Leg 7 Race 10 - The Downwind Derby

Leg 7 Race 10 - Seattle, U.S.A. to Panama City, Panama

Number of souls on board: 19

Distance sailed: 4,293nm

Number of days at sea: 30

Finish position: 11th…..a spectacular last.

Number of spinnakers torn: 4 


So what can we say about the first race of leg 7? Quite a lot actually. I had been really looking forward to this race down the west coast of the States. I have definitely worked out that I like warm and fair weather sailing…so sue me. Its just more enjoyable wearing minimal clothes and sailing in the sunshine and on flatter seas.

Seattle had been a great stopover. It was nice to be in familiar lands after China. Being able to buy toothpaste and deodorant simply and easily made the admin that is necessary in each stopover considerably easier and less stressful. We were also treated to mostly sunshine and clear skies which is unusual in that part of the world. Seattle has a beautiful scenery looking out over the Cascades, Mount Rainier and the Olympic National Park. My folks came up to surprise me and and Laura Colley Mallulla Titcombe also paid a fleeting visit. We can recommend the views of the city from the Columbia Tower Club 73rd floor.

This race has turned out to be one giant spinnaker run mostly in pretty light airs. I think we only had the yankee up for about half a day while all three spinnakers were in for repair, otherwise it has been one spinnaker or another the whole way.

We started the race with a short in port race that proved quite amusing. A number of the leading boats had not read the course instructions properly and were running in towards the finish line. However the finish line mark had to be rounded into to finish up wind - this meant we snuck into a third place finish. Unfortunately this doesn’t count for any points but was a nice boost.

We then proceeded to motor back out of the Puget Sound and down the Juan de Fuca straight. This is a beautiful area with incredible scenery of mountains and thick everglade forest. I will certainly keep it on my list to come back to and would love to sail up and down the coast but I hear there are a lot of bears.

Once we were back in the Pacific we lined up for another Le Mans start. This all went smoothly but that was about it. Due to some nervous flying the spinnakers on the first night with a new watch leader in marginal conditions we sailed (in company) a slightly further route offshore. During this time we continued to drop back. When we did launch the kite the same continued to happen. Very quickly we were struggling in different winds from the majority of the fleet and fell further and further behind. Add to that the fact we (when I say we I mean I) tore all three spinnakers in the first 5 days and we were nearly 250 miles behind within the first week. 

It was insanely depressing. A week into the race and already fighting thoughts of just giving up and cruising the rest of the way. We kept each other going, fantastic emails from friends, family and loved ones helped to buoy our spirits and most importantly we had seen other boats gain or lose this distance in a matter of days on previous races. All could not be lost.

We set about our usual attitude. Spend a lot of time coaching the new joiners in spinnaker flying. Test out some theories on what might make us go faster and keep trying our best and pushing hard. It is certainly a lot easier to do the latter when you have the other boats on AIS range to compare your boat speeds to. We have done a fantastic job of this. The new joiners are flying the spinnakers beautifully with very little input from us coaches. The gybes, drops and hoists run incredibly smoothly. 

Apart from one incidence where a gybe went wrong. Bad enough that Lance (skipper) flicked the engine on to spin the boat through the gybe as the spinnaker was wrapped round the forestay in a funny way. While doing this we lost one of the sheets over the front of the boat and before the engine could be pulled back into neutral we had caught it in the propellor. We couldn’t get this undone. The next morning our hero and sexy Uruguayan, Nano, went for another very cold swim. But sue to the swell action lifting and dropping the boat he felt unsafe and unable to get under the boat to the propellor. So we neatened up the trailing lines as best we could and continued on our way looking for a calmer day. 

Finally that day arrived. We strapped all the fuel cans and our MOB dummy to the end of the boom and swung it out as far as it would go to try and heel the boat over. Nano jumped in and was able to reach the propellor and free the line. Amazing. Off we went. However, of course the boss went to check the engine ran fine and realised we had no drive. On inspection the gearbox adaptor plate was cracked and split. So no engine. The really funny thing was that this hadn’t split when he looked before. He also noticed that the drive shaft was further back than it should be and not aligned with gears. Had someone been trying to crank the spinnaker sheet too hard when it was caught in order to free it and therefore yanked the prop and drive shaft backward causing this issue? We will never know but we now had no engine.

Surely this is no problem in a sailing race? Well we were expecting to use the engine towards the end of the race in order to motor through the doldrums and reach Panama in time for our canal booking. 

Anyway, as we sailed south, the temperature rose….and then soared. We cruised down the Californian coast and then the mighty Mexican coastline. Did you know Mexico has more pacific coastline that the US (excluding Alaska)? It is fricking huge. Very quickly I was in nothing but boardshorts, even by night. At times we were just 30 miles from the Mexican coast and could see big mountains and the lights of various lighthouses. There was plenty of sea life particularly in the calmer days often we say turtles , dolphins boobies and seagulls.

This part of the race was characterised by light winds and we did our best to play the angles and shifts to Mae any gains we could on the fleet. We caught up a little but it was not enough. The worst part was the rest of the fleet were all so close to each other. Fighting tooth and nail for every half knot of boat speed in what must have been very tense but incredibly exciting racing. Unfortunately Qingdao who had led the entire race finished in 8th. Gutting for them but one hell of a finish.

Once the race had finished we still had a huge number of miles to motor. And we had no motor. So we continued our sail in order to rendezvous with two other boats who would tow us through the windless patches. During this time I had one of the best days on this whole adventure so far. 

The racing had finished so there was no pressure. The wind had picked up and we had about 8 knots fo boat speed with the Code 1 up on a beam reach. Fantastic sailing. I had a great conversation with Mikey Star why helming. We played some great music from Bob Dylan, Juzzie Smith, Bendouin Soundlcash and Ben Howard. We interspersed the heat fo the day with salt water bucket showers and finished the evening with a snooze on the foredeck lying on the sails watching a bull blood red Mexican sunset. It reminded me how nice it is to sail when cruising. To sail in nice places. It is also why we came on the Clipper race to do something so different from the every day. This was exactly that, it was even distant enough from the everyday that we have been living on the race. It was exquisite. 

The other nice thing about the race being terminated but still being at sea is the opportunity for learning. We have a ton of books on board on sailing related stuff. And I have been reading tons to take the opportunity to soak it up while I am in this environment. There was a book on VHF radio licenses and one really good one “How Boat Things Work”. I have also read “A journey for madmen” and fantastic read about the stories of the sailors who took part in the Golden Globe Race - a race to be the first solo non-stop circumnavigator held 50 years ago. The Chairman of this Clipper Race, Sir Robin Knox-Johnstone being the only one to complete that race and the winner.

With it being a relatively long sail and the heat we were all looking forward to reaching Panama. Thoughts were drifting to pool parties, cold beers and air conditioned hotel rooms. And of course the excitement that awaited us in crossing through the Panama Canal.

Despite the poor result it was a fun race. We had a great crew and the dynamic was fantastic. If we forget it was meant to be a race then it was a truly lovely sail down the west coast of the North American continent. That’s certainly how I will remember it.