Leg 4, Race 5 – What is…

LEG 4, RACE 5 The Australian Coast-to-Coast
Start marinaFremantle Sailing Club, Australia
End marinaCoral Sea Marina | Resort – Whitsundays, Australia
Start date22nd December 2019
Days at sea20 (predicted) | 22 (actual)
Distance4000 nm | 3896 nm
Max wind speed43 knots
Typical clothesDay – shorts and T-shirt.
Night – foulies (due to spray and waves breaking over deck)
WildlifeSo many dolphins!!
1 x whale (no idea what kind)

Fremantle Stopover (pre-race):

Day 1 – Tue 10 Dec: I waited at Fremantle Sailing Club to watch the Race 4 crew arrive. The crew had to stay onboard until they cleared customs and immigration (which took about about an hour), following which, they were ushered to the sailing club for some much deserved welcome drinks and food.

Day 2 – Wed 11 Dec: We begun a very deep clean with a full complement from of Race 4 crew, plus those newly joining crew already in town ready for Race 5 (like me!). We undertook the usual routine of getting anything and everything that moves, out on the deck, giving it a good scrub, and later returning it.

Day 3 – Thur 12 Dec: We needed a second day of deep clean, which finished off with a thorough deck wash. We also started the tasks on the maintenance list. All day!

Day 4 – Fri 13 Dec: Our victualler collected the food from the supermarket, and we joined force to support her separating it into day bags, ready to transported back to the boat. We needed support from most of the crew, and this took all day!!

Day 7 – Mon 16 Dec: We had a team workshop, and team Christmas meal. For the workshop, we broke into various groups (watch leaders, RTWers, everyone else), and shared tips and tricks from existing crew, to new crew. We then broke into our Race 5 watches to discuss what kind of watch we want to be, and what does each crew member wanted to get from the upcoming race.

Day 8 – Tue 17 Dec: CREW CHANGEOVER DAY. All available crew continued with the deck maintenance list (checking the rig, servicing the winches etc).

Day 9 – Wed 18 Dec: REFRESHER SAIL day for all of those new crew, and with 2 supporting crew from leg 3. Crew assessments would normally happen on this day, but we didn’t have time, so we completed them on day 12, before we departed.

Day 10 – Thur 19 Dec: open boat day – we spent all day showing guests around Zhuhai

Day 11 – Fri 20 Dec: open boat day – we spent all day showing guests around Zhuhai

Day 12 – Sat 21 Dec: PRE-RACE DAY: Onboard for a 09:00 safety brief, back to sailing club for a 10:00 Clipper Crew Race brief, and then back to the yacht for 11:30 Skipper/Team race brief. The rest of the day was spent doing the last jobs on our maintenance list, as well as loading our kit and readying bunk areas.

Zhuhai ready to go…

Prior to each race the entire participating race fleet attend a crew brief which provides key data and information for the upcoming race. This is where we learned that we had been selected to participate in a Voluntary Ship Observations scheme. Thousands of ships around the world send weather observations to various weather organisations around the world, in a standardised format, which are added to the other sources of information – like weather buoys, satellite images, measurements and shore based observations. This produces world wide weather forecasts. Given the Clipper 2019 – 20 Race fleet travels parts of the world where first hand observations of the weather are few and far between, it’s really exciting for us to be part of this global effort!

Race prep complete, yacht cleaned and maintenance tasks completed. Yacht and Zhuhai crew ready for the Australian Coast-to-Coast race.

Pre-race departure photo.

We had a reasonable race start, with a hard upwind leg from Fremantle towards Cape Leeuwin. We started out with the Yankee 3, and a few hours later, hoisted first the Yankee 2 then only a few hours later Yankee 1 was being called for, after the predicted lightening of the breeze. We worked hard throughout each of these evolutions, trying to remain competitive against the other teams nearby, working particularly hard on the efficiency and speed which we set about the sail changes.

Race start

As dawn broke we were moving along at a gentle pace. It was then that we realised that we were not in fact racing and the gentle pace we were doing had in fact come to a grinding halt! Looking at the AIS it was apparent that Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam being slightly further off-shore was steaming away at 6 knots in the right direction, whilst ourselves and Imagine your Korea slowly ambling north for a closer look at Australia. A frustrating four hours followed with the breeze coming and going from seemingly every direction, sometimes Imagine your Korea would get away, then we would claw it back.

Eventually, through sheer sailing knowledge, skill and possibly some luck we pulled away from Imagine your Korea. We might however have congratulated ourselves a little too early, because soon after we found a perfect 70ft wind-hole to sit in for an hour or so whilst Imagine your Korea and then Seattle caught us back up.

