Clipper RTW Race 4 - Albany to Sydney

The Race to Sydney

Race 4 has been described as the toughest race yet on this race. I have nothing to compare it with personally but it was certainly a tough initiation into Clipper racing.

The winds across the Great Australian Bight are expected to change from easterlies to south westerlies at the beginning of the summer season but this year they did not change as expected. As a result of this and a high pressure system, the first week of the race across the Great Australian Bight to the south of Tasmania was a constant beat into shifting winds gusting up to 50 knots at times for several days, requiring multiple sail changes and constant trimming. This added an extra 400nm or so to the route, 2100nm route.

By day 8/9, when we had rounded Great Mewstone off the south coast of Tasmania and sailed into the Tasman Sea, a wind shift enabled us to get the spinnaker sails up. Lighter winds and calmer periods around Storm Bay near Hobart required a change to the windseeker and effort was needed to keep sailing in a northerly direction. 

Through the Bass Strait the north-north-west winds picked up and now we were reefed and sailing heeled over again, surfing in large seas with up to 28 knots speed. We were joined for about 30 minutes one day by a pod of small, grey Pacific dolphins who slickly leaped with a flick of the tail alongside the boat and swam on the bow wave. These were the first sea life I had seen apart from seagulls so I was pleased. I was told that humpback whales would be migrating back south following a period of breeding in the warmer waters but I was not lucky enough to see any.

Broaching was a constant risk and we had crew stationed on the main sheet and vang at all times ready to let them go if a broach occurred. On one particular occasion we had just hoisted a spinnaker as the wind had shifted astern. One large gust caused a broach which did not resolve for about 5 minutes until the vang, the main sheet and the spinnaker tack line were released, whilst we were all hanging on by our fingertips grateful we were clipped on. Could it have been avoided?

It was a close run race with all boats racing in close proximity for the first week but then the gaps began to widen. Crossing Storm Bay outside Hobart, both Mission Performance and Garmin were hot on our heels. All sailing with kites up we were matching each other. The jostling for position continued for about 24 hours. Garmin was further west and going faster, benefitting from the coastal currents, whereas in our position we had 4 knots of counter current.

LMAX Exchange had moved ahead and remained there to win first place, although up the east coast of Australia we made good gains on LMAX closing a 60nm gap by nearly 30nm due to our more westerly position assisted by the coastal current. I was told after the race by LMAX crew that this had been extremely worrying to their skipper and we had been on constant watch by them. They retained the lead by moving further into the coast and using the current themselves.

In the last 12 hours of the race our main competitor was Garmin for second or third place on the podium so they were the boat we constantly watched. When they were only 1nm behind us, I spent nearly 2 hours in the navigation station monitoring their position every 10 minutes and reporting any change in position. Thankfully the gap began to widen slowly and an incident with their spinnaker enabled us to increase the margin to 8nm from which Garmin were unable to recover.

Frustratingly as we sailed into Sydney Harbour in the night we hit a wind hole and progressed slowly towards the finish line than we had sailed over the whole previous 12 days. I had the helm so although I can say I took the boat across the finish line, the achievement of doing it at 1.2nm was diminished to say the least as I struggled to stay awake.

Living on Board

The routine 'eat, sleep, sail, repeat' is no exaggeration, all heeled at 45 degrees (or more!). Climbing in and out of your bunk, eating, going to the heads, getting four layers of kit on, is a challenging workout before you even get up on deck to do the work of racing a 70 foot yacht. 

The sailing day involves a combination of 4 and 6 hour watches: the routine starts at 05.30 when the oncoming watch eats breakfast prior to going on watch at 06.00. The off-going watch eats breakfast and sleeps until 11.30 when lunch is served and the watches change over at 12.00. The same routine occurs at 18.00 when dinner is served. The night watch changes take place at 22.00 and 02.00 and the whole process starts again at 06.00.

All food is prepared and served by two crew members, one from each watch, on Motherwatch, who are responsible for cooking and cleaning below deck for a 24 hour period. The advantage is that on Motherwatch you do not need to get up for the night watches. However, on my first day on the race, having not yet found my sea legs, I was rostered to Motherwatch, so not much I ate stayed down that day.

Weight loss is common over the course of a race as food portions are considerably smaller than you would usually eat and activity levels are high. There are snacks and fruit available as well as the meals. I certainly lost a few pounds off my waistline over the 12 days of the race but this was not unwelcome as it was excess that I had gained over-indulging in Malaysia. Some crew who have been on the boat since the beginning of the race, now into its fourth month, have lost several stones in weight. In some cases at the beginning this loss would have been excess weight, as in my case, but most are now at the point where they have no excess left to lose.

Sylvia Chesters, 25.12.2015 | More from Sylvia Chesters’s blog