The End of the Oceans

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Frustration. Frustration and expectation. That’s what the mood is on the boat at the moment. We have crossed our final ocean, have spotted the shores of Ireland, and are currently running North West back out into the Atlantic to do a circuit around Rockall.
Not that there isn’t a moment of pleasure that we will be seeing the furthest most West point in the UK. It’s just that WE SAW IRELAND. And then sailed away from it again. Hence the frustration. The expectation comes from what the plans are for Derry. Hotels have been booked (another frustration – we thought we would now be coming in on 6th July, only to have the weather change and slow us down, so we are now due in on 7th instead). Plans have been discussed for what to do. The pros and cons of Water Zorbing versus Total Wipeout on Water have been weighed. Now we all just want to get there. Food supplies are running low; the carrots have now gone, and butter is in short supply and, horror of horrors, Starboard watch has run out of tuck. Oh Nugget! Even worse – something I didn’t think possible – we are down to our last 2 packets of baby wipes. That equates to around 6 wipes per person until we get to Ireland. I may have taken the victualler’s brief in New York of ‘buy the minimum and use up everything we already have’ a little too far…

At least we have loads of coffee. This is especially useful since many of the RTWs, and Wendo, have hit a wall and are knackered. I think it is simply 10-plus months of high alert catching up on us. Although our heads are still in the game, our bodies have called time and are already half way out of the building.

So here we are, struggling upwind to get around Rockall so we can turn around and follow our trail all the way back to Ireland again. Rockall is a sneaky rock which seems to move away from us at every turn and has the annoying habit of being directly upwind of our position, however much we tack.
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At least the extra leg from Rockall to St. Kilda has now been called off. Apparently the Royal Navy is not inclined to stop their live firing exercises in the area so the Clipper fleet can pass by. Thank the gods for that!

Although this is still the ocean crossing part of this race, seeing our destination and then adding this extra circuit makes this little detour feel like an offshore race rather than an ocean race. In my mind I feel as though I have now crossed my final ocean on this circumnavigation. The total is 3 times across the Atlantic, once across the Southern Indian Ocean, once into the Southern Ocean, and twice around or across the Pacific. We have sailed through the Channel, the Solomon Sea, the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Caribbean. Only the North Sea remains, and one more Channel crossing. It’s quite a tally.
And hard to believe that this has actually happened, even though I was there every step of the way!
Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre
Editors note:-
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The Stormhoek Social Spirit award voting is open, but only until the first boat crosses the finish line, which is in the morning.
Vote for DaNang and they stand a good chance of winning £2,000 for a crew party.
Vote NOW! Vote Here:-
http://www.facebook.com/StormhoekWines/posts/358867754237524
Please vote and give a good reason. Thank you, Paul.

Last of the Mutant Loaves

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Craig is on mother again today, with Tony, and is currently making bread in the galley. This may be the last time we see this, and taste the fruits of his labours, which are usually kneaded mercilessly to such a degree that they come out of the oven as mutant loaves, enormous in size but beautifully fluffy in the middle. I have complimented him a couple of times on the size of his bread, but I think the suggestion that he might make a second career as a baker offends his Aussie sense of masculinity somehow!

This may be the last time we see this because we have finally worked our way through the huge and heavy bag of bread flour that was bought in Seattle (where the ‘fresh’ bread we bought for the first few days was so full of preservatives that it lasted the entire month in the heat and humidity down to Panama!). The next race will be short enough (and probably cold enough) for us to buy fresh bread only, and I am looking forward to good Irish bread, fresh butter, milk and cheese, lots more veg and fruit and fewer freeze dried meals. There may even be fresh meat (sausages!!!). It’s amazing how simple things like this can make such a difference.
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It’s especially important given that I completely under-estimated the amount of fresh fruit we would eat during this race, and we finished the apples and oranges within the first week. We have now also run out of lemons, sweet potatoes and, most importantly, cheese (we went through 6kg in a week!).
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Macaroni cheese is on the menu tomorrow and will be an interesting challenge. Hopefully cream cheese will work instead. At least the tuck still seems to be holding up.
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Hang on … there just went the last bag of chocolates.

This is Val signing off before they all disappear upstairs!

North Atlantic Part 3

Well, having sailed around the whole of the Ice Box to balmy weather, we have finally started heading North in a serious way, and the dank, grey, cold of a typical British Summer has finally materialised. The seas and skies are grey and the cold damp is that type which seeps slowly into your bones and stays there. It’s certainly not as cold as the Pacific in terms of temperature, but it seems that however many layers you put on (and I can put on a LOT of layers!) they are never enough to stop you feeling chilled through by the end of the watch. Apart my foulies, my current clothing choice includes 5 layers on my legs, 2 pairs of socks (plus plastic bags), 6 layers on my top, 2 pairs of gloves (plus plastic gloves), and 2 layers of hats/buffs.
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I am back to a 30 minute clothing routine every time we go on watch, which means I actually have to get up as soon as someone wakes me up (rather than having an extra 10 minutes in my bunk) in order to get up on deck on time. A very unwelcome change from 5 minutes T-shirt and shorts through most of Leg 7. I suppose one benefit though is that you get fewer bruises up on deck – lots more padding!

It’s particularly annoying since only the girls on the boat seem affected. Clothing-wise, Craig and David G are having a Tough-Man-off about who can hold off adding layers the longest, and both only started wearing their boots on the 2.00-6.00am watch last night. Previously they had both been wearing their Keens sandals. I think that Craig is currently slightly ahead in the game (much to my surprise, given the legendary toughness of the Tassies) – he was only wearing a pair of shorts under his foulies last night, while David actually cracked and dug out his leggings. Nutters, both of them.
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Stuart and Hugh are also contenders for clothing Tough-Men. Stuart because he’s Scottish so damp and cold is therefore his natural habitat and Hugh because, well, he’s Hugh and doesn’t seem to bother with things like thermal layers. Or shoes. I have finally made him put on a pair of sailing boots someone left on the boat, rather than watch him run around in the biting cold with bare feet (I kid you not). Next off is getting him to wear socks. I really don’t fancy having to deal with frostbite of the toes. I have been explaining the concept of Northern Hemisphere cold to him since we started, but I think he has now finally started to have some concept of how chilly it can be.

