Category Archives: Uncategorized

T minus 2 months!

 

Exactly two months from now, IF all goes to plan, I will have just sailed Zest out of Plymouth UK, bound for Newport RI. Today I’m sharing a video I recorded at that point in the 2017 OSTAR. What strikes me about this video is my palpable relief at having gotten away successfully, and the sense of joy and excitement at being off on such an adventure.

That’s a big IF though, so many things can happen between now and the start on 10 May. I am hyper alert to so many potential risks and obstacles. For example I just gave an earful to a delivery van driver who gave me a fright on my bike when she suddenly opened her door without first checking her wing mirror.

My biggest worry though is more mundane: money. I’m just 25% of the way to raising the funds I need to do this race and am feeling very torn between preparing myself and my boat to take on this massive challenge, while also needing to find a way to pay the bills, which are mounting at an alarming rate. 

Coming down from the celebrations of International Women’s Day, I can’t help but feel a little deflated about the fact that once again I am the only woman lining up to race the OSTAR (others wanted to, but have not signed up, for various reasons). I have no doubt that I and many of my ocean racing sisters are every bit as capable of competing on an equal basis with the men, and we are every bit as adventurous and brave. What stops us then? The answers are many and varied, but I suspect many of them can be at least indirectly linked directly to gender inequality.

So if you’d like to do something to help me show that sailing and adventuring are not the sole preserve of rich white men then please consider supporting my campaign. There are many ways to help, from donating the cost of a coffee (or more!) to booking me to come speak to your company or professional association. I will happily accept in kind donations of equipment and provisions, so if you are a supplier please get in touch. I will put of a list of wants and needs soon.

Thanks for reading this far, and thanks to all you have contributed so far, for this campaign and in 2017. I really could not have gotten this far without your help!

Today the world, next year Newport?

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Jean-Luc Van Den Heede sails over the finish (Christophe FAVREAU / GGR 2018)

 

Like many of my friends, I spent much of today completely distracted by the news and live video feeds covering the first finisher in the 2018 Golden Globe Race. After 212 nearly days at sea, Jean-Luc Van Den Heede sailed across the finish, up the channel leading to Port Olona Marina and into the history books, taking 100 days off of Robin Knox-Johnston’s reference time set in 1969. Even more remarkable is that he sailed the final 8,000 miles (out of 28,175) with a damaged rig, after his boat was pitchpoled in the Pacific, an amazing achievement, and a great validation of his decision to alter the boats rig to be shorter and stouter before the race. During the press conference that took place as soon as VDH stepped ashore, I was especially amused to see him looking much more awake and lively than either Sir Robin or Don McIntyre, the race organiser.

Next record?

I’m sure I will face some criticism for not allowing VDH and the rest of the soon-to-be GGR finishers any time to rest on their laurels, but I am pretty confident that the type of person that goes in for these sorts of challenges is the least likely to want to do so. For us, a life without a big ambitious project is no life at all. Don McIntyre is of course keen to sign people up for another GGR in 2022, but I would suggest there’s another interesting record to be claimed in the meantime: who will be the first person to finish both the Golden Globe and the OSTAR? I was surprised to discover that RKJ does not already hold this distinction.

Don’t get me wrong, Sir Robin is a rightful legend with countless achievements, but finishing the OSTAR is not (yet?) one of them. He started the OSTAR in 1988 on Suhaili, but retired to Plymouth after she started making water. Also among the retirees in the 1988 OSTAR was fellow Golden Globe Competitor Chay Blyth, who decided shortly into the race that he was not sufficiently recovered from a recent injury for it to be prudent to continue.

Italian sailor Alex Carozzo actually started the original GGR already a member of the Half Crown Club, having started but retired from the 1968 OSTAR due to rudder problems.

The only person who has both finished an OSTAR and taken part in (but not finished) a Golden Globe Race is the Norwegian Are Wiig who finished 4th in the under 30 foot class of the 1988 OSTAR. I think it should come as no surprise that Wiig, despite not finishing the 2018 GGR, gave one of the most impressive demonstrations of seamanship in the race when he sailed himself over 300 miles to safety in Cape Town under jury rig after having been dismasted in the South Atlantic.