A few days in, and eventually all of our crew had found their sea legs (after a few of them had been visited by the green eyed monster for the prior 3 days). We would have definitely preferred to be racing faster, however on such a beautiful day (champagne sailing – without the champagne!!) was welcome, given that we expect the rest of the fleet were also facing similar conditions. With the day’s weather and sailing in mind, it taught us many things. Today’s learning on blue watch is, to embrace the now, be happy with ‘what is’.

Today was also secret santa day. Santa Skipper Nick appeared on deck wearing his Santa hat (of course!!) from the companion way (chimney) carrying a bin liner (sack) of gifts. The gifts already bought and wrapped in a variety of ‘Christmas paper’ (tin foil, j-cloth, duct tape, to name but a few), were handed out 1 by 1 during today’s daily happy hour *. Interestingly the temperature was also heating up nicely. It seemed a festive 1000!! degrees in the Nav Station. Having Christmas on the boat was a strange prospect, being devoid of the usual stuff like family, food and telly, walks, beer etc, but like everything else that comes our way during this race we gave it a good ol Zhuhai try!

* Every day there would be a daily meeting called Happy Hour, which would allow the whole crew to meet together to share team and general house keeping updates.

Later in the day we had a Zhuhai Christmas buffet. It actually felt like I was at home having a ‘real life Christmas’, with a feast which consisted of crackers, cheeses (hot and cold), hams, pickles, sausages, houmous, crispy potato pieces, as well as freshly made coleslaw and guacamole.

Having had a few days of champagne sailing in the early days of this race (without the champagne of course!!) – the wind was light, the swell steady, the sky bright blue, and only a few fluffy clouds in sight. The high pressure could have absolutely been a frustrating time as far as the race was concerned, however my Blue Watch were taking each day as it came – still embracing the now, and making the best of ‘what is’. Talking of which, and as we watched on with interest about what the rest of the fleet is doing, Zhuhai crew were very happy to receive a congratulations call from Imagine your Korea as we crossed the scoring gate slightly ahead of them, after some fun competition for the preceding hours/days.

This time 24 hours previous, we’d been sailing slowly under full mainsail and Windseeker in near calm conditions, but soon after lunch we changed the latter sail to Yankee 1 before later having to hoist the Staysail. In the morning the breeze had filled in from ahead and we had to do a quick change to Yankee 2 to get ahead of Imagine your Korea. It seemed to pay off. As the evening approached we expected the wind to back, so we could finally get some downwind sailing. As we fast approached the roaring forties (the term referring to the weather found in this latitude), we were looking forward to significantly stronger winds and higher waves.

Day 7 came and well…, lots of the same really – the blue skies had disappeared behind a grey vail, reminding us that we are, in fact quite far south. Still with the spinnaker up we were making good speed towards Tasmania. Some fine helming from Robbie and Dave saw us hitting 20 knots at times. I also had a few stints on the helm, although not quite able to match their speeds, I was equally impressed with my helming skills, when I saw the back of a whale approach starboard bow. With only seconds to react (whales move a lot slower than us), I was able to avoid it by sharply pulling to starboard and passing behind it. I was equally impressed to see the whale spout a fountain of water off to the port side, and after we had passed it. It took a good few minutes for my heart rate to return to normal after all of the excitement.

We received a visit from (I’m later told the correct name) Southern Right Whale Dolphins. They are dolphins – not whales. I’m not quite sure where the name comes from, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for it. There were half a dozen playing around the boat as we were preparing to gybe. They are unmistakable. The most obvious feature is the complete lack of a dorsal fin, giving them the appearance of a multi-coloured torpedo. The colours are a very distinct black on top and white below, and they swim very fast. Faster than most other dolphins. They seldom stay around boats for long.

What a Souther Right Whale dolphin looks like

The next morning started with a huge a sigh of relief as the huge clouds which appear so ominous in the dark, turned a soft pink with the creeping dawn light. That said a shout of “Code 3 on deck” shortly followed… and we quickly jumped to our various roles to ready, and prepare for the hoist. You really do have to be ready to react at any point.

We actually surprised ourselves by performing a Spinnaker hoist so efficient that it would have made a Formula 1 pit crew look like a bunch of amateurs, up it went and we shot away. That was until the next yell of “SQUALL!!” which resulted in taking down the Code 3, ending what had been a spectacular run with Nick (Skipper) setting our new speed record of 21.9 knots, which was literally broken a few minutes lates by Robbie with 24.7. With the Yankee 2 up and weather buoy deployed, we head round the southern end of Tasmania into the variable winds, hopeful of sunshine off the east coast of Australia.

