Edlibach, 18.01.2021

Eye to eye with a whale

ETH student Dario Schwendener from Edlibach set off for a circumnavigation of the world in 2019, but has had to cancel the trip halfway through because of Corona virus. Nevertheless, he has experienced incredible things.

On 1 September 2019, amateur sailor Dario Schwendener from Edlibach set off from London for an 11-month circumnavigation of the world with an 18-strong team on a 20-metre long racing yacht. The “Clipper Round the World Yacht Race”, in which the crew was participating, is one of the most demanding of its kind and is the only one in which amateurs can take part. Unfortunately, the race had to be cancelled at the end of March due to Corona. The 26-year-old recounts his experiences.

Dario Schwendener, what does sailing mean to you?
Sailing has something old fashioned about it, but is also extraordinarily beautiful. You quickly understand that the power of nature always shows us our limits, and that you always have to be ready to react.

How did you prepare for the race?
I was living on the ship in Portsmouth, in the south of England, weeks before the start. The team and I trained in the English Channel, prepared the race and then moved the ship to the St. Katherine Docks in London.

Where did the journey lead, and where did it end?
The complete circumnavigation of the world consists of 15 races, in which you have to win as many points as possible in order to win the overall victory. This makes it the longest regatta in the world, alongside "The Ocean Race". We were able to stay in the leading group in the first two races, reaching Portugal in second place, and then on to Punta del Este in Uruguay in just under four weeks. We then sailed from Uruguay to Cape Town. These seas are extremely deserted and are known for strong storms. The route from Cape Town to Fremantle in Australia brought us close to the ice limit, with difficult conditions. We had some defects, and lost the connection to the leading group in these regattas. Then we circled south of Tasmania and sailed along Australia's east coast towards the equator, spending Christmas and New Year on the high seas.

When did the team learn about the cancellation of the race?
When we left Australia for China, we didn't know much about the situation in China. We received almost no information at sea, and were quite surprised when the race management moved the finish line to the Philippines during the race. Events then took over in mid-March. We were planning the main stage through the North Pacific when all the teams were sent home about two days before the start of the race. The resumption was scheduled for this February. But the current situation makes the undertaking impossible.

Why was it cancelled? You were relatively isolated within your team.
There was enormous uncertainty all around the world, and information was scarce. Overnight, a lockdown was ordered in the Philippines. We were already in quarantine, and were not allowed to move freely. In the meantime, the shelves in the grocery stores became empty within a short time. It was therefore not possible to secure the food for all the racing teams for the nearly four-week Pacific crossing.

What did you feel about the cancellation? Did you find it reasonable?
To be honest, it was a nightmare. Before the cancellation, we were stuck for several days in a questionable quarantine on the racing yacht, in over 30 degrees heat, without a shower and with an insufficient number of beds. Where could we have become infected at sea?! Within a few hours, the situation changed from having the freedom to sail over the oceans to that of a prison on board, with every step watched by the local police. I found the fact that we could hardly influence the overall situation to be emotionally difficult. The resulting planning uncertainty caused me problems.

What does this mean for you financially?
The outstanding payments currently amount to around CHF 30,000. That's a lot of money for me, as a student. But the emotional loss weighs more heavily. The opportunity to participate in this race was unique for me. There’s a danger that the race will not be able to continue, and I will then have to write off the amount.

Let’s get back to life on the high seas: How did you feel about everyday life on board?
The feeling of travelling from Switzerland to sail on all the great oceans of the world for a year with only 18 kg of luggage was indescribable. Personally, I like the simple, uncomplicated life on board. This included, for example, sharing my bunk with someone. You get used to the special sleep rhythm relatively quickly – four hours awake, four hours asleep. The completely different climate zones that we crossed brought new requirements. We had as much as 45 °C below deck at the equator. And at other times it was also icy cold and very wet.

What did you learn about life on the high seas?
Personally, I learned a lot about dealing with people in challenging situations. I was given great responsibility from early on, and I managed to stay calm and to focus on the essentials. There was never panic on board, and we were able to defuse many difficult situations together.

Photo 1: Dario Schwendener in full gear on the high seas
Photo 2: Not for faint stomachs: the sailing yacht literally lays on its side in heavy waves

Photos: PD

Please describe an impressive moment.
We had three major storms within five days in the South Atlantic. The second and third storms in particular reached hurricane strength, with wind peaks between 60 and 80 knots, which corresponds to about 130 kilometres an hour. Life on board was extremely hard: everything was wet, and the strong south-westerly winds brought freezing temperatures in Antarctica. After a difficult night, a pale, grey light penetrated the dark clouds, and there was a breath-taking sight: the water surface was foaming white, and waves as high as houses rose to the sky. Small seabirds sought shelter In the lee of the waves, and albatrosses soared majestically along the wave ridges.

Were there any other animal encounters?
We were almost stationary at sunrise In the Philippines when a whale the size of a bus swam right under the boat. The giant mammal turned to the side, showed off its white, furrowed belly and looked at us with one huge eye. A lot of unforgettable things happened day and night. I would probably have to write a book to tell everything.

Before the race, you said it would be an extreme physical and mental challenge: was that the case?
Yes, the mental strain in particular is enormous. If you only get to your bunk just after midnight, and are then woken again at three o'clock because the wind has turned and you have to change the sail, the dance above the foredeck can already be demanding. The first wave then wakes you up, and you again know where you are. It is also physically demanding, for example, if you have to handle the sails, work in the 30-metre-high mast or hang upside down in the bilge while the ship is ploughing through the waves.

What part of the entire trip was completed? Where else would it have taken you?
We sailed about 25,000 nautical miles, which is just over half the total route. The destinations Seattle, Panama, New York, Bermuda, Northern Ireland and finally London again were originally planned. Above all, the North Pacific in winter is considered to be something special. Violent winter storms often occur in the endless expanses between Siberia and Alaska, and masses of water pile up to enormously high and wide waves.

So what are your plans for 2021? Will you participate if the race continues?
Yes, of course! Our ship is currently in the Philippines and will have to be brought back to England. We can’t simply sail off at any time, however, but must consider the times of tropical cyclones along the route. In the current situation, the next realistic start date is in late summer. If people  can travel without major restrictions, I want to finish what I started. I hope that the team comes together again, there's just too much in it for me. We weren’t expecting such an abrupt end.