Four things I learned on a round-the-world yacht race

11 years ago this month, I stepped aboard a 72-foot racing cutter affectionately called The Good Ship Logica and began a 10-month round the world yacht race, the only one to go around the world against the currents and prevailing winds. Below deck, I was the geek, making sure the satellite could broadcast despite 90ft waves blocking line of sight; above deck I was the Bowman, standing at the pointy end and getting the shit kicked out of me by walls of water as our team struggled to take down huge sails that the wind wanted to keep up.

Today I learned that someone mishandled a crane in Portsmouth during a routine maneuver and dropped Logica, effectively killing it. This was the boat that I learned to trust to keep me safe through hurricanes, lightning strikes and the worst the Southern Ocean had to offer. It was the boat that I cursed every time a rampant wave picked me up and tossed me down the deck like a rag doll, slamming me into rigging and stanchions. It was the boat in whose bowels I spent cold hours pumping water into buckets after the electric pump failed, the boat that taught me how to sleep on a rollercoaster while a generator roared next to my head, the boat I loved, heart and soul.  Now she’s gone.

So today I’ve been thinking about the lessons she taught me.

The opposite of fear is not bravery, it’s initiative

When my first hurricane at sea hit, it came out of nowhere. I was delivering a boat (the older, smaller sister of Logica) across the Atlantic from Plymouth to Boston. The boom swung across the deck with such ferocity that it ripped the pulley system that controlled it out of the deck and flung it out to sea; the third wave took the heavily bolted down compass and consigned that to the ocean. Our skipper was up on deck so fast it seemed incredible that he had just been asleep and, screaming above the waves, he got us working to try to bring down the mainsail and control the wayward boom. Our boat was so far over on its side that the mast was dipping into the ocean and water was starting to drag the mainsail and the boat further down into the lifeless grey. I don’t remember being frightened, at least not in the way I had always thought about fear; traditional fear involves some prediction of a future you would rather avoid. At this point, I couldn’t begin to think about a future at all. I just remember feeling utterly drained of initiative. I would do whatever anyone asked me to do, but I was utterly unable to think or to act for myself.

I brooded over that night for months afterwards, dwelling on my own inadequate response when faced with a true crisis. I knew I was due to set out on a round-the-world yacht race the next year and was terrified that I didn’t have what it takes, that I would let down my team when it mattered most.

In October 2000, my skipper came below decks and asked us if we had ever seen the Perfect Storm (It had occurred on the Grand Banks near our position at the time). “Yeah, three storms converging on the Flemish Cap” replied Adam, the bowman on the other watch. “We’re in luck” the skipper replied, “we’ve only got two storms converging on us”. We watched the scarlet dawn rising and remarked upon the sailors motto ‘red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, we’re fucked’.

We had more warning this time, but the hurricane still hit with a vengeance. There’s something about the sea when the wind gets above 70 knots of breeze (80mph), it becomes gunmetal grey, as if not even colour could live in these conditions. Our bow team struggled up to the foredeck to take down the headsails and put up our storm staysail. Orange and bulletproof, we needed it up if we were going to be able to steer a course through this storm at all. This was the moment I had thought about for years, but for some reason I was not the same man who had been so useless on that previous voyage. I was able to think, to act on my own initiative and help my team to survive. It was a revelation and gave me hope that the ability to lead in a crisis was not inbuilt from birth but could be learned, that I could become better. The lesson I took from this is that bravery is a term applied retroactively, after the work has been done and the danger has passed. In a situation that engenders fear and terror, don’t ask yourself to be brave; simply ask yourself to act. The bravery comes later.

Finding fault is a luxury best saved for tomorrow

My first day of training on the yacht and I’d already managed to break something. A sail was tumbling down and the boat was losing speed. The first mate darted across the boat to find out what had happened and I started in on a long and rambling tale of the series of unfortunate events which had, through no fault of my own, caused the damage we were looking at right now. I was barely three sentences in, when the mate interrupted me: “I don’t give a crap whose fault it was, I just need to know what to fix”.

The words hit me like a sledgehammer, my concern had been with my perceived reputation and standing as a competent crewman, his concern was simply that the boat wasn’t working right and yet it needed to be. Identifying the incompetent culprit responsible or working out the precise series of events leading us to here were luxuries that could wait for another time because right now the boat needed to be fixed before we lost too much speed and time. If I was ever going to truly pull my weight with the crew, I would have to learn to be ok with people potentially thinking the worst of me or ascribing failures to me that were not directly my own fault, what mattered was keeping the boat moving. I find thinking of that day instructive when facing a board meeting, finding fault or assigning blame is an idle luxury, what matters is keeping the company moving.

Do your thinking before the crisis

We were deep in the Southern Ocean, one of the nastiest environments on earth and three of us were sitting on the windward side of the deck (the high side) with little to do but endure the waves crashing over us and make sure the helmsman didn’t get hurt. Our skipper came up on deck to take a look around and spotted a trailing rope on the leeward side that he wanted to tidy. He made his way down to where the deck was skimming the water and began to bring in the rope when a rogue wave took him by surprise and knocked him down the deck. All three of us leaped forward to grab him before he was washed overboard, but two of us were stopped short by our safety lines like a dog reaching the limits of its leash.