Now New Year’s Day, and after steaming round the southern tip of Tasmania we set our course to head NE. Within hours the breaks were slammed on however, the wind disappeared with the sunset, and as the night came, it began to move in circles around us. The helms looking to the windex for reassurance and guidance. They were getting little help, as it decided to hedge its bets as to where the wind was coming from and just do 360s. Not helpful!! With this change came numerous sail evolutions desperately trying to find any kind of wind. Throughout the night, we trimmed furiously, trying to eke out every single knot of speed from the wind we were given.

Despite the frustrating lack of wind, an exciting start to the New Year however. The position reports from the previous 24 hours briefly had us in first place, before dropping us back into third, but we had certainly had a varied and interesting time of it. And so we were feeling content.

A wind shift to the north convinced us to put in a tack towards the shores of Tasmania, until the breeze backed to the west again at sunset. The sunset was spectacular, with the reds, oranges and golds enhanced by the smoke of a large bush fire.

As we cleared the northern tip of the island and entered the Bass Strait the wind increased rapidly and we were soon down to a reefed Mainsail and a very wet crew, but with Zhuhai charging along on a beam reach in the right direction. A couple of hours before midnight we began the Dell Latitude Rugged Ocean Sprint section of the race, not long after the two lead yachts.

The breeze remained with us throughout the night and it was mid-morning before we shook out the reef. Late morning the wind continued to back and we changed from the Yankee 2 and Staysail to the Code 1 spinnaker.

Whats not that obvious from my blog, is the amount of effort required for each of the sail changes, and particularly the Spinnakers (Codes 1, 2 & 3) which have to be wooled before being packed away each time. Not only is this task tough, normally at a heel, laying the spinnaker along the walking areas down below, it’s extremely hot and sweaty.

We were now well clear of the Roaring Forties, and already back to wearing shorts on deck during the day time. The afternoon sky again became overcast as we approached the coast of Victoria, and once again the clouds a dirty brown / grey from the smoke of the devastating fires on the land. At about midday, all seemed quite normal. Close-hauled, beating up the Australian coast under a murky, smoke-coloured sky. And then it happened:

The cloud suddenly dropped to sea level and turned an ominous darker shade, tinged with eerie orange edges and shapes. Like nothing I have ever seen before. A scene from a movie. White water ripped across the surface of the sea and we quickly dropped the yankee and put two reefs in the Main just as the first blast of hot air reached us at gale force. The temperature instantly rose from the low 20s to somewhere in excess of 36 °C! For an hour or more now, the wild winds created by the intense bush fires of New South Wales have played havoc with our course setting as they swirl around, alternately extremely hot and then quite mild. At the helm the crew’s eyes were caked in ash, soot and dust – they’d actually resorted to wearing ski goggles. The deck and rigging became black with ash. This day of sailing is a day I will never forget!

Ominous skies

And, in the weather forecast for later this evening we are promised an infamous Australian Southerly Buster, where the swirling nightmare winds of the moment will suddenly be replaced, almost instantaneously by violent, cool, southerly gales!

Sure enough, a large ominous line of cloud appeared on the horizon, Reef two in, Yankee down, and wait…, you could cut the tension with a knife, the huge storm clouds rolling closer as we just bobbed around in front of it, certainly feeling a little wide eyed as the sky turned darker and darker. “Here it comes, hold on!” was the cry, as it bore down on top of us, with an army of white spray hitting the deck. 20 knots, that’s it? Yes that really was it an almighty anti-climax. Later however the Southerly did kick in, with massive forks of lightning tearing through the night sky and gusts of over 40 it was more what you’d expect from one of these infamous squalls.

It was here that we acquired a new crew member as a tired looking bird landed on the deck (a brown noddy according to Nick) however we all knew him as ‘Tyrone’. We learned that Tyrone didn’t like granola, M&M’s, tuna or water, he also doesn’t like people very much. He took to terrorising the helms, flying up in their face and landing on the helming cage. All good fun, except when your surfing down a wave with the Code 3 up. It’s a tad distracting and nearly caused several kite wraps. But, we were all quite fond of our passenger.


