyle with villages turning out to wave from the shore and wish us well. Eventually we arrived at the start line, the sky blue the sun beaming. A pub by the shore had a crowd in the hundreds to see the start. Before that though the Red Arrows put on one of their breathtaking displays of pin point, perfect formation flying above our heads. The sky filling with trails of coloured smoke and rumbling growls as they wove their patterns through the air. Display over we commenced the count down. We got off to a good start. The roar from the shoreline went up. So had the Derry entry. A bloodless coup had ousted Master and Commander from the navigation. ‘Oskins and Doris were to take the lead. It all looked promising.

Soon after start DLL tacked off west. They were behind so we didn’t pay too much attention. The lead pack contained Henri Lloyd. This must be the right way. The plan was to head almost north to the corner of the Hebrides and follow the coast line round the top of Scotland. Race underway we settled into watches. I went to my bunk. The next day the wheels fell off. Most of the fleet had tacked west by this point and had taking out a lead. The northerly route was slow and getting slower. We were in a wind hole once again. We watched as the two other stragglers Invest Africa and Mission struggled to escape its grasp. Mission managed to hang onto the last threads of wind. They slipped off towards the horizon. Once more we were left with Invest. Going no where. The schedules highlighted the error. The fleet to the west was putting in the miles. Over the next day they took out a fifty plus miles lead. This was depressingly familiar. What was new though was the new nav duos rapid hand up to apologise for their mistake. I knew they were in that nav constantly poring over options. This was just an early error. We escaped the windless seas off the Hebrides and got going. Invest were not so lucky. We left them wallowing further inshore still unable to evade the stillness. The sailing became some of the best we had enjoyed so far as scenery and weather combined to put smiles on faces. The dark sillouhettes of the islands with their mountainous peaks set against an azure sky and platinum sun. We were behind but I was determined to just enjoy the sailing we had left. There were only days of it remaining.

As we rounded the north western edge of Scotland we were still well behind the front runners but slowly making ground on the back markers. Forecasts for severe gales came through over the VHF. Listening in took me back to being a young boy eating his dinner while Radio 4 broadast the shipping forecast. We readied ourselves for their arrival, scanning the grey clouds behind us. Out run their effects were not felt. We knew if we didn’t close the gap by the Pentland Firth, on the eastern edge of the northern tip the race would effectively be lost. The sprint across the North Sea would turn into a drag race and the mileage would be too much to make back. We were beginning to close down Jamaica in the section around the top. We were whittling away leads, slowly but surely. Was a comeback on? I had some hope now Volcano and Master and Commander were effectively out the picture, Volcano just giving Doris and ‘Oskins the nod on their nav homework.

Jamaica opted to stay more inshore, close to the towering black cliffs. The shadow of this rock wall on the northern edge was dirtying their air. ‘Oskins had been mothering and was asleep below. Master and Commander wanted to follow their direct line east below the cliffs. This was crazy. The Emperor’s clothes were now in plain view. I challenged him. No, going that way was not paying for Jamaica and it would be stupidity to follow. Master and Commander bristled when I suggested we needed to drive further offshore to cleaner wind. “Fine then. Go speak with skipper” he snapped from the nav hatch. “Fine. I will.” I shot back. I explained the plan to Volcano lying, as ever, in his bunk. He agreed. I returned to the deck “Go 065” I told the helm. Over the next few hours we closed the gap. Things were looking up. We were down to single figures on Jamaica. The rest though were now through the gap. Top half was beginning to look less and less likely.

