Level 3 Training – Part 1, Preparation and life on board

I’ve just completed my Level 3 training over the last week. While it was a long and tiring week, it was fantastic and a great taste of some of what is to come over the next year. Our course started on a Monday morning, with registration and some administration. With three boats going out on the same day for Level 3 and several other boats in the marina for other levels there was a distinct buzz on the dock. If this is what training for 3 boats is like, I can only imagine what it will feel like when all 12 boats are in St Katherine’s Dock in the week leading up to the race start. Having been in the UK for almost 2 months (where does the time go) and been around Clipper most of that time, I’m getting to know more and more people. There is a real sense of camaraderie and community amongst the crew. With a seemingly endless stream of familiar faces walking up and down the docks. People I’ve met on previous course, at Crew Allocation, or at informal gatherings.

The first order of business was to collect the foul weather gear provided by Clipper as part of the berth fee. This consists of several pieces, the two major parts being a pair of salopette pants and a smock jacket. The pants are pretty much overalls that come up to waist height and have shoulder straps. The smock is a single piece top without a zip, which improves water resistance. As a further feature the smock includes rubber/neoprene cuffs at the neck, arms, and waist. This is fantastic in keeping the water out, however it does makes for some interesting moments trying to get it on and off. Crew writhing around with the smock half off and lodged firmly over their head was a common sight, usually accompanied by frustrated cries for help! You can see the kit in the photos below, it’s the bright red stuff most people are wearing.

We had 19 crew and two of the race skippers on the boat for the week. This was split between two groups or watches as they are known. On the boat was a mix from several teams, with 5 other Team Chris crew members. We were all in the same watch. It was great to sail with some of the people who I’ll be spending a lot of time with over the next year. Along with Chris the Skipper, two other round the world crew Derek and Nicky were on board. Both are great people and will be excellent companions for the journey. Helen, Kym, and another Chris who are all doing various legs were also on board. Many a laugh was had and they’ll be very valued crew members. Rounding out our 10 person watch were some crew from the other teams, Alyson, Will and just to be confusing a third Chris (we never did sort out names, so confusion abound all week). Again all great people, easy to get along with and always willing to get involved. There is obviously a lot of common traits amongst those people attracted to the Clipper adventure.

From the get go we started working in two watches. The schedule was generally four hours sailing the boat and then four hours off. This was amended a little to allow for training during the day, with both watches on deck for several hours to learn and practice together. This will occur during the races, however not usually for an extended period of time. We’ll have an overlap period of about an hour each day with everyone together. This ‘happy hour’ will be focused on keeping everyone in sync and dealing with those issues that might arise. The other reason to have everyone on deck during the race would be if there was something going wrong or in deteriorating weather if sails need to be changed. The extra hands make the work a little easier and much safer for all involved.

Now you might think that four on, four off means you can get a good kip for four hours, which would be nice. Unfortunately it doesn’t end up working out like that. Firstly to ensure that the off going watch can leave on time, you need to be on deck and ready 10-15 minutes before you start. This is so you can adjust to the light and get your bearings with the current situation. There is also a formal handover, to ensure consistency from one watch to the next. Getting out of bed and dressed can be a production in itself, taking anywhere from 5 to 35 minutes. This doesn’t including time for showers and blow drying hair (which won’t be happening), it’s pretty much all about assessing the weather outside and selecting an outfit to suit. The weather was reasonable this week but still on the cool side. For me this meant anything from shorts and a tee during warm days to thermal top, a shirt, a warm jumper, thermal pants, salopettes, smock, boots, and a beanie. All of this might need to be put on as the boat is heeled over at 25 degrees and bouncing up and down. In this case you can’t just slip a top on, you need to brace your legs against a wall or cabinet, hold on with one hand and pull the piece of clothing on with the other. Depending on the time of day you’ll need to add gloves, a torch, a knife (for safety), a life jacket, a safety strap, sunglasses, or a hat to your kit before you are ready to head up on deck.

Let’s say the weather requires an average time to dress of 15 minutes, you’ve already lost 30 minutes of your 4 hours getting ready to start your next shift. You’ll easily loose the same as you come off watch. This is taken up with getting undressed, as it’s considerably warmer below decks and if it’s wet above you’ll want to keep your wet outer layers as far from your sleeping area as possible. You might need a snack, depending on when your last meal was (most of our meals were eaten during watch time). All you’re hygiene tasks need to be done off watch. Lastly and often most significantly you’ll need some time to transition from being alert and sailing the boat to relaxed and ready to sleep. On average this all adds up to 30 or more minutes, which means off your 4 hours off, at most you are looking at a 3 hour sleep (more like a nap), provided you can drift off straight away. This can be a shock to the system initially but the human body is an amazing thing and after a couple of days it adjusts to this and I found myself functioning reasonably well and waking up naturally after 3 hours.

With such a similar system occurring every day and nothing to really differentiate one day from the next you quickly lose track of which day it is, even over such a short period of a week. Everyone is in the same boat and I lost count of the number of times someone asked what day was it.

Still life on board finds a rhythm of its own and after a couple of days it becomes less about managing the basics and more about the tactics of sailing and enjoying the finer details of the trip.