Back to reality!

I meant to write something a few weeks ago when I just started to work for Clipper Ventures in their maintenance team, refitting the boats ready for the next race. But now back in real life I seem to have no time for anything! Either that or working 8.30-5pm is a bit too tiring!

People ask me, is it easy to get used to a full night’s sleep again on dry land? But that is not the big question, the big question is how do I handle a full working day awake, given that I usually went back to bed for an extended nap every 4 to 6 hours on the boat. I miss my mid-afternoon sleeps…

Anyway, the week before last I had a week off work and went down to Plymouth for a Yachtmaster Offshore prep week and exam with Bob Beggs (Unicef skipper), which I – along with Bill (also Garmin), Ineke (Nasdaq) and Nick (Hotelplanner) – passed! We sailed for the week on Sea Shanty, a Bavaria 36, on which everything is considerably smaller and lighter than our 70′ racing yachts.

Not used to such a small boat…

This means that once I get a commercial endorsement for the qualification, I can hopefully be employed sailing boats for a living. But considering the amount of work we have to do on the Clipper race yachts, I think I’ll be busy at Gosport for the next few months at least!

The first of the boats (Dare to Lead) comes out the water.

Also I can probably change the subtitle of this site to a post-race one that I promised certain family members it would eventually become…

Liverpool again!

Finally after 11 months, 12 stopovers, 13 races, 5 countries and 5 ocean crossings, we made it back to England and Liverpool on Saturday.

The fourteenth race was a sprint up the river Mersey to Liverpool, which we managed to win! Strong wind sailing and upwind is one thing we are reasonably good at, having won a few of the ocean sprint bonus points over the last few races. Even if we did come rather too close to a cruise liner at one point – this pic taken from the cruise liner in question by a passenger that came to see us at Canning Half-Tide dock.

It seems like only yesterday that I was here in Albert Dock for the grand departure of the fleet; now we’re back nearly a year later, well-travelled across oceans and continents. A very strange feeling.

More strange still, yet exciting is my new nephew Jamie, and first of the next generation in my family. Born whilst I was in Punta Del Este in Uruguay and now 9 months old, I met him for the first time yesterday, and my brother Patrick and sister-in-law Emma for the first time in 11 months! ❤️❤️❤️❤️

Also down at the Liverpool docks – and in the pub later! – were my parents, many other members of my family, my best friend Hazel and former work colleague Becky; so happy to see everyone after so many months away. Even got a little emotional.

Now we’re off again today to take our home for the last 11 months back to Gosport on the south coast, where the boats live between races. There’s only 8 of us on this trip instead of the usual 16 to 22 crew; sailing whilst not racing should be somewhat relaxing! (Weather dependant, terms & conditions apply.)

As to what happens next: firstly I’m going to need a week or so off! Then maybe a Yachtmaster Offshore qualification, then who knows?

Dull grey skies of the UK

After nearly 11 months away, it’s almost reassuring to sail back into UK waters accompanied by cold drizzle and low cloud in mid-summer. Feels like nothing has changed!

We made excellent time across the Atlantic (15 days), passing the Grand Banks in some dense fog and then some fast downwind sailing up northwards to Ireland. We won a point on the scoring gate, two points on the ocean sprint, then came in third place into Derry – so a generally successful voyage all round.

Being back in the UK is rather weird after 11 months away. (Even if it is Northern Ireland on the Twelfth.) Used to boat living interspersed by various foreign countries, it’s strange being surrounded by Tesco and Sainsbury’s and British road signs and driving on the left.

Anyway, we have quite a long time here for boat maintenance and tourist stuff, leaving again on the last race of the circumnavigation on Sunday 22nd July. We are due to arrive into Liverpool about 11m-midday on Saturday 28th July, so if you’re free or in the area come down to Albert Dock!

Finally I’m still a little way short of my UNICEF fundraising goal, so if you haven’t yet please consider donating.

Back to the Atlantic

Tomorrow morning we leave New York to set off back across the Atlantic to Derry in Northern Ireland. This crossing should take around 15-20 days, making it one of the shorter ocean crossings of this trip.

New York has been an amazing stopover, with lovely weather, visits from my family from Connecticut, one my old World of Warcraft mates (José/Acore) who happened to be in NYC at the same time, and my mum who came to visit again! This is also my first time here in NYC, and what better way to arrive (and leave) than sailing out past the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, here’s some photos from New York…

New York

We crossed the finish line off New York bay yesterday afternoon (in fifth position, so not too bad), then just carried on sailing up the Ambrose channel; through the lower bay and under the Verrazano Narrows bridge where the wind finally died and we had to drop the sails.

