Life as an ocean racer
05 May 2016
On the Mighty Pacific leg we hosted two Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation (ASSF) youth ambassadors. The opportunity was donated by Clipper Race founder and chairman, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to ASSF, the charity that Sir Ben Ainslie CBE and Iain Percy OBE established in memory of their friend and Olympic sailing gold medallist, Andrew “Bart” Simpson.
Taking part in the race was 19 year old Heather Thomas from Otley in West Yorkshire aboard Da Nang – Viet Nam together with fellow ambassador 21 year-old Charlie Stannard from London who was aboard IchorCoal. They both represented the Foundation, which uses sailing to develop personal skills that improve young people’s ability to succeed in life and provides access to jobs and careers in the maritime sector.
“I wanted to see if a career in ocean racing was for me and I now know that it definitely is,” says Heather. “I think I have had a taste of life as an ocean racer and I think I have battled a lot of fears like going up on the bow when there are lots of waves crashing around but when you get on with it and achieve it, it’s very satisfying.
“I feel like I have grown as a person and I am more independent. I know I was mothered a lot on the boat but I feel I can look after myself. It’s nice to see how my helming has developed and, on the bow now, I can just go and do it with no hesitation.
“We had 11 women on the team which was fantastic: I have made some great friends on this race and they are all very strong, independent and brave women; they are as tough as nails and can handle it just as well as the guys can.”
Following the race across the North Pacific in what is regarded as the toughest of the Clipper Race series, Heather made the decision to continue on board to complete the rest of the race all the way to London, self-funded using a recent inheritance. She is currently racing towards Panama in the first stage of the US Coast-to-coast leg.
Explaining her decision, Heather says: “After the Seattle Pacific Challenge, and everything that happened on the race, I enjoyed it so much I decided that I wanted to stay on. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I just need to grab it and go for it; I had a feeling that I needed to continue sailing.
“The crew are excited I’m back and it will be fun to sail with them again and get to know the new people joining our team. I want to continue to improve on sail trim and pit management and get better at sailing with more responsibility whilst having lots of fun and maybe win a race. I would quite like to win!
My friends, family and the Otley Sailing Club are quite shocked that I am not coming back just yet. I think some of them know I would do it and that once I was out there I would not want to come back until I wanted to. They are all very supportive and it’s nice to know that they are there for me.”
Meanwhile, home with the chance to reflect on his race experience, Charlie Stannard said that the race was the hardest thing he had done in his life, so far, and was looking forward to using his experience to develop a career in sailing.
He says: “Being in a small place with lots of people is a real learning curve but I have enjoyed it. Everyone is good at different things and we really gelled well as a team. The different conditions were testing but enjoyable at the same time, from sweating and grinding on the sails to all of the different workings of the boat. I enjoyed helming. After two weeks in it changed from being slammed and not sleeping very well to fast downwind sailing, most of the race was downwind.
“I have never seen waves that big before, they were huge and unbelievably big, my fastest speed was 18.7 knots I think the fastest on the boat was 27 knots which was fun. In the daytime you can see the wave behind you which is pretty cool and it’s what you expect the Pacific to be, but the way the weather changes out there is unbelievable.
“It has been good, you make lifelong friends and especially following the experiences we have been through together. I learnt a lot more about navigation and the navigation that you wouldn’t necessarily do on a day sail. I was thinking about doing my Yachtmaster qualification as it is something I would like to pursue.
“I have learned to interact with people differently; everyone has an individual personality on the boat and you approach and handle people in different situations - you have to adapt. Everyone helped me and we all helped each other. I tried to set myself an achievable goal to enjoy it and I have.
“Thanks to the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation and the Clipper Race I never would have had this opportunity,” he adds.
To learn more about the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, click here.
To read Heather's latest ASSF crew diary, click here.Join The Race