A Shaftesbury man has returned safely from the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. 71-year-old Tim Chappell sailed the 5,200 nautical miles between Cape Town and Perth. He tells Alfred how the experience has changed is life.
Tim Chappell saw some incredible sights as his 70ft yacht forged through the 60ft waves of the Roaring Forties and the southern Indian Ocean from Africa, past Antarctica and on to Australia. “I saw a fin whale, humpback whales, albatrosses, terns and petrels,” he said. “You see all the stars that you want to see.”
At times, Tim’s yacht was closer to the International Space Station than it was to the land. And it was rough and tough on the ocean. “The boat would be over at quite a steep angle. You’d be looking down at your feet. And then the sea would be a couple of inches beyond it, perception-wise. But that wasn’t a worry. I was never fazed. I did ask the skipper why was it that the rougher it became, the more I enjoyed it. He said it was because my danger awareness increased the excitement and my adrenaline increased, so I enjoyed it more. 50% of the crew were ill in the first week or so. I sorted myself out with ginger pills,” smiled Tim.
Before the race, following training on The Solent, Tim said he wanted to perform as well as a twenty-year-old crew member. On the water, off Africa, he realised that ambition wasn’t entirely realistic. “I was crawling on to the foredeck where a couple of sails were, but it was advised that no old men should go there,” he said. “It did bounce around a lot. I did not have that agility and strength. I let the younger ones get on and do it. They wanted to.”
Tim has re-lived some of the tough experiences caught on camera. “There’s a film on YouTube of me coming out of the companionway down below. It is only about a two-foot six square gap. You’re supposed to double up with your legs and back and bend. It’s very difficult to get out. Others younger than me could do it quite easily but I sometimes had to throw myself out and crawl across the deck.”
Tim was warned that there would be no home comforts on board and his trainers weren’t joking. “There are no showers. There’s no heating. There’s no cooling. There are no seats on the toilets. The only way of cleaning yourself is with wet wipes. If you don’t like the food, you don’t eat it. I didn’t eat curry meals. If I was too tired, I went straight to bed, not bothering with food. I sometimes wore my wet clothes in bed,” said Tim.
The crew worked miracles in the cramped kitchen, where it was stiflingly hot. Team members on cooking duties coped with the 45°C heat by stripping to their underwear. That’s a concern when using hot oil in a confined space on the churning seas. “A lot of the food was dried,” explained Tim. “There was some fresh food which we could use for the first ten days to a fortnight but that gradually petered out. I had three occasions on which I could partner with someone else to be what we call a ‘mother’, or the cook. We worked from when we got up at 5am. We finished about 10pm and were there continually throughout the day providing food and drinks for everyone else. I was fortunate. My ‘mother’ allowed me an hour of sleep in the morning and afternoon.”
When Alfred interviewed Tim in November, the former GCHQ ‘spook’ and Dorset Police Special Sergeant knew how dangerous the Clipper race was. He said there was a real possibility that he could drown. People have died on this voyage before. One of Tim’s crew colleagues had her hand crushed by block and tackle and there were more significant injuries.
“Another of our crewmembers fell over on deck and suffered a broken jaw, broken teeth, broken nose, cuts around the eyes and forehead. He was quite badly injured,” said Tim. And a life-threatening emergency meant the crew had to drop out of the competitive race. “One guy developed appendicitis. He was drugged up with morphine and we were advised to go to the nearest South African port. We’d just reached 40 degrees south, near Antarctica. We took six days to reach Durban and drop him off.”
Surgeons operated and discovered that the patient had severe sepsis. Without the detour, he would have died. “Naturally, on board, everyone’s hearts and souls sank because the race had finished. We were not actually in a proper hard race with other boats. But we had to save somebody’s life,” said Tim.
There was one side effect of the crossing that Tim was not prepared for – hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation. “After about five days of four hours on, four hours off, I got, if I was lucky, just a few hours’ sleep. I started seeing red double-decker London buses landing on the sea. There’s no land within sight after a couple of hours of leaving Cape Town. I started seeing planes landing, dogs walking and people walking on the sea,” he said.
