Finnish born Kiki Kettunen first heard about the Clipper Race 12 years ago but it took life and work to align and the sight of a billboard ad on the London Underground to help her take the first step in becoming an ocean adventurer - requesting a Clipper Race interview.

A Seattle team circumnavigator in the Clipper 2019-20 Race, Kiki is currently at home in Surrey, UK, awaiting race restart next year. With 20,000 nautical miles already under her belt, she has been reflecting on all she has experienced so far. From mastering spinnaker sailing to the wonder of starry nights at sea, surfing down rollers to the camaraderie on board, Kiki shares her Clipper Race story so far.

How did you find out about the Clipper Race?

I was working as a buyer for a department store and the rep for a sailing wear brand told me all about the race and how anyone could sign up. Although my life wasn’t in the right place, it had planted a seed in my mind. Every few years I walked past a Clipper Race advertising poster on the London Underground. Then my long term relationship ended and I wanted to do something for myself and I’d also come to a point in my career where I needed a change. I applied in October 2017, had the interview in the following January and by March 2018 I was on my way to my Level 1 training course.

Kiki already has 20,000 nautical miles under her belt

Tell us what it’s like to finally be in training?

Growing up in Finland I’d sailed a bit, then also on the Solent in the UK, but nothing like ocean racing. Ahead of my first level of Clipper Race training I was excited and nervous, thinking what would the other crew be like? We had a brilliant Training Skipper and First Mate in Cliff and Alex. There was a really warm atmosphere on board. I’ve sailed before but this was a bigger boat, bigger sails, everything was bigger! The realisation soon came that you can’t sail these boats on their own. The teamwork element became really clear on my Level 1 - you have to play as a team to be able to sail these yachts!

I enjoyed progressing on each level - you get the basics on Level 1 and the training manuals really helped. Everyone has a different learning style - I personally like reading about a subject then doing it - that worked for me. Just repeating, repeating, repeating. By Level 2, we were building on what we’d learnt, each training week layers it all up and refreshes what you know. I thought the training was excellent and well executed - we were lucky to have brilliant skippers and first mates.

Then all of a sudden we were in the last few months. I completed my Level 4 a few months before Race Start with my Seattle team. It just went in a flash. One minute I was thinking about what to pack and the next we were at St Katharine Docks, waving everyone off.

I still see lots of the crew from my Level 1 - we’ve kept in touch. And being a round-the-worlder, I see people popping up throughout the race.

Seattle take to the stage at St Katharine Docks

You’ve already sailed 20,000 nautical miles since leaving London, what have you experienced so far?

My race highlights started back in April 2019 at Crew Allocation - waiting to find out your team, the stopovers and the Race Start port. I was secretly wishing it was London and it was.

In St Katharine Docks it was amazing, the feeling we had is so difficult to describe. We were on top of the world, everyone is cheering, and you are cheering along yourself then you realise that it’s you that’s being cheered - really strange. It was sad to say goodbye to friends and loved ones but then sailing under Tower Bridge was amazing.

Race 1 was pretty challenging. Touch wood, I’ve never been seasick - I was one of the few on this first race that wasn’t. It was very tough - a baptism of fire. Straight away we were beating into the wind, just beating, beating, beating.

This was our first proper experience of racing. As soon as we left Southend we were straight into the racing, We somehow changed immediately into that zone. You are straight on a watch system and it takes a good few days to get into the rhythm. But you just transfer into it somehow. That it is a race now but also that safety comes first making sure everyone is clipped on. With the rough conditions and the seasickness on board, it was just a direct transfer straight to racing with no soft ease in. I am one of the medical assistants for Seattle so that kept me busy, helping with those unwell.

I think it took us all by surprise how quickly we got to the racing, trying to do everything we could to keep up with the fleet. It was a tough few days, then just along the coast of Portugal the wind went to nothing. Our final race position was towards the back. Yachts that went further south got luckier than us.

In the second race, off the West Coast of Africa, it started to get hotter and hotter, with us all anticipating what the equator and doldrums would have in store for us. I don’t think anyone in the crew had crossed the equator before. This was the first long race for us, the days did start to seem long. Week one, two, then week three, it felt like we’d been on board forever and knowing we possibly had the same to go again. There were ups and downs but we did all we could to keep in good spirits, to keep each other going.

You have your good days and bad days but we are a great team and we just kept going, trying to be as focussed as we could. On the way towards Punta del Este, we experienced Storm Lorenzo, that was scary. It was the first big storm for many of us, with up to 80 mph wind. We didn’t reef quickly enough and the storm hit us. I was on watch and remember looking at fellow round-the-worlders, Dawn and Chris and thinking oh my god. We were holding onto the lines, waves crashing in and covering us.

