Clipper Round the World: Behind the Scenes with the Black Hand Gang

Jessica Watson
Posted February 15 2016

While offshore sailing enthusiasts the world over follow the Clipper fleet as they race through the South China Sea, Deckee discovered that some of the race’s best stories come from the support teams who follow the yachts around the world, leaping into action as the weary sailors arrive into port.

Justin “Jay” Haller is the leader of the of Black Hand Gang, the affectionate name given to the Clipper maintenance team, who are often found with black, greasy hands from servicing engines, rigging and other equipment.

Jay, known to his team as “The Chief”, has spent time as a technician in Antarctica and working on America’s Cup yachts. The 2015–16 Clipper Race is his seventh edition of the race. The Chief put aside his tools to answer a few of Jess’s questions.

Jess: In some stopovers, the yachts are only in port for a few days. If there’s been breakages it must be a crazy few days to get everything fixed. Can you tell me about the most challenging stopover?

Jay: I remember Hawaii during the Clipper 2007-08 race as being one of our most challenging. Two of the boats were de-masted on the passage between China and USA. The fleet was diverted to Hawaii whilst we sourced two replacement masts, and we had to charter a specialist Russian transport plane to fly the replacement rigs and standing rigging out to Honolulu. We managed to load the rigs into the plane with just two inches of spare space remaining in the hold.

Jess: What are the most common breakages and maintenance issues the fleet experience?

Jay: Every day is different and brings different challenges. From generators to computers to rigging issues, no day is ever the same. Working through maintenance issues with the crew and skippers reduces the workload in the long run as they become more familiar with the systems.

We do get some rather surprising issues too. During the last race in 2014, one of the teams reported feeling two or three heavy impacts on their rudder. When it came into port you could clearly see the markings of a shark bite. We took the rudder off and removed some rather large teeth which were embedded pretty deeply. The bite was about a foot and a half across, so it was a pretty big shark. In almost 14 years on the job, that was a first. All images: ©CLIPPER RACE Jess: It’s an endurance race so the crew are encouraged to minimise damage. Are there penalties for the yachts that need to replace damaged and broken equipment?

Jay: The teams do get penalised for damaging equipment. Skippers and crew are responsible for looking after their boats and it promotes good seamanship.

At the end of the stopover, the damages and costs are tallied up and penalty points do get applied to the overall standings.

Jess: How extensive are the tool and spares kits carried on the yachts? Are the crews able to fix many issues at sea?

Jay: The yachts carry a standard toolkit and various basic spares which allows them to carry out repairs. A lot of the equipment on board requires specialist knowledge to carry out the repairs, though there are quite often engineers amongst the crew who are able to make some repairs at sea which we can then check over in port.

Jess: What’s the one breakage or maintenance issue you dread most?

Jay: Collisions at the race start. This does not happen very often, but it is always at the back of my mind. I find the race starts quite stressful and I try to avoid watching them for this reason! As the race progresses however, the crews settle in and the breakages tend to reduce.

Jess: You must have seen a few ports in your time. At which stopover have you been most impressed by the marine services and facilities available?

Jay: I would have to say the Abell Point Marina in Airlie Beach has been the most impressive so far. You are never quite sure what to expect when working with a first-time port, but the facilities we required were all on hand and the marina staff were always willing to go the extra mile for us. No ask was too much for them and it really helped make our operation go a lot smoother.

Jess: How does it feel to see the yachts set off on each leg? Are you relieved to see them go or nervous while they are at sea?

Jay: Seeing empty pontoons at the end of a stopover may be a rather empty feeling for friends and family, but for the maintenance team it is always a fantastic sight. It means that our worklist has been completed and the boats are ready and off for their next voyage.

Jess: If your toolkit went missing on the way to the next stopover and you had to get the fleet back out on the water with only one tool, what tool would you chose to have with you?

Jay: Hmm, I think it would have to be my Leatherman. It can be put to many good uses. I don’t go anywhere without it.

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