#ChangingTack: From Fitness Coach to First Mate on the world’s toughest ocean adventure

03 November 2022

#ChangingTack is a series on how ocean sailing and time spent at sea in the rawest and wildest environments changes us, and can inspire a life or career change.

In her early twenties, not long out of university, Mary Vaughan-Jones was working as a fitness instructor, unsure of what the rest of her career would hold. Ready for a big challenge, and having what she dubbed a ‘quarter-life crisis,’ Mary decided to sign up as a circumnavigator on the Clipper 2019-20 Race, despite never having sailed before.

Talking about taking on this challenge that would take her around the globe, Mary said: “At that point in my life I was thinking I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, why don’t I go and cycle round the world or something? Then my dad saw an article in the newspaper about the Clipper 2017-18 Race, which started from Liverpool, and I’m from Lancashire which is just up the road. He said why don’t you give this a shot, and I ended up signing up to do the whole thing.”

She recounts her training experience: “My first week training was during severe storms- so it was quite cold! Honestly, I loved it because of the people. Alex, who was my First Mate, is a similar age to me and showed me that sailing and doing the race was so enjoyable as a young person.”

Image: Mary at work on board

In September 2019, Mary and her teammates on board Punta del Este slipped lines from St Katharine Docks in London and began the eleven-month circumnavigation that would see Mary and her fellow teammates cross the world’s largest and wildest oceans. The adventure started with a race from the UK to Portimao, before sailing through the Atlantic to Punta del Este in Uruguay, before crossing the South Atlantic to Cape Town and then taking on the intense Roaring Forties from South Africa to Western Australia, racing from Fremantle to the Whitsundays Australia. Mary’s ability was soon recognised by her Skipper, Jeronimo Santos Gonzalez, and she was given responsibility of Watch Leader during the first half of the circumnavigation, and clocked over 20,000 nautical miles.

Image: Mary on board Punta del Este with her crew mates

Recounting her experience as a crew member, Mary notes her memorable experiences as crossing the Equator for the first time, a phenomenal storm just before arriving in Punta del Este after Race 2, and above all “Leg 3, sailing in the Roaring Forties with the big ocean conditions I wanted to experience.” Mary and her teammates on board Punta del Este faced huge ocean waves, gusts of over 76 knots as they raced from Cape Town, South Africa to Fremantle, Australia, where her family was waiting on the dock, which she cites as another highlight. She says: “it was so great seeing them after such a big leg and for them to see what I was doing and loving.”

Unfortunately, the Clipper Race was suspended in March 2020 due to the global pandemic, with Mary and the Clipper Race Crew having to return home from the Philippines. Once the race was halted and the world went into lockdown, Mary re-evaluated her career. “I knew that I enjoyed being a fitness coach. I didn’t want to stay as a personal trainer, but I definitely didn’t plan to become a sailor. However, I knew I really enjoyed the teaching people aspect of being an instructor. When lockdown hit I thought I really enjoy sailing and don’t really want to stop, so I may as well go and do some qualifications. When I really thought about it, I decided I really wanted to do this as a career.”

During the UK lockdown, Mary completed her sailing theory qualifications and then in December 2020 achieved her Yachtmaster ticket and started working as a Cruising Instructor, a staff skipper for a youth trust, getting young disadvantaged people into sailing, as well as working on getting a Farr65 in Antigua ready for racing. Once the Clipper Race had the green light to restart, Mary applied for the role of an AQP (Additionally Qualified Person.) After a tough selection process, she was chosen to take on the role on board Visit Sanya, China alongside Skipper Mike Miller for the second half of the Clipper 2019-20 Race, leading the crew across two of the world’s most challenging oceans: the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.

Image: Mary as AQP with Skipper Mike Miller

A First Mate on the Clipper Race works closely with its Skipper, utilising their own expertise and supporting the goals of the team. The AQP supports the Skipper not only in driving the team to push themselves in the race, but applying people development skills to help create a competent, competitive and enthusiastic race team. It is an important role, supporting up to 22 crew on board at any one time in a range of ocean conditions.

On taking on the job, Mary says: “I had decided to have a career in sailing and I knew I wanted to complete the race but I wanted to do it in a way that would be beneficial for my career. It was a natural step up from Watch Leader so it made sense to apply for the AQP role and continue learning from possibly another Skipper. I particularly love being on a bigger sailing boat where we have to work as a team to make the boat sail well and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do usually - in the middle of the ocean you crack on with it together.”

Image: Mary with her team on board Visit Sanya, China

After five months of racing, the Visit Sanya, China team sailed into London placing sixth overall, and Mary had a full circumnavigation under her belt at just age 26. As an AQP, Mary cites a highlight on the race route as: “coming into Bermuda, as it was the first win for our team and they had sailed the boat - Mike and I were there to facilitate. The crew were so happy - it was amazing seeing them celebrate!”

She continues: “The most rewarding part of my job is that you have people come on board with little confidence and by the end they are out on the bow helping pull a sail down or helming in big weather. It’s awesome seeing them enjoy it, and seeing their progress.”

The unique challenge of being a Clipper Race AQP offers solid experience for further developing a professional sailing career, with the opportunity to advance to Skipper. Mary has her ambitions set high, with ambition to continue this pathway, and developing her offshore sailing career. Talking about working for Clipper Ventures, she said: “The company is really supportive of our development, especially for us as AQPs. They encourage us to develop and get more qualifications. The team is always there for a chat about your next steps.”

Image: Mary on sail repair duties

Mary is now currently based in Gosport, working on the refit of the Clipper 70 racing yachts ready for the next edition of the Clipper Race. Speaking about the maintenance work, she says: “Well I know where all the boat’s plumbing goes, having re-run all of it! The Maintenance Team is so knowledgeable, and are very happy to help us. There are a lot of jobs that aren’t glamorous but very necessary, and it’s about getting to know the boats like the back of your hand, for example, working on the rigging. Working as part of the refit team really helps to cement knowledge of maintenance during the race.”

Citing community as one of the main reasons for loving her job, Mary describes her experiences working as a professional sailor: “There were five female First Mates in the last edition of the Clipper Race, which was so lovely because sailing and ocean racing is a male dominated industry. We are all treated the same, but it is definitely nice to have other young females beside you. We were quite a young group too which is really nice, and we are so supportive of each other- we know it’s a race, but we support each other wherever we go.”

Image: Mary with her team

Not alone in being a twenty-something unsure of what career path to pick, Mary speaks about her steps toward changing her life after experiencing ocean racing and offers advice for those in a similar frame of mind: “I’m one of four siblings including a doctor, lawyer and an accountant so I empathise with the feeling of pressure to have a conventional career! I think ultimately, if you aren’t doing a job you enjoy then why do it?

“I don’t see my job every day as work, which sounds really cliché, but I don’t wake up thinking ‘I don’t want to go to work today.’ Even on those days when you might feel less enthused, as soon as you get out on the water it's so much fun- I’m working with my mates and doing something I love. So if there’s something you want to do, you just have to shoot the shot and go for it really.

“I think you really have to put yourself forward sometimes and give things a go. Before signing up to the Clipper Race I was quite shy and didn’t have much confidence in myself, whereas now I’m sure I’d be described as a bit gobby! In all seriousness, now I will just go and ask and find things out, and push to get more knowledge for myself.”

There are so many skills encompassed in the role of AQP, from leadership and team building and technical sailing ability. If you can relate and are in search of a rewarding career in sailing like Mary was, and are looking for a change of direction, why not apply to be part of the world’s greatest ocean adventure in a professional role, or take a look at our other varied career opportunities?