As a result of the Yachtmaster Ocean adventure I found myself at a rather extreme job interview for a sailing round the world opportunity of a lifetime.
I’d made it to the second interview stage, which turned out to be a team building weekend, from which my legs are just about recovering. So while the kit list had specified trainers, leggings, boot camp gym gear, it had also stated that “rest assured we are not assessing your personal fitness in any sense”. Thus I had placed more hope in the second statement and imagined that while some light exercise might be involved, I’d be ok.
I arrived early and settled in to our accommodation, noting the piece of paper titled “Sunday Breakfast”, today being Friday I am already beginning to suspect that we will not be waking up here tomorrow morning. Over the course of the next few hours it transpired that a total of eight girlies had been invited to attend this weekend, all with one thing in common, we are sailors. Needless to say, with everyone being of a like minded ilk, it was easy to settle and feel relaxed in this company. After a final half hour of general nervous female faff, we were dressed in the prescribed gym gear, equipped with water bottle, torch, watch, warmer layers and ready for role call.
We were introduced to our course leaders, which should have given a good inkling of what was to lie ahead. Leading the course was a former Red Arrows pilot, two former and one current Marines. Introductions over we were stripped of name and given a numbered bib to wear “to make it easy for observers to identify us”, then piled into a mini bus and driven to a short sharp flint shingle beach. And then the exercise began. I had read the term “boot camp” lightly, it would appear this was a large under estimation on my part. A 15 minute jog for the warm-up, across the shingle beach…. Now back in 2015 I did a lot of running as part of my training regime for the Island Games, since 2015 I think the only running I have done is to the car when the RNLI pager goes off. I’m not sure if I’m going to survive the warm-up, let alone the rest of the course.
However, some kind of exercise familiarity does kick in and I get through the jog and stretches without embarrassing myself too much. Next up came boot camp. We were split into pairs, one had to run along the shingle to a fence, turn round and run back along grass. While one was running, the other had some kind of circuit type exercise, lunges, sit-ups, press-ups, and various other shock to the system stuff. I hate running, I’m good at sprinting, but anything more and I am just not built for it. I went for it though, I’d already realised that the only purpose of it all was not to quit, it wasn’t an option. I’d run all the way, even though I wanted to stop, then still find a bit more to sprint the end, but after a few laps the sprint ends were resulting me vomiting in a hedge. Probably not the best sight by the kids play park on a Friday evening, but hey, I didn’t choose it! But each time I’d pick myself up and get on with the circuit things, finding these a huge relief to the run. In fact the lie down and lift your legs in the air exercise was probably the only thing keeping my body from total state of lactic acid induced shock! After about two hours of this torture it ended and we watched a beautiful big red sunset behind the docks.
Back in the minibus and now we are being driven even further away from our caravan site. As we pass through the city the penny begins to drop and I suspect we are about to spend the night in the forest. Sure enough our chariot delivers us to a a car park, just as dusk is falling. “You only need to carry your water bottles, nothing else” were our instructions and thus we began a brisk march through across the moors and through the forest.
It is a clear, still night and the stars start to make themselves known as the twilight sets in. There is a chill in the air but the walking pace is enough to keep warm. There is plenty of chatter as we begin getting to know each other over the course of the next few hours. The walk passes quickly, when I looked at my watch it was 2300, it felt like only half an hour had passed. We were lucky in many respects, there had been a long spell with little rain, so the ground was dry underfoot and rivers were just trickling streams small enough to jump over. It was around midnight that we reached a car and two of the leaders waiting for us. “This is the halfway point” one of them said. None of us girls seemed at all phased by this and were prepared to keep walking. A dry clear night walking round a forest with a group of like minded new friends was an easy stint for any of us. Worse things happen at sea and all that.
They were joking and ushered us through a narrow path to a small campfire. This is where we would pitch camp. We were split into two teams, each team given a large ground sheet, a topsheet canopy, four lengths of rope and four pegs. “You’ve got 20 minutes to build your camp. We were quick to come up with adequate shelters for the night. The large ground sheets folded in half, the topsheets over a line between two trees, four pegs in at the corners, some sticks incorporated for additional pegs and voila, two tents. Again I am counting our blessings that it is not raining, how different this would all be if it was.
