Derry’s clipper – living like a pauper, feeling like a king

There was a big send off for the amateur crews on board the ten yachts competing in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race, including Derry-Londonderry, the UK City of Culture 2013.
There was a big send off for the amateur crews on board the ten yachts competing in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race, including Derry-Londonderry, the UK City of Culture 2013.

Ahead of Sunday’s cannon-start to the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2011-12, the Journal’s Ian Cullen caught up with the driven crew members aiming to sail Derry’s entry to victory. During a five hour sailing trip between the Clipper competition’s Gosport base and the Southampton starting point, he discovered just how physically an emotionally testing the 40,000 mile-long challenge will be for those about to do battle all that the world’s oceans can throw at them in the next 12 months.

There’s no hiding place aboard the ‘Derry~Londonderry’ clipper.

Michelle McCann, a teacher from Thornhill College, on board the clipper

Michelle McCann, a teacher from Thornhill College, on board the clipper

That’s the thought that niggles at the back of the mind during a tour of the subsistence accommodation below the deceivingly inviting and colourful deck of the 68 foot-long racing yacht. It may seem glamorous to those looking on from ashore but such a superlative has no connection with the interior of this boat – the phrase ‘nice from afar but far from nice’ springs to mind. Anything not absolutely essential to survival at sea has been stripped for maximum speed on the waves. To describe the living quarters or should I say surviving quarters as basic would be more than a naïve understatement. It’s more akin to sleeping rough in the luggage compartment of a coach with several others while it trundles along an infinite winding road riddled with dips and crests. Then of course there’s the manky cocktail of smells – a stomach churning fusion of the fruity fragrance associated with 18 people living in close quarters without proper washing facilities, the pungent whiff of spilled diesel and the mouldy stench of saturated ropes and wet sails.

Add to that the fact that there’s no sign of dry land for many weeks on end, furious storms, crashing waves, driving rain and the rationing of sleep and basic non-perishable food stuffs. For much of the race each sailor is entitled to just four hours sleep at a time on a four hours on, four hours off basis while daily food rationing consists largely of dried or tinned foods with rice or pasta.

So why then do hundreds of people clamber each year to spend thousands of pounds of their money to be a part of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race? The answer is simple: These driven individuals are more than prepared to live like paupers to feel like kings. Welcome to the world of ocean racing – a character-building realm that many have found to be life changing and some life-defining.

The crew members of the Derry entry have already forged a tight bond following their extensive training programme ahead of Sunday’s cannon-fire start at the famous port of Southampton. They have become a band of brothers and sisters, having already endured many of the ups and downs that go hand in hand with family life in the most testing of circumstances.

Journal reporter Ian Cullen checks out the cooking facilities aboard the vessel.

Journal reporter Ian Cullen checks out the cooking facilities aboard the vessel.

They’re prepared to deal with the conditions, eating and sleeping in a disciplined fashion and battling germs with daily anti-bacterial sweeps of the vessel. Then, of course, there’s the ferocity of mother nature at her wickedest in the world’s oceans to overcome. In a high seas emergency everyone must know what to do.

Some of the crew have already experienced some hair-raising moments on the high seas. ‘Derry~Londonderry’ skipper Mark Light (39), a qualified engineer whose love for sailing drove him to become a professional yachtsman, has raced all over the world. However, he experienced one of his most challenging encounters much closer to home. “We were on our way back from Derry which we visited several weeks ago and the weather conditions changed very rapidly – the wind went from gale force eight to gale force ten and gale force twelve very quickly. We were in a tricky situation near the Mull of Kintyre and were about ten miles of the coast which is little close in those conditions.”

The crew rode the dangerous conditions well – something that will stand to them in the race around the world “especially” in the roaring swells of the Southern Ocean of the Pacific, says the captain.

The crew is a well balanced mix of novices and seasoned sailors with the experienced heads making up what are known on board as the ‘round the Worlders’, the brave souls who have thrown in their lot for the entirety of the race which costs just short of £50,000 per berth.

Two Derry sailors are among those who will endeavour to fulfill their dream of a lifetime by travelling the full 40,000 mile round the world trip: Grandmother Michelle McCann and 61 year-old John Harkin.

Michelle, who is originally from Derry but lives in Greencastle, is a maths teacher at Thornhill College. For many years Michelle sailed with her late husband Dan for pleasure during the summer months but she has never before committed to such gruelling challenge as the Clipper Race. The mother of three grown up children decided it was “a once in a lifetime thing” that she had to take on because an Atlantic crossing was always a “retirement plan” for her and her husband.

Michelle is the boat’s victualler, the key role of ensuring there are enough food supplies for the crew throughout the global voyage. And preparing a nourishing list of recipes as well as sourcing adequate food rashions with a budget of just £3.50 per person per day is no easy task. But Michelle has taken to the job with gusto. “You’d be surprised what you can get for such little money when you try,” she says. It may be bargain basement ingredients but there will be three square meals a day. “Each day meals are bagged individually and numbered, and we’ll be baking our own bread everyday,” Michelle adds.

As one of the most experienced sailors aboard, John is always ready to lend advice and pre-empt problems. He’s keen not to“get the name of being a know it all” but equally is anxious to ensure that everyone is working in harmony to give the Derry entry the best possible chance in the competition.

“I live and breath racing and this is a race I really want to win and I believe we can win it.” Yachting really brings out the competitor in the Culmore Road man. “When I get on board I grow horns whereas I’m very quiet generally.”

Such determination is exactly what the founder and organiser of the race, Sir Robin Knox Johnson – who has Coleraine connections – is looking for in the race. The first man to circumnavigate the world single handedly on a boat “no one in their right mind would today sail to the Isle of Wight”, Sir Robin is no doubt an inspiration for John and everyone else taking part in the event.

Both Michelle and John have an idea of just how tough the race will be on every aspect of day to day living. But of everyone on the team only the skipper really knows how testing such a long haul race can be.

He’s quick to point out that everyone must muck in and is well aware of the dangers of mistakes at sea. “Anyone who’s not helping is dead weight and it’s part of my job to ensure that everyone knows what is required of them. This is a small area, no one can hide from their tasks and we all work together as team at all times.”

He has experienced the exhilaration of such team work when it pays dividends and can literally leave the crew on top of the world by drawing on all his sailing expertise in the weeks and months ahead.

Mark and his crew believe that the hardships endured on such an adventure are a small price to pay for the rush of satisfaction and exhileration of competing with the world’s oceans.

When we understand such a mindset, we understand that while Derry’s great hopes for world domination may live like paupers, they are truly kings of the seven seas.