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Vol. LXII, No. 21
October 15, 2010
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NHGRI Scientist Relishes North Sea Sailboat Race
Dr. Colin Fletcher (r) and crewmates aboard the Hull & Humber enjoy calm seas on a relatively balmy day.
Above, Dr. Colin Fletcher (r) and crewmates aboard the Hull & Humber enjoy calm seas on a relatively balmy day. Below, the weather wasn’t always so kind; the boat pitches hard in high waves in the North Sea.
The weather wasn’t always so kind; the boat pitches hard in high waves in the North Sea.

For many people, an ideal vacation is one spent leisurely strolling through a new city or perhaps lolling in a hammock at water’s edge, drink in hand.

Dr. Colin Fletcher, director of NHGRI’s Knock-Out Mouse Program, decided neither of those scenarios worked for him. He spent 2 weeks of leave hauling 400-pound sails, getting splashed in the face and enduring bitter cold in the North Sea in a sailing race around Great Britain and Ireland.

For Fletcher, who’s been sailing since he was a kid and has cruised extensively in the waters of Long Island Sound, this seemed the most natural of adventures. Captivated by feats of sailors like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, an Englishman who in 1969 became the first person to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe, Fletcher was alert for an opportunity to take part in a competition that would challenge him, but also let him keep his day job.

Discovering a call for crew to man a 68-foot clipper named the Hull & Humber, Fletcher jumped at the chance. The event, the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race, was projected to take no longer than 2 weeks. “I thought ‘I have enough leave for that,’” he said.

In mid-August, Fletcher flew to England and met the 15 other people with whom he’d be working and sharing space on a boat with living quarters no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. He also became grateful that, for him, sailing is a hobby and not how he makes a living.

“It’s a tough life to be a professional sailor,” he said. “Maybe you’re helping out as a skipper for a retired couple’s boat or maybe you’re ferrying boats for people back and forth, but mostly you’re bumming around on the docks looking for work. A lot of these guys don’t know what their next job is.”

Thankfully, he knew that his job, as well as that of the other hands on board, was to get the boat counter-clockwise around Britain and Ireland as quickly and safely as possible. Most everyone aboard was British and the crew came from all walks of life. The race began at the Isle of Wight and included classes for different boat sizes to make the race a fair fight.

All the drama associated with such a race seemed to come on the first day, Fletcher said, as some boats went out ambitiously with too much sail up for the windy start. At least one boat not only had sails torn, but also had to pull out of the race entirely as it was dismasted. After that day, the remaining boats spread out and Fletcher said he and his crewmates would occasionally see a dot out on the horizon reminding them that they weren’t alone.

Life on board was a challenge as the pitching and rocking made sleeping, cooking and just being on deck a battle with bouncing waves. Fletcher found a way to keep his suspended bunk from slamming into the inner hull, but with no refrigerator on board there was little he could do about the food.

“The food was pretty awful. I mean, it was basically quirky British food,” he said, noting that one crewmember’s idea of having vegetables on a pizza was to dump canned peas on top. “Since we were so hungry it seemed delicious at the time,” said Fletcher.

However, there were plenty of things that made up for the inconveniences, namely gorgeous sunsets and sunrises as well as dolphins that came near the boat. One unusual experience was sailing past a massive oil drilling field in the North Sea at night, the oil platforms looking like bizarre torches perched on the water as they burned off natural gas pulled up with the oil.

The taxing job of steering the boat was spread out among the crew in 20-minute intervals. On days when the winds were steady or calm, the on-duty half of the crew could rest above deck, ready to make any changes to the sails as needed. But on days when the winds were moving and changing rapidly, “in the worst case scenario, you’re changing sails every hour to optimize aerodynamics,” Fletcher said. That required all available hands to manage sails weighted down with brass rings and heavy material.

While the winning vessel, a boat specifically built for racing, completed the race in 5 days, the Hull & Humber finished after a respectable 12 days on the water. NIHRecord Icon


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