Apart from the cold, we are enjoying excellent speeds and almost all downwind sailing. We have had a kite up as much as possible, and only take it down when the sea state is unsettled enough that there are not enough helmers to steer properly. We have definitely been pushing our sails more this leg than ever before. This is mostly a good thing as our speeds are better and we are eating up the miles beautifully quickly.

Occasionally however, as is always the case when you push your limits, you come a cropper. Sadly, the latest incident involved Anne Boleyn yet again, and a truly impressive spinnaker wrap. Again I was on Mother (maybe me mothering is putting a jinx on our Code 2? Note to self; stay out of the galley when we are flying spinnakers!), this time with Marc. We were both woken up around 1.00am by a call for All Hands on Deck and I threw on my boots and lifejacket and ran upstairs in my T-shirt and base layer leggings to find the kite half in and half out of the water, with the hallyard stuck and the tack and sheets wrapped 4 times (4 times – impressive work!) around the outer forestay. Since all corners of the kite were still attached to the boat, the kite acted as a sort of cup in the water, which made pulling the thing out of the drink extremely hard work. Eventually we managed to get enough up on deck to stop the dragging, so I went up on the bow to help unwrap the tack. I ended up sat out on the prodder with the boat bouncing up and down on the waves at 10 knots, freezing water going up my back, down my pants and into my boots.
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Then unclipping and unwinding the tack line from around various protruberances and trying to figure out which sheet was which, and how they were attached to which bits of the boat. Quite a puzzle. But lots of fun. And once I was down below again and had dried off and changed my clothes I slept like a baby –
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for all of another 2 hours until I was woken up to start prepping breakfast.

Kudos to Kirsty, who now has intimate knowledge of all of Anne Boleyn’s seams and stitching. She has spent yet another 24 hours down below patching up the poor kite, which now resembles a large jigsaw puzzle. We have to hope that our Code 2 incidences don’t come in threes – I’m not sure Kirsty should have to put herself through yet another mammoth repairing session!

One of the downsides of getting such good speeds across the Atlantic is that we are due to be in Derry much sooner than anticipated – several days in fact. Unsurprisingly, Derry doesn’t really want us there so early as it doesn’t fit into their plans for their big maritime festival. So we had an email this morning from Justin Taylor in the Race Office to tell us that the race was being extended to do a loop around Rockall, and possibly even St Kilda, before arriving in Derry on 6th July.
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This is extremely annoying, especially since Clipper promised faithfully after the South China Sea extension (where we spent an extra week doing pointless loops between the Philippines and Vietnam in order to arrive in Da Nang on the day they wanted, rather than racing and arriving when we could) that this would not happen again. I understand why they have done it, and I guess for the leggers it’s a nice extra bit of sailing. But I am more than ready to be back on land again so every extra delay is unbelievably frustrating. And, even worse, the loop we will be doing goes North from Northern Ireland and then back again – a route we will then be retracing as we do the next race around the top of Scotland.

As you may gather, my mental state is more and more focussed on Life After Clipper, and finishing the race. I am still trying to keep my head space in the here and now but I am tired, bone tired, utterly bored of the same menus (especially freeze-dried meat) and feel that I have achieved everything I set out to do with this experience.
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I will of course, no question, finish the race as I want to complete my circumnavigation. But all my focus now is on the next steps in my life after I return home, so adding even a few extra days is unhelpful mentally. I see many of the other RTWs in the same place. Instead of talking about what the Derry to Den Helder race may be like (let alone the last Channel crossing from Holland), we are all talking about what we will do once it’s over

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– what we want to see in the stopovers of Derry, Den Helder and London, and what we think we have learned during the year. There is a lot of introspection and stock taking. But we have to finish first. That’s the rub. A lot of conversations about sailing conditions and strategy end in the words ‘2 more weeks’. 2 more weeks of sailing, and then it’s over.

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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre

Meanwhile, not sailing across the Atlantic

Good news and bad news.  The good news is that Da Nang has made it to third on the race tracker – their best position for a long time.  The bad news is that I am at home typing this, and not on the boat with them.

I am still struggling to come to terms with the fact that my goal of circumnavigating the world is not going to happen.  No matter how many people tell me that the achievement already attained is no mean feat, and I don’t disagree with them at all, it is not going to be the same.  I have a real chance of getting back on the boat in Derry.  My consultant has said he will sign my forms declaring me fit, it is then just up to the Clipper insurance to give me the go ahead.  My forms will be signed at the beginning of July well in time for the Derry departure of 17th July.  But how will I feel sailing into London on 30th July knowing that there is a huge chunk missing?  Better than not sailing into London, but not being able to celebrate fully with my fellow crew members who will have made the grade.

But that is enough of that.  I need to find the positives out of all of this, and being resentful is not going to help.  The other good news is that Paul has not thrown me out on my ear – I think it came very close a few times!  Readjusting to normal life is one thing for me, but Paul has had to readjust to me being back early as well.  That, it seems, is the harder of the two!   It has truly been the “Race of My Life”, and I could not have wished to meet a better group of people.  If nothing else, the new friends I have made will enrich the rest of my life.

As to progress on the shoulder – slow but sure.  It is hard for me to notice a difference on a daily basis, but those who only see me once a week or so can see a vast improvement each time.  Lots of hard and painful physio!  I am doing as I am told here, and more than I am told.  Good advice from Marc and Lara.  I think it is paying off.  I may not be able to raise the yankee single handed (that would have been a shock if I could) but I can certainly do more than I could when I got off the boat in Seattle.

