Last tack to Hong Kong

As a crew member in the round-the-world Clipper race, Elizabeth Bluck was taken to the edge of endurance

If I hadn't been born in Hong Kong my eyes wouldn't have been attracted to an advertisement for "The Hong Kong Challenge - Sir Robin Knox-Johnston's Round the World Yacht Race". It posed the question "Are you up to it?"

Secretly I sent off for the application form and duly filled it in - making a point of the fact that I was tiny (5ft 1in) and had no muscles. I was invited to be interviewed by Sir Robin and with great trepidation I took the train up to Leicester, popped into a church for a quick prayer on arrival, then presented myself.

"What do you find most irritating in other people?" he asked.

"Slowness," I replied. "People who dawdle on pavements chatting; people who are oblivious to others around them."

Then, just before Christmas 1995, I received a letter saying that I had been selected for a leg of the race and would have to undergo three training weeks as part of the selection process.

Growing up in Hong Kong and the Bahamas, I had spent a lifetime of weekends on boats, Pimms in one hand and a magazine in the other - totally oblivious as to how the vessel actually moved from the mooring to the beach. But I have always loved and respected the sea.

My first training was in February. It was absolutely freezing. I disgraced myself by bringing a nightie - the boys spotted it and assigned me to the top bunk. But it was a good week: I conquered my fear of heights and went up the top of the mast - something I will never do again - and overall it was a laugh.

The following two sessions were less fun and more difficult. I was worried because I felt I wasn't picking anything up, and time was getting on. The eight 60ft boats in the race were due to leave Plymouth in early October. Meanwhile the name of the race had been changed to Clipper '96, the cost of the clothes we had to buy was prohibitive, and I had been assigned to Ariel, skippered by Ras Turner, who had a reputation for being the meanest son of a bitch, with absolutely no tolerance of incompetent sailors.

I was terrified. I had chosen to do the leg from Honolulu to Yokohama to Shanghai to Hong Kong, leaving in early February 1997 and getting to Hong Kong in April. I went down to Plymouth to see the boats off at the start of the race. There was a horrendous gale and I felt sick to the stomach with fear.Yet, on 27 January, I left Heathrow for Honolulu.

I woke up in a hotel room in Waikiki and saw masts from my window. Although it was 5am, I got up and set off on the chance that I would be able to spot the boats. Suddenly my heart missed a beat: there was Ariel - serene, calm, seemingly unblemished after circling half the world. I was elated. The fear dissipated. It was so exciting to see the boat I had last seen four months before beating into head winds out of Plymouth Sound. She'd been to Madeira, Fort Lauderdale, Panama, the Galapagos Islands - and here she was in Honolulu, looking wonderful.

I had met most of the crew once before: there were two women, 10 men, and Ras. Our ages ranged from 18 to 60; we were city boys, a retired major, a dressmaker, computer whizzes, an airport security manager, accountants, and me.

Gossip was rife - affairs on the boats, affairs between the boats, previous relationships busting up as boyfriends/girlfriends flew out to find their partners entangled in boat romances, and crew members in court for picking up whores in Hawaii. My head spun with the intrigue.

Then the day dawned - the start of my race. There was an amazing send- off with rose petals on the start line, yacht club boats came out to see us off, the sky was blue, there was a fresh wind, and off we went. We were first across the line and within minutes we were looking behind us at seven different coloured spinnakers following.

The race to Japan was scheduled to take 31 days across the northern Pacific. The trick was how far west we could go in the warmth before we turned north into the cold and headed for Yokohama.

We worked a two-watch system, which meant that there were six people in each watch. During the day we worked four hours on and four hours off; at night it was three hours on and three hours off. Rosters were produced and we took it in turn to clean the heads (wearing boots when necessary), and cook and wash up breakfast, lunch and dinner. Menus were written out: tinned sausage casserole, tinned cream beef, tinned chicken curry, with fried Spam as a treat. The fresh fruit and vegetables we took on in each port never lasted more than a week. Alcohol was forbidden.

