Pulling together 700 strangers of all ages and sailing abilities from 40 countries and in one month teaching them to race 11 big sailboats around the world seems like a spectacularly crazy idea. But this is the core mission of the Clipper Round the World Race. In September, the fleet of 11 identical 70-footers departed Portsmouth, England, each with a professional skipper and mate and a crew of 20 amateur sailors, for a 40,000-mile journey around the world.
This event, now in its 13th edition, is unlike any other ocean race. The longest and most grueling semi-professional yacht race in the world, it’s sailed in eight legs on a cumulative point system, and it’s a logistical puzzle of personalities, physical abilities, and sailing skills.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1969 became the first person to complete a singlehanded, nonstop circumnavigation in the inaugural Golden Globe, and his business partner William Ward, initiated the event in 1995. Knox-Johnston wanted to provide skills and training to anyone possessing sufficient desire to experience the wild wilderness of offshore yacht racing. Participants can sail the entire race or choose individual legs at a cost of $8,125 per leg, to $58,125 for the full circumnavigation. Four training sessions on the Solent River and English Channel add another $7,500.
The amateur race crew ranges in age from 18 to 74. Some come with little or no sailing experience but enough courage and maybe romantic naivete to take on the adventure. With a common thread—professional and amateur alike—of enthusiasm and a competitive attitude, applicants are put through four, week-long training sessions akin to a sailing boot camp.
Skippers tasked with training green crew often come with decades-long résumés, multiple circumnavigations, and jobs in big-name races. Working with them is like a basketball fan practicing with the Lakers, and they give no quarter to anyone.
“Level One was terrible, I thought I was going to die,” says Nadia Ross, a 47-year-old entrepreneur and video journalist from Rimouski, Quebec. She has sailed most of her life and lives with her husband aboard the 40-foot steel yacht that they built themselves. Despite excellent fitness and long sailing experience, switching from her native French to English made grasping the Clipper training language that much harder. “I didn’t think I was physically capable at first. There were so many evolutions, the English terminology, it was all just too much. Level Two was more sailing, being at sea, doing watches, and all the Level One training made sense.”
The degree of difficulty and skills required increase with each training level, and crew must master them to the training skippers’ satisfaction before graduating to the next level. Dubbed “The Clipper Way,” it is an evolution of instruction that has been refined and homogenized so that hundreds of crew, under the guidance of a dozen different skippers, all absorb the same operating procedures and vocabulary so they can be placed on any other Clipper boat with any combination of crew and create a coordinated machine.
“Sir Robin’s ethos was to make sailing accessible to everyone,” says Clipper Race Director Mark Light. “All sorts of people take on the race for different reasons with different skills and backgrounds. We needed a program that makes everyone fit to take on the world’s oceans; we need everyone trained the same way so it shouldn’t matter who you were trained by, it’s the same across the board.”
Light, 51, came to the Clipper organization after leaving an engineering career to be a professional sailor. After earning his RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certificate, he joined Clipper Ventures as a race skipper in the 2011-2012 event. Race director since 2017, he’s a prime example of the many people who have come to the Clipper organization to find life-changing experiences.
It doesn’t take long to understand why the intense training is so important. At 69,000 pounds displacement with a 90-foot mast, the Clipper 70s are not gentle or forgiving. Everything is heavy, and everything can hurt you, as one crewmember discovered during training when a flogging sheet broke his wrist and required an evacuation.
Patterned after the VO60s with a wide, flat stern, plumb bow, and deep keel, they are designed to take advantage of surfing big seas in the prevailing downwind conditions found in the east-around course. Unlike the relatively lightweight Volvo Ocean Race boats pushed to the ragged edge by pros, the Clipper boats, while able to log speeds of 30 knots or more, are built to withstand a lot of punishment and the sometimes fumbling skills of sleep deprived amateur sailors pushed to the edge of their abilities.
The stripped-down interiors have no creature comforts, and with a full crew of 20, hot-bunking is required. Line and sailhandling is entirely mechanical with no hydraulic or electric assistance. Even roller furling headsails are shunned for old-school hanks and Dacron cloth.
“They are heavily built, overbuilt, built to last five or six circumnavigations,” Light says. “We needed something that wasn’t overly complicated, something we could fix at stopovers, or the crew could fix at sea.”
