On Saturday 30th May over three hundred other nutters like myself made the Pilgrimage to the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth for our Official Crew Allocation ceremony.  Actually my Pilgrimage started the day before with a long train journey from Hull to London, followed by a quick dash to London Waterloo's left luggage place to deposit my bags, keys, mobile phone and any other potential terrorist-like weaponary such as a particularly sharp-nibbed biro etc!  Why? Because I was on my way to the US Embassy for my appointment (made a month earlier - at a cost of £80 or so) to get an American visa for the Race.  Feeling very lost without my mobile phone (I had to remove the surgical stitches that normally attached it to my person), I made my way in the sweltering heat back across London to the Embassy grabbing some fruit for lunch as I went.
On arrival and before you even approach the outer entrance, you have to produce your passport and the many forms you've had to fill in online before you even think about attending and then and only when all these documents have been checked by 3 different people (in the street) are you invited to sashsay past several men holding big machine guns (albeit with a slightly apologetic grin), into the outer area where the very few possesions you've been permitted to take with you are then x-rayed. My fruit lunch was also confiscated and as I hadn't eaten anything since a croissant at 8.30am I was about to turn into Bruce Willis and take on the world (or America at least), when much to everyone's relief I realised the guard was just teasing me. Oh how I laughed.  
Custodian of my lunch once more, I then made my way to the Visa Hall where I was given a number and told to find a seat.  There must have been well over 300 people all sitting, with a number, and as I realised that the number showing on the "Now seeing" display was several hundred below mine, I settled down with a book - which America had very kindly decided was safe for me to bring with me. I'd only been waiting about 45 mintues when my number miraculously flashed up.  "Yee-Hah!" - the wagons were rollin' faster than I thought. I was wrong. On arrival at window ** my paperwork was checked yet again and I was then asked for something in writing to say I was actually taking part in the Clipper Race.  I had nothing (it was all safely stashed in Waterloo stations left-luggage). I had stupidly brought exactly what I had been told to bring. Nothing more, nothing less.  I lightly-heartedly pointed out that they must be sick of the sight of Clipper Crew members passing through their corridors by now. A blank stare was my reward!  I was instructed to place first my thumbs and then the other fingers of each hand in turn on the finger-print, infra-red ,space-age, zapper thingy.  As I did so I wondered how many possible Swine-flu germ carriers had been before me that day. All that security and not an anti-bacterial wipe in sight!
Next I was told to go around the corner to another window. When I got there, there was only one person in front of me. "Golly-gee" I thought (I was trying to fit in) I might actually make it out of there within the hour.  I should have known better.  The extremely stern-looking man wanted to check my forms (again - I'm not sure what they thought I might have done with them in the 20 paces I had walked from the last window) and then verify (zap on the infra-red thing-a-me-jig) my fingerprints again.  At that point I wish I hadn't peeled off the false fingerprint tips (a la Tom Cruise Mission Impossible style) I had very obviously worn for the first zapping.....I mean - honestly! Do I look like Tom Cruise? I just wanted to be allowed to sail into an american port for a few days during the race.  And let's face it. after 5 weeks at sea - the only dangerous thing I was likely to be bringing in with me was a very bad smell!
After I'd been peered at over the top of some severe looking spectacles, I was told to go back to the hall and take a seat.  I knew it had all seemed too swift! 
My bottom had barely touched the less than inviting hard, moulded plastic seat when I heard my name called and saw an excited wave from another Clipper Crew member - Elaine K. Relieved to see a friendly face - although not so relieved to hear that her appointment was an hour before mine and looking at the numbers she was at least an hour away - we sat nattering about the race, the training, exercise regimes that would never happen and munched happily through my melon (man) for the next two hours.
After playing 'Guess the other Clipper crew members' for an age (we reckoned there were probably at last another 3 or 4 there that we hadn't yet met) the numbers got tantalisingly close to Elaine's. However just at the point when her number should have been next, the following number called was about 30 above hers!  Up to that point they'd run pretty sequentially, but no - now they were hopping around all over the place. But after an intense 20 minutes of American visa 'Bingo',  Elaine dashed happily off to her interview wishing me 'luck' for my wait.
I surveyed the scene properly for the first time in ages. We were now about 45 minutes from the Embassy closing time, there were still about 30 people in the Hall waiting for their interview and I was beginning to worry that they might just say "Sorry, you'll have to come back tomorrow". As the numbers were still now very randomly being called - and yes, some way above my number had disappeared round the corner for their interview, my anxiety turned to paranoia.  Three people left in the room, then two, then just me with everything else very obviously being packed up around me. What had I done? Did they actually think I might be Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis in disguise - about to storm the Embassy. Or perhaps they had taken exception to me trying to crack a joke?  Or maybe the the guard in the x-ray room hadn't been joking about confisgating my melon afterall....Perhaps I was about to be arrested by men with machine guns for being in possession of dangerous fruit?! An official approached me and I clutched the sides of my chair wondering if as he put his hand in his pocket he was about to produce a pistol.  He pulled out a hanky, blew his nose and said.... "Go round the corner to window 18 please".  I made my way calmly and serenly (just in case they were still surveying me on the look out for terrorist-like tendancies) back to the window with the extremely stern-looking man peering over severe spectacles.  Maybe I'd misjudged him first time round - or maybe he was so pleased that he was about to be going home that his demeanour had done an about turn but he was actually quite pleasant. Jolly even.  He quipped how he'd already seen loads of Clipper crew already and wasn't it an exciting adventure to be going on.  I barely had time to agree before he said "I'm pleased to tell you I've authorised your visa, have a nice day".  (Actually he didn't say 'have a nice day' - but he was american so I'm sure he thought it). 
So that was it.  Four hours of numb-bum and anxiety and apart from a near International Incident over my melon - not so much as a poke, prod or probe!  Maybe it was the land of the free after-all.  Let's face it if they'll let me in they can't be too fussy!

I stepped out into the late afternoon sun of central London.  With just over an hour before my train to Portsmouth  I thought I deserved a treat. I headed stright for Piccadilly circus to grab a Cinnabon - the most gorgeous cinnamon pastries in the world (and first discovered by me on a previous trip to america - so very fitting), then sped down to Trafalgar Square to sit on the steps and eat it (while people-watching - one of my favourite pastimes), then had just enough time to dash into the National Gallery to see my favourite Cezanne painting. (This is my ritual if ever I'm in London with an hour to spare). Up the steps inside, turn right, up again, through the first room, in to the second and it's there on the right. 
Except it wasn't. I tapped the official on the shoulder "Excuse me, where's my painting?" I asked. (I've loved it for so long it is actually MY painting in my head!) I was told it was on loan - although it should have arrived back the day before but hadn't. Disappointed I made do with a George Seurat and got lost on the banks of the Seine for a happy 10 minutes.  And then time to be off.  I had bags to collect, a train to catch, almost certainly beer to be drunk later and a big day tomorrow to prepare for. 

This was it.  This was the start of my greatest adventure!