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VDH celebrates his arrival in Port Olona Marina (Christophe FAVREAU / GGR 2018)

By the time the next OSTAR sets off on 10 May 2020 there will be up to five new finishers of the GGR. Wouldn’t it be great to see at least a couple of them on the start line in Plymouth, going for this elusive GGR/OSTAR record? Given the nail biting finish of this GGR, I would pay good money to see VDH and Mark Slats in a rematch, especially under more, er, conventional racing rules.

 

The big WHY?

By far the question I am most frequently asked these days is “why did you retire from the OSTAR?” Indeed, I seem to ask myself that very question every morning when I wake up and remember what’s happened. I’m still working on a full written account of my entire race, but in the meantime I’d like to have a go at answering this most pressing of questions. I highly recommending having a look at an animated replay of the race on the Official YB Tracker, being sure to enable the weather layer when you do so.

I made the decision to retire on June 11, after 13 days of racing. I was about halfway across open Atlantic, but had only covered about a third of the distance of the course. Two unlikely events meant I was right at the end of the chain of redundancy of the essential systems on board – an engine problem and a broken linkage in the wind vane steering. The latter had been intended as the ultimate backup – a robust mechanical device that doesn’t depend on electricity, or input from the boat’s instrument systems.

Nevertheless I had just weathered the worst storm in the race’s history, an uncharacteristically severe and unseasonable depression with a surface pressure at its centre of 965 mb, a full 14 millibars lower than the infamous ’79 Fastnet storm. Of the sixteen OSTAR/TWOSTAR boats still racing when the storm hit, only seven managed to finish the race. Four boats sank with all hands rescued and the remaining five (including Zest) retired and made it to safety without assistance. For the weather geeks among you, I provide the Met Office’s surface pressure analyses for the Atlantic during the relevant period, with Zest’s approximate position marked on each one.

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I think my success at getting through the storm relatively unscathed was mostly down to my taking early and decisive action to avoid being in the worst of the wind and waves. Even with the few days’ warning I had, I was never going to be able to outrun this monster, so the next best thing was to try to stay on its good side. And good side is very much a relative term here, I recorded a surface pressure down to 978mb and saw gusts up to 51 knots. As for wave heights I’m afraid I can’t be as precise, but they were easily as big, on average, as what I experienced the night Zest was dismasted by a rogue wave off the coast of Spain in 2015, which is to say a significant wave height of about 4m.

In any case, the waves on first night of the storm were big enough to cause a 90 degree knockdown which resulted in the engine oil I had found in the bilge under the engine on day 2 (more on what it was doing there later) getting distributed over a large portion of the interior surfaces. The wind suddenly moderated to 15 knots around 5am and then continued to die away until I was left becalmed in a large slop for most of the afternoon. I spent the day cleaning up the mess caused by the knockdown and trying to rest up in preparation for act two of the storm. The cleaning bit entailed hours of sliding around on my behind on the oil-covered cabin sole, desperately trying to get the floorboards clean enough that it would be safe to stand up on them and move around without looking like a character in some old slapstick comedy.

As the wind came up again in the small hours of June 10 we were experiencing fast but seemingly controlled surfing conditions, but as the mean wind strength topped 40 knots with little sign of moderating, I started to worry that we were approaching the area containing the worst sea state rather too quickly (a fear that was later shown to be well justified, as that’s where both Tamarind and Happy met the conditions that caused them to sink). That was when I decided to apply the brakes by deploying the Jordan Series Drogue. I would end up spending roughly 36 hours lying to the drogue, which was attached to a bridle which was in turn connected to chainplates on either quarter.

Zest lying to her drogue

Untidy cockpit of Zest as she lay to her Jordan Series Drogue during the 2017 OSTAR

I found this, my first ever experience with a drogue, to be a mixed bag. It was great to be able the leave the boat largely to her own devices as she drifted slowly downwind, but it was far from relaxing. We were constantly buffeted by waves from many directions, the worst being the ones from directly behind which, on several occasions, sent gallons of seawater firehosing through the tiny gaps between and around the washboards, much of it landing on the chart table and making me fear for the electronic navigation and communication systems.