Next up we are gathered again at the fire for a brain testing puzzle. We are each given the same puzzle, to work out the best way of getting something from point A to point B. There are three different route options. In essence it is a mathematical speed, time, distance puzzle but with some additional complications for each different route. I can feel the tired setting in to my brain and am aware that my thoughts are flowing much more slowly. It is a familiar feeling, problem solving and navigation on the dog watches or the middle of the night lifeboat shouts. I know how I operate in this state, so I double and triple check my answers.
Again split into two teams to discuss the choices we had made. It was pretty simple in that all on my team had the right answer, the two young ‘uns whose brains were working at a much faster pace than mine (one a junior doctor used to the night shifts!). Then followed a group discussion with both teams. This might have been a brave move on the part of the leader, inviting eight women to talk. Sure enough he was bombarded with our logic, reasoning and thought processes as to how we had come up with the answer. We had all come up with the right answer, the leader seemed slightly confused, the poor guy had struggled to keep up with a conversation that us girlies had followed seamlessly all the way through.
“Morale is far too high here” he remarked at the end of the exercise as he announced that it was now bedtime, we would be up at 0530, there must be two people on fire watch through the night. For a group of sailors a rotating watch pattern was the obvious solution and quickly one of the girls had a rota which fairly included everyone. When our team numbers were allocated earlier I had been given number 2, a winner at this point as it gave me the first watch, meaning that the few hours sleep I would get tonight would at least be unbroken.
The two of us on first watch set about gathering enough wood to keep the fire going all night, the long dry spell meaning there was a plentiful supply. With no kettle available or means of making a hot drink, which in the middle of a cold night is always welcome, I took the lid off my water bottle and put the bottle in the fire, at this point I am very pleased with my choice of metal water bottle.
The rotating watch pattern meant that I sat with one person for 45 minutes and then a different person for the last part of the shift. This was a really great of getting to know people a little better. I sat in awe of the young lady in front of me as she told me about her time working in Antarctica, spending three months sailing between Ushuaia and the frozen continent.
At 0215 I leave the fire, wake up the next watch and snuggle in to the most comfortable and warmest sleeping bag I have ever been in. We had been given an army issue roll up mattress and these wonderful sleeping bags. It is cold outside, the air is still, clear and crisp. We are up at 0530, it will be colder then. I take off most of my layers so that I have layers to put on in the morning. My right leg and hip are hurting, no doubt from the shock of sudden onset exercise earlier. The mattress is a welcome couple of inches between me and ground, but I can feel the cold getting in to my bones and my joints.
At 0520 I wake to a voice announcing the time. It would appear that I have slept! In fact I slept so deeply that I didn’t even notice the girly next to me getting in after her watch. It was a beautiful morning to wake up to. The birds are already starting to busy themselves and sing in the trees, there is no wind, the fire is still crackling somewhere, the forest is still and the hazy morning mist makes everywhere look atmospheric. I smile, these guys are trying to find our breaking points and I’m enjoying this amazing treat. I can’t think of any other circumstances I would find myself here, waking up with the forest on an early summer day.
I move to put my layers on. My right leg and hip hurt a lot now, I hobble out of the tent. “You’ll only need your water bottles” that phrase again, the phrase that each time implies impending physical exercise. Sure enough, it is 0530 and we are jogging….. Jogging through a forest, I am beginning to question my sanity! This is without doubt a first for me, ever. My leg hurts a lot, I am hoping as I warm up the muscles will loosen off. “F**k, ow, f*ck, ow” becomes my mantra with ever step, it really is hurting. I am not as young as I used to be, recovery time is much slower. I struggle through the jog, but I finish it. Next up it is fleeces off, since the jog was just the warm up, we have some more exercise, more intensive exercise to endure. I’m hurting and I’m hobbling, but I am there, I show up, no complaints, ready to go. One of the leaders looks at me and just says “No, not you. We are not here to injure you, you need to able to enjoy the rest of the weekend, go and sit by the fire and rest.” “Can I take the tents down and make breakfast?” I ask. “No” was the firm answer.
There is another girl who is also stood down from exercise, she is carrying injuries from a car crash a few years ago. I feel bad that the rest of the team are going through some kind of torture, I also feel some relief that I am not. I enjoy the forest, the trees are soooo tall, the sunlight shines through the spring green of the young leaves and all that life is waking up to the shift in the seasons.
