‘Hurricane strength storms, house sized waves and knock downs’

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London-based Web Designer Neil Bennett took on some of the toughest sailing condition on the planet as he raced during Legs 1, 2, 3 and 4 on board GREAT Britain.

Starting in London, Neil’s Clipper Race adventure took him to Brest, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Albany, Sydney, Hobart and Brisbane. Here’s his take on the world’s longest ocean race.

Best Moment:
There are many that could fit well here, but finishing the Southern Ocean and trimming the spinnaker as we came into Albany in the lead would probably just take that title.

Right from the start I knew the toughest and most daunting by far of the legs I was doing was going to be the Southern Ocean. I’d deliberately made sure I was taking on a couple of legs before that one to give me time to gain confidence and skills, so that when we hit the Southern Ocean I’d feel ready to tackle the challenge.

To have all those worries and nerves before that race and to then come out of it 21 days later, after hurricane strength storms, house sized waves, knock downs and freezing temps, and to lead the fleet into Albany was by far one of my biggest highlights. 

I’d been on the spinnaker trim for a good few hours as we were coming in due to how close Henri Lloyd were behind us and the whole crew were tense, but as we came into the bay, surrounded by a welcoming fleet, we knew we were going to win. To take on that challenge, and come away from it with those memories was such a great feeling, it made you instantly forget the pain of the last 21 days.

Most Challenging Moment:
This would have to be the knock down we had in the Southern Ocean. I think the plan from the Clipper Race staff in Cape Town was to scare us all so much about the Southern Ocean that in the end no matter what, it would turn out better than we imagined beforehand. But that afternoon it most definitely lived up to its reputation.

I’d gone below for a ‘warm up’ break after doing my time freezing on deck and had literally just been handed a hot chocolate when the boat was hit by a massive wave. Below decks people were flying from bunks and grabbing hold of anything to stop from falling. But up on deck the guys had been hit worse and the shouts coming down contained a fair amount of panic.

Being first up on deck after and seeing a friend on his back, struggling to breathe and move is not something I ever want to witness again, but will stay with me forever. So will the way the crew pulled together though. Getting the boat cleared of damage and getting her back up to speed, with a crew who were obviously in shock after what happened, and all worried about Jim below, took a massive team effort but just showed how close a team we had become.

Best Wildlife Moment:
I loved the wildlife throughout the whole trip, from the seals sunbathing in our path on the way into Cape Town, the phosphorescence trails of dolphins at night, to the grace of the Albatrosses’ that followed us through the Southern Ocean. 

However the highlight would have to be the first time we saw whales. There was a pod of about four or five surfacing a few metres off the starboard side and I was immediately struck by the size of them. When you’re on a yacht in the middle of the Atlantic, they can only be described as huge and scary when so close. After swimming with us for a while, they moved a mile or so away and then proceeded to give us an amazing show as they breached time and again. Sadly my camera skills weren’t up to scratch however as I failed to get any of them on film.

Most Unique moment:
I think over the course of the race I experienced some really amazing moments, but one of the most unique would have to be the final storm we encountered on the way to Albany. This storm was like the others we’d seen during the crossing, it’d built quickly over a few hours and we all just wanted it to end. However unlike all the others, this didn’t die down over time before petering out. No, this one ended as if someone had just turned the power off. 

One second I’m looking at my crew mates on deck as we’re all huddled down trying to hide from the hail and wind that is freezing us into ice blocks. The next you can see confused faces appearing from under hoods, as the wind shut off, the hail stopped, the sea state died down and the sun came out. 

It was a really bizarre experience, you could see the storm just moving away and the sea state in the distance was still big, but we were just bobbing around behind it now with the sun starting to shineand the skipper yelling from below to get the Yankee 1 up and lets get moving.

Biggest achievement:
As with most people on the race, I think the biggest achievement was just to take part and come out the other side having arrived in one piece. I signed up wanting to cross an ocean and if possible get a podium at some point. To end up doing crossing three oceans,  with two wins and two second places, I’ve achieved more than I thought possible and had the time of my life doing it.

‘Why am I doing this?’ moment:
Again a couple of candidates for this. The week in the Doldrums with the heat and virtually no wind comes close, but there can be only one winner of this one.

The first night out of Rio was spectacular for one reason only, the storm we ran head long into, over powered and not yet back into the swing of things after the stopover. We’d had a great start and were near the top end of the fleet, still flying our Yankee 1 when others had changed down, when the winds picked up. This was probably one of the few times at that point that we’d had nearly the whole crew on deck for a head sail change, but it was needed.

We’d managed to get the sail down and were trying to un-hank it and move it back to the cockpit to store it, when a wave engulfed the bow and took part of the sail with it. At that point I was sat under a large part of the sail along with Jim Hendry, trying to hold on to it. We felt the first tug just before the whole sail was ripped from our grasp and all I could feel were the hanks smacking my legs as the rest of the sail came flying past and over the side.

At that point my only thought was to get out from under the sail so nothing could wrap around me and take me with it and I ended lying next to Jim both holding onto each other to make sure we were still there and in one piece. Quickly we realised the sail was still attached at the tack and we were now dragging it behind us. Cue the skipper pulling everyone onto the fore deck and a good hour of man handling the sail back on board whilst still being smashed by waves.

‘This is why I’m doing this!’ moment:
There were so many of these it’s a tough choice, pretty much every race start and race finish had me smiling from ear to ear, setting out on a voyage and then knowing you’ve accomplished what you set out to do was always a great feeling.

The Doldrums, although at times were soul sapping, at other times they put on an unbelievable spectacle. Sitting in a channel of clear sky that separates two massive banks of clouds where you know you’ll find wind can only ever happen there.

I’d have to say though that most of those moments happen with the crew, the funny and often crazy chats on a 3am watch when everyone is sat round just trying to keep awake and keep the boat moving. Watching a sunrise after a hard night of sailing never got dull. The camaraderie that developed through the entire crew reminds me, even today, of why I did it. You won’t get something like that anywhere else.

Funniest moment:
This is another one that revolves around my crewmates, they are what make or break an experience like this, and I was fortunate that we had such an amazing and funny crew.

I still remember some of the plainly stupid things that made us laugh: Ollie ‘the gob’ Phillips dancing for a reason I can’t remember in just his boxers at a watch changeover, that guy has some moves!

Paul ‘Squirrel’ Hardy’s cartoon like silhouette being plastered against the mainsail as he went up the mast to fix something.

Marcus ‘the mule’ Batty doing ‘the lawn mower’ dance.

Watching our Christmas ‘band’ desperately trying to get a tune out of instruments made from parts of the yacht. 

There are many of these small memories that had us all laughing at the time and still bring a huge smile to my face when I think of them.

Craziest moment:
Our arrival into Rio was not the sort of end to the race any one of us thought we’d have. We’d just come into Guanabara Bay and could see the finish line, and were basically letting the waves drift us over the line as there was no wind to speak of at this point. What we hadn’t counted on was a huge tanker deciding to leave the bay at the same time and choose a path that took them literally over the top of us to do it. After a few minutes of expecting them to alter course to help avoid us, as we had no steerage at all, there was then a mad panic to get below and get the engine on. I was the nearest and sprinted to the navigation station only to have the engine not catch until the second try. I assume the tanker was even closer as the skipper floored the motor as soon as he had power. We then had to motor back round to where we’d started the engine, stop it and then continue our drift into the finish line, all a little more relieved to be there than we’d been a few minutes earlier.

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