Demolition Watch Reporting for Duty

AKA – The night we almost broke the boat (or Level 2 Training Diary – Part 4)!

After making sure that Dobie was securely fastened to the back of the boat, we left Cowes, with the sun shining and blue skies… it was also bitterly cold and windy, the recurring theme for the week it seems. On the short trip back to Gosport, we practised sailing with the storm trysail in place of our main sail – a small, but pretty effective sail, especially downwind. It was pretty hard to rig onto the mast when we were in the marina; it will be so much more difficult to do for real at sea when the conditions were so bad that you needed to sail with it.

De Lage Landen, who were training alongside us, had also had to make the trip back to Gosport for a replacement main sail after they had ripped theirs the day before. We were both going to make the trip out west towards Weymouth later that day; we would be a few hours ahead of them. As my watch weren’t quick enough to come up with a name for ourselves, ‘Frogs Legs’ watch chose to stand the first watch (18h00-21h00) whilst the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ watch went down below. The rest of the night went something like this:

18h00-20h30 – Once out of my wet weather gear, I tried to get some sleep / rest. It was pretty difficult as the boat was bouncing over and through the waves. Lying in my sleeping bag, with the lee-cloth tied up as tightly as I could to my bunk, there wasn’t much chance of getting any sleep over the next few hours. It was a bit like trying to sleep on a bucking broncho – and if it wasn’t the boat moving on the waves, it was the crew on deck carrying out manoeuvres, very inconsiderate! At least I was warm, and relatively dry in my sleeping bag.

20h30-21h00 – Got up, and into my wet gear. Took a look at the track we had covered over the past 3 hours. Not good – with the strong tides against we were now 4 miles behind where we had been 3 hours ago, having sailed about 18 miles (and done a couple of doughnuts) Managed to get a cup of coffee before going on deck.

21h00-00h00 – Rough weather helming; waves crashing over the deck. Did manage to eat some dinner (meatballs and rice) and have a hot drink. Lots of tankers around, travelling at high speeds, so we need to keep tacking to avoid getting too close. Went down below at 23h30 to wake the next watch up. Got thrown from one side of the boat to the other at the bottom of the companionway steps; landed on face, skinned knees and hands. Hmmm… nobody noticed… picked myself up and went back up on deck. On coming watch crew not impressed seeing the same lighthouse from roughly the same distance that they had last seen 3 hours ago – and we had sailed about 20 miles! Deja vu for us all πŸ™‚

00h00-02h30 – Back in the bunk. Lovely warm sleeping bag. Still no sleep forthcoming. Waves bigger, so the crashes were louder and more violent than before. You can feel the yacht climb up the face of a wave and then there is a feeling of weightlessness, as you lift off the bunk… all the while knowing that in moments to come the yacht will crash down again, and shortly after you will hit your bunk with a thump and a shudder.

02h30-03h00 – Took longer to get gear back on… so no hot drink before going up on deck. Arrive on deck to be told that our watch picked up a lobster pot earlier in the evening which had wrapped the propeller and was caught around the rudder so we would not be able to use the engine until the pot was removed. Going to wait until first light and see if we can dislodge it by doing a few manoeuvres, otherwise De Lage Landen will have to tow us into Weymouth.

03h00-06h00 – The wind had picked up over that past few hours, we were seeing wind speeds of 40 knots with gusts over 50 knots. The waves were even bigger and more and more were crashing over the deck. At least it wasn’t raining so there were a few stars to sail by. Then it was my turn to helm – the feeling of responsibility you have for your fellow crew when you are helming at night is huge, especially when the weather is rough.

Undertaking any manoeuvre in these conditions are hard – when we tacked the boat, someone who was meant to ease the sheet managed to let go of it, so we now had a rope thrashing around out of control which was dangerous to any crew on deck who got in the way. Everyone else had to go up onto the foredeck and brave the crashing waves and pitching boat to try and solve the problem. I am now alone, helming a 68 foot yacht in huge waves and high winds with all other crew members either in their bunks or on the foredeck – bit of a change from a 14 foot Laser dinghy. There are a few prayers being said that everyone up on deck is clipped on to the boat – our man overboard practises from the past few days are more than enough to remind me that recovering anybody in these seas will be difficult.

