When David Smith joined the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, he’d anticipated adrenaline-filled days riding the waves of the epic Southern Ocean. The reality was something quite different...

Dirty, wet and hungry; riding 30ft waves on a boat which was permanently tilted at 45°, I realised that this experience wasn’t quite what I’d been sold on that induction day in Gosport, months ago. There is no such thing as a pleasant place to be on a boat like Garmin, in the conditions we were up against. Sitting on the deck involved cramming yourself into an awkward angle in the pit, constantly soaked by sea spray.

Up on the helm, you were fighting with the wheel to keep the boat from slamming into waves, trying to predict the unpredictable in the hope of a smoother ride.

Below deck was a death trap during bad weather; a twisting tumble dryer churning up the crew as if we were each a pair of dirty socks. Once in your bunk, managing to get the bed level was a feat in itself, and most nights I found myself clutching on to another part of the boat to stop myself from falling out. Long gone was the comfort of a double bed with goose feather pillows.

But I suppose that if I had read between the lines back on that induction day, I would have realised this is exactly what I had signed up for.

That day was lovely, spent in a warm room full of smiles and sweet stories of the virtues of sailing around the world in a purpose-built 70ft racing yacht. It’s hard, the Clipper staff warned us, but it all sounded like a jolly jape to me. Another adventure to add to the catalogue. A great story to tell at a slow-moving game of golf.

Clipper 70s are large, powerful offshore yachts capable of more than 30 knots in the right conditions. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

The Southern Ocean is like a sleigh ride, they had said during our induction, showing us YouTube videos of boats cutting through waves at 30 knots, the crews whooping with joy, like hyenas on the hunt. One young lady showed us around the boat, laughing about the time her skipper had been washed down the deck, a simple loss of footing which resulted in a nasty compound fracture.

She made it sound like a fun anecdote, suitable for a best man’s wedding speech. But it can’t have been fun for him, being the only medic on board, badly injured and responsible for supervising his own medical care, including the administering of morphine. That’s not going to happen to us, we all thought, surrounded by smiles and skippers.

Our jitters were clouded by the prospect of getting to sail some of the most savage waters in the world, including the Southern Ocean. It’s the ocean that every sailor wants to have on their CV, an accolade to their bravery and skill.

Little did we know that any trace of bravery and skill disappears in the face of 70mph winds. Nor did we realise that, at the mercy of these winds, our once noble steed would behave like an out-of-control bucking bronco.

Article continues below…

Clipper was the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, widely considered as the messiah of sailing, after becoming the first man to solo sail non-stop around the world. Fifty-three years on and his accomplishment is still one of the greatest sporting feats of all time.

Apparently, more people have climbed Everest than sailed around the world, yet he did it single-handedly, with less than 200 people managing to emulate him. A hugely impressive achievement.

His vision was to share the joys of his experience, so in 1996 he established the first Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. It was the only yacht race to actively encourage amateurs to participate, giving those who had never set foot on a boat before the opportunity to sail either a single leg of the route or completely around the world. The race is now huge, with more than 600 biannual participants and a dozen, supposedly identical, boats – but we’ll save that story for later.

The Garmin crew before setting off. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Expensive undertaking

Don’t be fooled though, a world class sailing experience like this one will cost you a pretty penny. Training alone will set you back by £5,000, with every leg completed adding an extra £5,000 to the overall bill, meaning participants can expect to part with up to £55,000 for the pleasure of undertaking a complete circumnavigation.

At the end of the day, you can’t put a price on the feeling of accomplishment, which I guess is why people from all walks of life are attracted to the race. Admittedly, there were plenty of moments on board, under-slept and overworked, when I questioned why I wasn’t the one getting paid, but that’s not the way the Clipper race rolls.

The race started on a grey, but thankfully dry Sunday. The long-anticipated day had finally arrived and hundreds of people had gathered at the start point, lining the Mersey like a parade of penguins. No pressure. Clipper had set up a village by the Albert Dock, which was welcoming in the boats arriving from Gosport – a kind of trial run for the round-the-world (RTW) sailors and a couple of first leggers. The crowd lit up at the sight of the boats. A bystander would have mistaken this as the end of the race, but no, it was just the beginning.

Jobs included rig checks aloft. Photo: David Smith

I shared a tearful goodbye with my children and my good friend Peter who had travelled up to see me off. Prior to setting off, our crew of 20 plus our skipper Gaëtan Thomas (GT) had to sit through a briefing session about the starting procedure and safety on board, a message which had been relentlessly drilled into us since the very beginning of our training.

And once that was over, I was taking my last steps on solid ground for five whole weeks before stepping aboard our boat named after our sponsor, Garmin.

The longest leg

Our first leg to Punta del Este, a swanky city on the south-eastern coast of Uruguay, was the longest leg in Clipper history. Before, the boats had made the journey to Rio de Janeiro, but not Punta, which was further along the coast.

For a little context, the route from Liverpool to Uruguay took us through the Irish Sea, into the English Channel, and then into the unpredictable Bay of Biscay, before heading down the coastline hugging Spain and Portugal and into the North Atlantic. We were then set to sail along the coast of Africa towards the Canary Islands and then head west, passing close to Cape Verde before joining the South Atlantic Ocean.

Tropical sections were warmer but still involved pushing the boats hard. Photo: Photo: David Smith

It’s worth also pointing out the fact that Clipper got its name from the word ‘clip’ which refers to the way in which mid-19th century merchant sailing vessels used to carry cargo at speed around the world, ‘clipping’ through
and helped by the trade winds. With this in mind, the whole idea behind the expedition was to be fast – it was, after all, a race.

However, with little wind our boat was often becalmed, leaving us bored and dreaming of the waves we had been warned about in training.

So, the first few days spent on the boat were a time to reflect on what I had taken on. At times, we ran into heavy weather and at other times we spent windless days seemingly going nowhere.

The first leg was 6,363 nautical miles, equating to just over 7,000 miles, and although some days we were making up to 400 miles progress, on other days it could be a quarter of that. Punta seemed a distant destination.

Cloudless skies

As we edged closer to the equator, the air thickened into a sticky and breathless heat which, whilst uncomfortable, was a nice reminder that we were making progress. The grey skies we left behind in England were soon forgotten, replaced by a cloudless expanse of blue.

It was wonderful to watch the crystal blue skies fade into a golden mauve at night, peppered with more stars than I had ever had the pleasure of seeing before. Even more wonderful was the entourage of dolphins, flying fish and seabirds which we had attracted, at times making better company than some of our crew members!

David and crewmate Lyndsey work together to hoist the mainsail. Photo: Photo: David Smith

But of course, much of the joy on board came from my fellow crewmates. Crossing the equator was a particular highlight, with Eric dressing up as King Neptune and the crew changing from ‘Pollywogs’ to ‘Shellbacks’. It was an equator-crossing tradition which was as old as time, but thankfully due to a wave of heavy weather, the main hazing rituals associated with the ceremony were put on hold.

So, instead of eggs being cracked over our heads we cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate – much more appealing!

There were two watches on the boat – port and starboard, with a watch leader and an assistant watch leader on each. Curiously, each day on the boat felt both identical to the day which preceded it and completely different.

We had a five-watch system, meaning our days alternated between a pattern of shifts on watch, which at least gave our days a little variety. One of the days, you would be on watch 0800-1400, 2000-0000 and then 0400 0800. You would then switch, the next day, to being on 1400-2000 and 0000-0400.

While the second combination of watches meant that you had more rest time in your day, my favourite shift was always the early one, which started at 0400. Not many people get to watch a sunrise from a yacht, but no matter how damp and drained I may have felt, watching the sun peeking its golden edges over the horizon never lost its novelty.

Admittedly, knowing that once dawn broke my watch would be over, and I’d be able to tuck into my breakfast and then my bunk, always helped. However, despite our strict watch patterns, there was always extra work to be done on a Clipper boat, so we often had extra jobs to complete at the end of our watch, meaning our small window of rest narrowed even further.

It’s a long way up on a 70ft yacht, especially when you’re at sea. Photo: David Smith

Working around the clock

Our days were split into duties, assigned to us via a collective rota. While a lot of these duties related to jobs on deck, there was likewise a lot to be done below deck. One key duty which we took turns completing was the cooking role. Food was the most anticipated daily event, so dishing it up was a pretty important job, although not one which I found particularly enjoyable.

One person from each watch would work together for the day and, weather dependent, this job would either be a nice break from the hard work on deck, or an absolute nightmare. In bad weather, trying to prepare three meals a day for 21 crew members, in a boat heeled over at 40°, was a real challenge.

Granted, it’s not like we were whipping up Michelin-star lobster on a daily basis, but packed like sardines into the tiny galley, with kitchen utensils flying all over the place, it was a cooking environment that even the most esteemed chef would struggle with.

Dreaming of home

Towards the end of each leg, your thoughts become blurred with the hazy prospect of home comforts, no matter where it is in the world that you are docking. Your dreams of a decent hot meal, a long steamy shower and a real bed which doesn’t rock in the night become palpably close, with the shadow of your pre-boat life sharpening into a real image. It made the sailing temporarily bearable.

Our rosy expectations of arriving in Uruguay were somewhat dampened by the miserable, wet weather hanging over Punta del Este, after an equally miserable, wet night on deck. GT had insisted that we were all on deck a couple of hours before we crossed the line but, exhausted from the challenging days which had preceded our finish, I was thoroughly fed up.

The crew and fleet safely back alongside in Liverpool.

Despite having been in the top three several times during the first leg, we finished in eighth place, my sense of achievement blown out like a belated birthday candle. Crossing this first finish line had been a moment that I had been romanticising for weeks, but the reality paled in comparison.

A Clipper RIB welcomed us at the finish line, but it took us a couple of hours to actually disembark, as we had to get the sails down and prepare the boat for docking. We crossed the finish line in the dark but, by the time we were motoring into dock, it was getting light, with only a handful of dedicated people waiting on shore to welcome us.

Despite my gloominess, the entire crew’s spirits were lifted when Gerry piped up, shouting ‘My dad, my dad!’, pointing towards the shore. Waving back at us was Gerry’s dad, a man who we later found out had never left Peru before, now in Uruguay to greet his son.

It was an emotional moment, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to shed a tear or two. Whilst I would have loved to see my children and girlfriend waiting next to Gerry’s dad, the smile on Gerry’s face was, in that moment, all I needed to cheer me up.

Once we had backed the boat into its docking position, the Clipper race shore crew wasted no time in thrusting beers into our tired hands – a very welcome sight, even though it was barely eight o’clock in the morning. For weeks, all I had wanted was to get off this damned boat, but suddenly, with smiles on our faces and beers in our hands, we didn’t want to leave.

Eventually, we tumbled off, one by one, and headed to the yacht club for more beers and a spot of breakfast – unconventional but, on this occasion, needed. I headed to my pre-booked hotel in Punta, while some of the others decided to head back to the boat for the night. At that point in time, I would have paid any amount of money for a comfortable bed, so I parted ways with those going back to the boat and walked like a zombie to my hotel room, which would be my home for the next week.

After a week’s rest and minor repairs to the Clipper fleet, we would set sail again, this time for Cape Town and if you want to know what happened on that and subsequent legs you need to read my book: Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.