Lothians dare-devils in search of a new challenge leave their comfort zones behind to crew in round-the-world yacht race
ONE hundred feet up a yacht’s mast, and Gordon MacDougall is juggling a mobile phone with hanging on for dear life. It is blustery and the water is choppy. He is shouting to be heard over wild gusts of wind and while he’s safely harnessed, so in theory, the chance of plunging into the water below is unlikely, it is hardly conducive to a blether over the phone.
“It’s a bit mad,” says the 25-year-old, an understatement if there ever was one. For here he is, on a 70ft racing yacht, never having sailed before and set to journey right around the world with a group of strangers who have also quit sensible day jobs for life on the ocean waves.
What they are embarking upon is certainly no relaxing port to port cruise. For when the 2013 Round-the-world Clipper Race set off from London at the start of the month, it heralded the beginning of 11 months of hard work. The crew works shifts of four hours on, four hours off, at the mercy of wild weather and the unpredictable seas, fuelled on restricted rations and without any home comforts.
By day 11 of the race yesterday, the fleet of 12 yachts – each captained by an experienced skipper and crewed by mostly novices – had left the choppy Bay of Biscay, and was on its way past the coast of Portugal bound for waters off north-west Africa. Gordon, on Team Switzerland’s yacht, is one of the few travelling the entire 40,000-mile route.
“With few stops in between, he’ll go from London to Brazil, on to South Africa and Australia in time for Christmas and New Year. He’ll then sail for Singapore, Qingdao and San Francisco, then journey through the Panama Canal to Jamaica and New York – where he will spend his birthday – heading home across the Atlantic, bound for London in July next year.
All of this adds up to a very long time at sea.
“I suppose I’ll only find out once we’re really well into it how prepared I am mentally and physically,” he reflects. “We’ve done some training but it wasn’t out on the open sea. And you can’t prepare for the sleep deprivation. Sailing in the race is just half of the challenge. The other is living in the conditions and working closely as a team. That’s the really big thing.”
The sea breeze whistles around his phone as he chats from tip of the mast. Luckily, the Balfour Beattie site engineer, one of five locals taking part in this year’s race, has a head for heights. Indeed, it was while working on the roof of Waverley Station last year that he found himself day-dreaming of taking part in the remarkable challenge.
“I’d left Beeslack High in Penicuik and gone straight to working and doing a part-time degree,” he explains. “So when my friends were off travelling, or were having a normal student life, I was working.
“There were posters up in Waverley Station for the Clipper race. I walked past them hundreds of times and I remember looking at one and thinking, ‘Yes, I’d like that’.”
Gordon, from Roslin, had never sailed before. But hungry for an adventure, he gathered savings and money inherited from his grandmother to pay around £40,000 to take part in the entire race. “I think she’d have approved,” he reflects. “She was the kind who would have said ‘go and spend the money’, she liked adventure.”
The global adventure is mixed with extreme challenges, from the thrill of seeing new places, to the 60ft waves and sheer hell of being cooped up in a confined space with 19 strangers for weeks on end, with no personal space and nowhere to go to escape.
It’s the small personal every-day things that dad-of-two Craigie Marwick says he’ll miss most. The 55-year-old chartered surveyor and director at property firm GVA in Fountainbridge is currently on board Team Jamaica’s yacht and, like Gordon, is now on his way through the second leg to Rio de Janeiro, acutely aware of the gruelling journey ahead.
“I sailed a little when I was younger, but only dinghies and on holiday in Greece,” he recalls “That’s a bit like driving a go-kart and then being given an HGV.”
He signed up for the race after watching a television programme about it with his wife Mafe. “I turned to her and said I’d love to do something like that, and she said, ‘why not?’ so I applied. She needed convincing when I said I’d like to do two legs though. I think I may be paying her back for this for a very long time to come.”
The equator lies ahead and – striking gloom into the hearts of skippers – the doldrums, where the wind drops to nothing and tactics take priority. And, of course, there are the unpredictable stormy seas that can batter and shake the clippers and make sailors violently sick.
“I wanted a challenge,” adds Craigie, who is raising money for children’s hospice CHAS. “I wanted out of my comfort zone and then there is the curiosity of how will I cope. One of my biggest anxieties is living out of a bag, putting something down and losing it, then getting up at 4am to start my shift and not being able to find my torch or my boots.
“And I’ll miss just being able to have a shower. I think we have thousands of wet wipes on board because the shortage of water means a shower has to be restricted to the person whose role it is to be ‘mother’ and make the food.”
He says there are many positives – even when stuck in a tiny yacht with strangers. “It’s the astonishing friendships and bonds that are made within a relatively short period of time, something that you don’t normally experience in ordinary life,” he says. “Even after training for a week, everyone had formed really strong friendships – whether they’re a managing director or a student.
“It’s all about the contribution you make and the help you provide for your crew mates and what’s important in ordinary life, becomes irrelevant on board.”
THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
ACCOUNTANT Jenny Crorie, 32, of Leith will set off in mid-January to join Team Garmin’s yacht for the 7400-mile fifth leg of the race, from Australia to China via Singapore.
“I wanted to learn to sail,” she says. “And I like doing things that are a bit different and challenging so I can push myself and this was perfect.”
Jenny, who lives in Balfour Street in Leith, will set off from Brisbane while it’s still late summer and then encounter plunging temperatures of around -10 on the approach to China.
“I’m slightly dreading that,” she laughs.
“And I’m hoping my body will somehow just adapt to the four hours on, four off shift rota without too much trouble.”
Meanwhile, dad-of-two David Mowat, 43, a business advisor from Newington, will join the race in South America and sail more than 8000 miles over two legs to Australia, via South Africa on board the Great Britain yacht.
He signed up for the race to help raise money for The British Lung Foundation in memory of his mum, Gillian, who died from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh-based civil servant Rachel England, 50, will join Mission Performance competing against accountant Jenny in the fifth leg of the race.