Meet the ‘Chief’ who keeps the fleet sailing

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From rotten fish inside engines to shark bites damaging rudders and Australian cockatoos destructing masthead wind instruments, Clipper Race maintenance manager Jay Haller has seen it all.

The South African has worked on some comical mishaps as well as more serious repairs for six editions of the Clipper Race over12 years. ‘The Chief’ as he is known can always be seen with his team waiting to leap on board as soon as the boats start arriving in port.

Under fleet operation manager Rachel Dickinson, Jay leads his shore crew known as the ‘Blackhand Gang’ round the world with Greg North, Nick Hulme, Tim Freeman and Simon Johnston assisting on all kinds of technical issues.

As a child, Jay always loved tinkering with toy trucks and model boats and a career as a specialist technician beckoned.

After completing  his National Service in South Africa in a medical corps, Jay did a college apprenticeship in engineering.

He then went to Antarctica for an adventure as a technician with machinery company Caterpillar, representing the South African government to help build a new research post.

It was when he started working for holiday company Sunsail in 1995 that Jay learnt to sail.

He worked as flotilla engineer and then as a skipper in Greece, Turkey and Croatia and soon fell in love with the lifestyle. He met his English wife Lynda in 1996 when she was working on a flotilla.

After a season on America’s Cup boats France 2 and France 3, Jay joined Clipper Ventures in 2002.

“Once you get onto a boat it’s addictive. No day is ever the same. I could never be stuck in an office,” he says.

“It is more of a lifestyle than a job and I have loved meeting so many like-minded people round the world.

“When a crew member sees you coming with your tool kit and know you’ll fix it, it’s a good feeling when you fault-find the problem straight away and know they will be very relieved.

“You can’t say it can’t be done. There is always a way. The crew have a certain expectation.

“The pressure is huge – more so this race than ever before.”

Jay says the Clipper 70s held up very well during their first race.

“The rudders caused a lot of problems which we quickly resolved, but there are always teething problems with new boats if you look back at the Clipper 68s.

“It was a big challenge when we had to take the keels off the Clipper 68s in the Philippines during the 2005-06 edition of the race and the whole fleet had to stay there for seven weeks.

“A boat had to be rebuilt in Cape Town in 2009-10 edition of the race after a t-boning on the start line. I was chuffed after fixing the boat quickly and all we could do was look back and laugh.

“It’s always a challenge trying to work around the corporate commitments and juggle that. You always worry they won’t be ready to sail but they have to be. We do 14 hour working days to make sure they are.”

Jay says he didn’t believe Olly Cotterell, the skipper of OneDLL, when he told him his boat’s rudder had been bitten by a shark on Race 8 to Singapore in this year’s edition.

However, on inspection, a foot and a half-long bite and even shark’s teeth were discovered - a first for Jay in his career.

He says his biggest ever challenge was during the 2002-03 edition of the race when a skipper had started the generator without doing the engine checks which pumped all the oil out. Jay got an engine flown in from the UK to Batam, Indonesia, and fitted it in 45 minutes.

During the 2009-10 Clipper Race he had to rebuild an engine after jumping on the boat 11 miles out of Singapore after the pistons went in 40 degree heat.

When not fixing things, Jay and his wife like to camp around Cornwall and will be staying in a yurt on their latest holiday.

He enjoys hiking, museums and culture, including seeing the Southampton Philharmonic Choir perform, and as a South African, loves barbecuing.

Jay remembers looking at the Whitbread round the world boats in the early nineties and adds it is very satisfying to know he is now part of the team that helps get the Clipper Race yachts round the world now.

“It’s great to see the public astounded when they see the boats and you know you are part of the team. I am very proud and love it when they ask questions. Mingling with the crew members is also a highlight.

“I have a great team around me and know I can rely on them to get on with the job at hand. We are very close outside of work as well and that is important when you are working such long hours abroad away from family.

“It is a very satisfying job and seeing so many cultures around the world has been amazing.”