And then the traveller, which is holding the main sail and boom in the correct position slips; nobody is around to help me and the banging alerts the Skipper who comes up on deck to help out. I am pretty sure he is not too impressed with our antics! The sheet can’t be sorted so the staysail is dropped to the deck – we can sort the issue out later or in the morning. We are now approaching a sandbank which we would normally be fine to sail over, but with the huge swell we are experiencing it is not so clear cut so we tack to be certain.

Our watch leader is on the helm – we are sat on deck recovering from the past half hour. ‘Can someone go down below and get the Skipper?’ he calmly asks us. ‘Sure, no problem’ I reply; ‘What is the problem?’. ‘We have lost the steering’ is the response I heard. My first thoughts – Yikes. This isn’t good. We are hurtling towards France at a good rate of knots towing a lobster pot, with a fouled propeller, and now have no steering. But then you quickly realise that it isn’t such a big deal, we have an emergency steering system that we can rig up which is exactly what happens before the Skipper and the first mate go down into the lazarette to try and fix the main steering. 20 minutes later, we have the main steering back working but as a precaution leave the emergency steering system in place. That is enough havoc and mayhem for one watch – luckily our 3 hours are up and the next watch can take over.

06h00-08h00 – Back in my sleeping bag, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be getting much sleep over the next few hours as there is a fair bit of adrenaline flowing through my system. At least I can’t be responsible for breaking anything else for the next few hours.

08h00-12h00 – At about 8am I get back up – I am not great at lying in bed when I am awake, something I need to work harder on πŸ™‚ I dress and go back up on deck; the wind has dropped a bit by now and as it is daylight, the other watch can sort the sail out that we had dropped in the night and I help them hoist it once more. The rest of my watch comes on deck and we set about tacking the boat. Easing the sheets during the tack, it comes free once more but we are able to get it back under control quickly. Then someone notices that the staysail that we have just hoisted is almost completely torn from one side to the other, probably as a result of the flying sheet making contact with it; that is another thing we have to add to the growing list of breakages, so we quickly drop the sail to the deck once more.

It seems that we weren’t the only boat having problems – at some point in the night De Lage Landen had torn their mainsail again so were returning to Gosport. We were still towing the lobster pot we had collected at the start of the evening and now we had lost our tow into port; Portland Coastguard decides to launch the Weymouth Lifeboat to give us a tow into Weymouth Harbour.

An hour or so after the lifeboat arrived, we are alongside the quay in the harbour, arranging for a diver to come and remove the lobster pot that had hitched a ride with us overnight.

And as if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, our Skipper decided that it was a perfect time for each of us to climb the mast! I hadn’t climbed it before, but it was definitely worth the effort to see the views of Weymouth you got from there! Don’t worry – I didn’t break anything whilst I was up there…

Additional photography from crew on the Weymouth Lifeboat.

Level 2 Training Diary – Part 3

DSC01690The next morning, we were lucky enough to have Mark Light, the Deputy Race Director and Skipper of Derry-Londonderry, join us for the day. It was another dull, wet and very windy day but we were all looking forward to another day’s sailing and a chance to improve on our dismal man overboard performance off the day before.

You may have noticed in the photographs the orange safety lines that are clipped to our lifejackets most of the time, with the other end clipped to the jackstays (a taut webbing strap stretching the length of the deck) above certain boat or wind speeds, at night, or if we want to or are told to. By clipping onto these lines, we reduce the likelihood of falling overboard or being swept from one side of the deck to the other.Β  As you can see from this video taken when we were working on the foredeck in rough weather, the lines are not just there for show and do give you a certain level of confidence when you are in more exposed areas of the deck like the foredeck.

The downside to using the line is that it makes moving around on deck more difficult, especially if you are trying to get past a number of people who are clipped onto the jackstay ahead of you. During a man overboard incident, if you are the person who is spotting the person in the water and it is your sole duty to keep your eyes on them at all times, being clipped onto the boat makes this job nearly impossible without some extra help. Can you see where this is going yet?!

If we thought our drill from the previous day was abysmal, things were about to get a whole lot worse. Dobie was sent overboard and, being the person who saw Dobie going over, IΒ  became the spotter.Β  This was fine for the first 20 seconds until I got my lifeline caught on something on the deck and I was stuck in one spot. Not long after, I lost sight of Dobie. To compound the problem, none of the extra gear had gone overboard to help us find the person in the water – there is a float with a flag that can be easier to spot in the water than the person, as long as it is thrown over the side. The end result… we lost Dobie.

