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Around the World with Catherine Nurrsaw

May 16, 2006

Yes, someone has finally beaten the notorious Clipper "home port" curse, and if it couldn't be us (though really, why couldn't it have been?) then it couldn't have happened to a better boat than Victoria, who romped home with a somewhat annoyingly large lead. Not as large as it looked at one stage that it might be - they were only 43 miles from the finishing line while we were stuck motionless in a wind-hole some 100 miles behind them, but then - between lack of wind and too much tide in the wrong direction - they took about 36 hours to do that final 43 miles, which we eventually raced down in less than 12 hours. They got in on Friday morning (5 May) and we got in about 11 hours later on Friday evening.

All the more impressive for Victoria Clipper given that Ewan, their skipper, had seriously injured his knees during the race to Qingdao - he was on the foredeck, helping with a headsail change, and he got swept down the deck by a huge wave, ending up on one side of the inner forestay with his legs twisted round the other side. He was fitted with a leg brace and given crutches at the hospital in Qingdao, but had to spend most of this leg of the race below decks. He has told me that since this strategy was so clearly successful he is going to spend the rest of the race reclining in his bunk and shouting up the occasional order to his crew.

Anyway, enough about Victoria Clipper - what about Durban? What can I say about this latest leg of the race? Hmmm....positive things, only positive things.....
No 1) It was very nice when it finished.
No 2) The last few days were not bad at all.
No 3) The company was excellent.
No 4) We came in in 2nd place - yay!!!
No 4) Umm.....have I mentioned that it was really, really good to finish this leg?

This was definitely the hardest leg so far. From Qingdao to Victoria took us 29 days and the sun probably only shone for about 4 of those days. Out of the first 20 days we had 17 days of gale to severe gale force winds. The water temperature dropped to 2 degrees - I don't know what the air temperature was, but we regularly had snow and hail (on one occasion it hailed so heavily that within a few minutes the snakepit had about an inch of hailstones in the bottom), and with the wind chill factor it must have been minus a fair bit. I have certainly been colder on occasion, and wetter, and more uncomfortable, but I have never in my life been so cold, wet and uncomfortable for so long with no chance of getting warm, dry and comfortable.

Everything was wet, all the time. Condensation dripped from the ceiling onto my sleeping bag - fortunately that at least was waterproof, though getting into it with damp feet meant that it felt a bit damp inside. My cave locker had several inches of water in the bottom of it. My last pair of "dry" socks were kept in a zip-lock bag inside a vacuum-seal bag inside my cave locker, and were soaking when I got them out. I wore sailing boots with plastic bags inside them, over waterproof socks with plastic bags inside them, over ordinary socks, and my feet were still wet and freezing. I'm lucky, though - I've suffered no ill-effects at all, whereas several people from several of the boats including Durban have had to go to the doctor since arriving in Victoria with pain or loss of sensation in their feet - some kind of mild frostbite I guess.

It was so cold that for part of the leg we switched back to a 3 watch system, doing 2 hours on watch and then having 4 hours off, to give the helmsmen more of a chance to rest and get warm. When we were on watch, there would usually only be 2 people on deck for 20 minutes at a time, because that was pretty much as long as anyone could last and do anything useful. Then we would come down below for 20 minutes to try to warm up again - most of us rushed straight for the kettle and would stand there for most of the 20 minutes just clutching it, trying to warm up our hands and dry out our gloves.

It's an amazing thing - nobody seems to have been able to develop a pair of sailing gloves that will actually keep your hands reasonably warm and dry. Between us, we must have had a huge variety of brands and types of gloves, some of them very expensive, yet after the first really cold wet day nobody had warm dry hands. Once the fruit and vegetables had run out, the netting in the saloon was transformed into a glove-drying area - it looked rather festive, almost like a Christmas tree, with all the pairs of gloves hanging down dripping merrily.

My hate-hate relationship with my lifejacket has escalated into outright war. I try to foil its attempts to unravel and be free by tying it up with more bits of wool than the spinnakers, and it retaliates by inflating at unexpected and usually embarrassing moments. On one occasion, when I was sitting by the helm looking after the mainsheet, I was washed off my seat by a huge wave and ended up lying on my back behind the helmsman's legs with my lifejacket inflated, waving my feet in the air like an upturned beatle and unable to right myself for a while, much to the helmsman's amusement. Another time we were attempting to gybe but the spinnaker sheet had fallen below the pole that was about to be dropped (ummm... sorry about the salty seadog technical stuff - it would be too long and boring to explain why that's a bad thing, but it is) so I had to go up the guy to put it back on top. This is fairly easy when it's warm and sunny and you're wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but becomes rather more of an effort when you weigh twice as much as usual because you're wearing practically every item of clothing you can fit under your foulies and life-jacket. Anyway, I had climbed over the side and was starting to pull myself hand over hand up the guy (with the help of a safety harness and a halyard to hold me up, of course) when an absolutely huge wave submerged me completely, setting off my lifejacket again. I emerged like some bizarre combination of koala bear and puffer fish, holding tightly onto the guy but unable to reach the valve to deflate my jacket. In the end I had to slide back down the guy, get back on deck where kind hands helpfully deflated me, then head back over the side and up the guy again.