My family and I all went to New York to meet the fleet during this stopover – they were booked to come and see me long before I had the accident, so I just booked an extra ticket.  It would have been very sad if I had still been on the boat, as the boat arrived before we did.  I am sure I would have been happy to have a couple of extra days in New York, but it would have been a disappointment for them not to be able to cheer us in.  So it was a happy crew that we met in New York.  They had had a good leg, and there was not much on the boat that needed fixing, so everyone had a good few days off.  That would have made such a difference.  Even Wendo had a couple of days off – unheard of!

We had hired a car, as we had a house in New Jersey rather than New York, so that helped with the victualling.  There were more people helping this time than in any other stopover – I think I went wrong somewhere along the way.  And the list was the shortest I had ever known – a little overspend and over stock on the last race meant not so much to buy for this one.  Val had taken on the main responsibility for this leg, ably helped by Kirsty and Stuart.  And with Paul & I shopping as well, it was a good job there wasn’t too much, as there wouldn’t have been room in the car for the normal load!  And of course, we had to have steak for lunch mid shop, and stop at an ice cream parlour once we had finished.  When in Rome…………

I also had a birthday out there, and decided to have a crew party at our house – which was perfect for the occasion.  We had a swimming pool, hot tub, pool table etc etc, and eight bedrooms which we managed to fill for the night.  It was a fabulous day.  The weather was hot and sunny and the company was perfect.  I genuinely hope that these people remain in our lives forever.
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So, in preparation for rejoining the boat I thought I had better get some of the gear together,  only to find that I couldn’t locate my foul weather gear or my sailing boots.  I had been hunting high and low for about two weeks, as I had a feeling my boots may have still been wet when I came home from Seattle.  I even went to the lengths of replaying the cctv cameras footage of when I arrived home to see if they came out of the back of the taxi.  They did.  I am pleased to say they have eventually been found.  Harriet decided to put them in a cupboard halfway up the staircase to the third floor where we keep an old Christmas Tree.  Why didn’t I think of looking there?

Those found, I am now ready and waiting for my final go ahead.  I have booked a one way flight to Derry only, and just need a signature on the dotted line……………

 

 

North Atlantic Part 2

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I may have mentioned this before but I think it’s worth mentioning again: on every leg of this race, for the past year, the only thing that I can expect is that my expectations of what the leg will be like will be confounded. So far Leg 8 has borne this out. My expectation of the North Atlantic is of big waves (a la Perfect Storm),
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cold cold temperatures and icebergs (a la Titanic) and grey seas and sky (a la normal weather in my home town of London).
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The first few days has certainly had the grey, which has made me feel very at home – and homesick for getting back to London. The big waves and biting cold have thankfully not materialised however. I am particularly grateful about the temperature; since the Pacific I would be most happy never ever to experience that level of biting and prolonged cold again (especially when accompanied by wet everything in a situation where I can’t get off, or press pause and get in a hot shower). Instead, the Gulf Stream has pushed us out into the Atlantic on a stream of warm water which, most happily, has also given us a couple of knots of extra speed with the following current. There is no bite to the wind and when the waves come over the rail it’s like being doused in a lukewarm shower rather than an icy bath. The sailing is also really enjoyable – occasionally a little challenging as the winds pick up to gust around 40-50 knots. But the first few days have been all downwind sailing, which has given us a flat boat and fantastic speeds.

The only downside (which is, ironically, also somewhat homesick-making) is the rain. This has possibly been the wettest 5 days we have had on this race, with constant storms, squalls, showers and drizzle. Everything is wet and the water regularly pours through the companionway into the port side wet locker, which has now completely saturated all the clothing hung up to dry there. The conversation about how not waterproof the Henry Lloyd foulies are has surfaced again, and everyone is damp by the time they get off watch. At least it’s not cold. And, finally, today the sun is out and all the wet gear is laid out on deck drying out. We currently look like a laundry.

The downwind, spinnaker sailing has given us one casualty however; Madge, our Code 2 kite, took a dive into the ocean a couple of days ago when we broached after the kite sheet got an override and couldn’t be fed out in time to prevent the sail going in the water. It was All Hands On Deck, and since I was Mother I ended up on the low side rail, pulling the kite out of the water dressed in nothing but my life jacket, a thin pair of leggings, a T-shirt and a pair of flip flops. We got the kite in finally but the head was pretty much ripped off. Wendo has therefore renamed the kite Anne Boleyn, since it was headless. The worst thing was that before we broached we were rapidly overtaking the lead boat, Derry, who were off our port beam and who saw the whole thing (apparently their skipper Dan couldn’t watch and had to go down below!). So far, thankfully, the lack of a Code 2 has not worked too badly against us as conditions have been more in the Code 3 territory. However, David G and Kirsty have worked like Trojans to get the kite mended and have spent the last four days down below, working 12 hour shifts in the damp, airless heat of the galley to get everything sewed back together. This is particularly impressive because Kirsty gets seasick so spends 10% of the time with her head in a sick bag, while David is obviously pining away for the chance to get back on deck and do some actual sailing. We are now waiting for the wind to veer again so we can fly Anne Boleyn and see whether all the repairs have worked.
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If not, I hope that Frankie (who is coming out to meet the boat in Derry), will help with some of the repairs. She promised to mend our sails for us only if we got a podium place, so it’s extra incentive to get there ASAP.

