Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success

Level 1 has now been and gone – wow what a first week my Clipper life on the sea has been.  It was one of the toughest mental challenges I’ve faced in a very long time, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  I loved every minute!

With my oversized waterproof sleeping bag & boots packed into a single carry bag, there really wasn’t much room for many clothes. Apparently that’s ok though, I can wear my merino wool base layers for a whole week (or so the Clipper kit guide says). Hoping that I’d have everything I need, I loaded my carry bag into the car and headed to Gosport Marina. I got there in good time, so tried to optimise my time meeting my fellow (excited!) level 1-ers and trying to learn as many names as possible. We were split into 2 crews and introduced to our respective Skipper, 1st, and 2nd mate for the week, before being walked down to the Clipper 68 training yacht – our home for the next week!

First things first, we form a human chain to pass all crew kit on board and down to a bunk. The bunk each bag landed on would be that person’s bunk for the week. With all bags loaded, we had a comprehensive tour of our new home.  Following which, we went into an icebreaker to better learn more about each crew member.  1 by 1 we each shared our name, why we were on this Clipper journey, our sailing experience, and 1 personal fact. The next person in line would first play back the names of everyone who’d already spoke, and then share their own personal story. When it came to the Skipper, he successfully recalled everyone’s name (he’d probably already done his homework) and then started with the words “a great Skipper has to do nothing – he empowers his crew” – this made me smile as it’s something I aspire to with my own teams at work.  On the down side however, I got the sense that this would mean we would be working very hard this week.  I was right!!

After introductions were complete, we had our first meal onboard – a Chilli (cooked by the Skipper – this would be the last meal he would prepare this week), and after which, practiced our knots using the laminated guides posted around the communal saloon (these also served as a reminder on those which we would be assessed against at the end of the the week). Our crew of 10 was divided into pairs, and each individual assigned a number (between 1 and 10) for the week. Of the numbers assigned, this would form our 2 watches (teams): Port Watch made up of crew with an odd number, and Starboard those with an even number.  For the rest of the week, I would be #8 of Starboard watch.  This number, pair, and watch system would be used throughout to determine who would be leading which task/activity, for morning quiz competitions, and for regular headcount checks.

After our meal and yet more knot practice, I clambered over the sail bags currently acting as a carpet in the main accommodation area (later to be renamed ‘the ghetto’),  found my designated bunk, laid out my new sleeping bag, and distributed my smaller dry bags (used to divide up my clothes) into the open locker areas by my bunk.  Following which, we had a first opportunity to visit the ‘debrief facility’ – the local pub just outside of the marina.  When not out on anchor for the night, and depending how long it took us to complete all evening tasks, this would be somewhere we could visit each night to recap on the day’s events. There was just enough time for a couple of G&Ts, and to get to know some more about my fellow crew, before heading back for our first night aboard.

Despite the somewhat cosy view and life jacket decor, my bunk was nicely located away from the main walkway, and because it was a bottom bunk, no difficulties falling into after a tiring day – RESULT!  It was also surprisingly comfy!

Our DAY2 itinerary begun with an early breakfast (to be prepared by the first pair listed on the notice board by the galley).  I slept surprisingly well, was up nice and early, over to the shower block, and like an excited school child on their first day, back in plenty of time for breakfast and on deck in good time – I was ready and raring to go!

We started our learning day with a knowledge check from the previous day, and followed it with a comprehensive above deck brief, including how to prepare our Clipper Yacht (her name was CV7) for a day on the water. Having sailed a little before, thankfully I already knew a lot of the terms, but it was really quite different being on CV7 to anything I’d been on before.  And there was so much to learn!

Clipper has some very strict safety procedures (and rightly so!), one of which involves being clipped during various scenarios (at night, reduced visibility, true wind > 15knots, or when instructed).  In order to get used to being clipped/tethered and moving around, we lined up in our watches, and readied ourselves for a relay race.  Starting at the stern, one from each watch climbed down and through the lazarette, popping back up the other side, traversing down the other side, up to the bow, around the forestay, and back down to join the watch.  This would trigger the next crew member to do the same.  Starboard watch were clear winners (not that I’m competitive), and which served as a good point to have some lunch before preparing for departure.  Prepping involved getting the (very heavy!!) sails from the ‘ghetto’, up through the main hatch, and onto the foredeck. It took at least 2 people stood in the ghetto to drag each sail to the hatch opening, and at least 2 people to arrange the sails ready to be hanked accordingly.

Over DAYS 3 to 5, we started to get into a routine of an early breakfast (prepared by rotating pairs). This varied between cereals and toast, scrambled egg breakfast wraps, and porridge. The Skipper’s choice of music would be playing from a portable bluetooth speaker in the communal saloon area, and directed into the ghetto, to ensure everyone was awake.  We would have 30 minutes to finish breakfast and be ready in foul weather gear/life jackets, or whatever was reflective of the situation we were meeting in (up on deck, or down in the saloon), ready for the morning briefing.  I’m not sure time keeping was our crew’s forte – a fault our Skipper would frequently remind us of “5 minutes early is already 10 minutes too late”.