Only Glyn, had the presence of mind to first unhook his safety line get across to the other side, reattach and reach our skipper before it was too late. While I and my team-mate had been sitting there grumpily bearing the waves and wishing we were elsewhere, Glyn had been running through scenarios in his head and working out potential plans of action should any of them occur. He knew that there isn’t necessarily time in a crisis to stop, assess the best course of action and then enact it, so you have to do your thinking beforehand. Be constantly working through ‘what if?’ scenarios so that your brain has the advantage when an accident happens and you are not left flailing helplessly at the end of a line watching someone get washed away.

Leave it on the Last Wave

Our round the world yacht race involved putting 18 people in a tin can, plunging it in salt water and shaking it violently for 10 months. People hallucinate through lack of sleep, the unconscious tapping of teeth can provoke a knife fight (which occurred on another yacht in a previous race) and one simply can’t avoid someone if you have an argument. The only way for your team to mentally survive in that kind of environment is to embody the motto of ‘Leave it on the last wave’. The argument you had during a sail change? That happened on a wave way in the distant, leave it out there where it belongs. The time you almost came to blows with a team mate over something so minor you both can’t remember, leave it on the wave where it started because the wind has changed and there are new sails to be put up and a new course to take advantage of. The lesson on a boat is clear, you can either let go of slights or negative emotions or you can damn near kill someone. There’s not much wiggle room in between.

These are some of the gifts that Logica gave me, my friends have often remarked upon how the person who joined the race in September 2000 was utterly different from the man who left it in July of 2001. I miss my boat, I miss my team and I will always treasure what I learned on her deck.




Marathon JohnJohn was one of those people who seemed to lead a charmed life. Always the centre and light of the room at any party, he received a first from Oxford University,
spoke Italian like a native and went on to become one of the leading lights of his year at the prestigious LAMDA drama school. It was on a holiday in Canada that John began to get headaches and went to see a doctor. Instead of an aspirin, they gave him a CAT scan and found a massive brain tumour.

It was incredibly lucky that they caught it (my cousin was not so lucky and died from a brain tumour a short while ago) but, unsurprisingly, the act of scooping out a chunk of John’s brain had a major effect upon him. Whole chunks of his memory were gone (except strangely for the lyrics of eighties music for which he has a now encyclopaedic memory), he had problems with his short-term memory and his short-circuited brain chemistry gave him severe depression.

I shared a flat with some close friends of John and he came to live with us in Kentish Town. Things seemed to be going well, though at times I would come down the stairs to hear John crying in his room. Shortly afterwards I went off on an expedition to Greenland, and when I returned John had gone. He had taken himself down to Beachy Head and prepared to jump off and kill himself. Luckily the police found him and John was strong enough to tell them that he needed help.

John was taken away and placed in a mental health institute, sharing his ward with people whose mental difficulties at time dwarfed his own. We would get the occasional phone call from John, and it was on one of these that he told us he would shortly be on day release and able to come and see us.

Sitting in our conservatory, John talked about his depression and in some ways it seemed very much linked to not being able to see a future. Acting did not seem to be a viable option anymore and John could not visualise anything else. What was the point in living if you had nothing to live for? Now, Ben and I talk a lot about the importance of goal-setting in life and attempting to do that which you are not sure you can do. I wondered if this might help John, so sitting there I said “John we have six months, next April you are going to run the London marathon”. John pointed out that I was the crazy one, he had never run before and got out of breath walking down the street. At which point I lent him some running trainers and told him we were heading out in ten minutes. Continue reading “John”

Tony Haile, Ironman

All a blurBen and I took the red-eye back from New York on Thursday after an exhausting barrage of meetings and facing a mountain of work to get done. However, before we got down to that, I knew somehow, somewhere I had to find a wetsuit for the weekend. In a fit of madness some months earlier, I had decided to apply for the UK Ironman and it had very inconveniently decided to occur that Sunday.

There were several reasons why deciding to do this might not have been a great idea:

1. I had never done an Ironman before. In fact I had never competed in a triathlon before.
2. I was suffering from a fairly nasty case of jet lag and was having trouble keeping my eyes open.
3. I had never swum in open water before, or for that matter even worn a wetsuit.

Still, working on the basis that there’s no point in doing something unless it’s going to challenge you a little, I hired the last wetsuit in London packed my bags full of energy bars, gels, my trusty steed and a well-worn pair of trainers and headed down to Sherborne.

Sherborne on Saturday afternoon was a festival of endurance. A huge triathlon expo was selling everything you could possibly ask for and even those not wearing the coveted ‘athlete’ passes looked disturbingly fit. Racking my bike and preparing my transition bags, I gawped at the bike porn surrounding me, muttering ‘Ben would love to see this’. An entire field of carbon forks, aerodynamic time-trial frames and disc wheels made my Scott Speedster look fairly forlorn, hooked over its metal post. In a few hours I would see whether it (and I) could hold up against this competition.

