“There were times when people were vomiting from the sheer physical exertion”. Each year, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race pushes ten crews beyond any limits they thought they ever had and it’s sign-up time again. We spoke to Brendan Hall, winning skipper of the 2009-2010 Clipper to get a taste of what it’s like out on those vast oceans.
Established in 1996 by Sir Robin Knox Johnston, first solo circumnavigator of the globe, the Clipper yacht race takes amateur crews, with professional skippers, and puts them through some of the toughest sailing imaginable. Conditions onboard are spartan and conditions on the water can be savage.
The ten boats are 68-foot stripped-down racing yachts. They’re identical and built to the same budget; with no boat having a technical advantage, it’s down to pure sailing. Brendan’s boat was the Spirit of Australia and in the eight legs it took to circumnavigate the globe, he and his crew faced some of the toughest challenges of the race.
On the second leg, Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, Spirit of Australia weathered serious setbacks, including a crash gybe. “Basically when you’re sailing downwind, with the wind behind you, and you steer too far one way, the boom can swing out and round and crash into the gear,” explains Brendan.
“In the South Atlantic we were just hit by a monstrous wave. The strongest line on the entire boat is attached to the bow to stop that [a crash gybe] happening, but this wave just snapped a rope – a rope with 16 tonnes of breaking strength – like parcel string.”
“Suddenly there’s 450 kg of alloy swinging across the deck – it’s a terrifying power,” says Brendan. “It has the power to kill – anyone who got caught by it would be killed instantly. Luckily the crew all had the sense to hit the deck.”
“I made the mistake of pushing us and the boat too hard on that leg. We tore one of our most hardworking sails and blew a shackle. At one point it did just feel like nothing was going our way. When we got to Cape Town, though, we could sit back and take stock, and I think it really played a part in binding us together as a team.”
Brendan sighs after recounting the crash gybe, but states that it’s teamwork that will get you through. It’s tricky to bond together a group of relative strangers into a round-the-world sailing crew, and physical exhaustion is a real problem.
“There are actually long periods where you’re sitting about, and that’s almost worse. Then the real exertion comes and suddenly you’re having to drag a sail – our mainsail weighed 250 kg – and you’re cold and wet and having to drag a weight like that round a corner. That’s where the sheer endurance comes through.
“All of the crew came away with some kind of injury. There were times when people were vomiting from the sheer physical exertion; people had be taken off deck because they lost feeling in their legs or started to get frostbite.”
When the exhaustion sets in; when the crew is cold and wet; tempers fray and Brendan is adamant that his victory was down in part to moulding together a good team. Brendan is even writing a book on how the challenges of the Clipper can relate to business and team building.
The mighty Pacific ocean offers a few more challenges than meeting a monthly sales target, however, and Spirit of Australia was far from calm waters. Leg 6, from China to the west coast of the USA, took the boats from Qingdao down the coast of Japan and then across the Pacific to San Francisco. “It takes five-and-a-half weeks,” Brendan says grimly, “the weather was horrendous, we were just hit by these low pressure fronts, some of which were hurricane force. It was really scary. So, so scary.”
Winds were gusting up to 70 knots and waves reached 80-90 ft high, pushing Spirit of Australia down with each impact.
It’s compelling to hear a skipper admit real fear, but weather systems caused more problems when Piers Dudin, the skipper of rival boat Hull and Humber, broke his leg and Spirit of Australia went to help. Brendan would have to reach Hull and Humber and take command. Not an easy task in the rolling Pacific.
“We did the transfer 600 miles from Japan and we had an afternoon, a little window where one weather system had overtaken us, before the next one hit. The seas were rough but not enormous. I got into my diving drysuit and I was lying across between the two boats [through the waves]. It is something I never want to go through again,” he adds with heavy dose of understatement.
With Piers onboard “drugged up to his eyeballs on morphine” and Brendan “strung between two ropes” it was an exceptionally perilous situation for both boats. Piers was taken to safety onboard a Japanese coast guard vessel and Brendan now in command of Hull and Humber had to trust in his crew on Spirit as they both headed for San Francisco.
Brendan’s voice suddenly loses its sunny Aussie accent. “We were no longer racing at that point,” he tells me. “We were just fighting for survival. The thought did cross my mind that people might die; I was so worried, I went to the heads [on board toilets] and threw up.”
Now, Spirit of Australia was tasked with providing escort duty to the Spirit of California which had rolled and been dis-masted.
“She was relying on her engine, but she didn’t have enough diesel to make it to port. So Spirit and Humber basically ended up as fuel tankers. We were having to fill up jerry cans with diesel, raft them up and throw them into the water for the California to pick up.”
This meant that both Spirit and Humber ended up being able to only generate power for an hour a day, I joke that it must have been miserable, but Brendan replies earnestly that “the California was in a worse state. When they rolled several crew members were injured and one needed to be evacuated to a ship and needed facial reconstructive surgery, it was a gruesome injury and the entire crew was very traumatised.”
As grim as this sounds, Brendan is adamant that the toughest sections of the race were the most important.
“Getting into San Fran with the other two boats there as well, it made the race not less important, but perhaps less significant. We had come through safe. It was also my proudest moment, seeing the Spirit of Australia make it into harbour. It’s never been done before [amateur crew sailing without a skipper] in the history of the Clipper, much less across the hardest section of the race, getting battered by the weather.”
“The Clipper is a round-the-world race, so no boat is going to escape a few crises and it really teaches you about teamwork and each other – knowing that the lives of others in your hands is a great responsibility. It generates a trust that you rarely find ashore. People tell me that after finishing the race, that they don’t sweat the small stuff any more. Problems of day-to-day life just become insignificant.”