Day at sea gives taste of Clipper race

Ellie Pilmoor on a Clipper Yacht for a training taster day.
Ellie Pilmoor on a Clipper Yacht for a training taster day.
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With Sir Ben Ainslie choosing Portsmouth as his base for the America’s Cup and global sailing company Clipper Ventures based in Gosport, I thought it was about time I had a go at sailing.

So, when Clipper Ventures offered to take me and four other journalists out into the Solent on a Clipper yacht, I jumped at the chance.

Apart from spending a bright, sunny day on the water, it was a great experience to get a glimpse into the hard work the round-the-world racers do on a daily basis in some of the hardest sea conditions.

When I arrived at Gosport Marina I was nervous, having never been on a boat smaller than the ferry that crosses to France.

But with a three-hour safety briefing ahead of me, I knew I would be in good hands when we did set out into the Solent.

The Clipper boat was 68ft long and had raced in the last Clipper Round the World Race.

Once aboard, we started the briefing for below deck, which I learnt was a dangerous place to be.

It is also not the place to be if you feel seasick. But seeing as we were still in the marina, it was easy enough getting below deck and learning about the different spaces and how to manoeuvre safely.

As well as learning where the important man overboard button is, we also learnt where the fire extinguishers were, how to put down a hammock and why handles are placed throughout the boat.

We also got a first glimpse of the yankee sail, the biggest head sail on the Clipper yacht for that day, which is kept below deck until it is needed.

We got to explore the kitchen and the communications room which can send emails, keep track of competitors and has the man overboard button which marks the co-ordinates of where the person was when they first went overboard.

We also got a peek at the skipper’s room.

But the hard work started when we got back on deck.

In a safety talk, which was similar to the briefings given to the racers but more catered to what we were doing that day, we learnt the importance of staying attached to the boat as well as the three golden rules of being on a Clipper yacht.

These included staying on the high side of the boat, keeping low and always having one hand on the yacht.

The three rules should ensure everyone stays on deck but we were also advised that we must remain clipped on to special bars, handles and wires which would stop us falling through the rails and into the water.

As we moved further up the boat towards the bow, we found that the floor is covered in ropes and the safest place for us to be on the boat is behind the cockpit where there is not much you can trip over.

So after two hours of learning how to avoid getting hit with the boom, stumbling over ropes or falling overboard, we were ready to head into the Solent with an experienced crew.

There was little wind to start with but we learnt the basics of tacking the boat and how to tell when the wind is changing.

We also got told, by former skipper Ben Bowley, about the different sails and when they come into use.

He says: ‘The headsails, at the front of the boat, include the yankee one which is the biggest headsail we have on the boat for the day’s conditions.

‘Once wind speed starts getting up to 16, 17, 18 knots of wind, that is actually too big for us to keep the boat under control.

‘If we have too much sail up, the boat will constantly be trying to fall over on her side and it will be too hard to manoeuvre.

‘There will be too much pressure and you will be trying to load everything up and you will actually sail slower so that is when we introduce a third sail, the staysail.’

But before we could have a go at putting up the staysail, we got to watch the crew do it.

They made it look easy even though the number of ropes seemed daunting.

But in no time at all, the staysail was up and we were moving through the Solent between Gosport, Portsmouth and Stokes Bay.

In this time, we got to see how to tack the boat to make sure speed is constant and again, the crew made the control of all the ropes look simple.

We were talked through by Ben what all the ropes do and all the equipment on board to keep the ropes tidy and to help control them. These included winches which help wind them up and tighten them and jammers which stop them from slipping once tied.

Ben also told us when they needed to be pulled while tacking the boat or let go and how to do it safely.

Once we had seen this happen several times, we were given a go at steering the boat and calling out when the sails needed to be tacked or when we needed to gybe the boat according to the wind direction.

While steering, it was easy to head in a certain direction using landmarks.

These could be the Spinnaker Tower, a block of flats or anything else noticeable on the coast.

Only slight movements were needed to move the boat and without the landmarks, it would have been easy to go off course. I was impressed that crew steer the boats out in the middle of the ocean with no landmarks.

But steering also showed how quickly the wind can change and how often the sails need to be changed and the boom moved.

Then before we knew it, it was our turn to tack the boat.

First of all, I was put in charge of the winch and had to pull the excess rope through it which would enable us to move the bow of the ship through the wind.

Once given the green light, I started pulling the rope through and quickly my arms started to tire.

But I kept going despite the burning feeling and eventually, I was able to stop and ensure the excess rope was tied up neatly.

Then, it was my turn to let the rope go and the crew member on the other winch to pull the excess rope.

This was a lot easier although you had to ensure the rope didn’t slip through.

We took turns in tacking the boat and it was hard work even on the calm waters of the Solent.

But, after a few turns, we were given a break and switched to a man overboard drill.

Before we threw the dummy into the water, we were given a breakdown of the key steps if someone goes overboard.

Then, once we knew them the dummy was thrown in.

Immediately, we shouted ‘man overboard’ and the boat was stopped.

While this was happening, Ben appointed me as the spotter and I had point to where the dummy was in the water and to keep my eyes on it at all times – the spotter’s only role.

Another crew member then threw out the danbouy and the horseshoe life ring to the dummy.

Once the boat had been stopped, the man overboard button was pressed. The engine was then started.

The yankee and staysail were dropped and the boat started to move toward the casualty using the spotter as a point of direction as well as the GPS signal which started when the man overboard button was pressed.

Then, a crew member assigned to be the swimmer, was lowered into the water after a boat hook, lifting strop and scramble net had been fitted to the deck to help get the dummy out of the water.

It took about seven minutes from when the dummy went into the water for us to get it back on board. But it was in calm water, in the afternoon when visibility was good.

It was a little bit hectic with so many steps to follow and if it was a real person in the water, at night, I can imagine it being a lot scarier.

We did one more man overboard drill and managed to complete it in a similar time.

But after five hours at sea, we started heading back to the marina.

During that time, we put the main sail down and used the engine to moor at the harbour.

And after spending an afternoon sailing in the Solent, I had a glimpse at what the men and women who complete the Clipper Round the Race have to deal with.

Spending ten months at sea must take its toll especially with some of the conditions they have to face.

I found it tiring pulling the ropes on the calm sea let alone out in the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean.

But it also gave the chance to experience the thrill of being out at sea and if I 
had a few thousand pounds to spare, I would 
definitely consider 
signing up for the next Clipper race.