Despite the solid platform, thorough preparation, and a focus on safety throughout the training process, ocean racing is a dangerous business, and the event is not without tragedy. In the 2015-2016 race, two crew members were killed in separate accidents. One was struck by the mainsheet in a crash jibe, and another was swept overboard and died before she could be recovered. This was the first time anyone had been killed in the event and it was a major emotional blow to the crews and event organizers.
“I dread the 2 a.m. phone call,” Light says. “We’ve had a few shockers. The darkest times are fatalities and severe boat damage.”
The 2017-2018 race also suffered tragedy and accidents. One boat ran aground shortly after leaving Cape Town. The crew got off safely, but the boat was a total loss. Just two weeks later, Simon Speirs, a crew member aboard CV30 sponsored by Great Britain, was killed in the Indian Ocean. The 60-year-old Speirs was a watch leader and one of the more experienced sailors onboard. He was tethered and working on the foredeck when he fell overboard. Racing downwind in heavy weather, Speirs was dragged through the water for several minutes before the crew could slow the boat. As they struggled to get him aboard, the clip on his tether broke and he lost contact with the yacht. Another 30 minutes passed before they could recover him from the near-freezing water.
While they are the exception, these accidents are undoubtedly on the minds of the sailors as they go through their training. As the final week of training approaches, Light and the training team manage the difficult process of spreading the 700 crew members with widely varying abilities among the 11 boats so that each yacht has an equal distribution of skills, personalities, and nationalities. The finished product is, hopefully, an evenly balanced race that comes down to how well the crew blends and is motivated by their skippers to put the boat first, sail fast, and push beyond their limits. This final, important, team-building phase places the crew members with their skipper aboard the boat they will race for a week of offshore sailing and practice racing with other teams in the fleet.
Like other leaders in the Clipper organization, Light is extremely enthusiastic about the race. Signed to 18-month contracts, skippers and their first mates go through nearly as much training as crew, with a focus on leadership, team building, and safety. As most of them point out, winning isn’t always about the skills of the crew, but the ability of skippers to create a confident, happy boat filled with people willing to work hard. It’s the crew’s enthusiasm and passion that makes this race and their jobs so special.
“It’s one of the most challenging jobs in sailing because of the people element,” says Mike Miller, skipper of CV29 sponsored by PSP Logistics. “Not only do you have to race and manage the boat, but you also have to manage a crew of 20 people. The big challenge is to make the most out of them and maximize all the things they have to offer.”
Miller, 54, is one of the most popular and universally friendly members of the Clipper team. He came to the race as a paying crew member from a long career in banking and finance. As a circumnavigator and watch leader in the 2017-2018 event, Miller was aboard the winning boat sponsored by Sanya Serenity Coast and skippered by Wendy Tuck. Her hard-fought victory would make her the first female skipper to win a round-the-world ocean race.
The second-place boat that year was led by the youngest skipper in the race’s history, Nikki Henderson, who was 26 at the finish, making it a one-two woman dominated race that would, again, place the Clipper organization in a pioneering position in the male dominated world of yacht racing.
Both Light and Miller say being a race skipper is the most rewarding job they’ve ever had. Their experiences surfing huge waves, seeing spectacular wildlife, or flying a spinnaker under the Golden Gate Bridge at 18 knots are things most of us only see on YouTube. But mentoring the crew and sharing their love of both the ocean and sailing is the high point of every race.
“Everyone is in it for more than sailing,” Miller says. “They come to learn about themselves and prove something to themselves. I love to see them achieve things they never thought they could achieve. People come with preconceived notions, and so often what they find is completely different.”
Following the Race
By November, the Clipper fleet and its seasoned crew will have raced from Portsmouth to Punta del Este, Uruguay, then back across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa. From there the race goes through the Roaring Forties of the southern Indian Ocean, stopping in Fremantle, Australia, then south around Tasmania and up the east coast to Airlie Beach in northeast Australia near the Whitsunday Islands. Next, they race north across the equator to Qingdao, China, one of the race’s longest-running sponsors, before the long and difficult leg across the north Pacific to the West Coast of the United States. The final two legs travel down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the East Coast before heading back across the pond to the finish in Portsmouth in late June 2024. You can follow the race up to the minute at www.clipperroundtheworld.com
Stephen Titus has sailed most of his life, crossing the Atlantic on a 32-foot yacht, cruising the Bahamas aboard his 42-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran, and competing as skipper or crew in hundreds of races on both coasts of the United States and many lakes in between. He and his 22-year-old son have completed the Clipper Race training and are crew in the 2023-2024 race aboard CV29, PSP Logistics.
November /December 2023