Tamara Cleaver and Cynthia Brossard

Van Isle 360 arrives on North Island

TELEGRAPH COVE-Support crews play key role as sailboats prepare to round northern tip of Vancouver Island

TELEGRAPH COVE—With a stack of nautical charts tucked under one arm and a pair of boat bumpers slung over her shoulder, Tamara Cleaver joined crewmate Cynthia Brossard at the end of the dock to see off the boats for the start of Leg 6 of the Van Isle 360 International Yacht Race Thursday.

Then again, Cleaver had good reason to keep a tight grip on the charts and bumpers.

“Yesterday one of the guys dropped a VHF radio overboard,” said Brossard, who serves with Cleaver as the land-based support crew for the Emma, a Ross 930 sloop that left Telegraph Cove in first place in the bi-annual race around Vancouver Island. “Now they’ve got the radio we had in the van.”

And a couple of days earlier, Cleaver lost her cell phone in an incident that remains hazy, but apparently involved a combination of fatigue and rum.

While the sleek sailboats get the glory, the traveling support crews play a key role in the 10-stage race that began Saturday in Nanaimo.

While many teams are supported by shiny, modern vans or campers splashed with colourful logos and sprouting communications antennae, Cleaver and Brossard travel in a rustic Volkswagen Westfalia camper with a jerry can of gas perched jauntily on top and the team name, “Emma”, spelled out in red tape on its back door.

“We carry the spare spinnaker pole and any other things they don’t want adding weight to the boat,” said Brossard. “The motto is, ‘travel light, and carry a credit card.'”

Cleaver, assistant manager at Sidney/North Saanich Yacht Club where Emma is based, said the ground crew has several different missions, including provisioning the the team and providing food and beverage when the sailors arrive in port at the end of each leg, as well as delivering the dockside bumpers so they don’t have to be carried aboard.

“We call it the beer, bumpers and babes tour,” Brossard joked.

But the two women are more than adornment and servers. Both are experienced sailors and will take turns on deck as Emma makes her way down the West Coast of the Island early next week.

“I’ve been sailing with these guys for five years,” said Cleaver. “With this boat, I’ve been sailing with them the last three years.”

And don’t be fooled by the camper van with the low-budget signage — “these guys” are a well-decorated lot. Emma skipper Eric Jesperson is an Olympic medal-winning sailor and he and his son, crewmember Ross, won the gold medal in the World six-metre championships in a boat Eric built. Two more members of the crew are veteran’s of the America’s Cup sailing regatta.

“It’s a pretty stacked team,” Cleaver said.

All that firepower helped lift Emma to first place overall in its division, with awards handed out in a ceremony Wednesday night at this historic, century-old resort community, which started as a telegraph station before later housing a saltery and a sawmill.

“It’s just amazing here,” Brossard said, looking over the multi-coloured cottages perched on poles and joined by a well-worn boardwalk. “A lot of times you see tourist places in a brochure and they look nice, but when you get there you think, ‘Is this it?’ But not here.”

As the boats motored out to the start area in Johnstone Strait, Cleaver and Brossard strolled the dock back to shore to plan out their time before meeting the Emma in Port Hardy later in the day.

“We’ll go back to the cottage we’re staying in, pack all the guys’ gear, get a shower and grab a cup of coffee,” said Cleaver.

“And go buy a radio,” Brossard added.