Luckily enough for us, somebody had remembered to press the ‘Man Overboard’ button on the chart plotter when they had gone down below to turn the engine on, so we had a rough idea of where Dobie had gone overboard. The only thing we could do at this point was to start a search for Dobie using an expanding square search – after what felt like an eternity, but was probably only 20-30 minutes, Dobie was spotted in the water and finally brought back on board. If that had been a real person, they would have been in a very bad way.

The only positive we could take from the experience was that we did eventually find Dobie in the water – it was surprisingly hard to spot a bright orange and yellow ‘person’ floating in the sea with the waves and weather conditions we were experiencing. I also think those drills made us think a bit more about our own safety and that of our fellow crew members a bit more, just in time for our planned overnight sail the following day. So with Dobie back in position, secured to the rails on the stern of the boat, we headed into Cowes.

Level 2 Training Diary – Part 2

After the sea survival course, it was time to head over to Gosport Marina and meet up with our Skipper for the week, Juan Coetzer (Skipper of Geraldton Western Australia in the 11-12 Clipper Race). I would be sailing on CV9 Qingdao with 8 others who had decided, like me, that the end of January would be the perfect time of year to spend a week at sea in the Solent and English Channel. I think most of us had chosen January to do training so that we would have more chance of experiencing sailing in colder, rougher weather; the forecast for the week showed that we weren’t going to be disappointed.

After our gear was stowed in our bunks, it was time to get started on introductions, safety briefings and theory for the week as dinner was being cooked in the galley. The great thing about doing the sea survival course first was that we were already fairly relaxed with each other as a crew, having spent the day towing each other around the pool and huddled in a liferaft, so the jokes were already flying around. After a few hours, it was time to go and continue the crew bonding over a drink in the pub, but not before the skipper had told us that we would be starting at 6am the next morning… so fairly early nights all round then!

The following morning was taken up with safety, engine and deck checks, all of which had to be completed before we could set sail from the marina. Finally, it was time to head out to sea. The wind was being kind to us, so we only needed to put one reef in the mainsail. We spent the afternoon recapping the drills we had learned during our Level 1 training like tacking and gybing before returning to the marina for more theory.

The next morning we awoke bright and early – the boat had to be cleaned down below and rigged up on deck before we were going to have breakfast! Incentive enough to get things moving quickly! The wind had picked up overnight and was blowing 20 knots – it was going to make for a physically challenging day at sea, especially as the plan was to cover all we had learned during our level 1 training in a day.

We had an additional crew member on board, Dobie, who would be our Man Overboard dummy for the week. In Level 1, man overboard drills were carried with a fender; Dobie was going to make searching and recovery of a ‘person’ from the water a bit more realistic and he would be going over the side of the boat. At least one crew member wears a climbing harness whilst we are sailing so that if there is a man overboard, or Dobie overboard, that person can be lowered over the side of the boat to recover the casualty. There are many reasons you have to quickly learn to work as a team and trust each other as a crew – this is one of them.

After a full day of sailing, I was on the helm, helming a 68 foot yacht upwind in waves for the first time. I didn’t get much chance to helm these yachts during my level 1 training, due to my encounter with the ankle breaker, so I was savouring the experience. I also happened to be the person wearing the climbing harness. I think we all thought that we wouldn’t be carrying out a man overboard drill in the conditions we were sailing in – the wind had picked up to 30 knots and it was getting dark.This video was shot around this time.

How wrong were we! We were told afterwards that as these were the sort of conditions when people ususally fall overboard, it was good experience to practise recovering them in the same conditions. At least I had had a bit of notice about the drill, when it was suggested that I pass the harness onto another crew member. It wasn’t worth risking damaging my ankle this early in the week, so I agreed and stayed on the helm, and Dobie was sent over the side.