I got on deck for watch as we were gurgling through the Pentland Firth. It was one of the strangest experiences I sailed through on the boat. The wind driving against us, the strong currents pushing us along. The net effect was to make it appear like the boat was going no where. The reality was that the boat was piercing through the gap between the mainland and the Orkneys at 16 knots, past swirling plugholes and bumping eddys. Finally we broke free. We had emerged into the North Sea slightly battered but better for it. It was still a stretch to catch the back half of the pack but we had halved the distance since the mistake off the north coast of Ireland. The tricky swells and wind wrong footed Dr Lichen on the helm, crash tacking us towards the south. It was, as she laughed, “surrendipidous”. This new heading took us towards the mainland but at better speed. For the next couple of hours we went with it before tacking again. This new heading set us pointing at 146 degrees. Straight to the finish. The wind began to swing as the afternoon wore on. ‘Oskins descended once again to the nav to confer with the weather and charts. We needed to keep a more easterly direction as many of the leading pack had done and wait for the wind to take us round in the next couple of days. He agreed the new heading with Volcano. We needed 135. This would keep us away from the land. The corner of which was east of the Grampian mountains. The wind was westerly. It would have to pass over the mountains before reaching us. Stay to close to shore and we would experience wind shadow. It would die and with it any chance we had of catching the fleet. We went off watch. When we returned I was greeted by the twinkling lights of Peterhead. You could almost see the High Street. Volcano had ignored common sense and ‘Oskins advice. He had directed the helm to go on a heading of 165. That more southerly route took us inshore. The wind died. The game was over. We messed around with kites and windseeker sails. We lost hours. His interference with sense had cost us any chance in this race. As his incompetence in matters of weather and navigation had cost us in almost every race since Sydney. The rest of race was unremarkable. It might be down to me losing interest with the door now firmly closed on any fight back on the mid table boats. We passed oil and gas rigs as we closed down on Holland. The last couple of days in a tight race with Invest, Mission and Jamaica who had escaped the second wind hole faster than us. ‘Oskins and Lebowski’s eye for trimming the sails for race allowed us to overrun Invest who were left helpless to return the beating we were handing out. The wind had swung round and the spinnakers were out. The sailing was good. It was just a shame that we hadn’t been closer. Again we had proved if we were in the right place we could be competitive. This was now my major frustration, as it had been for a few months, if a little less recognisable pre Pacific as it was now. Still with some smart calls and a little luck we had pipped Jamaica into the finish and taken down Invest and Mission once again. Ninth. It seemed to have become our number. Not even mediocre.

A burning red sunset and flat calm seas saw us into Den Helder. I sat at the back of the helm and watched it sink to the horizon. We had only two days of racing left now. My circumnavigation was nearly done. My regret was that we had not managed or tried to capture control of the nav earlier. Yes the new duo had made a mistake at the start but it was their first attempt. I had to ban ‘Oskins from using the word “if” in my company in the past tense. What had happened couldn’t be changed. It was pointless dwelling on it. Time to jump off and get ready for the trip home.

Deja vu and despair – New York to Derry

I have woken to a familiar motion for this boat. A slight nod from side to side. I know we are listless, barely moving once more. I don’t have to go to deck to see it. We are being sucked into the centre of a high pressure system off the west of Ireland, hundreds of miles from the finish; a finish which Clipper decided to call early. The race finishes tomorrow at noon. To our north, crews are actually having the advertised “race of their lives”. We languish south. More inept tactics from Volcano. There is little surprise. Zero. We had the chance to take PSP days ago now and cover their positions (see last blog). Their skipper knew what to do. I heard him over the VHF telling Volcano there was a wind corridor that would take us straight there. Sometimes boats at the back chat tactics and how to get out of a mess. What does he do? Try to duck south under the high pressure into head winds and slip up the coast of Ireland. Issue is that pressure systems in the Atlantic move from west to east in a clockwise fashion. That never changes. We were starting to head round against the arm of wind swinging towards us. These boats do not deal well with head winds. We would be slow and add a vast mileage by having to tack at bad angles. That was flawed from the start. The picture was becoming more and more obvious a few days ago. Some had started their effort to latch onto the south western edge of the system and grab hold of the following winds that would eventually turn and point to the finish line. Some are a day away now from that finish line, kites up streaking across the final section of our last ocean crossing. We are not. His tactics left no option but to try and sneak across the high with its windless centre — a bit like trying to creep across a crowded minefield with a blindfold and out-of-control pneumatic drill. The outcome was inevitable but it was too late by that point to follow north. I could see it. ‘Oskins could certainly see it and used his role as watch leader to try and persuade the dimly lit recesses of his thinking to the sense of it. Go north. For the love of God, man. Go North.

Contemplating
Contemplating

Fail. Our fate sealed in this windless dead-end, Volcano had the temerity to brand yet another hapless tactical performance at the lunchtime team meeting today as the “poor decisions we made.” “We.” I felt the adrenalin begin to pump. I clamped an outburst long enough to make it below to my bunk for a spot of silently mouthed f-ing and blinding at him. He lacks the grace of the skipper of DLL, who had made an uncharacteristic routing gaff in the first third of the race leaving them at the back of the pack. Instantly, he confessed on the Clipper skipper blog to his error praising the diligent hard work of his crew to salvage the mess. They will maybe finish top five. They were over a hundred miles behind us. The same can be said for Old Pulteney who got off the canvas and fought back and will earn a respectable placing. We, however, will have the ignominy of yet again turning on the engine to motor in the last three hundred-odd miles after the race is called. That is half of all races that we will have crossed the finish line under motor.*

‘Oskins is rightly raging at Volcano’s incompetence. His appearances on deck are met with muttered “idiot”. Question is whether we can finally wrest control of the tactics and navigation from him and Master and Commander for the final worthwhile race to Holland.