Actually, on second thought, the worst waves were the big breaking monsters I could hear approaching from a distance, each one reminding me of the one that dismasted us, and how things can go from ‘okay’ to ‘game over’ in a matter of seconds. This was torture and I’d had enough, I decided I would retire. But as the wind and waves eventually moderated, and after as good a night’s sleep as it’s possible to get in those circumstances, I felt more positive and willing to continue racing. It was only when I started to bring the drogue in that I noticed something that tipped the balance back towards retiring –damage to my windvane steering. Somehow in the course of the storm an essential component made of stainless steel had sheered off. It was not something I could repair onboard.

JSD recovered

With the drogue successfully recovered, I pause for a selfie.

My windvane steering system was installed to provide a backup in case my main autopilot failed or I lost the ability to generate power for the batteries. Happily my main autopilot was still working, but I had lost my primarily means of generating power on day 2 of the race, when the engine packed up thanks to all the oil falling out of it [^1]. I had been able to get by without the engine thanks to a combination of a 100W solar panel and a towed hydrogenerator (affectionately known as ‘the Toad’), but the loss of my windvane steering left me feeling particularly vulnerable. If the tow line for the turbine broke and I lost that then I would not have enough power to run the main autopilot, and I would have to ration my use of my navigation and communications equipment.

I also considered the implications of the loss of propulsion. If I needed the engine to get out of a dangerous situation, particularly in a calm, such as an imminent collision or drifting onto shoals I would be out of luck.

I ran a routing for the remainder of the race and found that it would take me at least another two weeks and I would have to sail through another two depressions to get to the finish. As this would take me well past my maximum estimated duration of the race, freshwater might become an issue (food would not have been an issue, as I’d over provisioned by a silly margin). Finally, I had to consider that fact that I was doing the OSTAR with the minimum required insurance cover, which is to say, third party only, as I, like many of my competitors, had been unable to obtain a quote for comprehensive coverage. If I were to lose the boat there would be no compensation.

So, taken all together, I felt it was just too risky for me to continue. Sure, there had been competitors in past editions who had overcome similar setbacks, but my guess is that in most cases they had little choice but to press on. I quite likely would have survived and possibly triumphed. Indeed, to have simply finished this edition of the race would have placed me firmly amongst the legends of the OSTAR, which would have been a thrill, but there was still a non-negligible chance that it could have gone horribly wrong. It was just not worth it to me, and not fair to put Rupert, my family, my friends and the race committee through the additional stress. And so, with huge regret, I changed course and headed for Kinsale in Ireland, a week’s sail downwind.

Landfall in Ireland

Six days after retiring, I arrived safely in Kinsale, Ireland.

The second most frequently asked question I hear these days is “will you do the OSTAR again?”. The answer to that is much more straightforward: yes. Health and wealth permitting, I will be on the start line for OSTAR 2020, keeping on with Zest.

[^1]: How does this even happen? In addition to the dipstick, my engine has a small pipe leading out of the oil sump for the purpose of facilitating oil changes. It was rather flimsy and unsupported, so it was our policy not to use it. What we failed to consider was that it may have already had 20 years of use and weakening before I bought the boat. Hindsight, and all that. The odds of it breaking off at the start of my biggest event? Tiny, I’m sure…maybe as slim as the possibility of being hit by a rogue wave or the ‘storm of the century’. I am learning not to be surprised by any of this.

Fair winds, Judith

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This week I was very sad to learn that Judith Lawson (pictured above, between Naomi James and Florence Arthaud) has died. Judith is the only other American woman to have ever entered the OSTAR, and her story has been a massive inspiration to me. In fact, I am certain I would not be doing the 2017 OSTAR were it not for her.

Judith features heavily in the brilliant documentary film American Challenge, which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the American competitors in the 1980 OSTAR, making great use of ahead-of-its-time Big Brother diary style footage from the competitors. The race was won by the charismatic Bostonian Phil Weld, and as the victor he naturally emerges as the star of the film, but as I watched it I found myself drawn just as much to Judith who exhibits a fascinating mix of strength and vulnerability, even before we witness her hopes for an OSTAR success being dashed by her mast coming down mid-race.

