‘We shared the hard times then relished the successes even more’ - Olympian Heather Fell reflects on experience

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Jamaica Get All Right Leg 8 crew member Heather Fell, a retired Olympic Modern Pentathlete turned journalist and broadcaster, reflects on her Clipper Race experience. 

Dry land - oh how I have missed you, but I would not change the experience I have had for anything. Only two months ago it still seemed an unrealistic dream and now I can say I have sailed across the Atlantic.

I had no idea what to expect - I had not even had time to consider what exactly I was about to embark on. I just went straight in and seized this amazing opportunity. During and after the race I was asked many times if the experience was what I thought it would be and had it lived up to my expectations? The only problem was I really did not know what to compare it with. 

When I joined the Clipper 70 boat Jamaica Get All Right and met my fellow crew members for the first time it was hard to comprehend that we were about to sail across the potentially big seas of the Atlantic. For me it was about the challenge. I had limited sailing experience, I had not met any of my team including the skipper, I had not competed in a team sport at a high level and I certainly had never cooked or lived at sea. 

I distinctly remember feeling nervous when I sat on the boat in North Cove Marina, New York, just a day before we were due to set sail. I was not worried about the physicality of it or the potentially big seas and everything else you see on films; for me it was meeting the rest of the crew. Half of them had already been on the boat for three or more legs including six who had been on since the start and I was joining for what I feared they would label as ‘the glory leg’.

As I introduced myself the reply repeatedly came as "Oh you're the Olympian" which one lady even followed up with "I'm scared to sail with you". She wasn't referring to my lack of sailing experience rather the perception that I would be extremely competitive in nature. I immediately reassured everyone that I won my Olympic medal in Modern Pentathlon and sailing is not one of those five sports, which seemed to put a few minds at ease. 

Following the slightly unexpected introductions I became more concerned as it sounded like the crew expected an Olympic performance from me on the boat. I was worried that I would struggle to deliver and become part of the well drilled team. Thankfully it transpired my concerns were unfounded, I was given a warm welcome and made to feel at home in no time. 

As we set sail on our Atlantic journey I started to get a feel for our boat and more specifically the team I would be working with for the next few weeks. It seemed that Jamaica Get All Right had embraced the Caribbean approach to life (not the liquid version that comes in a bottle) and there was a relaxed atmosphere. This made it easy for me to adapt to working in a team environment, I felt at ease and able to be myself. I still had one slight worry niggling away at the back of my mind though and that was how to control my competitive streak. 

The Skipper, Pete Stirling, had told us during his brief that he was keen to finish on the podium for this race and I felt this was a realistic target. I liked the fact it was to be about fun balanced with performance and I adopted this attitude as best I could. I soon discovered, however, that sailing can be a frustrating sport and your individual performance does not necessarily directly correlate with the boat’s performance. This was my first frustration. It dawned on me that the rest of the crew had already come to terms with this reality and learned to take the rough with the smooth. 

It was a completely different type of racing to that which I am accustomed to. Ocean racing is not only an endurance event but also a tactical game. For the majority of the race we didn't see any other boats and relied solely on our computers to tell us our position relative to our competitors. I felt it was important to remember we were in a race and that every little thing can make that difference. It sometimes felt like winter training as an athlete: I might have thought of missing a rep off the end of a session back in December thinking ‘what difference will that make when I'm racing in six months’ time?’ but if I had that attitude regularly it would soon make a huge difference. 

For me the greatest reward of working in a team was the collective experience; you shared the hard times and then relished the successes even more so. As the sailing became harder with bigger waves and more wind it was even more important to not only work as a team but to ensure you complete all of your tasks on the boat efficiently. It is easy to focus on yourself when you are feeling seasick, exhausted, you are soaked through and are freezing cold. It is at moments like these that team morale becomes an important factor and everyone pulls together to achieve a shared goal. 

I found the mental side of the race extremely challenging. I joined the boat in fairly good physical fitness but soon found myself exhausted. It was the cumulative effect of the routine, sea air, learning the new ropes (quite literally), and discovering my new team that added up. For the first week I could not get enough sleep and it seriously reminded me of early morning swimming training. I never allowed myself the option of a lie in - the alarm goes off and you get up on auto pilot to complete the task in hand. The night shifts never got easier for me as I loved my bunk but I did adapt to life at sea. By the second week I needed significantly less sleep and could enjoy some downtime as well. 

The ‘Jamaican spirit’ wore off on me and I felt very relaxed and at home on our boat. It was about the shared experience with the bonus of it being a race. I was lucky to be amongst a great crew, many of which have become friends for life. I am a firm believer that sport should always be enjoyed even at the highest level. I always performed best when I was happy and Jamaica Get All Right seemed to agree with me. 

Picture: Heather Fell with Jamaica Get All Right round the world crew members Adam Byrtek, and Krzysztof Slezak.