24 hours later however, Tyrone the brown noddy, left us. What was really remarkable was that he departed at the exact latitude of Lord Howe Island (and at our closest point of approach to the island) and he flew off in the direction of the island, 250 nautical miles away. The book that we had onboard, Seabirds: an Identification Guide, by Peter Harrison, says of the brown noddy: “In the Australian region, summer storms can drive birds (Lord Howe I. breeders?) S to Sydney.” So, it seems that Tyrone had read the book and knew what was expected of him!

Tactically at this point, things were getting very exciting with a lot of sail changes and manoeuvres in the previous 24 hours to try creeping up the coast of Australia without coming to a stop again. So far, it was going according to plan, as the wind backed from south to east, and continues to back…all part of the plan…

Race day 16, and the wind god turned out to be a cruel one, as the sun set on what had been a fantastic days sailing it headed us, forcing us to drop the kite and hoist the Yankee. From then on, it slowly faded, until we were becalmed, our sails empty on a smooth sea. If this wasn’t a race it would have been a stunning night, the moon reflection on the water, with dolphins coming and going leaving their glowing vapor trails. Sadly, this was a race and this fact did tend to put a bit of a downer on things.

The logbook’s ‘distance travelled’ section was telling a very depressing story, the wind was not going to even entertain the idea of us moving. We tried everything – tacking the Yankee over by hand (more for the power rush than any real gains) and praying for wind was the order of the morning.

Gusts continued to tease us, the shadow of breeze on the top of the sea seemingly, everywhere except here.

I really tried hard to look for wind!

With time passing, and things that had been looking quite bright aboard a few days ago, the grips of the East Australian current was a frustrating time.

The majority of the rest of the race fleet had stayed offshore, even when we were running nicely downwind in the counter-current along the shore! When the wind finally shut down on us, it did so properly!

In hindsight, we came too far inshore for too long and could not cross the current without losing even more ground, so we needed to continue working along the coast, making miles when we could.

It’s particularly difficult when it gets to the point that you need to find things to do and occupy the time. We amused ourselves a little when Robbie started the process of drawing an excellent picture of a kiwi with our course, on the chart plotter. The main mission however was to not go backwards too far. At the point of me taking the helm, we were forming the kiwi’s body.

Eventually, and when the breeze picked, our COG (Course Over Ground) line went north again and we were away (everyone was quite relieved that he didn’t manage to finish the picture of the kiwi, we weren’t far of working on its feet). We then made steady progress north towards the easterly trade winds which would ultimately take us into Airlie beach.

The next day, we rounded Sandy Cape, at the north end of Fraser Island, and entered the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. For the next 100 nautical miles we had to remain east of the reefs, passing into the protected waters behind the outer Barrier Reef.

My watch were lucky enough to see yet another awesome dolphin display! And when not watching dolphins, we were focused on trim, trim, and a bit more trim – anything at all that we could do get some speed was our priority.

After a pretty uneventful day, we had a rather unfriendly encounter with a fishing boat. Just after sunset we passed a fleet of fishing boats to starboard. As we sailed well clear of them one suddenly diverted across our bow and laid a net directly ahead of us! Almost all types of vessels are obliged to give way to fishing vessels, but this did seem a particularly unnecessary manoeuvre. Anyway, we did manage to alter course and avoid the net. That was, after a few unpleasantrys might have been hurled from our vessel to theirs – and back again!

Day 20, and life on board carries on as normal although we started to run out of a few things, the fruit bowl now consists of a few lemons, an onion and much to some of the crews dismay, the coco pops ran out this morning. The hardest thing about being up near the tropics thought is the intense heat, its roasting on deck with some of the fairer crew piling on the suncream on before venturing out. Disappointingly, for the Great Barrier Reef we didn’t see too much wild life. Last night a bird, apparently a brown boobie, got stuck in our safety net and this morning we saw what we thought was a sea snake though it may well have been a piece of pipe, the debate went on.

It’s at this point that talk turns to what people are looking forward to doing once they get in to port – mostly food, drink, shower (not always in that order). Sailing in the lighter airs certainly does require a lot of patience and calm.

Seeing the Whitsunday Islands, with 47 nautical miles to go. We would only need to do two gybes to get around the north end of the islands. After the first, we were moving at 8 knots, straight towards our next waypoint. With only one more gybe to do, then Yankee and Staysail up, Spinnaker down, and head towards the finish line!

Video courtesy of Clipper Race: LIVE

The thing I learnt most about myself during this race, is that you can only control what you can control. Being patient, calm, and positive during testing times, and by always doing the right things to prepare, will set you in the best possible position for when the environmental factors become a little more favourable. Have an open (opportunistic) mindset – always!

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