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I sought Judith out online just after I had bought Zest in January 2013 and embarked on an ambitious attempt to prepare for the OSTAR in just four months. At the time she was, in her own words, “shipwrecked in Santa Fe”, where she had gone to devote herself to environmental and clean water activism. I was really impressed with her character and admired her conviction and resilience. She was clearly someone who lived with courage, passion, generosity and humility.

With help from friends and other well-wishers, she eventually made her way back to Maine, where she was able to reconnect with old friends and the healing sea. Despite all the problems she was dealing with, which I’m sure took a huge amount of energy, she still took the time to encourage me in my pursuit of the dream which was once hers. I wanted to know more about her OSTAR and other solo racing experiences, and peppered her with questions via email. In return she suggested that we should chat about it via Skype. Regrettably, with the timezone difference and the frantic pace of the refit of Zest, I didn’t manage to take her up on this kind offer.

She suggested that after my race I should come meet her in Maine, and that she would even find a dock for Zest. This possibility thrilled me.

I had often wondered, when watching (and rewatching) American Challenge, how I would cope with the mast coming down mid-ocean. In October 2015 I got to find out, and this experience made me relate to Judith even more. Once again, she was extremely generous with her wise words on how to overcome this setback and keep on course for the 2017 race, and for this I am immensely grateful.

I am bitterly disappointed that I will not have the opportunity meet Judith in person,. I was looking forward to celebrating with her when I reached New England. Still, I feel privileged to have known her as an email pen-pal, and proud to be following in her footsteps. Successful or not, I will be racing with her in my heart and remembering her words to me:

Any fearful thoughts that come are nothing more or less than air guitar. Let ’em in, let ’em go.

You’re going to be fine and if you stay keenly focused – mind, body, spirit and soul, you will do splendidly.

I’m absolutely thrilled you’re doing it.

Carry on!

Thank you Judith, I will. Fair winds.

 

OSTAR with Zest Indiegogo campaign launched

Today was International Womens Day, and to celebrate I launched my Indiegogo campaign in support of my bid to become the first woman to win the OSTAR in its nearly sixty year history, as well as the first American woman to finish the race.

Today I thank all 30 woman who have lined up at the start of the OSTAR before me, those I have met and those I have only read about, for being such inspiring role models.

I also thank the many other talented solo and short-handed women sailors I have met in the course of racing, and who I now have the privilege of calling friends. I was about to try to list them all, but I don’t want to risk leaving anyone out. You know who you are! #SheInspiresMe

 

 

Great American

Yesterday, via the magic of Facebook Live, I had the pleasure of watching Rich Wilson return from 107 days alone at sea, taking 13th place in the eighth edition of the Vendée Globe, in which competitors race solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world in 60 foot yachts. This event is frequently referred to as “the Everest of the Seas”, which has always seemed back to front to me, as many more people have climbed Everest, and with much less effort, than have done the Vendée Globe (and I say this with all due respect to my very accomplished mountaineering friends). No other sporting event entails participants competing 24/7 for three months or more.

Rich began his solo offshore racing career by taking part in the 1988 OSTAR (then called the CSTAR), winning his class on his 35 foot trimaran Curtana. So it is particularly inspiring for me to see where he has got to from the place I now stand. This was Rich’s second Vendée Globe race, and his second success, which is remarkable in itself, as most competitors who take part in multiple editions have at least one race in which they have failed to finish. There is a lot of unfinished business around the Vendée Globe, so Rich’s two-for-two record of success sets him apart.

In completing this edition he has also set a new record for the oldest person to finish the race at 66 years old. As if that isn’t impressive enough, Rich suffers from severe asthma which he must carefully manage with a cocktail of prescription medications. This must be challenging enough while living a typical land-based life with predictable day/night routines, but to do so at sea while not ever getting more than 90 minutes’ sleep at a time, and that fit in as and when circumstances allow, is a feat in itself, on top of an already massive feat of doing the race. So he stands as a rebuke to all those who say “I could never do that”, “I’m too old” or “I’m not fit enough” as a convincing example of the power of mind over body.

