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Around the World with Catherine Nurrsaw

March 8, 2006

An unexpectedly warm and tropical hello to you all from the sunny Philippines, as opposed to the anticipated sub-zero climes of China. Those of you who have not been following our progress avidly on the Clipper website (shame on you! why not?) may not have heard that this section of the race has had to be abandoned and all the boats diverted to the Philippines, after problems were discovered with the keels of 7 out of the 10 boats. Yup, 7 out of 10 have serious cracks and/or movement in the keel - this is not a good average!

This unexpected development occurred on my birthday - which was otherwise a perfectly splendid day. I was greeted with a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" every single time I passed through the saloon, I was given a lovely card signed by all my crew-mates (as well as getting to open the various cards sent to me previously via Fremantle and Singapore - many thanks for those!), and Mother Watch even made me a delicious chocolate birthday cake - in short, I was thoroughly spoiled and plan to have a birthday at least once a month from now on, in spite of the unfortunate effect this will have on my age.

At lunchtime, however, Craig informed us that Glasgow was withdrawing from the race and diverting to the Philippines having discovered that they were taking on water from cracks in the keel. We all felt very bad about this as Glasgow has had a run of truly wretched luck right from the very start of the race, and everyone had really hoped that things were going to start going their way on this leg. Anyway, we sent off a message of support from the whole crew, but naturally having had this news Craig decided to do a check to see that our own keel was sound. Ooops. Ours wasn't nearly as bad as Glasgow's, but there were definite cracks and signs of movement - not something you'd want to take into potentially very large seas. In addition, we'd developed a slight problem with the rudder early on in this section of the race, and although this on its own would not have prevented us from racing to Qingdao, the combination of the rudder and the keel problems was just too much of a risk.

Accordingly, Craig reluctantly announced that we too were abandoning the race and heading for the Philippines. Naturally, just after this decision the wind change that we had been hoping for finally came through - if we'd still been racing, we would have been able to sail downwind, probably with our spinnaker up, and make up heaps of ground on the other boats. Typical! Instead, this meant that we had to beat upwind all the way to the Philippines - every time we went crashing into the waves, everyone would try to work out whether the boat really was groaning and shuddering more than usual or if that was just imagination!

In short order after our announcement that we were withdrawing, news came in from boat after boat that they too had discovered the same problems and were withdrawing. In the end only 3 of the boats did not find any problems with their keel, but clearly all of the boats need to be taken out of the water and checked thoroughly before they can continue. Accordingly, Clipper cancelled the race and sent everyone to the Philippines.

Glasgow had by far the hardest time getting here. They were taking on so much water that they were all set up to abandon ship if necessary, with everyone in their lifejackets and taking turns to pump out the water for 10 minutes each on constant rotation. Qingdao diverted to stand by them in case of emergency, but then as they had to beat into the wind and crash into the waves, their own keel problems got worse and they too started to take on water. Singapore therefore turned back to stand by the two of them, being one of the only 3 not to have found any problems with their own keel.

Thankfully, all of the boats are now in safely and Glasgow is already out of the water to be checked out. This is clearly a huge issue to be dealt with - representatives from Clipper, the boat designer and the boatyard in China that built the boats are all flying out and should get here over the next day or so.

At this stage, rumours are flying around but nobody has any real idea what's going to happen. It doesn't seem possible that the boats can be fixed properly in just a day or so - it surely will take a minimum of several weeks, potentially a lot longer. Until the boats have all been checked and a timetable for repair work has been set. we simply do not know if the race will continue with a modified timetable, or an amended route, or indeed whether it will be able to continue at all, though we are all hopeful that it will not have to be abandoned altogether.

So, watch this space (or the Clipper website) for further updates as and when we get more news. In the mean time, if we have to be stranded somewhere, this is about the best place possible to be. The coastline as we sailed in is spectacularly beautiful, we're staying in a lovely marina with excellent facilities, the weather is glorious, and the Philippines is a very cheap place to stay. All in all, for the round the worlders in particular, things could be a whole lot worse. It's much harder on the leggers who have onward flights booked from Qingdao, and for those who have people flying out to Qingdao to meet them, and especially for the new leggers who are meant to be joining us in Qingdao shortly. The rest of us are just making the most of the situation and enjoying the unexpected rest and continued good weather - and counting ourselves very lucky these problems did not arise when we would have been stuck somewhere like Japan, which is in the middle of a freezing winter and is also a horrendously expensive place to stay.

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