I didn’t do much sailing on the first two days on board as I was unofficial Mother for race day, followed by official Mother for Day 1. I chose to do this so that we could do justice to the huge amount of fresh meat (fresh meat on the boat!!!) that was most kindly donated by Bridget and her family from the wonderful crew BBQ that she hosted in New York.
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It’s an auspicious start for meals, but I have already warned the crew that the food will only go downhill from here, as we work our way through the dry bags. We have a lot of extra food that we bought for Leg 7, which needs to be eaten before any more can be bought (our budget is limited and we overspent massively in Seattle and Panama), so we will be eating a lot of pasta and rice noodles, freeze dried chicken and dehydrated camping meals. However, I have cheated somewhat on the menu planner and included as many meals as I can from those that I know the crew always like. We will therefore be eating a lot of macaroni cheese, vegetable pasta bake (Wendo’s favourite – or at least one of them!), chilli con carne, baked sweet potatoes with coronation chicken and patatas bravas. I am hoping that our frugality on the Atlantic crossing and on the race from Derry to Den Helder will allow us enough left over to blow our remaining budget for the last two-day race on fresh bread, cheese, pate and other yummy fresh food.

Home and what happens after the race is now the subject of most interest, at least for the RTW’s. All of us have plans for what we are doing once we finish, whether it be new career paths, holiday or new relationships. It’s very difficult not to talk constantly about life after Clipper but I am attempting to keep my mind on the here and now as much as possible. This is partly for the new leggers and rejoiners, for whom this is a big adventure, and who should not have to hear constant talk of what happens when it’s over. It’s also partly because although we have sailed most of the way around the world and have been on the boat for 10 months or so, we are still undertaking an ocean crossing – a feat which should not be underestimated.
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The North Atlantic can be treacherous (as Titanic, Perfect Storm etc. can attest to), so it’s up to us to keep our heads in the game and stay focused on the real prize of arriving back in London safe and sound. But, oh, how I want to get home!

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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre

Hurricane Colin and a man overboard!

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The Caribbean is behind us, we have managed to navigate the Bermuda Triangle without incident (ghost ships, giant squid etc.) and have finally reached the North Atlantic, our final ocean before the end of the race. This occasion has been marked by a radical change in the weather, as Hurricane Colin makes an appearance. Apparently Colin is not really a hurricane but in fact a Tropical Low Depression Storm. It looks and feels a lot like a hurricane to me. We go from balmy blue skies and bright, hot sunlight one watch to minimal visibility, choppy seas, cold temperatures and mad shifts in wind direction. It’s a crazy ride, but one we have been prepared for, watching the bright red patch of weather appear on the grib files over the last 12 hours. The grib files tell us to expect 30 knot winds. When I come on watch the wind is keening in a high, sustained note and the instruments read gusts of over 100 knots on occasion. Only myself, James and David are up on deck for the show, with the rest of the crew kitted up down below and ready to come up if necessary. There’s no reason for many people to be up on deck however, especially since we are being constantly binned by huge waves and gusts of hail-like rain. On the North Pacific we didn’t have the instrument panel attached to the mast, where you can see the true wind and apparent wind strengths as they happen. I think that was probably a good thing, as reading the numbers makes me more apprehensive than not knowing what strength the wind is (and that I may need to helm in it). Happily Colin comes and goes very quickly, and by the end of our watch we are down to a ‘balmy’ 30-36 knots of wind. But it leaves me with a massive amount of respect (laced with terror!) for the power of these sudden hurricanes that sweep from the Gulf of Mexico, along the Eastern seaboard of the US and into the Atlantic. I hope it’s not a taste of what’s to come in Leg 8.

Colin also marks a shift in temperature downwards, from tropical heat to much cooler temperatures. We are definitely moving North at a fast rate now, keeping up with the fleet and battling it out with the main pack in a long drawn-out drag race that runs for several hundred miles. The racing is really fun as we are pretty evenly matched, and every decision about gybing, tacking or following the opposition could mean the difference between placing well and coming at the bottom of the fleet. It’s a real roller coaster – sometimes we are doing well and the mood on the boat is buoyant. Then we make a tactical error and the next sched shows us dropping down the ranks, and the mood is annoyed and frustrated. Em is a great watch leader to have for these occasions as she is hugely interested in the race tactics and navigation of the boat. She keeps Zimmer Watch up to date with where we are and what we are doing (and why), and is constantly positive about improving our position, even when we are doing badly. At times like that I just prefer to retreat to my bunk at the end of the watch and ignore the race around me. Obviously not cut out to be an ocean racer!

