Wadham Physicist takes to the sea

28th October 2013


Paolo Radaelli, Wadham’s Professorial Fellow in Physics, has long had an interest in sailing. When his wife suggested that he celebrate his 50th birthday by joining a crew in the 2013/4 Round the World Clipper race, Paolo jumped at the chance.

  • Paolo Radaelli (seated, far right) with fellow crew on 'Swizerland'.

  • Paolo at the helm

    Paolo at the helm

“My wife had noticed they were advertising for crew for the race and I decided to have a go,” explained Paolo, who signed up for the project which was founded by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He was delighted to discover he had been selected.

Twelve cutter-rigged, seventy foot racing yachts are taking part in the 2013/14 race, with an average of 20 crew per boat. After training for a total of three weeks between October 2012 and May 2013, on 1 September 2013, Paolo set out from London’s St Katharine’s Docks aboard the clipper ‘Switzerland.’ As one of the more experienced sailors on board he was given special responsibility for navigation and weather.

Under the guidance of professional skipper, Vicky Ellis, Paolo crewed for the first and second races of the round-the-world campaign, from London to Brest and then from Brest to Rio de Janeiro, a distance of some 6,000 miles and 35 days of sailing.

Said Paolo: “The first race from London to Brest was fairly short leg. We had a lot of fog and not much wind. So the race was stopped at Guernsey and we motored on to Brest.  We arrived seventh out of 12 boats, and we were pretty happy given the circumstances.”

“The second leg was more challenging," he added. "The weather in the Bay of Biscay was very good but then things deteriorated and we had strong following winds and big ocean rollers off Cape Finisterre.  After about 2 weeks of ocean sailing, many of the clippers hit the doldrums – a band of latitude north of the equator, where, over an area up to 300 miles wide, the winds from the north and south converge. This can lead to small hurricanes, but can also mean no wind at all, which in temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius, is enough to drive you mad. We had had problems with our desalination units so had very little drinking water and with no wind, not a lot to do; a lot of patience was required.”

Winds have died down once again, and we are surrounded  on all sides by towering squall clouds, silver-grey with linings of deep black, which cast eerie moon shadows on the water.  Not far away, a beam of moon light defines a perfect milky-white circle on the sea. We zig-zag trying to avoid the squalls, but soon we are doomed.  A sudden downdraught of chilly air announces that we are under the spell of one of them.  We keep the sails up for a while, trying to outrun it, and suddenly the water rushes around and the boat heels over, while I shout to the helm “bear away”.  We do a couple of miles like that, then we are caught by the downpour and have to reef the Mainsail and drop the Yankee.  As I am once again completely soaked, I say to myself that I will put the ‘foulies smock’ on next time.

Paolo Radaelli, in his diary of the voyage

It was hit and miss which boat got out of the doldrums first and ‘Switzerland’ was forced to stop racing for a while in order to take on water supplies from another boat.

But the rest of the race went well. Paolo describes the spectacular waves and weather conditions and highlights such as being surrounded by a school of whales as they sailed towards Rio at the end of the second leg, with spinnakers hoisted to take advantage of great wind conditions. 

Despite the lack of personal space, Paolo enjoyed life at sea, going for days without seeing land and only rarely glimpsing one of the competitors.  “We had two alternate watches with ten to eleven people on each watch, sharing bunks as the watches changed. We were always trying to push the boat, changing sails and discussing tactics in order to make the best progress. It was fast and exciting,” he said.

Paolo is already considering taking part in a further leg of the race before ‘Switzerland’ reaches its destination back in London in July 2014, when, if not on board, Paulo plans to be there to welcome home his team mates and their trusty vessel.

Play highlights from the London - Brest leg of the race
Play Team Switzerland in the Brest to Rio Clipper Race