I was so soaked on that occasion that it was one of the very few times on this leg that I actually had a bucket bath. I am ashamed to confess that one of the revelations of this leg for me has been that my standards of hygiene definitely drop with the temperature. It's amazing how long you can get by with just wet wipes and by constantly wearing a hat, if it gets cold enough!

And speaking of hats, the spinnaker stole my favourite beanie one night and dropped it overboard, leaving me to make do with a rather bizarre medieval peasant-style hat for the rest of the leg. This caused considerable amusement to the rest of the crew and to Craig in particular - in fact, he found it so funny that he thought it should be shared with the general public, and insisted I should be the one to be filmed launching the message in a bottle that we were given by the authorities in Qingdao to throw overboard when we crossed the international dateline. So if you see me on TV looking like a reject from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that's why.

This leg did not have much in the way of spectacular dawns or sunsets, or interesting marine life - in fact, I only saw 2 whales on the whole leg, and that was in the distance on the last day. However, we did have one odd night when the boat was over-run by birds - like something out of a Hitchcock movie, but less sinister.

First to arrive was a racing pigeon, so hungry and exhausted that it took refuge in the snakepit and didn't move for several hours. I fed it on some grain-type cereal and eventually it perked up enough to start moving around leaving little offerings all over the place, which were not greatly appreciated.

When it got dark we were worried that if the pigeon stayed in the snakepit someone might jump on top of it if anything needed to be done with the sails, so we moved it to the wheel, behind the rail and netting that are supposed to break waves before they hit the helmsman. It stayed there all night, but clearly somehow it got the word out to its avian buddies that Durban Clipper was providing B & B, and that night we were infested with small, exhausted birds.

I was sitting at the mainsheet again when I felt something on my head, reached up and picked off this tiny little thing - possibly a tern? I'm really not up on bird identification. Anyway, I held it in my hands for a while to warm it up, before I had to put it down to do some actual work. Meanwhile, another bird had landed in the crook of Craig's elbow as he was helming - he let it stay there for about an hour, then asked me to remove it as he'd realised he was barely turning the wheel because he was trying not to disturb it! So I warmed that one up for a bit - then another one (or possibly the same one as before) landed on my head again!

In the morning, all the little birds had gone but the pigeon was still there, evidently having decided that this was its new home. However, at this point we were within sight of Japan, and it seemed that this was really its only chance of survival, as it would not have lasted all the way to Victoria with us - apart from anything else, Mark was already talking longingly about pigeon pie. So I shooed it off repeatedly, even though it kept circling and trying to land on the boat for quite a while. Hope it made it back to land!

Qingdao apparently had an owl land on their boat that night, but I say that's just showing off.

What else can I say about the race? The last few days were quite different from the rest of the leg. For one thing, the sun came out and we got stuck in a windhole for ages, which was somewhat frustrating - especially when Liverpool, who had been waaaay behind us, suddenly appeared 2 miles ahead of us. Fortunately we managed to get back ahead of them and then, on the last day, we got some amazing wind and roared down the channel in to Victoria - doing 3 spinnaker changes in 20 minutes at one point as the wind built and built. It was amazing after so long out of sight of land to see the incredibly beautiful coastline - Canada on the left and America on the right, both with stunning snow-capped mountains in the background.

Arrival in Victoria was wonderful, with a warm welcome both from the Victoria Clipper guys and from the local volunteers, who have been incredibly friendly and helpful ever since we got here. In fact, after a couple of nights in a B & B, I transferred to the home of one of the volunteers, Keith, who is very kindly putting up both myself and Avanti, another Durban crew-member.

The stopover here has been so much better than the one in Qingdao - not least because we have actually had some time off to relax and enjoy ourselves. Of course, we were very lucky to come in early - poor Jersey didn't get in until last Thursday, after 35 days at sea. They've really had a lot of bad luck - this is the second time they've had to divert and put in to land because of problems with their forestay, and the second time they've had to medevac someone off the boat following an injury. This time unfortunately the injury was quite severe - the injured man, Huw, was transferred on to a US icebreaker and taken to the Aleutian Islands, and is still in hospital at the moment. Another man on the Qingdao Clipper was injured earlier on, when they were closer to Japan - he dislocated his shoulder, and as they had no doctor on board no one was able to get it back in - they made 15 attempts over 3 days before diverting towards the coast and transferring him onto a rescue vessel. The poor guy must have been in agony!

Luckily we had no injuries on board Durban this time, and John (who broke a rib on the way to Qingdao) has recovered quite well and will be rejoining us when the race starts again on Wednesday. I'd rather like to have longer here, as it's such a beautiful place and I'd love to see more of it, but at least we'll be heading towards warmer weather again and hopefully the next leg will be a lot easier than the last!

That's quite enough from me for now. Once again, thanks to all of you who have sent me e-mails and the usual apologies to anyone who hasn't yet had an individual reply. Please keep writing - it's so good to hear from you all!

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