During a hectic day at work in July, I received an email from my wife with a link to Spirit of Canada Ocean Challenge. 'You should do this' her message read.
Spirit of Canada Ocean Challenge
One click on the website and my heart started to pound with excitement. Imagine an opportunity to sail a premiere race boat with world class sailor, Derek Hatfield! After a quick glance at the available dates, I settled on a unique voyage starting in November, sailing with Derek on a Volvo 60 from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to Antigua - a distance of 1800 nautical miles. I felt exhilarated!
My friends Andy and Denis were quick to join the adventure, and soon after putting our own boats away for the winter, the three of us travelled to Lunenburg to join Derek and seven other sailors. Prior to the journey, Derek’s wife Patianne Verburgh provided useful advice for packing and managing the transition from a Canadian winter to warm sunny Antigua. Staying warm and dry was the underlying theme and it served us well.
As soon as we arrived in Lunenburg, we rushed down to the harbour to see Spirit of Adventure - the 60-foot race boat that would be our home for the next ten days. Previously known as Amer Sports One, she completed the Volvo Ocean Race in 2001. The boat was just as I expected – a beautiful, sleek, strong race boat with a very basic interior, no windows, no shower (baby wipes only), no table, no seating, no cushions. Inside, there were hammock- style bunks, storage compartments, a makeshift kitchen, toilet, and a small navigation station. The toilet was added recently for our convenience, but I can tell you that a five point seat belt would have been useful to keep us in place during our ‘private moments’! Compared to my cruising sailboat, the Spirit of Adventure gave me a true appreciation for the challenge and discomfort that ocean sailors endure during round-the-world races.
Other crew members from all over Canada arrived and we got acquainted at the local pub that night. The next morning, we reported to the dock to meet Derek Hatfield and the other Spirit of Adventure skipper, Chris Stanmore-Major. Derek has an impressive resume of single handed ocean racing, including the AROUNDALONE 2002, Vendee Globe 2008 and the Velux 5 Ocean Races 2010. He is a Canadian sailing superstar with lots of knowledge to share. Chris Stanmore-Major is a dynamic personality and accomplished ocean racer who completed the latest edition of the Velux 5 Oceans Race. What a thrill to spend an extended vacation on a boat with these professionals! We spent the day learning safety procedures, and becoming familiar with the rigging and operations of the boat.
Saturday, November 16 was departure day. The morning was spent completing final checks and loading gear. We left the dock at 10:30 am in thick Nova Scotia fog and light wind. Later in the afternoon, the wind began to build and the boat began to perform. As the night darkened, the clouds cleared and we enjoyed a spectacular full moon! A watch system of 3-hours on, 3-hours off was established: two teams of six, with Derek skipper of one team, and Chris the skipper of the other. During each watch, every crew member took a turn at the helm, and kept busy with sail trim, rigging inspections, and maintaining an hourly log.
Every day, a crew member was designated 'Mother' for the day. This involved trading the 3-hour on/off shifts for the gruelling tasks of preparing all the meals, cleaning dishes, cleaning the head, and providing a steady round of hot drinks for each shift. This was not fun in a boat with no natural interior light or ventilation, particularly in heavy seas! Breakfast consisted of granola cereal, lunch involved a variety of sandwiches, cheese and apples, and dinner consisted of freeze dried meat and pasta meals. 'Mother' duty was assigned to me as we were beating hard into 8-12 foot waves with 35-40 knots of wind. Imagine boiling two cups of water at a time to reconstitute a freeze dried dinner for each of twelve crew members while pitching and rolling violently from side to side - it took me over two hours to serve and clean up the rather simple meal!
During the first three days, the wind blew consistently at 35 to 40 knots. Moving around inside the boat was indeed a physical experience. Every move had to be calculated and getting in and out of bed was an agility test in itself!! All of us suffered bruises, bangs, and falls. Without windows, and the hatch closed, it was dark inside the boat, even during the day. In order to preserve our night vision, we each wore a red headlight inside the boat to find our way around. In bed, we slept with our feet facing forward to brace ourselves against the repetitive climbing and violent crashing down waves. We slept with our headlight around our necks or arms to ensure that we could see when it was time to get up for the next shift. Before the trip I was worried that Denis’ snoring would ruin my sleep, but the noise of the wind, water, and the rigging drowned out anything else! No-one had trouble sleeping, as the exhaustion of the 3-hour schedule, combined with the ocean conditions put us into a deep sleep within minutes!
