‘A Little Chilly!’
I watched the thermometer continue to drop as my level 2 course approached. For the 3 weeks before my training the temperature didn’t crawl above freezing at all. I kept thinking about the positives; clear starry skies, beautiful sunrises, crisp and clear winter days etc, etc but let’s be honest, it was chuffing cold and being able to see your breath indoors and have the all time lowest nighttime temperature ever recorded in the UK the night before your course is not ideal! As with level 1 though, all good training for when temperatures worse than these hit us on the way to China. The ice on deck and painfully cold digits were just a taster of what will occur on the race and the thick fog in the Solent was good radar practice!
Level 2 began with a classroom radar course. To be honest my main take out from it was that you can have the radar screen set to north or you can set it to the direction you are travelling in, just like a map in the car. Other than that, the information that permeated my small and underactive brain was no more than I could have gained from watching a film – I suspect that ‘radar watch’ is not for me. Although, I have to admit at this stage, I am wondering what is for me as I’m not sure, I’d let me, loose on anything. Even making the tea I managed to pour hot water over my legs (only saved from burning by the fact that I’d not let the kettle boil for long enough and therefore the tea was only warmish and the fact that I had my oilskins on).
The rest of level 2 was spent on the race yachts we’ll be sailing on, the 68ft Clipper boats. Now you wouldn’t have thought that 8ft between the length of the level 1 and level 2 boats could make a vast amount of difference but level 2 boats seemed enormous in comparison. Eight foot in length was accompanied by a significant (no idea how many foot) difference in width and a different deck configuration. The most obvious changes being a large pedestal 2 person winch and a snake pit (later to be re-named the ‘hippo’ pit on our boat), which is surrounded by winches and therefore fills with rope.
Again, it was interesting to meet the rest of the crew, our first mate and skipper, as these are the people that are going to significantly influence your enjoyment and survival of the week. I really shouldn’t have given it a second thought though as Niall aka ‘Idiot 1’ and Tim aka ‘Idiot 2’ had the whole team-bonding thing covered. They just got stuck straight in with their banter, including everyone in their gentle teasing and before long the ice was well and truly broken. It was such a cold week on the boat that having a cheerful crew really made a huge difference. I guess that like-minded people undertake these sorts of challenges and that a positive and optimistic mindset is a must for making it through the legs you are doing. In my experience (limited I know) so far, there has been no moaning, winging or slacking off from anyone. I suppose the fact that everyone in the race is there completely by personal choice that the self selection process and awareness of getting into an extreme situation gets rid of the common negative traits that are synonymous with hardship and challenge.
I think Scott, our skipper and first mate, Dave were a little surprised by the number of women in the crew. Ten people in total, 6 of which were women. Not truly representative of the Clipper gender split. Niall did admit at the end of the week to being apprehensive about having a boat of ‘1/2 pint’ girls but that his initial hesitations were proven wrong as we all pulled, pushed, shoved, winched and carried our weight and more. Again, another unusual theme so far with this race is that ‘girliness’ doesn’t really exist, and although feminine, the women and just as capable as the men with only the slightest hint of mascara (perhaps that’s just me!).
Jen (imagine a young Barbra Windsor, she’s even a nurse) became known as ‘Grabby Hands’ for her excellent leading of our sail flaking (technical term meaning ‘to fold a sail’). I’ve also never met anyone so small who can shout ‘HOIST’ so loudly when she’s taking charge of a sail change. Hannah’s (aka Jedward because Idiot 1 couldn’t remember her name) highlight of the week was climbing our mast to retrieve a flag that the other boat had put up there as a practical joke. We also had Sophie, a doctor from London. Now, if I was going to have an accident then this would have been the week to do it with the luxury of a doctor and a nurse on board. In the race we will have one medical person per boat but they could just as easily be a physio or a vet!