This level of racing also means that the sailing is pretty gruelling. On my watch I am the go-to (ie. most bossy) person in the pit and on bow from the RTWs so I run between the two, discussing what we may have to do next in the pit (and who does what), and then leaving Em to run things there while I head up to the bow with James.
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In the first half of the Leg working the bow was not a hardship – who could object to sitting on the prodder in the brilliant sunshine, with the blue waves sparkling around you and dolphins frolicking at your feet? However in the North Atlantic it’s a very different kettle of fish. The waves bin you regularly, it’s cold and massively bouncy on the pointy end and the wind is a real bugger, especially when you are changing head sails downwards as the wind increases. Suddenly all those muscles that I have built up over the past 10 months are getting a real workout. I have a discussion with Rowena about this after one evolution, where it takes 6 people on bow to get the Yankee One down, and where I am on the pulpit literally hanging my whole body weight off the hanks in order to get the sail to drop. She asks me why I like to do bow (or, in her words, why would I be crazy enough to do that job). This is not a hard question to answer, since it embodies one of the main reasons I have come on this crazy adventure: every time I go on the bow, especially when the weather is horrible, it requires me to prove to myself that I have the stamina and endurance to do this (yet again), the strength to actually carry out the task I have to do (which I did no have a year ago), as well as the courage to know what awaits me (wet, cold, possible injury) and yet do it anyway. Stamina, courage and strength are qualities I hope I have and have come to sea to test. And the bow is a place where you really do test yourself.
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It’s made more difficult by an incident that happens the night before we are due to finish the race. The weather has been really fluky, with high winds in the 30s and 40s where none was expected, followed by periods of calm, sunny downwind sailing. Most of the time we are very good at anticipating the weather and hanking on the correct headsail accordingly. This time we are caught out, when light winds requiring a Yankee One turn to blistering 40 knot winds in the space of half an hour or so. The call goes out to get the Yankee One down and 5 of us go up on to the fore deck to get the job done. I am on the bow, with James as the number 2 position, just behind the outer forestay, where he can pull the sail in as I pull the hanks down. We’ve got maybe 3/4s of the sail down (and my arms are like spaghetti) and I look up to yell at him to help me with the remainder (even a couple of feet away the wind is so loud you can’t hear someone unless they yell at you). As he stands up and goes to turn around to help me, the bow bounces wildly, he loses his grip on the high side rail and lands on the pile of sail which is wedged next to the low side stanchions. The sail basically acts as a slide as I watch he goes over the rail, head first, until all I can see are the soles of his feet as he hangs over the side. It’s absolutely terrifying. My first reaction is Can I reach him? But I am wedged in the pulpit, double-clipped on, with most of a sail collapsed between him and me. So I yell to Steve, the number 3 to ‘Get James, Get James!’, and then, as it’s clear he is actually not on the boat,
I yell ‘Man Overboard’.
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I am helpless to do anything but watch and shout for help as Steve desperately reaches over the rail to grab James and try and get him back in the boat. Luckily the Man Overboard message is relayed to the helm, and Wendo luffs the boat up so that the low side flips up to the high side in a second, and both James and Steve (who is holding on for dear life) are flipped back into the boat.
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I never, ever want to have to shout that again for real. The enduring picture I have of that moment is seeing nothing of James but the soles of his feet, as he hangs upside down off the side of the boat. Luckily he is very fit and a climber, and is therefore used to hooking himself on to ridiculous things in improbable positions. So he has hooked his ankle around something solid on the rail, and though his life jacket pops, he doesn’t ever reach the limit of his tether, which is clipped on the the high side jackstay. He therefore gets binned by a few waves, but is never in danger of getting permanently dunked or dragged along the the side of the boat under water (which is the biggest worry with a tethered Man Overboard), and sustains nothing more than a bruised calf muscle. But, oh what a terrifying moment. More so because I see the whole thing play out in front of me and am helpless to do anything but observe.

This is Val signing off as the race finish is only 800 metres away and lights from the East Coast are twinkling on the horizon as the sun goes down. Leg 7 is finally done and dusted after 6 weeks at sea. 7 down, 1 to go …
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Racing Fit in the Caribbean

The Caribbean. There something about just the name that inspires fantasies and daydreams. Pirates. Treasure. Palm trees and white beaches. Rum cocktails in tall, cold glasses. Daniel Craig coming out of the water in a tight pair of speedos. (Ahem!)
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And here we are, finally. Panama and Costa Rica was exotic but so distant from the home base in the UK. But travel through a few miles of Canal and suddenly we are in the home hemisphere, my local ocean and a completely new kind of exotic and tropical. The weather is still hot and very humid, the seas are a milky, pale blue and conditions are not really much different from other equatorial regions we have sailed through. And yet every time we see a new cay or island there is excited discussion about what it would be like to stop there for a while, what might be buried there and whether we are going to meet Captain Jack Sparrow. Now we just need some suitably heroic Hans Zimmer music coming out of the galley and we are sorted.
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And we are racing again. It’s amazing. Suddenly we are not watching everyone else sail away from us and wondering what we are doing wrong. Now that our rudders are clean and in line, and the fishing nets are gone from the prop shaft we are keeping up handily with the big boys, and the conversations revolve around currents and tactics and which is the best course to steer through the Bahamas. Even better, we are going fast and making excellent time. Keep this up and we will be in NY early (another reason for much excitement – we might even beat Bridget there. And she’s flying!). There is something immensely satisfying about doing 10-11 knots with the head sails up, for hours at a time.

Of course there are periods of no wind. Race start was one, where our Le Mans start was delayed by 12 hours while the fleet motored out of a big wind hole off the coast of Panama. Our start was not without incident, as usual. Were all the sail ties off the head sails (as in Qingdao)? Were the yankee sheets properly tied on to the sail ( as in Airlie Beach)? We checked and checked for anything else that could go wrong. What else was there? Oh yes – the halyards. Our stay sail went up beautifully but the yankee halyard got wrapped around the shroud, which meant we had to partially drop the sail before raising it properly. Very gratifyingly however, we still managed to get our head sails up in the same time as the other boats around us, and our position at the upwind end of the race start line meant we had good wind to power ahead at the beginning. Wonderful!

We fell in to another wind hole about 24 hours ago and spent the 3 night watches doing a slow dance with Derry, L Max and GB, each trying to find wind and get a jump start on the others. A lot of time glued to AIS, reading course directions and speed of the competition, and trying to work out whether their sail plans were more effective than ours.

And sail changes. Lots and lots and lots of sail changes. Yankee, stay sail, spinnaker, windseeker. One after other, and back again, with spinnaker sheets changing from lightweight to heavyweight for good measure. I’m pretty sure we had all our toys out of the box over the course of the night, except for the Ginger Ninja. I ended the first night watch with my T-shirt literally soaked through with sweat, hung it up to dry during the 4-hour off watch and it was still soaked when I got up for the second night watch. This sort of constant sail changing is immense fun though, and very rewarding, and is also the reason why we have pint glasses for juice and huge numbers of Snickers bars on board!

Most satisfying again, when the sun came up we had got past LMax and GB and were about 600m away from Derry.
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With the sun came a bit more wind but it remained desultory.
James commented that if we had had the correct music and a Richard Attenborough voice over, our sailing could be the subject of a TV show; “Clipper in Nature”.
The voice over might go something like this:

‘And here you have the majestic mating rituals of the Clipper 70s.
Note how the males puff up their spinnakers to their fullest width,
while the female circles around them, flaunting her white head sails coyly.’