By day three, we continued to battle strong wind and waves, with many rain showers. Helming required serious concentration, as wind-driven rain intertwined with the occasional salt water spray made visibility difficult. Steering up a wave and then sliding off the top to reduce slamming into the next wave became a new skill – we all took turns at the helm, as the effort was tiring. I really appreciated the waterproof rain gear I invested in – although the weather was extreme, we were warm inside our gear. By the end of each shift we were ready to go below and get out of the wet gear. It seemed that just as we got settled into a deep sleep, someone with a red spot light would shake us awake to go back on shift!
When we reached the west side of the low pressure system, the wind shifted abeam. We adjusted our course toward Bermuda. With the wind on our beam we started to roll over the waves instead of crashing into them. Surfing waves on this amazing yacht was exciting, and often we hit speeds over 20 knots! Our velocity-made-good to Antigua increased as we peeled off 220+ miles per day. We decided to rearrange the crew allocations to allow everyone to get to know each other better.
One dark night, I was at the helm when I felt something hit my shoulder. My first reaction was to look up into the rigging to see if something had fallen. Chris looked around and noticed that a flying fish was lying on the deck behind me! Although we often saw flying fish, other marine life was not noticeable during the journey.
As we entered the Caribbean Sea, the ocean waves became smaller and the ride felt much softer. The stars painted the sky and Venus was so bright it cast a shadow on the deck. One night, the light of the moon created a rainbow in the dark sky - it was the first time any of us had experienced this muted coloured arc in the night sky. We decided to call it a 'moonbow'.
As we continued south and the weather became warmer, some of the guys decided to forego the rain gear, and wear shorts and T-shirts outside. It took no time for the spray to soak them through! Inside, the boat was very warm and humid. Nothing dried and sleeping was difficult. Because of the spray, the hatches remained shut, which did not allow for ventilation or light – more discomfort!
Over the next couple of days, we had perfect sailing conditions, and the odd storm system gave us a refreshing freshwater rinse. Using the satellite phone, I was able to send a message to my wife with our ETA. She and some close friends flew to Antigua to greet us and spend the rest of the week together on the island.
Derek was at the helm early on day nine when he spotted the mountains of Antigua. 'GPS is a wonderful thing,' he remarked. This was the first sight of land throughout the entire journey – it made me think of the early explorers who sailed across the ocean without knowing what they would find. What relief and trepidation they must have felt when they spotted those same mountains!
We arrived at Jolly Harbour in Antigua at 10 am on November 26. What a great feeling to see my wife and friends waving at us from the dock! It couldn’t have been better planned.
For me, this journey provided an amazing opportunity to sail a world-class race yacht under the same conditions that the original race teams endured. This trip presented some incredible challenges: the current and force of the Gulf Stream; inclement weather routing; and strong winds that pounded us for three days nonstop. I cannot think of a better way to have this experience than in the company of two experienced professional sailors on a proven boat with established safety systems. The training and experience this trip offered, together with the opportunity of a lifetime, made the registration fee a bargain in my mind. The other sailors on this journey were a fabulous group of men. Each of us had a different story and motivation for this adventure. Some had very little sailing experience but a joy for adventure; others had completed previous trips with Derek in his Open 60 Spirit of Canada. Our common link was a desire to learn and challenge ourselves. Despite the uncomfortable weather, every shift change was greeted with smiles and laughter. We quickly formed a great team with the common goal of reaching Antigua swiftly and safely. We figured we sailed more miles in this nine day journey than most people sail in seven years! I experienced the thrill of sailing at speeds 2-3 times faster than I have ever experienced in my own boat. I spent many hours staring at the water and thinking. But most importantly, I achieved a personal goal with eleven new friends who made this trip an experience of a lifetime for me.
My sincere thanks go to Derek Hatfield, Chris Stanmore-Major, and Patianne Verburgh for their patience and kindness.
Read more about the Spirit of Adventure here
Shawn and his wife Pam sail and race their Catalina 320 on the St. Lawrence River, as members of Stormont Yacht Club.