At five the next morning I forced myself into my hired wetsuit, checked my bike tires and stuck my swimming hat on to swim out to the start. Bobbing up and down, the clock hit six and I prepared myself for the klaxon blast. Suddenly people started passing round the message that there would be a ten minute delay, I took off my goggles in annoyance, which was exactly when the start klaxon sounded.

Fumbling with my goggles and swearing to myself I kicked off and started the swim. At this point I realised that the water was completely opaque, there were no handy lines along the bottom to guide me and several burly blokes had worked out that the most effective propulsion strategy was to kick me in the face. Continue reading “Tony Haile, Ironman”

Last night a helmet saved my life

After 24 HoursLast Thursday, Ben mentioned that we had better start getting everything we would need for the weekend ready. The only thing I could think of that was happening on the weekend was the England-Ecuador match and Ben is hardly the kind of football fan to need four days preparation time so I asked him what he was on about.

‘Oh, I may have forgotten to tell you, I’ve entered us for a 24-hour mountain bike team race in Hereford this weekend’.


Now normally I am up for any challenge but I had a couple of key concerns:

  1. I had never raced a mountain bike before.
  2. I did not in fact own a mountain bike.

Ben dismissed these as problems for another day, but told me to bring the expedition medical kit just in case.

We drove into the grounds of Eastnor Castle on Saturday morning to find something I could only describe as a kind of Glastonbury of outdoor sports types. A sea of tents stretched across the valley and thousands of bikes hurtled around as people travelled between the tents offering free sports massage and the mobile climbing walls.

With Rhys, an ironman triathlete from cornwall, and Tom we would do one lap relays of the course from 2pm on Saturday until 2pm on Sunday. Ben went off first having to run 800m to reach his bike and was back forty-five minutes later telling horror stories about the course. I would find out what it was like soon enough.

The course had obviously been designed by a sadist. Treacherous descents on loose gravel combined with long, punishing climbs where the heat and lack of breeze left you gasping for breath. Much of the lap was on incredibly narrow single tracks through woodland where tree roots, abrupt turns and sudden drops threatened to dislodge you. I came back from my first lap with a healthy respect for the professional and Olympic racers who would take this course so much faster than I could imagine.

On my second lap it all went a bit pear-shaped. Coming down through dense woodland there was a narrow s-bend with a big lip of built-up earth taking up most of the ground. Under pressure from a cyclist behind me, I misjudged the lip and my bike stopped dead. I, however, did not and flew through the air slamming headfirst into a tree with sickening force. I lay dizzy for a moment, my leg unable to clip out of my mountain bike pedals and answering the enquiries of people as they passed with a reflex ‘yeah, yeah, I’m fine’. Getting up I wiped the blood off my arm, thanked the makers of my bike helmet, and pushed on until the end of the lap. Continue reading “Last night a helmet saved my life”

13.1 miles in Milton Keynes. . .

MK Half Marathonand not one of those miles passed through anywhere one could class as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Lots of underpasses though, those were nice. The way they prominently named each one of these identical concrete monuments to Le Corbusier (who has a lot to answer for) so that you wouldn’t think you were running in circles was extremely kind. Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ben, my sadistic partner in all things polar, informed me two weeks ago that as part of his training for the London Marathon we would be doing the Milton Keynes Half Marathon. Last year we had both been able to blag ‘celebrity places’ and found ourselves on the front line of the London Marathon hemmed in by Gordon Ramsey and the Cheeky Girls on either side. This year, Ben managed to score the last place, cruelly leaving me to my fate. However, with the kindness that he is famous for, he still insisted that I join him for the MK half.

I had managed to sustain the mother of all shin splints the week before, but after serious consultation with numerous health professionals decided that a shedload of ibuprofen should do the trick. A friendly/drunk doctor once reminded me that those maximum usage guidelines were meant to apply to 50lb grannies and thus my 185lb frame could probably up the dosage without growing a third arm on my forehead. I had put this to fine effect prior to a race in the Southern Ocean in 2000, where upon receiving the command that the bow team were not allowed more than one ibuprofen pill every four hours, we scoured the chemists of Buenos Aires until we found a little old lady that sold us some 800mg tablets that, I can only assume, she had acquired from the local horse doctor. A good settlement for all involved I felt. But I digress.

So Sunday morning found us stuck in the middle of a great mass of humanity wearing skimpy clothing and wishing that we were reproducing this scenario in Rio rather than Milton Keynes. The thing is, the race itself was brilliant. I ran almost exactly the same pace throughout and started surging through the pack around mile eight, which was a fantastic feeling. I was no longer just running to get round, I was running down the group ahead, passing them then targeting the next one, all the while singing the London Underground song happily in my head. I finished in 1:28:40 and picked up my gaudy orange medal of victory. Disappointingly, there was no cash prize attached to the medal, so I settled for swiping as much free lucozade sport (cures all known diseases) as I could carry and headed back home for a hot-dog eat-off with a professional skateboarder which I ignominiously lost 11 hot dogs to nine. You win some, you lose some.