Leg 6 Race 9 - As cold as the cold wind blows

Leg 6 Race 9 - Qingdao, China to Seattle, U.S.A.

Number of souls on board: 20

Distance sailed: we’re going to call it 6,000nm

Number of days at sea: 29

Finish position: 10th

Damage: very little

Injuries: none

Stupid moments we won’t tell my mother about: just 1!

 

The mighty north pacific they said. A race to endure not enjoy. Well that was true. No, this was not my favourite race but I can say I feel proud to have completed this part of thew race. Very proud.

We started with horrible light winds. Totally unexpected for this leg but we sat drifting around and moving only 500 miles in the first 6 days. This essentially added an extra week to the whole race. But you got to be careful what you wish for. Once we had made our way into the middle of the pacific, miles from any human contact, the big north pacific low pressure systems began to swing through the fleet. One of these in particular produced 75 - 100 knot winds (hurricane force) and 14+ meter swells (known as “phenomenal”) and battered the fleet. Luckily we all made it through with little damage or injury but there are certainly a good few stories circulating around the fleet here in Seattle.

But despite this rough weather the biggest challenge for me was not physical but mental and emotional. A constant fight to keep myself motivated and competitive day in, day out…watch after watch for 30 days. That’s 75 watches. 75 times I had to climb out of a warm, semi-dry sleeping bag to put on cold wet clothes and climb up onto a freezing cold deck blasted with wind, rain, sea spray and occasionally sleet. No lazy Sunday lie ins. No days off. 

As a watch leader on Liverpool 2018 boat, part of the responsibility lies in motivating the rest of the crew. It took great reserves of energy to get myself motivated to get on deck not to mention trying to excite our crew for another headsail change. “Come on guys, let’s go drag a heavy sail around where we can barely balance enough to stand up while icy buckets of water are thrown at your face…..oh and we will probably have to change it back…..but not till the sweat has dried and you are really really frozen”. 

How do you do this? I would love some advice, expert or otherwise. It has been a steep learning curve. Can I give anyone else advice on this? Not really. I was lucky to have a great team who motivated themselves and me. I led from the front. Literally. I tried to be the first one on deck and the last one off. I would try to be the furthest forward on the boat, dragging the heaviest part of the sail, getting the wettest and the coldest. But I have to say this wasn’t always the case. And that is the only real suggestion I can give. You need the power of a great team to get through these conditions. The guys and girls that keep you motivated. Keep the laughs. Remind you that this torture is meant to be fun. To stand next to you getting just as cold and wet and waking up to do it all again 4 hours later again and again and again. But with each rotation of the hands around the watch face, each time the date window rolls forward one more day we were closer and closer to the end. Closer and closer to crossing the mighty North Pacific. Closer and closer to where we are now standing tall as proud sailors having survived an ocean very few are inclined to sail.

There was a really low moment I can recall. 7th April. Same situation as above. Cold, wet a little bit bored and insanely tired. I don’t think my toes have warmed through in the last 5 days. My finger tips are still numb when I wake up. Back home in Cayman everyone is waking up full of excitement for Simon and Harriet’s wedding. These are two of my oldest and best friends and most of my favourite people are going to be there for one hell of a party. And its going to be warm! That was a dark day.

What else do you want to hear about? The layers of clothing I had to wear? The list is long. I had on a merino wool base layer top and bottom. A thermal base layer top and bottom. Ski socks. And a thin insulting fleece. These items I never took off, seriously I slept in all that inside a double fleece lined sleeping bag. I was still cold and my feet never warmed up. When I woke up I would put on waterproof socks, a fleece lined mid layer salopettes, a down jacket and another fleece. Then my foul weather gear or dry suit. My boots. A fleece lined hat, neck buff, fleece balaclava and gloves. All of which was generally slightly damp all the time. All the mid layers that I didn’t wear to sleep in would get in the sleeping bag with me so that they were warm when I went to put them on.

On these boats, we would get wet on deck and below deck surprisingly. The condensation forming from 20 people and the cooking would leave consistent drips all over the boat. When you leant against a wall your back or bum got damp. We became like ninjas to get out of your waterproof layers and into your sleeping bag without touching anything. We would also get damp under layers from sweat. What is gross, I had one shower in the whole month. For the last two weeks I didn’t even change my boxer shorts. Gross. 

Or how about the fishing net we got caught in in the Yellow Sea. It was unmarked on AIS and we only managed to spot the small white boys at the very last minute as we ran into it. We just about managed to get untangled and freed off before the colliding with the fishing boat that was reeling us in! Unfortunately over the next day we realised we were sailing slow so at first light the next morning we dropped the sails and Nano jumped over the side to take a look. We had arm full of monofilament netting caught around the propellor shaft. Nano spent an hour and half in the water diving under the boat cutting the netting off and pulling it on board (think of the wildlife). But once we got the sail back up the problem was solved. As well as this we were constantly checking the rudders and under the boat (using the Garmin Virb) for weed we we had to continuously shake from the boat using the boat hook and leaning right over the back.

Something that was surprising about this great big storm we had (supposedly the biggest the Clipper race has had) was that it was not that terrifying. The waves were indeed big. These great walls of grey, blue and white water. And the wind was howling through the rigging. But running down wind and down waves was relatively comfortable. It was a lot of work on the helm, but down below you barely noticed save for the occasional really big surf. On deck looking forward and concentrating on the numbers and sails there was almost not enough time to notice. You really had to stop and look back at the oncoming waves to remind yourself what you were. Its also a decent credit to the boats themselves, after all they were built not just to handle this sort of thing but to be raced in it. 

So we are here in Seattle. We were warned about the amount of rain and yet we have had nothing but sun. It is a beautiful city in the sunshine. Very easy to get around and it is nice to be back on familiar turf after our stops in China where everything is easy and understandable! I have had an amazing surprise from my folks who showed up unannounced and Mrs. Laura Titcombe has come to visit. Incredible. 

For the Cayman guys remember to keep buying sunglasses to support the guy Harvey ocean foundation. Thanks again to Peripheral Life and Style and Elliot Brown Watches.