Clipper Race Leg 1 Report - James Macfee
Leg 1 - Liverpool, UK to Punta Del Este, Uruguay
Distance: 6,300 nautical miles (officially, many more in reality) Number of souls on board: 24
Number of days at sea: 33
Finish position: 8th
We have arrived in Punta and what a good feeling that is. This first leg has lived up to all my expectations and more but it has also shed all apprehension about the length of the race as a whole. After 33 days and in reality many more miles than the official leg length of 6,300nM I was not as excited to get off the boat as I expected to be. In fact I could have easily just had a shower, a nap and headed straight back out on the water and started racing towards Cape Town. I love this race. Here are the highlights that have made it so.
After a tremendous fanfare in Liverpool, we trundled down the Irish Sea and ended up crossing the English Channel somewhere in 11th place. Ok so we had a bit of work to do.
Next up was traversing the ferocious Bay of Biscay. Our skipper pre-warned us that the Biscay has teeth and can bit hard. All we got was a gummy toddler gently sucking on a pinky finger. In fact we had a brief wind hole.
As we charged down the North Atlantic we got work trying to catch up with the fleet. Or not as the case was. What we did do though was a lot of rotation of roles on board. Especially as we started to get the spinnakers (codes) up we worked on getting all the crew comfortable helming and trimming particularly at night.
So if you can imagine we are sailing down the Spanish and Portuguese coast then down along the coast of Africa outside the Cape Verde Islands towards the Doldrums crossing. This is about where we had our big break. To sail between both halves of the Atlantic you have to cross the Doldrums / ITCZ / Intertropical convergence zone. This is where the trade winds on either side meet and is usually an area of little or no wind. AS the leading boats entered the doldrums we got lucky and managed to tread a fine line between weather systems, coming out in a much better 5/6th position. Then came the motoring corridorwhere all boat are allowed to motor through the calm waters but must keep engines on for a fixed amount of time once switched on. We switched ours on later and by the time the other boats were back under sail, we still had some motoring time remaining and lost places dammit. I have now bought three books on reading the weather to take on the next leg! Donations are being put to good use.
About 6 days out from Punta it all got very exciting again with a developing wind hole. So now after 20 something days and 6,000nm there was the potential for the whole fleet to be equalised. Sensational. Team Liverpool tried to manoeuvre around and through the weather systems and needed up in a fierce battle for position with Team Garmin and Hotelplanner. This was exciting racing.
During the race we get position reports every 6 hours. We compare how everyone is doing and plot them onto our charts to see where each boat is positioned and how they are doing in the different weather. But every now and then we are close enough about 13-20 miles from another boat and they appear on our live chart plotter through the AIS system. We can then see a live feed of their boat speed and course. And this is how we spent the last 3 days of the race with Garmin. Constant calls from the helm to the nav station.... “What speed are those *&£%^@% doing? What’s their course?” And then either cheers when we were doing better or angered attempts to re-trim the sails when we weren’t. This match race carried on and I spent two and half hours freezing in the dark rain on the helm trying to catch them on the final night. I only handed over the helm because I could no longer move the wheel as my hands were so cold (well, it wasn’t that cold I was just severely under dressed having spent most of the leg in shorts and t-shirt).
We didn’t make it. Hotelplanner and Garmin both crossed the line in front of us. But as we came round the final corner there they both were still packing up. After six and half thousand miles of sailing and 33 days at see we finished within 33 minutes of each. Insane. No way did I expect that. Certainly made finishing 8th a little easier to swallow.
View from 100 feet up the mast!
En route we saw pods of dolphins, a couple of pilot whales, flying fish and Gannets who followed the boat ready to chase after flying fish as we disturbed them. A tiny little bird stayed with us for 3 or 4 days - Captain Jack Sparrow (we no know he wasn’t a sparrow...or necessarily a he) but the absolute best bit was the photoplankton or phosphorescence or bioluminescence or nauti-lucas (Spanish). In the Doldrums we had a few dolphins come by at night. In this glow they looked like torpedoes charging in and out from the boat like scenes from Pearl Harbour.....unfortunately the boat wasn’t moving fast enough for me to pretend I was Matt Damon in a fighter plane but this was the single, most beautiful and incredible moment of the whole trip.
I was asked to be a watch leader on this leg due to my previous sailing experience. Actually it’s terrifying to think I am one of the most experienced sailors on the boat at this stage. I can see Shrek and Grumps shaking their heads....well its everything I’ve learned from you.
This basically made me, along with the Skipper and the other watch leader, in charge of the boat. We are trying to keep an eye on everyone’s safety on the boat, do some coaching and mostly keep the boat going as fast as possible in the right direction. This includes making calls on when to change the sails or change direction and the three of us spend a fair amount of time in front of the chart plotter with the weather files both day and night.
I haven’t been able to work out whether I enjoy this role or not. The responsibility scares me and some of the time I just wish to be up on the bow or driving the boat and listening to someone else’s instruction. Equally I have enjoyed being so involved in the tactical decisions and trying to learn about weather routing. Feedback from the crew has been mostly positive as long as I put on my outdoor voice. My family won’t believe me but there have been no tears from any of my watch! So I will continue in the role as long as the crew and skipper want me there.
See you in Cape Town!
James Macfee - Elliot Brown Ambassador aboard Liverpool 2018