By this time it was just getting dark so we motored towards Manhatten and past the Statue of Liberty, to dock at Liberty Landing Marina at around 10pm.

The last race was a pretty fast one, with some upwind sailing across the Caribbean Sea, a bit of a wind hole between Jamaica and Haiti, and then fast downwind sailing under spinnaker up the Atlantic. So we arrived very early giving plenty of time here before we leave again in 25th June.

Now it’s time to deep clean the boat, do maintenance jobs, and have a look around this place – as I’ve never been here before!

Through the Panama Canal

Yesterday we slipped lines from Flamenco Island Marina – on the Panama City & Pacific Ocean side of the isthmus – at 6am. About 20 hours later we reached Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean Sea side.

It doesn’t usually take 20 hours to get across, but we were delayed by a lack of pilots to guide us through, so we had to wait on a buoy in Lake Gatun for about 6 hours. We did take this opportunity for some crocodile watching though!

First you enter Puerto Balboa, Panama City’s port area and entrance to the canal, under the Bridge of the Americas. Not far beyond is the first set of locks, the double Miraflores Locks.

We rafted up with Sanya and Qingdao, and went up with Interlink Nobility, since they generally won’t do a full lock cycle just for three little yachts; even though the tropical climate does produce a lot of rainfall (we had a couple of thunderous downpours during our transit) and the Chagres river is very well managed to retain and supply it all.

After the Miraflores Locks comes a short reach and then the single stage Pedro Miguel Locks.

Now we are 26 metres above sea level, all the way through the Culebra Cut, under the Centennial Bridge and into Lake Gatun.

On the other side of Lake Gatun are the three-stage Gatun Locks. Again we went down just in front of another large cargo vessel, then finally under the (not yet complete) Atlantic Bridge.

The whole canal is really an engineering marvel, excavated by the French and the US and opened in 1914. There is a new, larger set of adjacent locks nowadays, opened in 2016, but we went up through the original ones. Because the water supply is so important to the canal operation, the rainforest surrounding the canal and Lake Gatun is almost undisturbed and the number of birds and other wildlife (like mosquitos!) are plentiful.

Now we have a couple of days to relax before the next race to New York starts on 2nd June!

Welcome to Panama!

Sailed – or more accurately, motored, due to a severe lack of wind – into Panama yesterday, 27th May. We arrived at Flamenco Island Marina late afternoon, with excellent views of the skyscrapers of the modern Panama City, the entrance to the canal under the Bridge of the Americas, and the dozens of anchored container and tanker ships waiting to traverse the canal.

Now I’m at my Airbnb apartment I’m sharing with my fellow Garmin RTWer Bill Lyons in the old town (Casco Viejo) with wine, dinner and after consuming many rum cocktails from the nearby Pedro Mandingo Rum Bar (I’m a bit drunk). The old town is a lively district of old buildings and tourist attractions, which only a few years ago was a rather dangerous gangland area. Nowadays it’s a trendy area with bars, shops and many apartments/hotels.

View from apartment.

We’re only here for three days, with the transit of the canal to start very early on the 30th May, followed by a couple of days on the Atlantic side and next race start – northwards through the Caribbean to New York – on 3rd June. Only a few weeks now left till our glorious return to the UK!

Oh and I am now the proud owner of a Panama hat. Well, I had to. Not sorry.

Swimming in the Pacific

Friday 18th May

I’m currently writing this whilst sitting at the back of the good ship Garmin, with the sun going down behind me (boat time 5pm) watching occasional turtles swim past us through the flat sea. There’s hardly any wind, and we are under tow from the Great Britain boat (we’ll be swapping over to tow them in the morning, so that we can all make it to the refuelling port in Costa Rica in a few days without running out).

We just stopped off for 20 minutes for a quick swim around the boat. Swimming in 4100 metres of ocean depth, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico is pretty special. (As is this whole year long adventure, really.) Although had we stopped to look at the huge number of tiny jellyfish, sea snakes and other translucent wildlife in the sea, we might not have gone in. I think most of us have one or two minor stings.