You get the drift. It’s up to the audience to decide which boats, of LMax, Derry and GB are the males and which the female …

Currently we are around a mile or so behind Derry, leading GB, Qingdao, PSP and Unicef. LMax is behind us and nowhere in sight. The sun is shining and we are making 10-12 knots of speed, with a cay on our right, tropical beaches beckoning. The only fly in this ointment is the bugs. We seemed to have picked up a crew of mosquitos and other bitey things while going through the passage between Haiti and Cuba, and they are feasting like blood is going out of fashion on absolutely everybody.
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The perennial scents of sweat, damp, bilge water, sun screen and aloe vera (with a slight under note of smelly shoes) have been joined by various accents of Deet and antihystamine cream. A heady cocktail indeed.

Who says ocean racing isn’t a glamorous business?

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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre

3 days, 2 oceans

Costa Rica
The end of the race from Seattle to Panama has been a very long cruise for all the boats, especially ours which is most disappointingly last. Since we were motoring for so many days we had to consider our fuel supplies, and it quickly became clear that we would not have enough to get us to our destination in Panama. Clipper had warned us about this in the pre-race briefing, and had arranged for a quick stopover in Costa Rica, to refuel. Costa Rica! How unbelievably exotic! And how wonderful that, after having spent so many months sailing past interesting and beautiful locations without stopping, we were finally able to divert and make landfall at one of them.
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Wendo promised prizes for the person to first spot land after so long at sea and it was Craig who finally yelled ‘Land Ho!’ – or actually ‘Land Hoy!’ (I think he was confusing Ho and Ahoy).
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The band of darker cloud along the skyline slowly coalesced into hills and cliffs, and as the sun set we could just about see the rainforest and smell the vegetation. That moment – smelling green and growing things after so long at sea – is one of my favourite moments of all, whenever and wherever we make landfall.
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We finally motored in to the small town of Golfito around 3.30am, to the sound of tropical insects and occasional animal calls from the rain forest. The lights of the town line the shore of the bay for perhaps half a mile, but beyond the row of lights there is nothing but the black outline of tropical jungle and steep hills. The water was very calm and it felt as though we were gliding on glass, broken only by the occasional bobbing coconut. Quite a magical moment.

We were following Mission Impossible into the harbour, and since there were only two berths available in the marina (the third was taken up by a mammoth 100ft private yacht that made our Clipper boats look positively tiny) we left PSP and Visit Seattle behind, out in the bay – they were not happy! A security guard met us at the dock, torch in one hand and gun in the other and, once both boats had moored up, was prevailed upon to open the bar (at 4.00am) and set up a tab for both crews. Result! Immediately Costa Rica became everyone’s new favourite place to dock. Several vodka and cokes, and a lot of Facebooking and text messages later, I remembered how long it had been since my last drink – and how dehydrating the humid climate is. Hmm. Maybe I should reread those FB messages…
More good news followed; not only were there showers available at the marina, and a proper cooked breakfast, but it was going to take Wendo several hours to run our passports through the local bureau and get the refuelling done, so we had several hours of shore leave in which to wander around the town and stock up on fresh food to get us to Panama.

Golfito is charming and ramshackle. Multi-million dollar yachts and catamarans are moored in the bay while the houses along the shore are built of corrugated iron, with chickens scratching around outside. A thin strip of buildings that line the only road through the town is built along the shore but within 50 feet of the water the jungle takes over and a wall of greenery climbs quickly upwards, with towering trees, flowering bushes and a profusion of vines. You very much feel as though the place has been hacked out of nature with great effort, and with very little effort could be reclaimed by it.
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A couple of hours later, with drinks, shower, breakfast and chocolate ice cream taken care of, we were back on the boat, motoring back out into to the bay, with the morning sunlight shining on what is really a tropical paradise. Costa Rica is definitely a place to revisit one day, and arriving there by boat after a month at sea was truly magical.

Panama
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24 hours later, give or take, and we made landfall again, this time at our intended destination of Panama. Coming into the approaches to the canal was another high point. AIS was littered with boat signals and as the sun came up we found ourselves weaving between huge tankers, all anchored and waiting for entry into the Canal. The numbers of tankers was only surpassed by the numbers of pelicans gliding around the bay, and perched on the rocky islets.
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Panama City was another surprise – a skyline of modern highrise buildings, with the massive Bridge of the Americas spanning the entrance to the Canal. We were mooring at Flamenco Bay marina which is built between two islands next to the Canal entrance, and were met there by the Clipper crew all wearing different coloured panama hats.
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Another pleasant surprise; the scheduling of the boats through the canal meant that we had the whole day in Panama, and the next day as well. Time for some sightseeing! But first the victualling for fresh fruit and veg to get us to NY. I (stupidly) volunteered to take on the task and myself, Rowena and Phil (who speaks Spanish) took a minibus to the supermarket to stock up. I’m pretty sure we overspent (sorry Bridget!), and may have bought too many potatoes. But it was fun watching Phil trying to explain things like J-cloths and granola in Spanish to the staff. I took care of the sundries (hot chocolate, cereal, cheese, pepper in grinders, sun screen – the essentials) while Rowena negotiated the bewildering array of weird fruit and veg on offer. I’m still not sure what half of it was.
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Back to the marina in the minibus and – disaster – someone had put the box of eggs (180 of them) on the very top of the shopping pile and when the back door was opened they did a nosedive on to the concrete. Egg-gate Part 2. If the concrete had been much hotter we would have had one jumbo omelette. We spent a good 10 minutes separating the survivors from the casualties, and ended up about 70 eggs short. I guess fritatta is off the menu…
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A very sweaty couple of hours later, stowing the food away on the boat, and I was finally able to head for my hotel and – thank goodness – a shower and air conditioning. And then a crew dinner, to celebrate Chewie’s birthday and a bid farewell to Matt. The hotel is on the shore next the Canal entrance, so my view was of tankers drifting past, with the Bridge of the Americas in the distance. Amazing!
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Given my victualling efforts I had the next morning off and, miracle of miracle, actually managed a solid 10 hours of sleep. This never happens when I hit landfall – too many days of 4-hour watches really messes with my internal body clock. So a proper sleep (in a big bed that wasn’t moving), followed by a lovely breakfast, set me up beautifully for an afternoon of walking around the old town of Panama City.
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It’s beautiful. An old Spanish colonial town with buildings going back to the mid-1800s. Half the buildings are collapsing from neglect or have been patched up in a slapdash manner over the years. The other half have been bought up by various entrepreneurs (apparently a lot of Americans are investing in Panama) and the houses are being renovated beautifully to their former glory, with cast iron balconies, high arching windows and flowering vines climbing up the walls. The Panamanians are taking advantage of the tourist interest as well, with lots of quirky bars, restaurants and coffee houses (the coffee there is amazing!), and shops filled with handmade goods, but there is still the feeling that this is a real town, with real inhabitants who live and work there and who are justifiably proud of their city. Definitely worth a wander around.
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We stopped to watch a wedding at one of the many churches in the Old Town. The bride was suitably beautiful, the dress suitably stunning and the limos enormous. But we speculated it was probably a society wedding as the groom looked bored and the happy couple hardly looked at each other.
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Or that could just be Craig projecting his ideas on marriage on to the proceedings!
To be fair, we all thought the same.
An early dinner at a lovely restaurant (vegetarian and vegan, with a meat and seafood selection – as you do) and a 4.00am wake-up call to be on the boat for 5.30.

