Growing up, Bex Sims never dreamed of being a Firefighter, nor sailing across the Pacific and through one she will achieve the other. Now a professional Firefighter, Bex enjoys a challenge, and living life to the fullest, and her energy and passion for life is an inspiration for others.
Bex, tell us a little about yourself, and what you are doing now, and what you are going to do next year?
I’m 38, live in Derbyshire and I’m a Firefighter and have been since 2013. I enjoy the outdoors, challenging myself, travelling and meeting new people. Next year I am taking part in the Clipper Round the World yacht race on Leg 6 from China to USA.
Can you tell us more about the Clipper Race? How big are the boats, and crew and is this a professional race?
The Clipper race is a biennial round the world race with a fleet of 12 matched yachts. They are purpose designed and built especially for this challenge. Each boat has a professional skipper, but the crew of 20 are all amateur sailors, 40% of which will never have sailed before. It brings together people from all over the world, from different backgrounds and professions and puts them in a unique environment to test their team work to the maximum. Apart from learning how to sail, the challenges of living and working aboard a 70 foot yacht with waves as high as tower blocks rocking the boat pushes the crew to their limits. 24 hours a day someone is trying to cook below decks in a cramped kitchen, half of the crew will be trying to rest whilst the rest are changing the sails, helming in big seas and keeping the boat going as fast as possible to earn points in each race.
Have you ever sailed before, and how did you end up doing the Clipper Round the World Race?
I first had a go at sailing when I was 11 on a school trip and hated it! I didn’t understand how it worked and didn’t engage with it at all, I just got frustrated. On further school trips I had another go and it started to make sense so whilst at University I became an assistant sailing instructor and went on to teach school groups an introduction to sailing at an outdoor centre. After that I went on a tall ship and loved that, so helped out on a few more voyages as a volunteer but haven’t been in about 10 years.
In May I saw an advert in Firefighter magazine for a competition to win a place on a leg of the race and jumped at it, having seen the event being televised before. I was shortlisted and one of 8 firefighters to be invited to attend 1 week of training before I was finally chosen to represent the Fire Service. I was so chuffed, and still can’t quite believe my luck!
Which leg are you sailing?
I will join my team (Visit Seattle) and get on the boat in Qingdao, China. We will leave on 23rd March for Leg 6 of 8 and race over 6,000 miles to Seattle, USA. This will take up to a month to complete so we should arrive between 14-19th April, hopefully in a podium position. Leg 6.
What are the conditions expected to be like at this time of the year?
I have been told that we won’t see the sun, it is a grey, cold and wet leg! The temperature range will be 0-15 C and even snow is likely at some points! With no land between ports to break up the ocean, waves can just grow and grow so they will dwarf the boat but allow us to surf down them to probably achieve up to 30knots of boat speed at times. With such big seas doing anything on the boat will be tricky, even getting into your bunk, but especially changing the sails (none of the controls are electronic, it’s all manual, and very hard work) and even cooking to keep everyone fuelled up for each gruelling shift. The boat will lurch often meaning you can get thrown to the other side of the boat, whether above deck or below. Whilst on deck it is mandatory to wear your life jacket and safety tether, so that you’re always attached. Below it means there’s a place for everything and if it’s not tied down, it could go flying when you least expect it.
Do you know your crew?
Although I have met one or two of the crew who will be on my boat on leg 6 too, this is only in passing whilst on training courses, I’ve only sailed with 1 of them before. I will officially meet them in China as we will have 4 days together prepping the boat before race day so it will be a quick getting to know you process!
Will you have a specific role as a crew member?
Roles on deck will be varied and mostly everyone will have a go at all jobs throughout the trip. This even includes 24 hour stints as ‘mother’ when you cook for everyone throughout a whole day, but don’t sail the boat in the watch system during this time.
What training have you had to do, and do you have any more?
There are 4 levels of compulsory training that everyone going on a Clipper boat has to undertake. For me they are all based out of Gosport, UK and are on board 68 foot yachts (the predecessors to the current racing fleet of 70 foot yachts).
Level 1 teaches the basics, even though some people will have sailed all their lives and know the ins and outs of sailing, we all get taught the ‘Clipper way’ so that we’re using the same terminology and doing actions at the right times.
Level 2 we get our first taste of staying out at sea and keeping the boat moving day and night for 4 straight days building on those basic skills.
