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The Clipper Yacht Race

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Ever considered sailing around the world, or only a part of the way, on an ocean-going racing yacht? You can, even if you don't own a sou'wester. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who was the first person to sail around the world solo, and non-stop, 40 years ago, runs a company that invites anyone to take part in a biennial yacht race.

A series of legs takes around 10 months and covers 35,000 miles (56,000 km) of ocean. Ten (it used to be eight) identical boats are crewed by around 400 amateurs, in total (some for the complete circumnavigation and some for one or more of the current seven legs), over the course of the race, with a professional skipper at the helm (sometimes). They set off from a European port (this year) in September and hope to return by the following July.

You may follow progress by email or website and familiarise yourself with self-imposed torture. It is known as The Clipper (Around The World Yacht) Race. The first race was in 1996, and the 2009-10 race is now underway.


Anyone can apply to join the race. But you need to be aware of some requirements. Firstly you will have to have some training. Training is mandatory and costs around £3,000. This involves a four-part course with hands-on sailing and shore-based exams over a period of around 19 days covering sailing skills, sailing strategy, yacht racing, teamwork, meteorology and navigation. The training course may be enjoyed by anyone, even if they do not intend to subsequently join the race.

The first requirement is suitable clothes. Hardwearing clothes, fleeces, thermals, and boots are needed, along with a head torch and knife. Trainees are provided with waterproof clothing (oilskins), which may keep them dry. But the cold will always get through.

An important part of the training is safety at sea, which includes what to do in case of fire and how to abandon the boat. Everyone has to know how to steer the boat, at the helm, and also to change the sails to suit the prevailing wind conditions, even in the dark, and never on your own.

The mainsail has to be winched up an 81 feet (24.5 metres) mast, and winches are potentially very dangerous devices. This is exhausting work, sometimes followed by a man overboard drill, just to keep you on your toes. Taking down (spiking) the spinnaker and doing a U-turn, to recover a drowning crewmember, takes some skill and a lot of hard work.

Other parts of the boat need also to be understood, such as the engine, bilge pumps and navigation equipment. Understanding knots and sheets (ropes) and being able to tie them securely is an important skill. Cleaning heads (toilets) and bilges is an unwelcome but necessary task. Repairing damaged sails is also high on the agenda.

The key team-working activity is setting the sails to cope with the prevailing wind conditions, to maintain maximum safe speed. There are opportunities to push the boat to deliver a few tenths of a knot in speed by judicious choice of sails. In some circumstances a spinnaker is deployed to get the highest speeds out of the boat, reaching almost 30 knots. Note a knot is a nautical mile per hour and is equivalent to 1.852 kph. A nautical mile is also almost the same as a minute of latitude and is useful in plotting courses on charts.

Tacking (changing direction) as well as trimming or reefing the sails, (changing the surface area), along with gybing (changing direction with the wind behind) are fine arts. Sails are also flaked (folded) when they are taken down from the mast, and stored below decks.

Seasickness is a problem for many people and can be debilitating. When the boat heels (leans) over it is good when it pushes you into the hull, and not the other way, which can lead to toppling out of your bunk.


Each of the boats is sponsored by a location and named appropriately. The same fleet of boats is taking part this year as last time. The boats are named Hull and Humber, Qingdao, Uniquely Singapore, Cape Breton Island, Spirit of Australia, California, Edinburgh - Inspiring Capital, Jamaica-Lightning Bolt, Team Finland and Cork.

The boats in the race are identical 31 tonnes Clipper 68s (sixty eights). They are 68 feet long (about 21 metres) with a draft of 10 feet (3 metres) and accommodate up to 17 crewmembers plus the skipper, in 18 bunks.

Englishman Ed Dubois, a well-known naval architect, designed the boats; the hulls were built in Shanghai, China; the masts (and sails made from Dacron), come from Cape Town, South Africa and the winches are American. They are monohulls with a Perkins diesel engine for harbour use, although it can be used at sea, and with full tanks of fuel (there are four) can cruise at 7.5 knots for 1500 miles (2400 km). There is also a generator to recharge the batteries, which provide electrical power at 12v or 24v DC. An inverter is also provided for 240v AC power. The batteries provide power, amongst other things, to a watermaker, radios and GPS and other navigational equipment.

Crews and Watches

The crew is divided into watches. Each watch takes over the boat for a period of 4 hours (each watch therefore having 4 hours on, and 8 hours off watch). Each watch has 6 crewmembers at a time. One crewmember on each watch does the cooking and cleaning in the galley (kitchen) and one (usually a more experienced person) acts as the leader.

The others sail the boat, including raising and lowering the eleven sails to suit weather conditions. These are called the Mainsail (111 sqm), Genoa (155 sqm), No 1, 2 and 3 Yankees (128, 84 and 67 sqm), Staysail (47 sqm), Storm Jib (17 sqm), Trisail (17 sqm), and three Spinnakers (364, 364 and 247 sqm). The spinnakers each have a different weight.

Race Legs

In the Clipper 09-10 race the following legs will be sailed, each leg having one or more races.

Leg 1; Humber (UK), via Rochelle (France) to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Expected duration 13 September to 20 October.

Leg 2; Rio to Cape Town (South Africa). Expected duration 27 October to 16 November.

Leg 3; Cape Town to Fremantle, Australia. Expected duration 22 November to 18 December.

Leg 4; Fremantle to Singapore then onto Qingdao (China). Expected duration 3 January to 23 January and 3 February to 22 February.

Leg 5; Qingdao to California (USA). Expected duration 2 March to 5 April.

Leg 6; California to Panama then onto Jamaica. Expected duration 11 April to 7 May and then 12 to 18 May.

Leg 7; Jamaica to New York (USA). Expected duration 22 May to 3 June. Followed by New York to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia (Canada). Expected duration 6 to 13 June. Then to Cork (Ireland) and finally to Imuijden (Netherlands) before returning to Hull by 17 July.

The cost of each of the legs for participating crew is around £4,000 and complete circumnavigation around £30,000.

The boats have left Rochelle and are currently racing to Rio de Janeiro on the second race of Leg 1. The big challenges in this stage are getting by the Canary Islands, and avoiding The Doldrums and then using the Trade winds to maximum effect across the southern Atlantic.


A new innovation this year is the introduction of stealth mode. This allows each boat the option of hiding its position from the others for a 24-hour period to disguise any tactical route changes. Another change is the introduction of optional scoring gates for which the first three boats through are awarded 3, 2 or 1 points towards their race score. To earn these additional points detours may be necessary from the most direct route to the next destination, posing the question; is it worth it?

Points are scored for each of the 15 or so races with 10 to the first, 9 to the second and so on. The points are accumulated throughout the circumnavigation. Points may be deducted for penalties, for example, too much sail damage. If the boat is damaged beyond immediate repair, for example losing a mast and retiring from that race, it may score no points.

In the last event in 2007-08 only 5.5 points separated the top two boats.

You may follow race progress on the Internet, which includes daily diaries written by the crews.

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