Race 10 was called early at the second mandatory gate due to the ITCZ (the doldrums) expanding and moving north, giving us an expected diddley squat of wind for the next few days. We managed to pull fourth place out of the light winds lottery near the end; all quite happy with that after being 8th and 9th most of the race. Now for a long, dull 1,200 mile motor through probably no wind and flat seas…

Sunday 20th May

The weather files are currently showing an impressively large windhole just where we are, for the next 5 days or so. The sea is still flat as a pancake, with occasional wildlife such as dolphins, turtles, rays and lots of birds, and we are still motoring slowly towards the refuelling stop in Costa Rica. The relentless sun (except for the occasional cumulonimbus) is giving us all cabin fever…

Hoping for at least some wind soon so that we can sail some of the way and save fuel.

Wednesday 23rd May

Costa Rica! Since Puerto Culebra is not a port of entry we’re not allowed to leave the boat, but we shouldn’t be here too long – just enough for a refuel and then off again to Panama!

Surfing to the USA

I am currently enjoying a pint of cider in a great little bar (The Taproom on 1st Ave) near the boats berthed in Seattle, after crossing the poorly-named Pacific Ocean in a leg that actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. I was promised horrendous conditions and awful weather; although we started and finished in wind holes, and enjoyed (for some definitions of ‘enjoy’) 72 knots of wind at one point giving some exciting downwind sailing of up to 28 knots on the surfs down the ~10 metre high waves, in general the weather was very kind to us. Downwind nearly all the way certainly made it easier! Despite all this, I am more physically tired now than after any other leg so far. A week off would be nice. Might have to settle for a month off in August.

Starting with crossing back over the Yellow Sea through all the Chinese fishing fleets, then rounding the south of Japan past the active volcano of Mount Io, then finally the fleet spread out once we reached the Pacific proper. Even so, just 10 (nautical) miles off the finish line a wind hole compacted the fleet again and we had six boats in sight for a while in the fight for second place.

Seattle is so far a lovely city, and the weather here is actually sunny – great views today to Mount Rainier and the mountains of the Olympic National Park from my apartment – booked by my mum who came out here to see me!

About seven days here for boat maintenance and preparation for the next leg down to the Panama Canal and up to New York; we leave on 29th April. Hopefully I might even get a day off for tourism stuff with mum… or maybe just to sleep…

Winter is coming

We made it to Qingdao – China’s sailing city apparently – a few days ago; the last couple of days of the trip becoming extremely cold. We left Sanya in tropical warmth, with the weather gradually dropping in temperature, although not in character – we had wind holes, downwind sailing, upwind sailing and all sorts. I think we used almost all of our sails.

In fact, on this leg we were promised constant banging upwind into 30 knots, instead we got varied down and upwind conditions, plenty of spinnaker sailing and wind holes. Similarly, on leg 3 we were promised exciting downwind spinnaker sailing all the way; instead we got banging upwind into 30 knots and wind holes. Coupled with Clipper’s omission in not telling us that water is wet and often cold, this represents a complete failure in the comms department.

One feature was the hundreds of fishing vessels at sea: our mapping software on the navigation PC, which includes full AIS tracking, regularly showed over 100 targets nearby – cargo vessels, fishing vessels, and deployed nets (which are given AIS trackers so that the fishermen can find them again).

Dodging through these ships and nets added an extra challenge on top of sailing. Especially at night: firstly because at night you cannot see a ship, only it’s lights, and it is impossible to determine distance since it could be a bright light far away or a dim light close bay; and secondly because some nets did not have AIS trackers, only tiny strobe lights which are very difficult to see. One night I drove into one whilst on the helm; it thumped down the starboard side of the boat and I turned around and saw a flash very close behind as we sped past – fortunately not snagging our keel or rudders on its nets. In fact we were fairly lucky, requiring some changing of course here and there to move past fleets and nets but no major gybes or tacks, and we never caught a net on our boat. Later on it turned very foggy as well, with visibility down to less than 100 metres: which made navigating through the fishing fleets and major shipping lanes extra interesting.

We are not berthed in the usual Qingdao city centre marina, instead we are in a brand new one (Qingdao Wanda Marina) about an hour out of the city centre, on an island that did not even exist a few years ago. In an area called Jiaonan, a new reclaimed island is springing up with flats and apartments and shops and malls – all of which are currently empty and partially constructed. The grand opening of the island is due in April; we are very early guests in the palatial marina building (thanks to Seamus Kellock for the picture).

Anyway, we are now doing hurried boat preparation and repair in the 7 days we have here before we set off across the North Pacific to Seattle on 23rd March. Probably a very chilly and fairly rough leg with the potential for some gale force winds, we are due in to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound about 18th April.

Roll on summer and the Panama canal…