There were gale force winds and torn sails; there was bright sunshine and canapes on deck. It was just ten days, but the opening race of this year’s Clipper Round the World yacht race had it all.
I joined the crew of Edinburgh Inspiring Capital for the whole thing, from the spectacular send-off in Southampton to our long-awaited arrival in Madeira, and it felt like a small lifetime – in a good way.
Life on the ocean is one of extremes, and the skills and the bravery required are huge. The crew, all non- professional sailors, must get on deck night after night, with just a few hours’ sleep, and race in the dark, sometimes in gale force winds, without getting swept away, injured, sick, or scared.
But it’s not just the sailing that’s extreme. With 20 people living on a 68ft yacht, cooking, sleeping, washing (but not often) within inches of one another, seeing nobody else for weeks on end, the lifestyle is both challenging and rewarding.
The crew of Edinburgh Inspiring Capital, who are from seven different nations, have paid thousands of pounds to join the team for periods ranging from a few weeks to a year. They signed up more than a year ago, and have undergone months of training and planning ahead of the start weekend on July 30 and 31.
The weekend had an atmosphere of tremendous excitement and emotion.
After being cheered on to the stage in our matching kilts, T-shirts and hats, we slipped away from our moorings to the sound of the boat song, Proud, and found a stupendous flotilla awaiting us. HMS Illustrious escorted the fleet out to sea, while hundreds of small boats swarmed around us, turning the water to foam.
One of those on an emotional roller coaster was Lesley Roberts, 35, who will sail around the world. She says: “It was just a big mixture of emotions, of being proud of us as a team and what we’re about to do, and proud of myself for having committed to it.
“But I was also emotional about it. It’s a wee bit sad leaving friends and family, but especially for me leaving my dad. He’s 81, on his own, and I feel a huge sense of responsibility leaving him behind. I know that he’d want me to do this, but he’ll be worried about me. Seeing him in the crowd, seeing the emotion on his face was pretty heartbreaking.”
But the pain of saying goodbye was eased by the scale of the send-off, she says: “I’m completely overwhelmed by the attention.
“I’ve never thought about what an Olympic athlete must feel like to represent their country or be standing in front of people, but it was a bit like that – it was phenomenal.”
The elation of the send-off gave way to reality as the race progressed and the wind dropped, with much of our first two days spent moving very slowly, or not at all, in the EnglishChannel.
We eventually picked up a breeze, and headed towards the continental shelf on the edge of the Bay of Biscay, where the sea depth drops from around 100m to 5000m, and the water churns and chops.
Everyone dashed around securing anything that was loose and could be thrown around a lurching boat.
I managed a few hours on deck before crawling into my bunk to keep from feeling ill and wedged all my clothes and luggage around me to minimise the bruises as I was thrown around – an experience one of the other crew members later described as “like trying to sleep in an earthquake with a hurricane going on”.
As I lay awake, up on the deck in the dead of night I could hear the skipper shouting instructions against the wind as the crew wound the winches, wrestled the helm and – I discovered to my astonishment in the morning – loved every single minute of it.
Lesley, who works for Mars in Glasgow, says: “I thought ‘What’s the point of getting het up about this, because it’s going to be nothing compared with what we’re going to get into.
“Most people learn to sail on a smaller boat over a long period of time. This is like, instead of learning to drive in your Ford Fiesta in a local street, somebody putting you in a Formula One car and sending you round Silverstone.”
As well as the challenge of life on deck, they have also signed up for a testing life below deck.
The lucky ones, like me, have a bunk of their own and can pull up the canvas at the side for a bit of private space. The unlucky ones are hot-bunking as the two watches alternate work and sleep for between four and six hours at a time.
All meals, including fresh-baked bread daily, are prepared by the crew in a tiny galley, and even when the boat is heeled over to 30 degrees, or swaying unpredictably, the crew still has to eat.
For a week, we didn’t spy another boat, let alone another person. Absolutely everything has to be done as a team, or nothing will be achieved.
Close bonds spring up quickly, and the night watches are a particularly special time, when everyone gathers around the helm for their four-hour watch.
The chat ranged from silly banter to touching personal insight and thoughtful discussions.
Among those captivated by the night watches was Tom McGuire, 49, a business adviser from Causewayside. He says: “At night times when it’s quiet, there’s maybe five of you, millions of stars, the bioluminescence in the water, good chat.
“We haven’t seen another human being for ten days, it’s like a little bunch of explorers and I think that makes ocean sailing unique, there’s no other challenge where you’re locked up with each other for a month.”
There were magical moments in daylight, too – we had dolphins riding the bow wave and the first boat we saw for a week was a three-masted galleon breezing over the horizon.
And, of course, there were lows, perhaps none greater than the day our spinnaker – the vast, fragile sail that speeds you downwind when conditions are right – ripped clean in two.
As the bottom part trailed in the water, the top flapped from the top of the mast and a cry of “All hands on deck!” went up to recover the pieces. But at least we all survived unscathed, even if the sail needed extensive repairs.
One of those enjoying every single moment on board is marketing strategist Nick Barclay, 30, one of the team of Transplant Ambassadors in the crew. The patients, doctors and nurses are taking part to highlight the way that transplants transform lives.
Nick, from Cape Town, is one of the most energetic, enthusiastic and joyful people I’ve ever met. But he’s had a tough time. Kidney failure left him needing dialysis every second day for three years, which he describes as being “alive but not really living”.
His wait on the transplant list ended with a huge surprise after he started running long distances to improve his fluid intake. He says: “I started to enter marathons, and I was interviewed for the TV and the newspaper, and my biological father, who I’d never met before, saw it, and came forward from the UK to offer me a kidney.
“After much procrastination from my side, I decided to accept it. I had the transplant and it was one of the best days of my life.”
He calls it “the best gift I’ve ever got”, and he is determined to enjoy every moment of the life it has given him – particularly the Clipper race. “The first night I went to bed and I realised ‘This is the first night of the next year of my life and I’m looking forward to every single day of it’.
“And to be out on the open ocean is just fantastic, to be reliant on everybody else is just phenomenal. To see land for the first time in ten days, it brought a smile to my face and I can only imagine what it’s going to be like after 30 days at sea.”
Our approach to Madeira came with some bad news – we were in last place. It was a blow, but with 14 races still to go, it’s going to take more than that to wipe the smiles off the faces of the Edinburgh Inspiring Capital crew.
Especially Nick, who happily takes the bad with the good as he looks back on his first taste of ocean racing: “It was a bit splishy and a bit splashy, but that’s what we signed up for and it’s not all going to be plain sailing.
“The boats have been round the world five times, so we know they’re capable of it. I quite enjoyed the foul weather, it brings a smile to my face. The bigger the waves, the bigger the smile.”