Squall brewing in the Clipper 2019-20 Race

How does it feel to sail through the middle of a storm?

While you are in it, you don’t see panic from anyone. Our team just did the best we could using common sense and all our training. It’s afterwards that you think oh my god, that was quite something. There was relief and we had a good feedback session afterwards, talking it through, what happened and how could we use it as a learning curve? If we did it again, what would we do differently and how could we improve?

How quickly do you start to acknowledge what you are experiencing?

The first stage of the race gives you a sense of achievement and for those that have signed up for one leg, it’s probably more immediate. For circumnavigators, it’s a longer journey as you are there for all eight legs so you reflect a bit slower. We summarise and mull over what we’ve just been through but for us we saw it as a marathon.

Kiki with fellow Seattle Crew member Queenie

As a circumnavigator, what is it like to have new Race Crew joining at each stage of the global route?

On Seattle we had a lot of multi leggers competing in Legs 1-3 but I do look around at crew changeover and know the faces, but they are still new. It was very strange to have new people but then off we go. We have to remember that we are starting again, that there are people on board who don’t know what we’ve been doing for the last four to five weeks.

We always try to be as mindful as we can, to think from the other person’s perspective, to try and explain things as best we can and to be patient. On board, Alec became our bilge king, when the new crew join, he would show them how we clean and look after the bilges. Dawn became responsible for housekeeping matters and how we live on board. For circumnavigators our roles naturally developed as it felt right. And for leggers we developed a buddy system, so new people have someone to ask questions and not feel silly.

I remember seeing grown men cry when their leg was up, their adventure was over and they were going home.

Clipper Race Crew are made up of 40 different nationalities, all ages and from all walks of life. How do you cope with living on board with such a diverse bunch of people?

You do make lots of buddies on your boat and across the fleet but everyone has to work on it as you are out of your home comforts.

Tolerance is key. I thought I had a high tolerance and patience level but you do get tested, especially on stressful legs. Leg 2 was a good example as it was very wet and really rough. For us it was the wettest leg.

We all thought the Southern Ocean would be bad but the South Atlantic took us by surprise in how rough it was, we were literally wet to the core for three to four weeks. That’s when I got really close to Dawn, the New Zealand round-the-worlder on Seattle. Our bunks were right next to each other, you help each other keep going. You’ve got to keep going, you can’t give up. There are moments in the middle of the night at 2:30am, it’s pitch black, you are putting on the same wet clothes and boots. What pushes you through that? I think it’s the other people. Sometimes Dawn and I said, “let's do this, let’s pick each other up.” We were on the same watch and the little things really counted.

When times are tough, have you learnt to be more intuitive with other people?

You learn to get to know each other really well. We live in very small proximity, and there’s no place to hide. When some people get quieter, you help with the small things, like making a cup of tea or when you are gathering to eat, you can tell if someone is shattered so you make sure they get to sit down on the bench and you sit on the floor. Little things like that make a huge difference. Small gestures. You learn a lot about human beings. I have worked throughout my life with teams and I thought I was a good team player. But I have learnt so much more throughout the six months I spent on board.

Camaraderie on board: Dawn, Kiki and Lyndsay pucker up

What have you learnt about teamwork?

I’ve spent the last 20 years in management and leadership roles, so it was interesting being back as a team member and not the leader, that was the biggest thing for me. I was more than happy to step back and I learnt not to jump in and start criticising right away. You try to empathise where others are coming from. Even if you don’t understand or agree, we built a culture that it was ok to ask - why are we doing it this way? We talk about it, learning there are many ways to reach the same goal, rather than just your way. Be open minded, understand other people's thought process. You all want the same result but there are different ways to get there. As a team, there are 18 of you so you are more than likely to get 18 different answers. The skill of a good leader is to get the essence of what the majority want. I have learnt a lot from watching other people taking leadership roles on board and being the crew member and trying to be as effective in a team as possible.

Big rollers occurred often in the South Atlantic Leg from Punta Del Este to Cape Town

Which moments do you wish you could have bottled forever?

Sailing wise for me I wasn’t confident with Spinnakers but by persevering I started to pick it up and became ok with it. It’s a skill that takes work and doesn’t come naturally so we started working to everyone’s best ability. Surfing down those amazing big waves, especially on Leg 3 when we left Cape Town. We had fantastic weather with all the sails working. It’s like being on a mountain and that’s the only way I can describe it. You have massive waves around, it’s like being in a mountain range. It’s an amazing feeling when the boat starts surfing and it accelerates and we are working to tweak the boat to its maximum performance.

