“My office is 90 foot up, but after nine years I don’t feel apprehensive or worry about falling. I get my tools, put my headphones in and work away. There is nowhere better to be than at the top of the mast somewhere sunny. I’ve never wanted to be stuck at a desk pushing paper.”
An extreme sports fan, Clipper Race rigger Greg North originally looked at a career in forestry and ranger work because of the climbing and heights aspect of the job.
Following a degree in Sustainable Design and Environmental Management at the University of Portsmouth, a friend set Greg up with some maintenance work, antifouling a Clipper Race boat in 2005.
That job led to more, and he continued his work on the maintenance team for the next month.
“The ‘Chief’ [maintenance manager Jay Haller] hugs the rig like a koala when he has to go aloft, he’s not a big fan of heights,whereas I enjoy climbing so I naturally stepped into the role working up masts. My first stopover experience came in China on the 2005/06 race. Since then I have been a permanent member of the race team.”
Greg assisted a spar manufacturer and riggers fitting out the Clipper 68s and learnt how to fit and tune rigs, and build masts on the job.
His most amusing, yet frustrating moment came in Sydney on the 13-14 race in an incident known as CockatooGate, which was hilariously documented on the front page of national broadsheet, The Australian (picture of Greg above by Nikki Short/News Limited/The Australian).
Flocks of cockatoos decided they had an appetite for the wire in the masthead instruments and chewed their way through hundreds of pounds worth of material, rendering the speed devices useless.
“CockatooGate got me angry with the local wildlife,” Greg reflects. “We were already very busy changing elements of the coding ahead of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and the fleet had to also come out of the water for antifouling.
“As soon as I told a local sailor about what had happened, he said, ‘That will be those bloody Cockies’. They have an appetite for expensive mast wiring. You could see the beak snips. But suspiciously, the only Clipper Race boat with an Aussie skipper did not get chewed!"
Once all the wiring was re-spliced, Greg had to rush around with his spanner hitting the mast and sending a shock up the rig whenever he saw a cockatoo flying towards a rig. Even Christmas tinsel and cable ties failed to stop the birds having a go.
His most challenging work times have come after boats have lost the rig. “The worst thing is to get that call saying a boat has lost its mast. When you hear everyone on board is safe you relax a little, but knowing you have to build a new rig and set it up against the clock is quite daunting.”
When two rigs came down in the 2007/08 race, the whole fleet came into Hawaii as a diversion.
“We had to fly two new masts out to Hawaii and build them as quickly as possible, then change some of the standing rigging on the rest of the fleet. Then you have to tune the rig, test it out sailing, and re-tune until you are happy.
“We were working solidly for a month doing 12-hour days. I was sat at the top of the mast wondering when it was going to end, when I saw a humpback whale breaching. Not everyone’s office has that type of view. It made me stop and appreciate the positives of the situation.”
Another big job came after a collision on the start line in Cape Town in the 2009/10 race.
“The 'Chief' called me with the news as I was packing up the container to say keep hold of the fibreglass kit.
“He then called me back shortly after saying he could step through the hole in the aft quarter of the damaged boat, it was that big. That was a massive fix. We worked with a local composites crew day and night to rebuild it.”
Another memorable moment came when lightning struck Qingdao in the Pacific Ocean on the 13-14 race. The top of the masthead instrument blew up and what was left disintegrated into a stick of carbon, causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage.
Greg had to re-wire and re-fit new instruments to the yacht in San Francisco.
Greg and the other Clipper Race maintenance team members are fondly known as the ‘Blackhand Gang’.
“We are a good cheerful team,” adds Greg. “It is amazing to work with the ‘Chief’. No one knows their way round the fleet like he does.
“You also get good friends with the crew and build a rapport with the mechanically minded ones who are interested in the yacht’s running.”
For Greg, the non-race year is almost as hectic as the race year while the boats are in refit . All the masts will come off the Clipper 70s and all running and standing rigging gets replaced - several kilometres of wire rope will be used during that process. Then the fleet has to be re-tuned several times as the wire settles in.
In his downtime, Greg likes to head inland to the mountains to snowboard, hike and mountain bike with his wife Charlie and soon with a new addition to the North household. In October, the couple’s first baby is due.
Greg says this last race saw new challenges with the new Clipper 70s. There were maintenance issues he had not seen before.
The skippers' competitive nature on the matched fleet race keeps him on his toes too. “There can be a lot of pressure trying to juggle skippers’ expectations. I have to make sure the rig set up is as close as possible throughout the fleet for both safety and scrutineering."
The challenges of each race aside, Greg's philosophy remains the same. "Every day is different. It can be long, hard hours but I’d rather be doing that 90ft up in Australia or Hawaii than behind a desk any day,” he adds.