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