Rich now faces the difficult task of readjusting to life on land. There are no doubt many pleasures to be savoured: a solid night’s sleep on a still bed, a hot shower, a proper multiple course meal served on plates at a table, hugs from friends and loved ones, catching up on the news. I have experienced this transition in a smaller way on multiple occasions, and it is surprisingly difficult, despite the many joys. But again, Rich faces an additional challenge: as a progressive American he set off on November 6th full of hope that he would return to an America very different to the one he faces now. At one point he even joked that if Trump won he would simply stay at sea. It must be a shock for him as he catches up with all that has happened since the election. At least he has the option of binge watching all the “America first, [other country] second” videos to provide some comic relief.

As I watched Rich start his procession up the canal leading to the harbour at Les Sables-d’Olonne yesterday as the tide was ebbing, I couldn’t help but be amused at the symbolism of Great American IV briefly going aground as the result of being too far to the right in the channel. Once they reversed and then found sufficient depth to continue, I was moved to see Rich decline the offers of not just the usual hand flares, but also a large American flag. Likewise when he reached the pontoon, his opening of the champagne was more subdued than most. Rather than spray it over his team and fans he chose to have a few sips and then share it with others, notably his “brothers of the South” – the competitors of several countries with which he had formed a strong bond over the course of the race. He spoke in French to the crowd assembled to greet him on the pontoon, even in response to journalist Andi Robertson’s questions in English. Again, most people would have struggled to speak their first language after 107 days alone at sea, let alone a second language. And to top it all off, he was much more keen to talk about the impact that SitesAlive, his online educational programme, had on 700,000 students around the world over the course of his race than the race itself.

In short, at a time when there seem to be fewer and fewer reasons to be proud to be American, Rich Wilson provided a shining example of American citizenry at its best: full of humility, a dedication to service to others, openness, and friendship and collaboration across borders. Leafing through my copy of Race France to France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard, his memoir about his first Vendée Globe experience, I happened across the following passage and found it especially apt:

You can’t bluff, bluster or bully your way across the Southern Ocean. To survive, you must be honest in your appraisal of the sea, your ship, and yourself, and humble in the face of nature’s might. It’s easy for politicians to rage with no personal consequences at stake; perhaps they all should be sent to the south for seven solo weeks of harsh personal reality. Then we’d see progress, if they survived. More likely, they wouldn’t, so we’d replace them with those honest, humble, and brave enough who could.

Can I be the first to say: Rich Wilson for president? He may be too old to want to do the Vendée Globe again, but I’m sure he could make a huge difference in public office. In any case, I would like to thank Rich for reminding me that there is still much to celebrate about America and Americans. I’ll confess to having had my enthusiasm for the OSTAR, which is to a large degree motivated by the prospect of becoming the first American woman to have finished it, dented by the outcome of the election and subsequent developments. I have a renewed appreciation of the importance of setting an example, to both my fellow Americans and the world at large, of what it really means to be a Great American. Thank you Rich.

Watch the best moments of Rich Wilson’s arrival after 107 days of racing.

T minus 100 days

Today marked one hundred days until the start of the OSTAR. At this point I am thinking about the race constantly. As anyone who has pursued a stupidly ambitious personal goal knows, once the blinkers are on it can get rather lonely, as one is compelled to forego many social and cultural events in order to focus on preparation and training. But when a friend offered me a ticket she was unable to use to The Story 2017, a one day conference on stories and storytelling, I couldn’t resist. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to forget about the race for an afternoon? Or perhaps I might learn something useful?

As I settled into my seat in Conway Hall, I glanced to my left and noticed the number on the seat next to mine. 100. And as if to underscore the message: some brass tacks. There would be no forgetting my mission today.

I did enjoy catching up with many friends I see far too little of lately, and the talks I saw were, without exception, excellent and thought-provoking. I took particular delight in learning about Patrick Tresset‘s drawing robots and hearing Lara Pawson read from her memoir This Is the Place to BeBut by far the most exciting and useful presentation for me was Victoria Mapplebeck talking about and then showing her short film 160 Characters, a very moving story told with the help of a set of text messages she rediscovered on old Nokia phone, and filmed on an iPhone. I was really impressed with how much she was able to accomplish which her shoestring budget and a creative approach, and I came away full of enthusiasm for exploring ways to document my adventures at sea. Stay tuned!

Many thanks to Matt Locke and his team for having organised yet another great event, and to my anonymous benefactor for having given me her ticket.