To say our man overboard (mob) drill left a lot of room for improvement was an understatement. In the fading light, it was difficult to keep track of the person in the water, even though there was a light attached to the dummy and we managed to send the buoy with the flag over the side relatively close to Dobie. We temporarily lost sight of the mob but managed to find the flag and therefore the dummy nearby after about 20 minutes. The person who recovered Dobie was lowered slightly too far into the water, so much so that their lifejacket had automatically inflated. It was a sobering experience, especially with Dobie being so lifelike. It certainly brought home the reality of the situation to us all – being overboard in any sort of weather was not somewhere that we would want to be.

Level 2 Training Diary – Part 1

Level 2 Clipper Race training started bright and early on a Saturday morning with an RYA Sea Survival course. 17 people from all over the world gathered in a college classroom to learn the basics of what to do in the event of an emergency at sea, the ultimate emergency being the loss of the yacht. Although this is not a common occurence, it has happened in a previous race, when the Cork Clipper yacht was holed by a rock near Java in 2010. Whilst we were all hoping that we never have to call on the knowledge gained during this course, if things do go wrong then it is better to have some knowledge of what emergency equipment is available onboard and how to use it than setting out to sea in blissful ignorance. The great thing about the course was that it was tailored for us and the equipment and liferafts that will be on our new Clipper 70’s were used during the course so that we have first hand knowledge of how to use them.

There were a number of sessions in the morning covering the theory of survival at sea, including the principles of survival (“You are only a survivor when you have been rescued and are sitting in a bar drinking a pint of whiskey”), survival equipment such as lifejackets, flares, liferafts and how to use them, first aid and rescue equipment like EPIRBs and SARTs. The instructors running the course were great, managing to pass on the required information to us whilst keeping the mood of the room light. We were all paying close attention to what was being said, as there was a practical element to the course and we would be spending the afternoon in a swimming pool putting the theory into practise!

Picture the scene. Seventeen adults standing on the side of a swimming pool dressed in shorts, t-shirts… and inflated life jackets! We did attract some strange looks from other users of the sports centre – I can’t imagine why. First things first, we had to learn how to enter the water safely (look before you leap), then how to swim in a lifejacket and a few ways of how to tow another person. Of course, most of us had a bit of a competitive streak, so there may have been some swimming / towing races…

And if we hadn’t had enough fun by this point, more was to come. A life raft was brought into the pool and inflated – it was quite an impressive sight to see, if a little out of place. The first task was for half of the group to enter the raft from the side of the pool. These were large, 10 man rafts, but with eight or nine people in them, they already felt extremely crowded. Already the realisation was growing that these were not things you wanted to spend much time in if you could in any way prevent it.

The next task was to swim to the liferafts, clamber in (no easy task) and then run through the procedures that had been drilled into us that morning – cut the (imaginary) painter, stream the drogue, close the doors (after checking that everyone was onboard) and maintain the raft. It was extremely cosy inside, and the heat generated from the 8 of us was incredible. It was a bit like being inside a bouncy castle – if one person moved, everyone else tended to roll towards that person and we were in a liferaft in a swimming pool. The conditions in which you would usually have to take to a liferaft for real would have made spending any time in a raft extremely uncomfortable. To try and give us a ‘taste’ of what it might be like in rougher conditions, the other half of the group were given the task of creating ‘weather’ and waves.

Although we all had a lot of fun whilst doing the course, at the back of our minds was how different all this would be in a real life situation, when the weather and sea state would probably be horrendous. If nothing else, the message ‘Fight the Ship’ that had been drilled into us that morning kept springing to mind – if there is any chance of staying with your boat you should do whatever you can to keep that boat afloat. It is a bigger target on the sea for any rescuers to spot you, carries far more supplies than a liferaft, and will give you more protection from the elements.

clipper race 13-14 weather forecast level 2 trainingAfter all that excitement, we still had a week of sailing ahead of us. Looking at the forecast, there was going to be a lot of weather around for the next 7 days in the form of high winds and rain. It was time to head down to the marina and meet up with our Skipper for the week and find out what was in store for us for the rest of the week.


Level 1 Training Diary – Part 3

Andrew and Anne on Night WatchAt some point over the four hours between going off-watch to try to get some sleep and being woken with the news that it was really cold and wet on deck and to dress accordingly, the other watch had reached our furthest upwind destination for the trip and had turned the yacht around. This makes a huge difference to life on board the yacht. Imagine standing in your kitchen, trying to cook a meal for ten hungry people. Now imagine that the floor is sloping to a 35 degree angle and keeps rising and falling four to five metres at a time – and still having to cook that meal. I love upwind sailing when I am on deck – but life down below is hard work, even getting in and out of your bunk is a physical challenge. Once the yacht is sailing with the wind behind it, everything levels off and becomes much calmer and flatter.