The Canal
Many of us have considered going through the Panama Canal as one of the highlights of the entire Clipper race. Lots of the leggers have chosen Leg 7 specifically for that reason. I don’t think any of us were disappointed. It is extraordinary. An unbelievable feat of engineering with scales of construction that are humbling to someone looking at it from the inside, on the deck of a 70-foot yacht. The sheer size of the locks, for a start. You don’t realise how big they really are until you see one of those tankers (walls of metal that climb 150-200ft into the air) slide in with no problems. It all looks deceptively simple, and yet the sheer volume of water needed to keep the locks pumping is phenomenal. The water for the operation comes from a river which flows into both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and the only way they can maintain a steady flow is to ensure that the rainforest in the vicinity survives intact so that surface soil acts as a sponge and releases water at a regular rate, rather than the rainwater running off whenever there’s a storm, and alternately flooding and parching the surrounding area. As a result, the entire area around the Canal is full of nature preserves, where depredations of the natural environment are severely curtailed so that the river can continue to supply water at a regular rate. It’s wonderful to see that such a huge feat of engineering can also contribute to rainforest preservation.
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There are 3 sets of locks along the Canal, and their purpose is the raise ships up to the level of Lake Gatun, in the middle (a man-made lake created to hold the river run-off), and then to drop them back to sea level again on the other side. Each lock takes maybe 45 minutes to go through and several are in sets, so the whole journey takes about 24 hours.
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For smaller boats like ours (we rafted up with Visit and PSP), handlers lead us through the locks. The handlers (two on each side, for bow and stern lines) sling long ropes with weights on the end to us from the sides of the dock. We attach our lines to them and they are then pulled in and walked to the bollards which are used to hold our boats steady as the water is raised or lowered in the lock. Apparently these handlers are excellent at judging their throws – if they hit you with the weights on the end of the line then they mean to! They also apparently like to try and throw the lines really close to you to make you jump. Thankfully they didn’t take a dislike to anyone on board, though there was the occasional jumpy moment. For the big tankers they use engines called mules, which run on tracks alongside the locks and which have massive engines to manoeuvre the tankers so they stay clear of the sides as the water level changes.

Our passage was fairly quick, though halfway through the canal system we had to wait a couple of hours for a new set of pilots for each boat. We had been warned about not swimming while we were waiting (apparently the water is full of all sorts of delightful parasites) and, although the weather was extremely humid and hot no-one was inclined to question this – especially after someone spotted an 8-foot caiman swimming alongside the boat. It’s the first time I have ever seen a crocodile in the wild, and I really don’t need to see one any more closely!
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Finally, around 1.00am we exited the Canal and motored to rejoin the rest of the fleet. It is a very strange business, to go from one ocean to another in a little under 24 hours. We have spent so long sailing around the Pacific, that suddenly being back in the Atlantic is quite a shock. For me, the Pacific has always been the exotic, unexplored ocean while the Atlantic is my local, so suddenly the fact of nearing the end of the race is a reality. It’s quite jarring. And it makes another 9 weeks seem like a very short period of time indeed.

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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre

Sun, Swimming and Storms

Sun
I wrote about the heat previously, and temperatures reached their hottest yet this morning. Chewie and I started on the winch maintenance, which turned out to be a very uncomfortable job as not only was the deck too hot to sit on without something underneath our posteriors, but also picking up and handling the various winch parts (all metal and many coated in black against the rust) required pieces of kitchen towel to insulate against the heat. The winch grease was almost liquid in the heat and went everywhere – at least we know all the winch parts are very well lubricated now!

We also had a bit of excitement when Steve, who was helming, suddenly keeled over from the heat. Chewie was there in a flash while I grabbed the wheel and Steve was fine after a sit down in the shade with lots of water and rehydration salts. But his impression of a tree being felled (he is very very tall) was certainly impressive.
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Wendo was relaying the sports results at our daily meeting later on and realised the score on the boat is now
SUN 2 (Steve and Nugget) : YORKSHIREMEN 0.
Apparently the round yellow disk in the sky doesn’t get as far North as Yorkshire so the Aussies are providing sun education…

Swimming
Since we have missed our slot today for refuelling, we had time to burn this afternoon, so all four boats in our group decided to stop, drop the mainsails and let the crew off for a swim (it may have had something to do with how much we all smell, even with our fresh rainwater shower yesterday!). We hooked up the scramble net to the back of the boat as a ladder (when you are in the water the deck of the boat is very high up!), and pretty much everyone went in for a dip. Some were more adventurous than others and James entertained us with various dives off the A-frame, while Chewie and Wendo had another go at getting more fishing net off the prop.
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Nugget was worried about how cold the ocean would be (see previously comment about Yorkshiremen and the sun), but eventually went in to the water, and wondered what all the fuss was about – it was tepid. From the deck the water was calm with a slight swell, but when you are in it you realise how big those swells actually are, and how much current and wave action can quickly carry you away from the boat. It’s a salutary lesson about the power of the sea, when you are not immured on a 70-foot yacht.