Sorting spinnaker sheet
Sorting spinnaker sheet

Understandably, crew morale is blacker than Dick Cheney’s heart. Gipeto, who had largely given up the ghost races ago, now sleeps through his watches and reads on his off watch. Chinese Princess types up notes on her phone on watch, though she did always try and push the limits of a watch leader anyway. Her sense of herself  bloats as we near the finish and her crowning as the first Chinese woman to be sailed around the planet. The rest seem only vaguely interested in what is going on. He is slowly losing control of his command and I think the rusty cogs might just be beginning to process that for him at analog speed.

On the plus side, we have seen a handful of whales at very close quarters, and a couple of sharks–sharks in the wild a box I wanted to tick from the start and I have crossed my final ocean. Though I need a break. It’s been another long and frustrating leg. The last somewhat competitive race we had was the Pacific. That seems an eternity ago now. It definitely feels like time to go home.

*Sail and motor finishes to race

Race 1 – called early due to schedule and fog

Race 2 – ran as planned

Race 3 – we conceded last to motor in after rest of fleet had finished

Race 4 – ran as planned

Race 5 – ran as planned

Race 6 – ran as planned

Race 7 – first race ran as planned then race to Singapore motored

Race 8 – race stopped due to rigging failures – motored to Hong Kong then last section to Qingdao

Race 9 – ran as planned

Race 10 – called early – motored to Panama

Race 11 – ran as planned

Race 12 – called early due to schedule – motored to New York

Race 13 – new finish line – will motor to finish

Cold Labrador – New York to Derry

The iceberg scare passed us with only an ice-cube’s worth of fright. Last couple of days a few of the fleet saw SUV sized blocks meandering the swells with an unknown amount of pale, blue, cold menace beneath. The Labrador current which brings that flow south from the Arctic is behind us with all its assorted frozen, spring detritus and accompanying bitter winds. My six layers are now four. The warnings from an iceberg survey vessel over VHF just a detail in my story. The deep chill has gone. So have a few of the boats we were racing with. Volcano convinced yesterday we needed to sail due east to try and skip a wind hole at its narrowest margin. The leaders have got beyond that. They are gone. Won’t see them till we appear in Derry now. Podium kaput. So last night we had the option to sail higher on the wind. Higher on the wind. Better speed. By my reckoning we could have made another forty miles with a twenty degree push higher on the compass by this morning. Instead we lamely followed PSP when we had the chance to take them on the windward side. They are one of our closest competitors in the table. Makes sense to race them then right? Apparently not. I discovered upon surfacing from my bunk they pulled away nine miles from us in the night. I could see their deck light last night as we chased them down. Now I can’t see them at all. Now all of sudden we are taking that higher course. Too. Little. Too. Late.

Dropping the spinnaker
Dropping the spinnaker

To compound the nudging misery of another hapless, racing performance I got paired with the Chinese girl on the boat, for this leg, who had the family connections back home to get onboard. All the gear. She wears expensive Musto kneecaps on deck to sit in the cockpit, gawping at the activity around her like a dim haddock. No idea. Not even in the galley. Woken late I had to pull the boat’s breakfast together. Solo. The opposite number on the other watch should be getting things going at 4 am. She didn’t even have the gumption to get the cereals out. Apparently she was dozing in the saloon. Fail. I kicked her out the galley and back to her bunk. I’ll cook. You wash and dry. Deal? Deal.