Level 3 we are introduced to the spinnaker sail, which gets pretty complex – the biggest one is the size of a tennis court! It takes a lot of technique to put it up correctly, and even more to get it down again and packed away ready for the next hoist.
My Level 4 course will be just before I head out to China, which puts all the skills together and includes more input on race tactics and team work. We have also had training on sea survival and personal safety, a racing yacht crossing big oceans can be a dangerous place so it’s important to follow the rules and look out for each other to keep everyone on board. Practicing man over board drills (with a dummy) is a huge part of the training, and done at least once a day and in all conditions, so if the worst happens, we know what to do to get that person back on board ASAP.
How has the training gone?
The training has been brilliant – a lot to learn but also with a great bunch of people who are taking part in at least one of the legs of the current race, so I’m keeping an eye on their progress too. The skippers and mates who teach everyone are extremely patient and knowledgeable, having answers to all of our daft questions and making sure we understand what to do. It has also been training for living in very close quarters, with the boat constantly heeling over, climbing over sails which are stored in the bunk area, and learning how to cook for the whole crew in a tiny galley with an oven that tilts to the motion of the ocean!
Can anyone do the race?
The race is open to absolutely anyone, and 40% of the crew have never even sailed before. It’s such a personal challenge that is clearly attractive to adventurous people and those wanting to push themselves out of their comfort zone. It is an amateur yacht race, with only the skipper of each team being a professional sailor.
Moving onto your regular job, you have been a fire fighter for 4 years. Why firefighting and what got you into it?
I honestly never considered becoming a firefighter. I chose a career as a youth worker and enjoyed working with young people, mostly in an outdoor education environment. I ended up working for a fire service in this role running the fire cadet units and youth engagement schemes. Off duty firefighters helped to teach the groups firefighting skills and it was working with them that I found out what the job actually involved, not what TV and film had me believe. I began to realise how interesting and varied it would be and that I could actually do this, so I applied, and failed at the first attempt. 4 years later my next opportunity came and I threw everything I had at it, and passed every test (of which there are many) to get in. I was over the moon, and I love it. It’s such an amazing job.
Since you have been a fire fighter, you have started to compete in the Firefighter Games. What are these? How did they go?
In Europe there are many ‘toughest firefighter alive’ competitions, but Britain didn’t have it’s own. So a few years ago a group of UK firefighters started one which puts firefighters through their paces in a race, using skills that the job requires. There are 8 components to the race, and competitors wear full fire kit and a breathing apparatus set on their backs too. I entered last minute in the inaugural event in 2016 and was amazed to come first in the women’s competition. I competed again this year but came 4th as I was recovering from surgery and hadn’t been able to train as much as I’d liked. So in 2018 I’ve got a score to settle!
Where are the games this year, and how can the readers learn more?
In 2018 the challenge will be held in Bury St Edmunds 28-29th July. The website http://www.britishfirefighterchallenge.co.uk/# has all the details.
As a firefighting, what challenges you face on a daily basis?
Every day is different so I have to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice. Team work is a massive part of the job so training with my watch and trusting each other is a necessity.
What is like facing fire?
It seems like an obvious thing to say, but fire is hot! This was my first thought when I was training, our kit is so good at keeping out the worst of it, but being in a room where it can be 800C at head height, yet we can still cope, is amazing. It can be mesmerising and deserves respect.
What is your typical day like?
A typical shift is all planned out in advance and includes parading on, checking the whole truck over, testing equipment, gym time, drill sessions, meals together, home safety checks or visiting a business premises, theory input and much more. But if the bells go, we drop whatever we’re doing, get into our fire kit and get on the road to wherever the incident is and deal with it together.
How are you balancing been a firefighter and the sailing race?
I have taken leave to attend all the training courses required before the race. My watch, manager and employer have been amazingly supportive to let me move time off to accommodate all of the dates. For the race I’ve also been granted some sports leave to cover some of the time off I need to be away for 6 weeks. After each course colleagues ask me how it’s going and generally think I’m mad to be doing this!
Who inspires you?
Sailors like Ellen Macarthur and Dee Cafari inspire me, as well as Dany Cotton, the first female Commissioner for London Fire Brigade.
Where can we learn more:
Clipper Round the World: https://www.clipperroundtheworld.com
Here is the official video: