Final preparations are being made for the big push – the 270 mile sprint sail to Southampton is just one more sleep away.
At 10am tomorrow, the fleet will slip from the pontoon in a parade of sail to mark the beginning of the end of the Clipper Round the World Race 2011-12. I’ll finally discover the hard way if I’ve got the legs for the rough and tumble of life on the open sea and the crew is hopeful that mother nature will grant us fair wind for fast, competitive sailing. Following the port festivities, the cannon will sound for the official race start at 12.30. Then we’ll be on our own as we head for the North Sea and the English Channel.
I’ve skived off to write this blog as the crew - refreshed after almost a week spent in hotels – get to work on some minor repairs and other finishing touches. Ashore, they have their work and I have mine but once we cast off I’m prepared to muck in despite my distinct lack of sailing knowledge.
This morning I attended the mass crew briefing where the ins and outs of the sprint from Den Helder were explained in detail. There was a run of the mill briefing on the parade of sail farewell, weather patterns and sea traffic.
A tight security operation is to begin early tomorrow with sniffer dogs and customs officials to visit each of the ten yachts from 7am. On top of that an even more thorough operation is expected on arrival in Southampton. And as if the port checks were not enough, there are fears - due to increased security ahead of the upcoming London Olympic Games – that yachts may be stopped and boarded mid-race. Such stoppages, says legendary seaman and Clipper Round the World Race founder Sir Robin Knox Johnston, will - unfortunately for the crews seeking to improve their overall standings in the global challenge - be “without any redress”.
But why should the Derry crew worry about matters outside of their control. Having adequately rested up the sailors are chomping at the bit to get back on the high seas. All are relishing the challenge despite the fact that it is a relatively short crossing. However, there is a feeling of sadness among them too, especially for those who have sailed on the yacht since the beginning of the race and those who took part in several of the gruelling legs. Round the worlder, Michelle McCann – a Thornhill College Maths teacher – admits it will be difficult for her to settle back into normality at first and to part ways with her new found family aboard the Derry~Londonderry. This morning she was repairing sails on board for the last time and it was easy to see that such matters had become a part of her routine – a world away from teaching algebra and calculus in the warmth and security of the classroom.
Retired Derry businessman and seasoned yachtsman John Harkin, also a round-the-world sailor, would quite happily have finished in Derry, having fulfilled a lifetime ambition to sail on the oceans of the world.
As for me, I’m bursting with anticipation ahead of the race and dreading the possibility of an attack of sea sickness.
Yesterday I had the good fortune to be invited to get a preview of the run-up to tomorrow’s race start in a dummy run to establish the exact length of time taken to motor from the canal to the harbour start line. Accompanied by race directors, Joff Bailey and Justin Taylor as well as Den Helder’s harbour master and the Derry~Londonderry skipper Mark Light and crew member Ben Turner – who at 19 is the youngest participant in the entire race – I ensured that the journey was an educational experience. With the help of Ben and Justin, I tried my hand at some basic seamanship. In other words I struggled to learn how to tie a couple of essential knots: the bow line (which involves visualising an invisible rabbit, a hole and a tree) and the clove hitch. I was quite pleased with the results and I’m hoping the brief training will stand up under pressure.
Following a second night spent sleeping in the boat, I’m acclimatising to the cramped conditions. From the rumours doing the rounds among the crew I should make sure to get a good long rest tonight as it’s being mooted that we’re going to work around the clock in the final race. “No watches, no sleep ‘til Southampton,” the skipper said although no-one seems entirely sure if he means it. But if it’s going to be a case of all hands to the pump, then so be it. I may regret writing this in the event of a ‘famous last words’ scenario arising, but it’s only for three nights so what’s the worst that can happen?
The reason for the urgency is that the Derry~Londonderry’s overall standing is at stake. The city’s yacht may not be able to achieve its initial aim of a podium finish in the 2011-12 race but the crew still has plenty to race for. For Mark’s crew (he’s more affectionately known as Sparkey) it’s simply a two boat race.“We can still finish in eighth place, we just have to finish ahead of Qingdao and we’ll be doing all we can to achieve that. The race is far from over yet.”
Despite finishing in last place in the race from Derry to The Netherlands, the Derry~Londonderry crew have tasted sweet success in Den Helder. On Monday the city’s yacht won the De Lage Landen Cup in a local regatta organised to mark the stopover. A large hamper of champers and other goodies, along a sterling silver shield, engraved DLL Winners 2012, was gratefully received by Sparkey and his crew. But having climbed down from the high of yachting success, it’s now all about getting back into the zone for the real thing one last time.
By Sunday morning all will be revealed, winners and all. Rest assured there are no losers in this race. After all when you tell someone you’ve raced a sailing boat around the world they’re hardly likely to be hung up on how long it took!