Tim says he’ll never forget another strange experience that wasn’t caused by his imagination. Before the yacht headed off on their 33-day voyage, the crew took part in a race from Cape Town Harbour. “We had a short course, just a few miles around buoys, so the people onshore could see what the racing was like. I enjoyed that racing because you were within metres of other boats. We took 70ft long boats with 90ft masts and 22 to 24 crew on each boat. I was occasionally up to my waist in water because we were heeled over so much. I was hanging on and somebody was hanging on to me. I was also tethered onto the boat to make sure I didn’t go over the side. I noticed the water form the shape of a hand and it opened up the flap of my trouser pockets. ‘It’ took out my wallet and deposited it in the sea in the bay. I couldn’t do a single thing. I couldn’t let go or I would have fallen and been injured. It was really like a smooth hand. I don’t know to this day how it managed to do that,” laughed Tim.
When Tim arrived at Fremantle, near Perth, on 20th December, his legs were wobbly from spending over a month at sea. Even when sleeping in his bunk, his muscles had been working, sometimes fighting the yacht’s movement. He was exhausted. And when he came ashore, it took some time before he could enjoy a refreshing night’s sleep. “I couldn’t stay asleep for longer than about two hours. It’s taken about two-and-a-half weeks to get over the exceedingly heavy fatigue. I had not realised how strenuous it would be on the body and mind. I would say I lost 15 kilos within the first week.”
Now back home in Shaftesbury, Tim is 8kg lighter than in November. “I couldn’t eat food at Christmas because my stomach had shrunk. I was used to having perhaps porridge in the morning, possibly no lunch, and possibly no evening meal, but just snacks and bits and pieces. I’m realising that I was quite a lot overweight. I had a high BMI of 32 and therefore I’ve got to keep that weight down, keep it off, lose more weight, which I intend to do. And it’s shown me that even losing 10 kilos, which is five of the two-pound bags of sugar, is so essential for everyone.”
Tim had plenty of time to think about life and the people he loves when he was on board. And he says, after reflection, he’s determined to change his behaviour in 2020. “I did have one major epiphany moment about my partner,” said Tim. “I should have been a lot nicer in the last few years. I know what I’ve got to do to change myself because of the Asperger’s diagnosis that I had over a year ago, which explains a lot of things that my attitude.”
Tim was fundraising for UNICEF and before he set sail, he took a two-hour drive from Cape Town to visit the Isibindi family and the so-called Child Safe Park, which is run by the South African government and supported by the charity. It provides a home for disadvantaged children and their parents. Visiting the site was one of the most moving experiences Tim can recall.
“You arrived at this camp where there are hundreds of tin shacks. We went to one and I left it because I was disgusted. I felt too rich. There were four people – two adults and two children – living in something about eight foot by twelve foot. There was no running water, no toilets. They went to the toilet in the street. We had to step over urine. It was flowing down the street. They would have perhaps one meal a day that the children were given at the school,” said Tim.
He was impressed by what he saw on his school tour. “Fantastic teachers and very eloquent students who wanted to run South Africa, because they could see the corruption and that the money wasn’t being distributed fairly, in their estimation. It hit home when I went to Tesco in Shaftesbury to get some food on Christmas Eve. Everybody was scrambling around for food. I just put my food down and left. I was so disgusted that I was buying food for myself when there were people in the world who didn’t have enough just for one meal a day.”
That school visit was a pivotal moment for Tim. “That’s changed me. I intend to continue working with UNICEF and getting my son’s school in New Milton to work with that safe camp in Cape Town,” he said.
“It’s taken a trip like that to make me realise how rich I am. I don’t have any money, but I am rich in comparison. I get disgusted with fundraisers for wealthy people. They have dinners and they spend thousands of pounds to raise money for charity. Why bother with a dinner?” asked Tim.
Tim is pleased that UNICEF will benefit from his efforts and the work of his teammates. “I raised about 63%, £1,243, of my £2,000 target. As a boat, we are about 150% of our target, mainly due to our surgeon, Holly Williams, who’s circumnavigating the world. She’s from America and before she left, she separated conjoined twins. She’s a fantastic person and she managed to raise a little over £11,000 from her medical colleagues. For the fundraising across the whole fleet, we hope to raise at least £1 million – hopefully £2 million – for UNICEF.”
Tim says he has forged at least two enduring friendships from the experience. He shared a berth, ‘hot bunking’ with an ex-Royal Naval Commodore and he also became a good friend of the owner of a pharmaceutical company. “It was a great experience and a great adventure. It’s something I’d encourage everyone to do, if they could,” said Tim.
You can still support Tim’s fundraising at his JustGiving page.