Suitably bundled in many layers, we arrived back up on deck at 1am to torrential rain. The On deck at nightothers hadn’t been joking then when they said it was wet! Luckily after about an hour, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and we were treated to an amazing display in the night sky. There were so many stars and a rising moon and I even saw a shooting star. As the yacht was flatter now, I could helm the boat and spent a fantastic hour trying to surf down waves towards the moon.

Sailing at night is so different to sailing during the day. There are so many more challenges, like trying to figure out what the lights on ships mean, which way they are moving and even if they are on a collision course with you or not. Sometimes it felt like we were driving down the motorway at night, doing 80 miles an hour, with the headlights off! But in some ways it is calmer to daytime sailing; there are usually fewer people on deck as anybody off watch tends to be sleeping which means you get a chance to talk to the other members of your watch without a lot of distractions.

For the next four hours, we helmed in pairs; the wind was quite gusty and when the gusts hit it was hard to hold the yacht on course without some additional help. I was helming with Andrew and Freddy have a morning coffeeGus, another dinghy sailor, so between the two of us we spent our two hours trying to get a 68 foot, 32 tonne boat to surf down the waves… well it is just like a big Laser afterall, with a few extra sails! As we finished our watch at 5am, we were just approaching The Needles off the Isle of Wight, setting the Skipper and his watch up for a fantastic sunrise and sail up The Solent towards Cowes. I only have photographic evidence that it was a lovely sunrise… I was in my bunk trying to get warm and a bit of sleep.

Four hours pass very quickly; luckily we had a Skipper who liked to cook and we crawled out of the Crew Ghetto just before 9am to the smell of baking bread. There was even a bake-off between the Skipper and Tanja, a Croatian whose mother had insisted she learn to make bread at an early age; only once a girl can make bread is she ready to get married! We were treated to two loaves of freshly baked bread for breakfast on deck in the sunshine – both of which disappeared very quickly, giving us fuel for the activities the Skipper had planned for us that day!

The plan for the evening was to stay in East Cowes Marina – so the Skipper decided that we could stay up all day and do some more drills as we were going to get a good nights Laurent on the coffee grindersleep that evening. That meant a day of tacking, gybing, reefing and man overboard drills, followed by a Le Mans start upwind race with Visit Finland. In a Le Mans start, the yachts line up next to each other with their mainsails hoisted and their headsails hanked on and ready to go. On each of the yachts the crew wait behind the big winch on deck called the coffee grinder for the start signal, at which point they race forward to hoist the headsails and trim them as quickly as possible. The crew who manages to do this the quickest will get a lead over the yacht whose crew are slower. Unfortunately that crew was us due to a combination of poor planning and equipment problems.

Dinghy RowOnce we had tied up in East Cowes Marina, it was time to get the dinghy out and pump it up for our next challenge. As part of our Level 1 training, we were being assessed for the RYA Competant Crew certificate which meant that we each had to demonstrate that we could row a dinghy. With a safety line attached to our life jackets, we each took it in turns to row between the pontoons; on completion we were given the code to the shower block and allowed to go and get a warm shower.

After an evening in the pub and a good nights sleep, we were ready for our last day at sea. De Lage Landen during a sailing evolutionUnfortunately there was not much wind to play with, but that didn’t stop the Skippers of our yacht and Visit Finland setting up a number of races between the two crews. As we had lost the race the day before to Visit Finland, we were told in no uncertain terms that we would not be losing the races today – luckily we managed to better organise ourselves as a crew which meant we won the majority of the races (and the promise of a drink from the Skipper that evening!)

For the final hour at sea, we put the spinnaker up again – and this time I got to helm under spinnaker which was an amazing experience. Visit Finland were doing mast climbs just behind our yacht, and one of their crew managed to get a number of fantastic pictures of me helming De Lage Landen under spinnaker from the top of the mast. I love the reflection of the sails in this picture – not bad for a Laser sailor who is used to only having one sail to deal with!

Helming under spinnaker
De Lage Landen under spinnaker in The Solent


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