At around 7am a chap appears through trees carrying tea and coffee, mugs, milk sugar, the works. We touch any of it until our team gets back.
The runners soon returned and my world was restored with a hot sweet mug of tea, and then another one. On the menu was oats made with almond milk, which made a fine combination, pain au chocolate and of course more tea. It was a fairly high carb, but low protein breakfast, I’m more accustomed to getting through a day on a couple of eggs and some bacon!
Breakfast over and tents stowed away we were piled back into the mini bus for whatever our next endurance test would be. It was sunny already and it looked like a hot day ahead. We arrived at an expanse of moorland. Out of the van and straight into a brain testing puzzle.
We had a series of pieces and a set of instructions, the idea being a race against time to complete it. Once again this group of girls figured it out and to came up with a quick solve. After repeating the exercise again, now broken into two teams racing each other, there was a debrief, drink of water and then the next test.
Now we are being set a search and rescue exercise, a parachuter and a parachutist have gone down, somewhere in this expanse of moors. They are in two different locations. We have to find both and have both items back here by a certain time.
We were given a map and a compass. Now, my “map” reading skills are akin to Baldrick’s in Blackadder Goes Forth. “Chart” is my sphere of navigation and walking around with a “map” head up rather than north up is alien to me. It turns out that we have around 8 or 9km to cover and an hour and ten minutes to do it in.
Our pace is too slow to start with, we do pick it up, but not enough. We do find the parachute, but it has taken us more than half the time to cover half the distance. It is a real push for the finish, we are jogging. My legs hurts with every step, but we’ve got to jog, got to move faster. I keep trying to encourage the team to keep moving, keep calling out the time counting down. The Instructor with us is saying “that is the last hill, you can still do this in time” we keep moving.
I find a boost from somewhere, I feel strong on my legs and I remember those days spent running at the Chasms and Spanish Head, it feels good. I feel ever better to see that the unfit 37 year old in me can still outrun a 24 year old who has a figure for cross country! “This is the last hill, you can do it if you push”. Push I did, up the hill, lungs straining, legs weakening, feeling like a knackered old donkey and guessing I look like one too. I get to the top, I can feel the acid building up in my stomach and for the second time this weekend I am vomiting in a hedge. But I will not quit.
My body might be in the process of quitting, but it is not going to quit, my mind is set on getting through the last couple of hundred yards. On my third near collapse I am told “sit down in that bit of shade, cool down, get your heart rate down, drink water” I don’t argue. I hadn’t realised that my heart rate is actually through the roof, I’m wrapped up in leggings, big socks and trainers, it is a hot day. I am amazed by what the body will do to keep the mind happy, I hadn’t really noticed any of the physiological signs happening, “nearly there, keep going…”
There was some kind of debrief at the end, I got a special well done for not quitting, I didn’t care, I was disappointed at being let down by a lack of fitness (and lack of eggs for breakfast). I was glad it was over. I didn’t quit.
At the end of all that we are back at the start in blazing sunshine. Shoes and socks are off and we are trying to cool down. Our next challenge is another problem solver. Four facing four with one space between the two sides. “You can move forward one or round one, but not backwards, you must all swap places ending up on the opposite side, you have one hour to solve it”. The Marines and the Red Arrows guy sat down to observe how we would tackle this. It took us less than five minutes to solve their puzzle! Apparently they have seen corporate high flyers take the full hour and still not solve it. “How?” I wondered.
They weren’t sure if it was because we were women, or because we were sailors, used to working in cooperation with other people, often strangers, or perhaps a combination of both, but everything that was thrown at us thus far we have risen to the challenge and exceeded expectations.
Lunch was a welcome break taken sat in the shade, which then became a “tell us about yourself and why you applied for the job” session. It was interesting to hear everyone’s stories and backgrounds. There were people there who have sailed to places I can only dream of going.
All fed and watered, stories shared it was back to the bus and driven whatever fate they had in store for us next. Which turned out to be an afternoon on a high ropes course. Oh my word, this was good fun. There were helmets and harnesses on the ground, one for each of us and before the instructor had turned round to introduce himself, this crowd of sailor girls had gotten ourselves into the gear, no instruction required. “This is going to be an easy afternoon then” he said as he took us to what is basically an enormous climbing frame in the forest with the highest parts being up in the canopy.