Every time we wanted to make it better and better and last longer, I absolutely loved it and I learnt so much. At the beginning it was nerve wracking, but putting yourself up for it every time, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and to keep persevering, it definitely paid off for me. Tim (Timothy Morgan, fellow Seattle circumnavigator) and I love when the boat gets up speed. We grin like Cheshire cats.

Look up: the night sky shot from Visit Sanya, China, from Punta del Este to Cape Town (photocredit Visit Sanya)

In terms of nature, the night skies, I really miss those. There was no light pollution in the middle of the ocean and nobody else around. It was pitch black with just the stars. On a clear night the moon was absolutely stunning and it wouldn’t be unusual to see half a dozen shooting stars. On the way to Fremantle, on one night watch of four hours, I counted 12 at least. And coming from Airlie Beach to the Philippines it was so hot you were lying on the deck at night, taking it all in, we were mesmerised. It’s another thing you can’t quite explain and something I would love to bottle up.

Then there’s the dolphins and the phosphorus out the back of the boat, so many beautiful sights. You do stop and pinch yourself at times and think oh my god this is amazing, even if you are tired, and you haven’t had a shower in three weeks or are bored of the food, those are the things that do lift you every time.

After a long race, what is it like to finally see land and then the marina?

On the long races, around day 22, the topic of conversation is “ok, what is on your wishlist? What would you like to eat or drink? How much are you looking forward to a shower and clean clothes?” You do start dreaming of it a good week before (you arrive in port). Our skipper David would always catch us and say “it’s too early. Keep focussed.” But you can’t help it, then as it gets closer - it's so exciting. The first time you see land, then the arrival at the harbour. It’s lovely to see new people, that you haven’t been stuck with, ha ha. It’s a big but small boat.

Which stopovers on your global route have you enjoyed the most?

All stopovers have had unique highlights. Portimão was a short stop. The boat and partying was the focus and we were still team building. The prizegiving was a great party at a beach bar. The Seattle team ended up in the pool by the end of the evening.

Uruguay was lovely. We hired a car for a day out. (I like) having the time to see the culture, eating in the local restaurants and having a chance to talk to locals and get involved - we did a beach clean in Punta del Este. I was surprised how great the red wine was and the beef was amazing.

Seattle receive a warm welcome into Cape Town's V&A Waterfront

We arrived into Cape Town and the V&A Waterfront marina at sunrise. With Table Mountain behind us it was another pinch yourself moment.

We don’t have time to see everything in port so we look forward to the stopover guides that give us a quick snapshot and flavour of what we have coming up.

The Clipper Race was suspended in March due to the global pandemic. Can you explain what it felt like for the race to come to an abrupt halt?

The coronavirus was building in the background since leaving Airlie Beach, Australia (in January 2020). Leg 6 - that was our race to Seattle, our big leg. We had a really good crew. The five day race went really well, as we came fourth, our best result. Morale and spirits were high then we came from that high to a 72 hour lockdown on the boat (due to local quarantine measures). After that it was quite an experience at the eerily empty Subic Bay Yacht Club, with people leaving.

I was on the last bus to leave with just a handful of us left. We went in a convoy to Manila and it was our first time wearing masks. The airport was deserted and ours was one of the last flights out. We saw the departure list getting smaller and smaller and then finally down to the last few flights. It was all very unexpected. Having to fly with all my kit. I was expecting to sail it all home!

I had mixed feelings getting on that plane home. As a circumnavigator we had passed the halfway mark and our little group of round-the-worlders on Seattle were looking forward to the upcoming leg. I was tired but excited to keep going.

We’ve been a slow burner on the race standings but we had started to gain momentum so that’s another reason we were disappointed that the race was postponed. A great team and crew - we all felt like this could be our chance, to get into the top five or to even get a podium place.

In lockdown, what have you missed most about boat life?

The camaraderie, it’s a double edged sword. Once you get to port you are so happy to have a bit of your own time, to get away from the boat. And now we are away we miss each other. I have lots of good friends and Seattle is a great team. I miss Tim, Dawn and Marcus. We all get on each other's nerves but you’ve got to realise that some of what you do is probably annoying. You have to keep remembering and understanding that. All in all I miss the crew members and sailing. Yes, there are times when you are hungry, tired, wet and all that but at the same time it is good fun.

It’s hard to keep in touch with each other but as a team we know once we get together again, we’ll hit the ground running. And pick up where we left off.

It has been good to be home, with everything being so uncertain in the world but I would like to come back. I love my clean bed and creature comforts, but I also have unfinished business.

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