Clipper’s training is more than just learning to sail, with a lot of focus on working in a team and always with a focus on safety.  The MOB (Man Over Board) drill became a daily routine, where at varying points throughout the day, the Skipper, 1st or 2nd Mate would do their very best to distract us with a variety of tasks, before throwing Bob (our life size MOB dummy) into the sea. I soon cottoned onto their less than transparent tactics, and given my competitiveness to beat the previous day’s time for retrieving Bob, would take it upon myself to give as many of the crew a heads up that the drill was coming, and that we should be prepared to assign ourselves to the various roles.  We would need a pointer – someone who’s sole task was to ‘keep eyes on’, and point at Bob; someone to look after the pointer, and ensure that person was able to safely move around the deck without losing sight of Bob; someone to deploy the life ring and activate the danbouy; a swimmer – someone who was willing to put on a dry suit, a harness and willing to be lowered into the water using the starboard staysail halyard to actually fish Bob out of the; someone to active the MOB GPS / update the log, and the roles/list goes on…..  By the end of the week we were getting much better at organising ourselves throughout the drill.  Practice makes perfect!

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Our on water training started by learning ‘the Clipper way‘ to hoist the yankees (all 3 of them), the staysail, and then the main, as well as use of the running backstays, and upwind helming/tacking and later in the week, downwind gybing.   For each we would first be guided by the Skipper or 1 of the Mates through the ‘evolution’, before a member of the crew was asked to follow suit, and lead the next iteration.  The crew who were not leading, or assigned to another task (on mother watch, tasked with navigator duties etc) were either assigned to, or found the nearest winch, grinder, jammer, halyard or sheet in order to facilitate the upcoming evolution.  Initially the very specific commands and the corresponding action seemed like an overwhelming amount of information to learn.  As the week went on, the penny began to drop, and all of a sudden things started to make sense.  By the end of the week I had successfully lead (and debriefed with all crew) on a few of the evolutions.  I’m looking forward to level 2 training and more chance to practice, practice, practice.

Outside of our routine, the other points of note throughout the week involved:

DAY 4 started with our now familiar morning routine (breakfast and a morning briefing), but this time followed by a minute’s silence on the foredeck, to pay tribute to the 3 year anniversary of a fatality which occurred during our Skipper’s previous involvement in 2015-16 edition of the race.   I took that time to reflect on just how real this would be, and how important it was that I engrained all safety procedures to muscle memory.  After our moment to reflect, the Skipper had already asked me to share a small reading with the crew Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”.  A powerful quote about the simplicity of sitting on the sidelines, versus the risk of failing but having the courage to do so.  All in all, an emotional start to the day, and definitely one that focused the mind!

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With our minds focused, this day was hands down my favourite sailing day.  We finally found the wind in the English Channel to get CV7 heeled over, and an amazing experience trying to bring down the Yankee Sail with waves crashing over the foredeck.  I (and the rest of the crew) couldn’t stop smiling!  This was the real taste of Clipper sailing that I’d been waiting for.  I long for the same experience again very soon.

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After our afternoon of excitement, we made our way to a sheltered area called Sandown, which is a stretch along the south-eastern coast of the Isle of Wight.  This was an opportunity to drop anchor and prepare for our first night watch.  We would later draw times out of a bowl in order to establish which pair of crew would be on watch.  My watch partner successfully drew the first (and best) shift – RESULT!  We split the night up between the five crew pairs on board, giving 2 hour watches. We would take the first watch, which consisted of 20 minute interval checks on the anchor position, location position, bearing, wind speed, and barometer.  And with clear standing orders on what would constitute having to wake the Skipper.

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After a great night’s sleep following anchor watch, and before setting out for our last DAY on the sea, we had one small matter of switching the watch quiz for an individual assessment on knots – demonstrate the ability to tie any 3 of the assessor’s choosing, rope work – demonstrate the ability to handle a rope in a number of scenarios; sailing knowledge – correctly answer questions on main control lines, parts of the sails, and points of sail; safety – identify the main areas of danger on deck and explain why, demonstrate the procedure for emergency distress call on VHF,  and demonstrate the MOB chart plotter actions.  I PASSED!

We set sail for our last day of sailing, and found much lighter conditions than we’d been lucky enough to experience the previous day.  What this did mean however is that we could get in much more practice, and in calmer conditions.  I led the crew through our first evolution of the day – main sail hoist (with an 8.5 rating out of 10 according to the skipper).  We went on to practice more reefing, another MoB, and a number of other evolutions needed to get us back to Gosport Marina.

On the very last day, aka ‘Deep Clean day’, we took everything that can be detached/moved – out (all of the sails, the floorboards, everything).  It was of course raining, which made the whole experience a little harder than it would have been earlier in the week.  Apparently it’s not training if it’s not raining?! This was my least favourite day, and much harder work than I’d anticipated. We placed everything on the pontoon, gave it a proper scrub, checked it over, and then once below deck had finished being wet-vac’ed, cleaned and disinfected, we proceeded to load it all back in again.  This was easiest the largest jigsaw puzzle I’ve ever completed.

Throughout the deep clean,  we were individually summoned to the yacht moored besides CV7, for an individual Skipper de-brief.  The Skipper asked how I felt the week had gone, if I had any concerns about proceeding, and shared some of his own observations on how I’d performed (both sailing and within the crew).  I left the conversation feeling much more confident about what I’d achieved in my first week, and (more) eagerly looking forward to my next training (in 2 weeks).

What I learned from my week is that bruises on bruises are something I need to get used to; that I have a lot of (evolution) revision to do before level 2; that the food is much better than I was expecting; that I really don’t need much ‘stuff’ given the full focus on sailing, and no time for anything else; and that I have fully caught the CLIPPER BUG!  I’m now also applying to do LEG 5 (in addition to leg 4, and 6)

Even so early in my journey, I’m excited about what’s coming next. “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success,” said by Henry Ford.

I’m really keen to support Clipper’s chosen charity partner – UNICEF, if you wish to also  support my journey, and their great work, please do so via my Just Giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/TC-1.

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