For the first 24 hours after leaving Honolulu we saw one or two of the boats. But during the next 17 days we had practically no sighting of any other life. No aeroplanes, no lights, no boats, and almost no birds. We had little sense of time. It was on watch or off watch. It was dawn or it was dusk. It was cleaning heads or making bread.

We were in a vast, open expanse of utter wonder: phosphorescence that looked like fireworks; stars of breathtaking brilliance; shades of turquoise and aquamarine in the wash of the waves. There were moments of terror - particularly coming up on night watch, cold and wet and lonely, the boat at 45 degrees, waves washing over the cockpit.

The tiredness was overwhelming. We rarely slept properly: we would all get up for sail changes, or to pack spinnakers. We slept to weather, so every tack meant moving the sails to the opposite side and sleeping on the opposite bunk.

The days passed. We saw a light at night - another boat in the distance - and eventually, after thousands of miles, we sailed in to Yokohama, having won the sector from Honolulu.

Port meant showers, warmth, dry clothes and getting drunk on the first sip of beer. Then some of the crew went skiing, others went exploring. There was the joy of seeing flowers again, of walking in parks. And of the telephone.

Almost too soon, it was over and we were off again from Yokohama to Shanghai - a race that proved to be one of the hardest since the boats had left England. Ras was in his element - it was all hands on deck almost the entire time.

It was very cold, very wet and very exciting. We ripped a spinnaker and spent 24 hours non-stop sewing it together again in sweat-shop conditions on the floor of the cabin. Sleeping bags were wet; my hair felt like bird's- nest soup. We hit 40-knot winds and extremely high seas. I was thrown across the cabin and bashed my head and fainted into a spinnaker we were packing. It was all part and parcel of a high-energy race.

We won again and anchored off Shanghai to wait for the other boats to finish.We had sailed to China - it was, and is, a thrilling thought. And what a city Shanghai is: half falling down, half getting up, an enormous, energetic building site.

A few days later we set sail again on the last leg of my race, from Shanghai to Hong Kong. It was over far too soon for me. But there were two spine-tingling nights: no moon, as black as black can be, no horizon, high seas and vast waves. It felt as if we were in orbit; we could see nothing and yet we surfed down waves at more than 18 knots.

I came up on the dawn watch as we sailed into Hong Kong waters. An orange moon was going down and a red sun came up behind us. Sailing into a city that I have flown into hundreds of times was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We sailed right past the house I'd lived in as a child. And we were beside ourselves with excitement - we had won the race again.

For me and four other crew members it was the end of our adventure, but I did stay on in Hong Kong until the boats sailed off again on the leg to Singapore and the Seychelles. The pace never stopped - we spent night after night dancing till dawn, day after day drinking by the Yacht Club pool.

I have never been as lonely in my life as I was on Ariel, but equally I have never experienced such camaraderie. And I have never laughed so much, nor been with such a wide range of people of all ages and felt such affinity, such affection.

I call the Clipper office daily to check the progress of the boats as they sail on their way back to England. I get postcards from the ports with snatches of gossip. I think of them often. And particularly on Monday, when the sun sets over Hong Kong, I shall remember the eight Clipper boats sailing out.

The Hong Kong `coolies' who fought for the British Empire Page 18

Clipper '96 will reach Plymouth on 14 September, having sailed on from Hong Kong via the Seychelles and Cape Town.

Interviewing for Clipper '98 has just opened, and will continue throughout 1997/98. Training will start in February 1998. Clipper '98 departs on 7 October 1998 for Madeira, San Salvador, Nassau, Havana, Panama, the Galapagos, Hawaii, Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuching, Jakarta, the Seychelles, Durban, Cape Town, Salvador and Horta, and is expected to return to Plymouth on 21 August 1999. Prices range from pounds 5,750 for the last leg to pounds 22,750 for the whole circumnavigation. Details from Clipper Ventures, Incon House, 10 Stilebrook Road, Olney, Buckinghamshire MK46 5EA (01234 711550).

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