The Clipper training begins on the solent - Flakes, custard creams and wet bunks

I started my level 1 training in Gosport with a bit of trepidation and absolutely no idea what to expect. It seemed that I had chosen one of the coldest weeks of the winter so far to train, although stupidly I completely overlooked this!

I got to the clipper training centre and it was slightly like having arrived to embark on a school trip, apart from that this was with a load of people I didn’t know and I am now in my twenties. When I thought about it like that, I thought I must be completely mad, I’m quite bad with people I don’t know – I much prefer the comfort of people I do know! Suddenly I was going on a 70ft yacht with 8 people I didn’t know at all, for a whole week! This just added to the excitement though and the realisation that Clipper is going to be the most fantastic way to meet new people.

Anyway, I digress, the first thing we did was be taken to the boats. Climbing down into the cabin of a freezing, huge, sparse, cavernous yacht…what on earth was I doing here?! We were assigned to our bunks, I grabbed a bottom one knowing I need the loo in the night and didn’t fancy falling out a top one in the dark (onto someone below I didn’t know!) I very quickly realised that I wouldn’t be needing my pyjamas which I had neatly folded up onto my travel pillow (complete with pillowcase).

We had our debrief with Skipper Paul and first mate Ben. That’s when reality hit – this was no holiday, this was going to be extremely full on! We ate a delicious (?) meal of tinned curry before our first theory session…better be getting used to those tinned meals! All my weeks of thinking about life on the boat and it dawned on me that I hadn’t really thought about the sailing part at all! Oh wow, I had a lot to learn….

Everyone on the boat was great, we quickly got to know each other and starting becoming more comfortable with each other! A quick pre bed trip to the pub in Gosport definitely helped with this! The most brilliant thing about this experience was that backgrounds, age, finance, culture etc didn’t come into this at all. We only knew each other with one thing in mind – we were all doing the clipper race. No pre judgements, no opinions, exactly how it should be!

Well after our first night’s sleep I very quickly realised that I didn’t have enough warm clothes, didn’t have a warm enough sleeping bag, travel pillows are horrendous and this was going to be tough! Up at 6 and cooking breakfast for everyone quickly warmed me up! As the day went on, I realised that the smugness of choosing a bottom bunk was quickly wearing off – I had chosen the bunk right next to the hatch which got wet every time it was opened! Which was often, to pass up/down fenders, ropes, sails etc. It soon transpired that one of things you would most rely on this week was sleep, and being keen for a good bunk meant I would have a damp one…lesson learnt.

Most days were quite theory heavy and we soon got used to the routine of cooking, watches etc. I got getting dressed in the cold and dark down to a fine art – the key was to get everything prepared the night before! And to split everything up into individual bags, pants and socks in one, top half in another, bottom half in another – therefore no confusion and scrabbling around in the dark!

There were some pretty lonely times on the training course – the key ones being the afternoons of pure, cold drizzle. Everyone was quiet, morale was low, it was very very cold. The great thing was that Paul and Ben could see this and wouldn’t keep us all outside for too long (well no longer than 2 hours at a time!) It was times like this when everyone had their moments! But you couldn’t stop – you had to keep going, otherwise you would let the team down! If you needed to go down below for a few minutes and pop a quick custard cream, then you could.

The sailing was overwhelming. I remember getting onto one of the Clipper boats after my interview and thinking “how on earth do you sail one of these things?!’ Well now I know the answer – with great difficulty! You need to be switched on, concentrating all the time and focussing on what your next job is. There’s no margin for error really and I think that scared me a lot. The strength of the boats was terrifying, one mistake could be a disaster and without the sailing knowledge or confidence, this was difficult!

Safety was a huge part of the training course, which was really good. You are responsible for your own safety and you are encouraged to look out for others. You’re all in this together and that feeling of camaraderie was really strong.

We did a lot of safety drills over the course of the week, including man over board. A really important drill and we did it quite a few times with Bob being thrown overboard and someone being winched down to rescue him (Bob is a life size, same weight as a human, dummy by the way). The reaction time of the crew is key to saving anyone, again you have to be switched on and on the ball all the time – this was quite scary as the weather and tiredness meant that sometimes you completely switched off.

One of the things that I struggled to remember (and found very frustrating when I did) was clipping on. Obviously extremely important and you soon get used to it, but so disabling when you did it! Those clips were a complete pain, it was like walking a really badly behaved little dog next to you all the time, who would get round your feet and just sit down, waiting to be dragged along.

One of my favourite parts of the week was racing the other training boat next to us to get our deck tidied and together when we got back after a day of sailing. With Chris as bowman, a lot of moral support was needed to overcome the stiff brass hanks! Oh those hanks, clips that held the sail up, which jammed up in the cold and were slippery in the wet – a great combination in a cold, wet March. The only way to make light of this extremely difficult job was to provide huge moral support to anyone who had to ‘unhank’. This usually involved singing, chanting, cheering etc.

Getting the cover over the mainsail was a nightmare. Imagine standing awkwardly climbing a tree, you’re halfway up with the trunk between your legs and you’re trying to throw a big, heavy sheet over the branches on the other side of the trunk. The trunk’s in the way so you can’t see a thing. The only thing holding you up are some ropes behind you that someone is leaning on to keep them tight.

Volunteering to be on Mother duty was always good – it meant a bit of respite from the hard work and cold. A chance to warm up, and a chance to shine and make everyone happy! Food was massively important to morale and energy levels – if you made it well, you were a hero! If you cocked it up, you were a zero. Washing up at 45 degrees was extremely hard work, especially when the washing up bottle fell over on the shelf above me and started dripping on my head – at least I was clean!

On deck there were a number of jobs to do….”getting into bed” was one of my favourite ones. This meant sitting on the deck and having the sails folded on top of you. I loved the efficiency of this – getting the folds in exactly the right place – very satisfying!

Flakes – not of the chocolate variety unfortunately, were a key term that we learnt. This was a beast of a job and involved the nemesis that was the main sail. You needed strength, patience and one person to take control of this. Imagine a vienetta, with layers of ice cream, going over each other – this was flaking, except it was with a sail! And it had to be perfect, otherwise the cover wouldn’t go on! For us ‘flaking’ usually took place just outside Portsmouth harbour, in the wind and the rain. With Paul and Ben unable to help us, they were ‘looking out for lobster pots’, we were on our own! And boy it was hard work! Our first attempt by ourselves took us nearly 2 hours. Tempers were high, body temperatures were low, the frustration was getting to us. After many attempts we did it! And it felt so good when we did! We were elated! We had won the battle with the main sail! Now for a drink….hang on, we’re still outside the harbour and needed to put the whole of the rest of the boat to bed in the dark and the rain! Fun.

So the end of the week came, it came very slowly, but also very quickly. There were times when it couldn’t end soon enough and there were times when I didn’t want it to end! I was starting to settle into the ways of the boat and suddenly it was coming to an end! The last day involved lots of cleaning and bilge pumping. Being on your hands and knees pumping cold, smelly water with a hand pump, or even better a sponge was not great. At least I didn’t have to clean the kitchen though! Good old Keith.

Coming off the boat and going home, I had a mixture of feelings. I was on an absolute high! But also felt exhaustion, elation, pride and bewilderment! And also fear. It was all there. Questions of whether I could do this constantly ran through my mind, questions about whether I wanted to do this also ran through my mind, but once the week had finished and I had looked back at my training week, they had completely disappeared. A well deserved glass of champagne later and I was decided. What an amazing adventure I have coming up – BRING IT ON!!!!!