It was exactly 1.35 in the morning. I know it was exactly 1.35 because I was sitting in a Clipper yacht’s navigation station filling in the hourly log. But just after I had scribbled down the time ‘0135’, I heard the call every boat skipper dreads – “man overboard”.
Every Clipper boat carries a climbing harness, a complicated contraption with lots of straps which fit around your waist and thighs. The idea is that one crew member will always be wearing it, in case someone is required to be hoisted on a rope. They are known unofficially as the ‘Pants of Power’.
And as I staggered out of the navigation station, I remembered that I was the one wearing them.
A few minutes later, I was being lowered on a rope attached to my climbing harness over the side of the boat towards the waters of the English Channel. Above me, monitoring my progress was my crewmate Vincent. It was very dark. Which meant that neither Vincent or I could see how far below me those waters actually were. If we got it slightly wrong, I would get wet feet. If we got it very wrong, I would be learning to breathe underwater.
I reached down with my right hand as far below me as I could and waited for it to get wet. When it felt the splash of a wave, I screamed ‘STOP’. Vincent relayed the message to the winch controller and my rope descent came to a halt.
The next step was to locate the man overboard. This wasn’t actually a real person - it was a white boat fender with a flashing white light pretending to be an overboard crewmate. And though I could see the flashing light, I couldn’t actually see the fender itself to grab hold off.
As the boat carefully manoeuvred closer, the fender suddenly appeared out of the gloom. I grabbed it and hung on as Vincent called for me to be hoisted up again to safety. The whole operation had taken a few minutes and the only part of me that had got wet was my right hand.
Doing man overboard drills is all part of training for the Clipper Race. I had done them before but this was the first night-time practice I had been involved in. And it could come in handy, there have been a couple of occasions when crew have been washed overboard during the race itself and had to be rescued. And it usually happens somewhere unpleasant, like during a storm in the Southern Ocean.
This was all part of my Level 3, the final part of training for the race. The big difference this time was that we spent days non-stop at sea which meant adopting the watch system. The crew of 20 was divided into two sections who swapped the duty every few hours. So every morning at 2am and 6am, someone had the job of going below to the sleeping quarters and persuading the other watch to get out of bed. They got dressed, staggered onto deck (usually with a cup of strong tea or coffee) so the on-duty watch could go below and sleep in the same bunks which had just been vacated. No wonder for the first couple of days, I felt like a sleep-deprived zombie.
As the week wore on, I adjusted to the sleep patterns – if you can drop off to sleep quickly at the end of your duty watches, you’ll do fine. Though racing yachts are hardly quiet places – every noise on deck seems to be amplified through the whole boat. And then there’s the tacking.
Tacking is the technique yachts use when they want to sail towards the wind. It involves switching direction every few minutes but that makes the boat tilt (which could be a change of around 50 degrees). So every few minutes, the watch trying to get to sleep are sliding around from one side of their bunks to the other. My watch was particularly badly affected. But strangely enough, when the other watch was off-duty, the wind would die and prevent us from doing any vigorous tacking.
We also got to try out the new Clipper 70 racing yachts which we will be using in this year’s race. They are sleeker and faster than the old 68 boats which have already been round the world four times. But the 70s also have less storage space for the useful things in life, like clothes, boots and toothpaste. It helps to be ruthless when choosing what kit to take.
So my Clipper Race training is now over. The next time I sail a yacht, it will be when my team take our boat ‘Switzerland’ from Gosport to London for the race start on September 1st. Though one of the Clipper yachts will be there a bit earlier – the Great Britain team’s boat, skippered by Londoner Simon Talbot, will be on display for a few days in Trafalgar Square from July 31st. I’m curious to find out what Nelson makes of it.
There was one bit of sad news from my week of training. As I ventured onto a Clipper 70 foredeck to free a stuck rope, my salt-stained dark blue cap which I bought at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club fifteen years ago blew off my head and landed in the sea. It's now floating somewhere in the English Channel off the coast between Portsmouth and Brighton. You never know - it may get washed up some day.