We are led to a pole, not much wider than a telegraph pole with kind of laddery ledges each side of it to climb up. At the top there is a platform not much bigger than a bread board, we have to get up on to that…. I was in the last pair to go, thus had a good idea what to expect. While I might not have the aerobic fitness for cross country events, I do have the upper body and core strength for climbing. Getting up the pole was no problem, just climb….. The bread board platform at the top was a bit trickier, having to negotiate a small overhang and then get your two feet on there and stand up with nothing to grab on to. A bit of teamwork from the girls on the ropes at the bottom and between us we have my weight supported and I bend my legs up and stand up. Phew! Made it. Now the tricky bit… the bit where I realised that I am now a long way up and it looks a long way down. I see the vertigo in my peripheral vision, simple fix, I stop looking down! I’m in the canopy of the trees, I can see tops of the trees stretching out in front of me, everything is green and dancing in the early summer sun. It is a beautiful sight, and one I don’t expect I’ll see again. Deep breath and all is good.
Climbing up after me is my partner for this task. She has made it to the platform and is now negotiating herself over the ledge. “I’m going to grab round your knees, now round your hips…” I do my best to stand still and to keep my sight on the horizon. It doesn’t take long before the two of us are toe to toe and face to face on this bread board at the top of a forest. Now were are instructed to hold each other’s elbows, now drop out to forearms, lean back, now wrists, lean back more…this is a huge trust exercise!….. “Now hold hands, lean out more, stretch it out to fingertips” we obligingly and successfully follow all the instructions, including one to “swap hands” which took a little coordination, but we weren’t beaten.
Last up in that exercise put me first up in the next exercise, basically scale and cross three levels of wire rope each level with a higher degree of difficulty. The first has three ropes to grab as you cross, each just out of arm’s reach I quickly discover. I’m quick across this one then up a ladder to the next level, a balance beam at a decent height. “I have to walk across this?” I ask “Yes, they all nod”. Right ho, it is just like the balancing act of walking down the narrow rail of the Suzanna to get to my own boats at home, I can do this. I look straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other… and I make it to the other side. Up the next ladder and now I’m on a wire with a rope hand hold which is on a diagonal, as is the other on the opposing diagonal, so the ropes cross, but they cross over down near foot height and there is some slack in both. I’m on the wire, facing the rope with it in my hands, I find the balance point by leaning forwards onto the rope. This is familiar territory, it reminds me of being on the yards in the rigging on a tall ship, I’ve got this. The crossover was tricky, by with a little leap of balance faith I made it across and abseiled back down. What a blast, I loved that!
There was some muttering about a raft building exercise, but that seemed to vanish and after the high ropes course that was it, we were taken back to the caravan site, for showers and some well earned rest! At a barbeque put on for us that evening, it was revealed by the project’s Shore Manager that they did intend to send us to get wet, but she had put her foot down “your not putting them in the minibus soaking wet, I’ve got to take it back to the hire company!” “they can get changed outside” he had said. “They are women, they are not getting changed outside in the open, this is enough”. Thank goodness for that! We had dealt with everything they had thrown at us in cooperation and good cheer, there was no need for more.
And once again thank goodness for that! There was some talk of a torturous mud run yet to come, and the low water at The River looked like the perfect place. We were spared that and instead treated to a gentle morning of chat about high performance teams and the Belbin test that we had been asked to complete before the weekend. The final part was yet another one of those tell us about yourself exercises, “why you should get the job and what your weaknesses are”. I really struggle with all this, I’m a practical, hands on person and the whole group chat thing is not in my comfort zone. I blurt out some kind of words that seem appropriate, but who knows. Three of the girls each started with “When I heard you were the skipper I applied…. “ three jobs, three girls, the penny should have dropped then.
But after a tour of the boat and a few PR shots I got on the train and started the long journey home, exhausted but in a good place. I felt proud of myself and the grit and determination I had shown, I’d been cheerful, had a laugh, spent a beautiful night in the forest, I’d met a great crowd of people, made some new friends and I really thought I was in with a chance.