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What is sailing offshore ocean racing really like?

After 9,000 nautical miles of offshore racing in a single design fleet of 11 Clipper 70s – what is offshore ocean racing really like?

I find myself writing this while sitting in front of a screen in a perfectly temperature-controlled room. Wow, life was soo very different only a couple of weeks ago!…

Ocean race start

Rewind the clock back three months. The race for me began in Cape Town, South Africa. From the vibrant sanctuary of the V&A Waterfront overlooked by the notorious Table Mountain. 16 of us, the crew complement for s/v CV23, aka Black Betty, nervously contemplating what was install for us around the Cape of Good Hope.

Crewmate Brad – soaking up the local culture

Since then, over 160º degrees of longitude has passed under the keel (nearly 10,000nm or 17,750km). Black Betty and crew have gone to the most southerly part of the race, at 44° 39′ S halfway around the world, rounding Tasmania. We have seen Albatrosses, sharks, dolphins, flying fish, sea lions and whales. Not to mention, our Skipper’s dodgy taste in Bermuda shorts.

Check out Skipper’s shorts!

Together, Black Betty’s 16-strong crew have felt the fury of a storm F10 (55kts). The frustration of having NO wind in the desert-like tropical heat, as well as experiencing firsthand the towering Tsunami-like walls of menacing water that seem to grow out of nowhere off the stern. The same ramparts of water that pick the boat up like a matchstick in a bath. And launch Black Betty into warp speed accelerating down the dark liquid roller coaster at 30kts+. This is something I will never forget!

Frenchman at the helm – hang on! 🙂

Ocean racing at night

Stripped of sight. Helming at night calls for a super-human zen-type level of concentration. I think Yoda (from Star Wars movie) himself would have been proud of Luke Skywalker if he deployed such skills on his path to becoming a Jedi.

Jedi Night vision goggles

The sound of the hull carving and splitting the ocean at speed is similar to snowboarding off-piste in fresh powder (snow)… only louder! Black Betty would typically moan with the increase in the wind which whistled through her rigging. The combination of moaning and seeing her bow dip 60º was the sign to all hands to HANG ON, buckle up and take a deep breath for the ride of your life. Then she would eagerly accelerate like a finely tuned thoroughbred. Only satisfied when the shouts of an excited crew on-deck could be heard over the noise of the wave wooshing, as it passed under the hull.

25kts across swell

Still, Black Betty wasn’t always so kind and accommodating. She was known to throw the odd tantrum from time-to-time. Randomly spitting crewmates out of bunks, nav stations and heads (the toilets) – myself included. Still through it all, for the most part, she kept us all safe and relatively comfortable (‘ish) in her seaworthy belly.

Ocean racing life

Interestingly, one quickly adapts and learns to appreciate ‘comfort’ is a very relative term. Inside a racing yacht, creature comforts and soft furnishings do not exist. Everything is stripped down for function and lightness. Edges are hard — equipment protrudes, and any loose object feels the need to launch itself at your face like a knife-throwing scene out of a horror movie.

Partial lean – 20º

Then there’s “the lean”; the heeling over action of the sailboat when the wind pushes on the sails. The Clipper 70s have a hard chime carved into their hull design. This means they quickly embrace a 40º lean from the horizontal. Imagine tipping your home up 40º – where a trip across the room is transformed into a free-climbing bouldering session to pick up that piece of clothing you left on the other side by mistake. Now, live like this for at least a week until a change in tack (direction from the wind). Even the most straightforward task of putting one’s socks on ends up being a fight to avoid falling into a neighbouring bunk and giving a crewmate the surprise of their life.

sailing offshore
Top bunk – woohoo

If like me, you’re lucky enough to have been allocated a top bunk (not really lucky at all!). Then after a long watch on-duty, one quickly learns spiderman-like skills to traverse into your spidey-lair (the bed) and get 2-3 hours shut-eye ready before the next shift on deck starts. This was a fantastic if slightly unexpected super-ability to acquire.

So, another unexpected discovery is just how much you learn about people, and more significantly, how much you can discover about one’s self. Onboard, stressful situations are provided regularly and occur everywhere, which when combined with the perfect storm of lack of sleep, food and warmth is a recipe to test any human’s resolve. Luckily, I was told I’m not a bad person… Phew!

This leads on to relationships with others. I don’t mean the lovey-dovey type. I mean the bond between individuals where your success (and sometimes survival) in a stress-situation utterly relies on a crewmate(s) next to you, and visa versa. This intensity of bond is pure. There is no distraction, there is no hidden agenda. There is only a complete trust in the training and your crewmate(s) next to you.

Kite flying concentration

Team ocean racing

In my opinion, the word “teamwork” is an often over-used term. For me, teamwork is authentic when facing big weather, in big seas, armed with nothing more than one’s own desire/determination to get the job done. When failure can result in catastrophic consequences, there is only one outcome each and every team member can think… this is teamwork. When everything is at stake, when everything is real, and where there’s nowhere to hide. This, for me, is teamwork and the ocean is the greatest ‘leveller’ of all. As our Skipper said to a complaining crewmate who was suffering a moment of weakness “…the sea doesn’t give a stuff!” (because everyone has a part to play)

The blessing is that many of the experiences, challenges, successes and learnings are shared with others. You’re not alone. And it is this bond that I hope to share, nurture and develop to take to my grave with a massive smile on my face. True friendships. This is what I will take away with me from crossing the Southern Ocean and Tasmanian Sea…

…friendship and the memories that stir the soul and make me grateful to be healthy and insane enough to take on such a challenge. Feeling alive comes from taking chances, as well as compounding on the mundane stuff too. Being consistent, developing good habits and ditching the bad. Being open to learning new stuff, and taking the leap.

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.

(Source: Lucius Annaeus Seneca)

Some stats…

  • Sharks: 2
  • Whales: 1
  • Dolphins: 60+
  • Flying fish: 100+
  • Albatross: 50+
  • Sea Lions: 1
  • Penguins: 0
  • Starting/finishing Weight: 90/80kg
  • Seasick days: 2.5
  • Age: 52
  • Boat LOA: 75′ (23m)
  • Days at sea: 45
  • Max boat speed (SOG): 28.2kts
  • Max wind (TWS): 58kts (F10)
  • Max sea (Tip to trough): 12m
  • Max/Min temp: 43º / 2º C
  • Max lattitude: 44º 39′ S
  • Distance: 8,733 nm (16,173km)
  • Crew number (leg 3/ leg 4): 14 / 15
  • Race position (leg 3/ leg 4): 5th / 7th
  • Awards: 1st prize Media Award
  • Dodgy pairs of shorts: 3 (all skips)

What next?

Hopefully, this gives a little insight into what life feels like when offshore sailing as part of a race. In the next blog, I’ll share the 5 things and equipment that worked and the things that didn’t. Until then, may the force be with you! Live life – it’s the only one you have!

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