Even in the midst of the fun (watching all the girls try to keep their bikini bottoms from falling off while climbing up the scramble net, for example, or dive bombing Nugget), I couldn’t help thinking a little about what it must be like to be in the sea when the water is not a balmy temperature and the waves are not calm and regular. Even with a life jacket on you are very much at the mercy of the waves, and if you’re not careful the boat can go from being right next to you one minute to beyond swimming distance the next. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for Sarah Young, washed overboard in the stormy, cold seas of the North Pacific, with huge swells and constant spray from all directions.
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It was a truly chilling thought in the middle of a tropical day.

Storms
Given that we are not in the tropics it was not surprising that this evening saw the arrival of some truly spectacular storm clouds. I came up on deck around sunset, and the sky looked as though it was divided neatly in two – behind us the sun was setting, with lots of fluffy pink and gold clouds and fantastic, fluorescent colours. In front of us was 50 Shades of Grey, minus the bad writing, with two huge thunderheads, one of either side of us, sheet lightning, forked lightning and torrential downpours.
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We battoned everything down, pulled on waterproofs and waited in the pitch black for the squalls to hit. And waited. And waited. And got a few drops of rain and a couple of gusts of cooler air. Eventually it was clear that we had managed to thread our way between the two squalls and spent the rest of the watch overtaking PSP and Visit Seattle (under tow) and coming up on station with Mission Impossible. We are currently about 10 miles from the entrance to the bay, with another 20 miles to reach our destination in Costa Rica.

Wendo tells us that we will have a couple of hours in the town while the refuelling happens (hooray!), so we are all thinking about what we want to eat (fresh fruit, fresh fish, cold beer and ice cream for me – not necessarily in that order, or together for that matter!), and what we will need to stock up on to get us to Panama. Frankie is voting for mangoes and pineapple, and buying pizzas for lunch. I think seriously good coffee (it’s Costa Rica after all!!!) is top of my priority list.

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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre

Slow Boat to Costa Rica

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Since we stopped racing we have been on a new watch system of 3 watches with 3 hours on and 6 hours off, as we motor further South. It allows a lot of time to catch up on sleep and also to read, watch movies (if we can pry the crew laptop off Wendo!) and generally hang out. Bunks are at a premium and those which are in a draught are sought after. People have taken to sleeping anywhere they can; sail locker (great when the hatch is open but a sweat box when it’s closed for sail changes), saloon benches, on the floor, occasionally on deck (though it means you probably end up getting moved – and sometimes helping – if the sails need changing).

We have been hoping for wind but despite a few hours yesterday with some good upwind breezes, there has been very little, and we are now in a large wind hole, going nowhere quickly. We have joined up with 3 other boats; Visit Seattle, PSP and Mission Performance, in order to support each other should the diesel for our engine run out.
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We took a careful calculation on the amount of fuel left in our tanks
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and we have much less than any of the other boats. Why? We have been revving the engine much higher than anyone else in order to maintain a similar speed to the other boats. Why? It’s back to the problem of our prop not being able to close completely due to the fishing net wrapped around it.

Also, during our upwind jaunt we were doing much much better speeds and sailing at our expected performance. Why?
We hypothesised
Hypothesised
a while ago, after dismal placings, that our two rudders may be slightly out of alignment since the new helm was put on in Seattle, and this has caused too much drag
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on the bottom of the boat. Going upwind, with one of the rudders almost out of the water, means that the lack of alignment is no longer an issue, hence more speed.

Happily, the Clipper race office has paid attention to both issues and promise to sort out of diver to look at both problems when we get to Panama. It’s a big relief to the crew to know that our bad result could be for a valid reason, and not just sour grapes following bad performance.

So, back to the motor sailing, and it’s a good thing that we have the other boats around us, since we do not have enough fuel left to get us to Costa Rica, where we are booked in for refuelling. We have paired up with Mission Performance, who have taken us under tow, so we are trekking along a boat length behind them, attached together by a mooring line. We steer in line with their movements, which is easy at the moment given that there is
little wave action and calm seas.

We did have a bit of weather this morning – about an hour of heavy rain though little wind. This meant everyone was up on deck in their underwear (not necessarily a good thing with the Zimmer Watch!), washing hair, bodies and sweaty clothing. You can get a great shower by standing under the mainsail and tipping out the water that has collected in the folds of the reef. Jo probably has the best cold water dousing dance, complete with girlie squealing.
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Those who wanted a bit of privacy to wash more sensitive areas retired to the back of the boat behind the helming stations. That was fine. What was a little more surprising was that the crew on Mission Performance did the same thing – forgetting that we are only a boat length behind them and can see everything. Several unintentional moonies later (with loud comments from us) and they realised they were probably showing us more than they (and we) wanted to see!
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Everyone is now refreshed and (relatively) clean. Even Craig’s T-shirt is no longer walking and talking on its own. It’s amazing how crew morale shoots up just with a simple thing like a proper wash.

It looks like we will have another 12 or so hours of being towed before we get close enough to have sufficient fuel to make it to Costa Rica under our own steam. It’s slow going, but the end is in sight and everyone is looking forward to finally reaching Panama after this very long leg.

Love and hugs to you from us all. More soon (since we have lots of time to write blogs!)
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Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre ad Emily Fripp.