A white cloud engulfed the yacht, leaving us 90 degree flat in the water. It was like a human pinball machine.
Ex-England rugby captain Ollie Phillips tells us about the epic voyage that saw him and his fellow crew members take on 16 races, 40-metre high waves and a typhoon that would leave the boat on its side in the water
Forty-metre waves were rising up in front of the boat, 125-mph winds were battering the 20 people on board… We were sailing across the Southern Ocean and some people were starting to lose their minds. I had never seen anything like this before – my entire life on the ocean at this point comprised 60 days.
One year ago I had been captaining the England Rugby Sevens team on terra firma. I had been injured at the Sevens World Cup and waiting to rejoin the team had been more agonising than the injury. Rather than wait around for the next 12 months to find out if I would be picked again, I had taken up my friend’s Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s challenge to join him on the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race.
The race was Sir Robin’s idea. After sailing around the world himself, he wanted to give other people the chance to do it. As long as you have a certain level of fitness, they are happy for you to take part. Before you set sail, you do three [now four] weeks of training. You are meant to stagger the training, but as I was late to the party, I did my training sessions back to back. This meant living on the boat for three weeks, learning what reefing was and doing head sail changes… But when you start the race you are still pretty raw.
I checked with the team’s doctors and no-one had any objections to me taking part in the voyage for there wouldn’t be too much in the way of stresses and strains on my leg. I was keen to take on the challenge as more people have climbed Everest than sailed round the world.
The route would take us across the Atlantic, Southern Ocean, Indian Ocean and Pacific and we’d even get the chance to take part in the Sydney Hobart Race on Boxing Day.
We had started our epic 10-month long adventure on 9 September 2013. Twelve yachts set sail from Brest in France and raced across the Atlantic to Brazil. I was on the Great Britain yacht. Alongside the professional sailors were city workers, students, ship workers…. On our yacht we had people aged from 20 to 73 years of age. Some wanted a life experience, some wanted to sail a huge ocean… everyone had a different reason for being there.
After three weeks of sunshine, squalls and break-neck speeds of 30 knots, we reached Rio. There is nothing more special than coming into a city, having sailed there. I’ve never been so euphoric. It was an incredible experience. You felt you had earnt it.
From here we sailed to Cape Town. After a short stop here, we sailed onto Albany, Western Australia. It was here we met the 40 metre high waves. It was a rude awakening for anyone who had just joined the boat. And it was equally terrifying for the rest of us. They had just promoted me from skivvy to watch leader and made me second in command on the yacht. I was pretty nervous about it. We had a watch system of four hours on, four hours off – and during those four hours you had to do your best to get some sleep in your bunk otherwise you were in trouble.
Weirdly for me, with so many people on the boat feeling scared – and three or four refusing to go on deck – it made me really focus. All I could think about at that moment was how to keep the boat moving forward and keep people positive. It was a real dig in moment. But after being faced with the most amazing sea state, and being at one point we were 180 miles behind the lead, but we managed to win that race by two miles. It was an amazing effort from the group.
From here we sailed to the Whitsundays. And then the next leg took us on to Singapore. It was en route to Singapore that we had our next surprise – we were hit by a tornado. I was on the helm. There was no wind – three knots of breeze, and the sea was totally flat. Then all of a sudden the wind started getting up and thought better put a reef in and take a bit of sail down. Within 20 seconds of everyone moving, the boat went from slightly heeled to the left, to being engulfed in a white cloud and the sail hitting the water at 90 degrees. It was like a human pinball machine. Two or three of the sailors weren’t tied on because they were moving forward to work on the sails. I remember one of the sailors Sarah Usher hitting the water, she was about to shoot out the back of the yacht and I managed to grab her. It was a bit harem scarem, but it was still nowhere near as bad as what we’d already faced in the Southern Ocean.
But as testing as this might sound – being cooped up in tight space, dealing with a roaring ocean, being wet, miserable, and the food not being very good – there was a specialness about it too. It was almost a rite of passage and for each leg you were rewarded with the euphoria of coming into port.
We also looked forward to the fresh blood joining the boat. Some people would stay on for just two or three legs, so when there was a changeover of crew you were given fresh stories and got up to date with world news.
I met some really interesting people on board the boat, but the one I marvelled at the most was Gil Sharp, a 73-year-old violinist who played for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She was so punchy, so fiery and she had so much about her. She had so many amazing stories – an incredible human being. She said I want to do something extraordinary before I die. She managed to do three legs of the journey before she went back onshore.
The whole trip was one of the most humbling experiences for me. I was used to being part of a team, but with the England rugby team everyone focused on the same thing. We were similar age, similar marital status, same sex… all our priorities were the same and being a skipper was quite easy – everyone wanted to play for England and everyone wanted to win. But on board the boat, the crew aged from 20 to 73 years old all had different reasons for being there. It forced me to be someone else, recognise their reasons for being there and learn how to communicate differently. For example, they wanted to learn how to sail, I wanted to win… so I just made sure they were sailing all the time. We were both still getting what we wanted out of it.
Something else that I had to face on the boat, was my fear of heights. I suffer from massive vertigo. One of the tasks being watch leader was to go have to climb up to the crow’s nest. I as tied on pretty strong, but I would still feel weak at the knees when I was faced with big, rough seas. However, when I’d get to the crow’s nest, it was worth it, as the view from up there is breathtakingly spectacular.
After sailing into China, we then went onto San Francisco. We had to cross 6,000 miles of ocean and the relentless wind and rough waves made it really hard going.
From San Francisco we sailed to Panama. We saw tons of wildlife – shoals of dolphins and quite a few whales. It was really spectacular sailing in the sunshine, but boy it was hot in the cabin.
You almost have to pinch yourself when you look at a map and say I’ve just sailed the whole West coast of America or China to the US.
In between legs, we would go onshore for about seven days. At each stop I would play a game of rugby with a team in that city. It was part of a 10 Downing Street initiative – a legacy of the 2012 Olympics.
Panama City was beautiful. It was everything I thought a historic Latin community would be like. Very colourful. A bit of culture, quite rustic, a lot of imperfections that make it a beautiful place. I find that First World countries all look the same.
From here we sailed into New York. Highlights included going through the Panama Canal and seeing the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline at night from our boat. It was a magical moment.And then it was the final leg via Ireland to St Katharine Docks in London. I felt a mixture of relief and sadness. This took up 11 months of my life – now it was all over. However, I was also excited to see my family.
When I stepped off the boat I found out that I wouldn’t be playing again for England. It hit me hard, but the Clipper Race has shown me what else I could do. It had given me a taste for adventure.
The moment that Phillips’ boat was hit by a tornado
Since circumnavigating the world, Ollie Phillips went on to trek 100 miles to the Arctic to play the most northerly game of rugby at the 1996 Magnetic North Pole. Over the next year, the rugby player turned adventurer is about to climb Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro and summit Everest. Phillips will also be taking part in a marathon in Sierra Leone and join the Rickshaw Run to raise funds for charity. An Olympic ambassador for the Sevens, Phillips also hopes to be in Rio for the Olympics.