“They all thought I was mad”: Wendy Bird on joining Clipper ‘96

19 October 2016

“Because the Clipper Race was new, no one had heard of it and they all thought I was mad!”

Wendy Bird was one of the first people to sign up for the Clipper Race in 1996. She joined her crew on Mermerus in Hong Kong to race to Singapore and the Seychelles in Leg 4. The team, led by Jim Thom, finished in second place overall.

Learning the ropes
I had never sailed before my first training level. My husband had sailed all his life, as had his brother and Dad. So they were all sailors and I was this mad woman who was sitting reading the Sunday Times one afternoon, saw the ad and thought “I fancy doing something a bit different, a bit of a challenge.”.

It was minus 3 degrees for our first training session with Adrian Faiers, who was the Skipper of Taeping. I remember him telling me to let go because we were going down the Solent totally heeled over in the freezing cold, with me never having sailed before. He was saying “one hand for the boat, one hand for you” and I was saying “No, two hands for me!” He had to say “No, you have to work with the boat.”

Timing is everything
I was in a secretarial role for an engineering firm which worked on projects like the Channel Tunnel and Millennium Dome. Back then I was spending a lot of time in Hong Kong, pre-changeover, working on the construction of the new airport, so I knew the city quite well.

Going back to my training experience, I knew I would much prefer to sail in warm weather than the ice cold conditions I’d experienced in the Solent so the thought of racing from Hong Kong to the Seychelles was much more appealing and as I was working in and out of HK that year I was able to go out there and work for a bit before joining the race. My mum ended up on the Race Start boat with Sir Robin.

A new family
On one of the training levels we sailed from the south coast up through the Thames Barrier, it was absolutely fantastic because it had never happened before. Everyone worked really well together straight away, we were a family and there was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of like-minded people. Through the training we had some absolutely fantastic sessions which are just etched in your mind as much as the race because was the people you met and it was often really good fun on board.

I think we are all in absolute shock that the race was 20 year ago. A couple of my team mates have since got married, Alistair and Laura Johnson, who both circumnavigated. Their family is potentially the first of the Clipper nippers!

When good comes out of bad
One of the highlights was after we had been through a broach and the boat had righted itself, but we were still in the cyclone for another five days. The broach itself was one of those surreal moments which you see in slow motion. I had just finished Mother duty and had my first shower in a week when I was turned upside down in my bunk and I knew how wrong that was.

The girls seemed to cope with it a bit better than the boys on board. So even as a novice I remember helming through crazy, crazy waves. Our Skipper Jim would be up there reigning in the mainsail singing Molly Malone at the top of his voice [as pictured below] and it was really just an amazing experience when you realised how fast you were going, and also that you had come through this terrifying experience and everyone was okay. We were trying to get the boat back shipshape again because there was quite a bit of damage, but there was this amazing feeling that we had survived, we’re speeding along in the right direction and that definitely remains a highlight for me.

How times have changed
One thing that has massively changed is technology and the amount of info that is available immediately. We had the Clipper News which was a paper copy with articles on various crew member and skippers. There was less knowledge of what was going on before everything arrived back home, we would fax out our team blogs ‘Mermers’ to crew and their families. On board you could message each other on the other boats but it was very limited, like tickertape, so just a line or two.

Having said that I think the core elements of the race are probably pretty much the same in terms of the camaraderie and team work. The boats are bigger and I’m sure they are better but the family side never changes.

Two decades later
I think we are in absolute shock that the race was 20 years ago. We keep talking about doing reunions, and in fact we did have one the year after our race at the London Boat Show which was fantastic, so going to the ball was amazing. I'm still buzzing!

It so good to catch up with the other '96ers on our table, plenty of reminiscing. We were first up on the dancefloor which was just as well because it was the only time we had space to groove, it was so packed. The bands were fantastic, I loved the mural of images from all the races and there was an amazing amount of money raised for Unicef. Wow! What an evening!

[Left to right: Mervyn Wheatley (Skipper of Thermopylae 96, William Ward (Clipper Race CEO), Rosie Wright (original Clipper Race support staff), Wendy Bird, Alistair and Laura Johnson (Clipper '96 circumnavigators)]

Click here to see our Facebook gallery of images from the 20th Anniversary Ball.

Click here to watch our heritage video on the history of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

The Clipper 2017-18 Race, the eleventh race edition, starts next summer and is already 70 per cent full, with UK and international crew training each week on the Solent in Hampshire and at our Australian base in Sydney.

Crew can choose to sign up to either the full circumnavigation, or one or more of its eight race legs. Click here to find out more about joining the adventure.

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