Former England Sevens rugby captain Ollie Phillips once thought ocean sailing would be like “summer sailing all the way, in T-shirts and shorts”.
Today, as the now bearded 30-year-old winger recovers from the fifth race of the Clipper Round the World Race from Albany in Western Australia to Sydney which he and his crew on the 70-footer Great Britain finished on Saturday, he shakes his head in disbelief at his own naivety.
Embedded in the former Stade Francaise, Gloucester and 2009 IRB Sevens player of the year's memory is one incident that brought home to him the real danger of ocean racing.
It happened on day four of event four of the race from Cape Town to Albany when their yacht was struck by a huge wave in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Crewmate James “Jim” Hendry, 68, who was on deck was knocked unconscious, momentarily leading crew to fear for his life.
Watch the video here.
“We were steady and stable and cruising. Then bang … a wave comes in,” Phillips told Fairfax Media at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia at Rushcutters Bay where Great Britain is being readied for the Sydney to Hobart race that doubles as race six of the Clipper Round the World Race.
“We thought we lost it. He went blue. We thought he died on deck. We were shaking him and luckily he came to,” Phillips said.
He knows the incident could have been far worse. “He might not have had a tether on, or he might have been changing a tether and bang, he could have gone overboard," Phillips said. "We might have lost him … unconscious, floating in the Southern Ocean and us in 85 knot winds.”
It also reminded Phillips, who only joined Great Britain as a sailing rookie a five weeks before the Clipper Round the World Race started in London on September 1, that the ocean is such a “temperamental beast”.
“You are totally isolated,” he said. “The winds … the worst we got were 80 to 90 knot gusts, but some got 120 knot gusts.
"I can't describe how fast and scary that is. The sea state then is so aggressive. We would bottom out of a wave. I would look behind and there would be a wave six storeys high. The biggest thing I have learned is don't under estimate the ocean.”
Despite his new-found enthusiasm for sailing - and the challenge of ocean racing - Phillips, whose season -ong absence from the rugby paddock was due to a calf muscle nerve injury, still hopes to return to the England Sevens squad after his Clipper Round the World experience. His dream is to make the team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Besides the fear factor of ocean racing, Phillips has found the biggest challenge is handling the co-habitation of 24 crewmates on board a 70-foot yacht for up to 28 days at a time.
“It's physically and mentally demanding, but I am used to that rugby-wise,” he said.
“The hardest thing is the people. Luckily, my crew are cool and we all get on, but even then you are living in a 70 foot confined space for up to 28 days, sharing a bunk and living, breathing and eating, and you can't escape it.
"I had never met any of these people before I came away, but you have to get on. In other walks of life you can say, 'I don't have to like everybody. I have my friends.'
"On the boat it is different. You have to be a lot more malleable, a lot of flexible and easygoing. But mentally, I now know there is nothing I can't do.
"This takes it to a different level altogether in terms of the level of determination and doggedness [needed] … you just don't give in.”