John (aka the ‘Boat Ninja’ thanks again to Idiot 1, seeing a theme here?) and his daughter Jodie were both from Londonderry and hoping to be on the Londonderry boat. Nina from Germany suffered from a cold all week and did so well just to plough on, never complaining and always doing her fair share. I know when I have a cold, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a good book and a hot toddy, feel sorry for myself and sleep a lot, poor Nina didn’t have that option. She was up before sunrise with the rest of us negotiating the icy deck, waddling around in our multiple layers of clothes and becoming freezing cold every time we sat still. At night most people were fully clothed, wearing hats and gloves as well as being in their sleeping bags. A small taste of what is to come for some of us. Part of the training is about learning what kit works and what doesn’t. I learnt this week that hand warmers are invaluable and that when I gave in to using them each day, it was better than Christmas. My mid-layer salopettes were also a godsend – thank you to the Helly Hansen shop at Bicester outlet village. The other piece of vital kit for my level 2 was my Ocean Sleepwear sleeping bag. I was lucky enough to buy an unused second hand one from one of the crew from the previous race. The bag has 3 layers, two, of bear like fleece and one waterproof outer so going to bed for me was a more pleasant experience than it was for most, I was able to take off most of my clothing and just leave on my thermals and a hat. Sadly my £24.99 wellies let me down though, who’d have thought that they didn’t have enough insulating properties to keep my feet warm even with 3 pairs of socks?
Back to the crew… I was quite unnerved to meet Michael, they say that everyone has a Doppelganger somewhere, well Michael was identical in every way to someone I work with. The same height, weight, facial features, voice, accent, glasses etc, etc. it was just like having Richard Kellam sailing with me for a week. Finally there was Tim (aka Idiot 2 or Hippo) whose easy going personality and gentle inclusive humour drove a week of camaraderie with Niall which helped us all forget about how cold it was. Our snake pit became the ‘Hippo Pit’ after Tim spent so much time ‘wallowing’ in there – I’m sure he was trying to stay out of Niall’s way as Niall shouted instructions to people when he thought he was in charge.
Level 2 was a more relaxed week for me than level 1 had been, perhaps some of what I’d learnt on level one had sunk in after all. I think there were probably a few other contributing factors too. Our days were less intense due to us being in port every night just as it was getting dark, which was around 4pm. The Solent was also extremely quiet, no one else in their right mind was prepared to scrape the ice from the deck and face the ‘bracing’ sea breeze for sailing in so little daylight. For the whole week it was just us and the ferries.
Finally, both Scott (Skipper) and Dave (first mate) made the week for me. Their relaxed, professional, open and supportive styles made for a great learning environment. No question was ever too stupid and there was always enough time to explain again and again what we were practising and why. Their leadership made me feel as though I was improving, making progress and not lagging behind, even though everyone else on the boat had some previous sailing experience. Dave, who has a passion for sail trim, gave some great whiteboard lectures followed by practical ‘give it a go’ sessions where he patiently answered a million questions about sail trim and how to make the boat go faster. I think we all came away with a bit of sail trim OCD!
Level 2 didn’t have quite the same extreme experience that level 1 had, but I don’t think it is designed to. Our most interesting afternoon came mid week when we headed out into the Solent in perfect visibility and an hour later found ourselves in total fog with no visibility. It’s a good job the Solent only contained us and the ferries as we were relying completely on the radar and the sound from the ferries’ foghorns. There were many times that afternoon when it sounded as though we were going to be mown down by ghost like ships. It’s quite an eerie experience to hear them so close, feel helplessly surrounded and be unable to see.
Our week on-board finished with the usual deep clean. Not a particularly joyous task but a very necessary one. Everything on the boat gets cleaned from top to bottom; heads, galley, bunks, lockers, you name it, we clean it. Every bit of kit and movable object sits on the pontoon as you disinfect, scrub, sponge and wipe. The best bit (sarcasm!) is removing every floor board, scrubbing and rinsing them, then replacing them trying to work out where in the boat jigsaw puzzle they came from. Finally, we all made it to the showers and a celebratory meal. It seemed only appropriate to toast our week with wine and a few ‘warming’ Sambucas! A great evening made the radio course the next day just a little bit more challenging. Somehow I passed my exam, 20/22, but what knowledge I had about VHF seems to have disappeared from my conscious memory and I’m left with mayday and pam, pam, but that’s about it!
Level 3 is over Easter. Five days theory and another exam, then five days at sea. I can only hope it is ‘A little warmer!’