I had, for some reason, thought the Atlantic would be a bit of an easy ride. The other day proved me wrong. Wrong sail was put on the rig ready for hoist for the second time this race. Wind got up. Had to get taken off before it was even raised. Up to the bow ‘Oskins, ADHD, myself and a reluctant Parker got to work. I was keen to show him that getting this thing from A to B requires a bit of graft in nasty conditions from time to time. One sail was bagged and taken away. Another put on. One dropped and the new one hoisted. They are big bits of canvas to drag around in the wind and a wet, angled deck. Took best part of four wet and cold hours. Parker I don’t think had been at the pointy end of the boat before. To his credit he dealt with it, even taking a whack in the face from an out of control line as we brought the sail down. A bloodied nose his medal of honour. As we sat on the deck after the canvas and wind fight was won I patted him on the back. “Well done”. He looked like he’d just been ejected into space after running fifty miles. “Hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” came the weary reply. Still since that watch I have seen a new Parker. He no longer wants to be a passenger. He has finally discovered the fun the foredeck crew has getting into scrapes with the weather and the boat. He’s pulling his weight and has received new respect from the watch. A good thing. The watch has been a good one. Dr Lichen, ADHD, ‘Oskins, B and the return of Lebowski and his horizontal, Bermudian ways. I sailed with him last around Australia. Seems a long time ago now.

Lebowski in the cold
Lebowski in the cold

Tomorrow I’ll say good-bye to my own passenger. The ashes of my good friends father who has come along on the ride around the planet. It was my friends wish and an easy one for me to accommodate. Just a small 35 mm film case of him tucked into my kit. He was a keen sailor and never, it seems, had the opportunity to go on the kind of sailing adventure I’ve just been through over the last ten months, his life tragically cut short before his time. I’m glad I was given the chance to do this for a friend who has always been there when I needed him.

Ahead of us we have the navigation of some high and low systems as we try and pick our way north to Derry. We’ll be late. Again. Question is. How long?

Titanic – New York to Derry

Somewhere around here, beneath me lies the wreck of the Titanic. White Star Lines’ shining hope for a period of Atlantic steaming glory. The story of what happened does not of course need to be retold. A captain’s ignorance, or hubris, and an uncontrollable chain of events the second the bow cut into that iceberg and consigned hundreds to a cold, watery grave. What’s my point? Well, using an admittedly overdramatic parallel, our hopes for podium look like they too are rapidly descending beneath the waves.

Things started (relatively) promising. Volcano realised the error of his ways to New York, that self-serving tack near the start of that race which I wrote of last blog. No crazy attempts (or self-serving ones) were on the cards. We would stay with the pack. Initially, at least. A glimmer of light hit my expectations for the race across the Atlantic.

A few hours into the race of the Atlantic
A few hours into the race of the Atlantic

The fleet motored away from New York and set up sail. The starting line was half a day east of the city we had left, still a small outline on the summer horizon. We had a decent start. Things were looking good, or good enough. Night descended and we match raced in tight formation. This was fun. No stupid tacks. I was enjoying this. The wind was enough to keep going at a decent pace. It gradually dropped. We encountered miles of slick, no doubt the illegal doings of some tanker skipper. The ocean reflected a diesel coloured sun. A few tuna popped up and down in distress not far from us. It went on for miles. I hadn’t seen anything like this on the whole trip and it pretty well disgusted me.

That same evening a fog moved in. ‘Oskins and I were in the nav as we watched Switzerland and a few other gybe away almost directly south. We were still moving. My lack of weather nous was no help but it seemed a strange move at the time. Slowly our wind died. I remembered the fog off China. Fog? No wind. Too late. We were trickling along now, the boats to our north even worse off. The schedules came in over the next 36 hours. That strange move seemed the correct one. They were gaining miles from us. We dropped gradually from second to eleventh. Familiar.

Different variations of a similar plot line were rolled out by Volcano at the lunch time team meetings. ‘Oskins queried him on the barometric charts. The answer sounded vague. By plan or design, we now find ourselves climbing the table again. The wind has filled in. Ocean–racing wind. We are currently further north, but not farther east than the rest of the pack, though there is still time to recover. The ever impressive Henri Lloyd are now (almost) within sight.

Wake up for watch
Wake up for watch

Stupid calls are still being made though. We put up our largest head sail before entering this system driving us. It was forecast to drop. It didn’t. Why he didn’t go with the middle option and change up instead I don’t know. Wiseman, Doris, ‘Oskins, ADHD and I had to wrestle it to the deck. I don’t mind when we are caught by surprise but this wasn’t one of those times; this was just a lack of common sense.

Common sense also is lacking in Parker who has returned for more after his furniture-like performance in the Southern Ocean. He does nothing, another passenger on our trip around the globe. We have had too many to care. I think about consigning them to the same place as the unlucky souls below us.  These shiftless individuals are just part of the money making Clipper plan. Anyway. We race on.