Society has its biases. The oceans don't
Society has its biases. The oceans don't
In the early hours of the morning on Friday 12 February, I crossed the finish line of the Vendée Globe Race, to become only the eighth woman in history and the tenth British sailor to achieve this epic sporting goal.
The Vendée Globe Race is without doubt sailing’s toughest event. Sailed every four years, it is a single-handed, non-stop, around the world race, in 60ft ocean racing machines capable of speeds in excess of 40mph and carrying enough sail area to cover three tennis courts.
The race rules are simple: competitors start off at Les Sables D’Olonne in France, they must then circumnavigate the globe, leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin (the most south-westerly point in Australia) and Cape Horn to port before heading back up the Atlantic to finish at the starting line.
Competitors are not allowed to stop, or receive any outside assistance, they must carry all the tools, spares and provisions they will need for the three-month race onboard the boat. They must race, navigate, make repairs, diagnose and treat their own medical problems alone, all the while managing on 30-minute naps while their boats race through some of the world’s most remote and dangerous oceans.
To compete in the Vendée Globe race a sailor must have experience, good seamanship, be able to understand and analyse weather patterns and know how to fix every part of their boat from hydraulics and electronics to sails and laminated carbon. They must be strong enough to move sails weighing as much as 90 kg around the moving vessel, and brave enough to scale a 30m mast alone while the boat is in motion. You need to be physically, mentally and emotionally tough to cope with the relentless nature of this three-month race.
These attributes are gained through years of experience in offshore racing. In the popular imagination, the person most likely to achieve this kind of feat is a rugged-looking man. But the Vendée Globe Race is one of the very few international sporting events where men and women compete on equal terms, sailing the same boats on the same course. This year I was immensely proud to be one of the six women who made up the 33 strong fleet of competitors.
I first read about the Vendée Globe race in my late teens. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was passionate about sailing and, although I had never experienced the sport, I aspired to become an ocean racer. I read widely, devouring all I could on the subject, but noting all the while that the heroes of these tales were men. I could see no easy way that a shy girl from East Anglia would ever make it onto one of these crews. When eventually I came across a magazine featuring the Vendée Globe race I was immediately in awe. Whereas the Whitbread was a crewed race with stopovers, the Vendée Globe was sailed in similar size boats but was solo, and non-stop.
Most strikingly of all, there were women competing and being written about in exactly the same way as men. From the first moment I read about the race, I decided it was something I would do.
Three decades later I crossed the finish line with a joy so deep it is difficult to describe. I had not only fulfilled a childhood ambition, but completed a sporting event that less than 120 people in the world have ever achieved. But, although the race itself threw many challenges my way – including having to change a rudder in the Southern Ocean between gales – it is the fact I made it to the start line at all that I feel was the greatest challenge.
Pip Hare onboard her IMOCA 60, Medallia during training for the race.
I have been a professional sailor since I left school at 18. When I first started teaching I was one of only three female instructors working on England’s south coast. My peers were all older men. When I went for briefings or training I was always the lone female in the room and often mistaken for an administrator or the tea lady. As the skipper of predominantly all-male crews I was constantly questioned about my skill and qualifications, and if I had a technical problem with my boat it was mostly attributed to “user error”. I had to fight to be acknowledged as a skipper with every new crew that came on board.
Some 30 years later, I am still only one of around 20 professional female skippers on the Solent where I live. When parking my 60ft IMOCA class yacht in a new port, with a delivery crew of men onboard, those that don’t know will always ask one of the men if they are the skipper.
This has never diminished my passion for sailing. I have accepted that fighting to have the right to compete is normal. Initially, it was tough: I am not a naturally confident person, I struggle to make my voice heard in a room full of people that I do know, let alone those that I don’t. But I discovered that once I had a crew on a boat, or got a chance to show what I could do on the water, things became easier. The sea offered an alternative universe where, if given the chance, I would be judged on my actions, not my appearance or gender.
With no female role models, and no performance pathway to follow, I had to create my own route to the top of my sport. I had no support from sailing’s governing body and there were no mentors to reach out to. My biggest problem was how to gain ocean racing experience. Boats are expensive and so I looked to joining crewed teams to build my ocean miles and learn from others. Back then and even now, offshore crews were almost exclusively male. Every time I applied to be part of a racing crew I was either turned down or given a role making the sandwiches or folding sails below decks after manoeuvres. I took these roles happily in the hope that I could work my way to the top, but few opportunities arose.
In 2008, still wondering how I would ever get to the Vendée Globe race, I finally had the epiphany that I would have to get there on my own. I was then living on a 39ft racer cruiser lovingly named “The Shed” and decided to train myself in solo sailing in my home. After all, if I was the only crew onboard the boat, no one could stop me from steering, navigating, trimming sails and fixing things. I would also, of course, be making the sandwiches and cleaning the bilges.
In January 2009, I set off my first solo ocean crossing, bringing my boat home from Uruguay to the UK alone. I had never sailed overnight alone before. The crossing took 58 days and I learned a huge amount, most importantly that I loved it. In May 2009 I competed in my first solo ocean race – the OSTAR – a transatlantic race from Plymouth in the UK to Newport, Rhode Island, and I was proudly sponsored by Cazenove Capital.
Since then every year I set my sights on a different race, each time working my way up through the ranks of solo sailing, to more competitive fleets, tougher races and higher positions. I found my own coaches, created my own performance pathway and managed every aspect of my campaigns from fundraising to boat preparation. While ashore I fought to be noticed, recognised and taken seriously: once afloat I was just like every other competitor. The respect that is extended by other solo sailors staggered me. I felt like an equal.
People often question why with so few women competing at all levels in offshore sailing, nearly 20% of the fleet for the toughest sailing race in the world was made up of women. I think it is because this is a part of the sport where we feel we belong. When the gun fired at the start of the Vendée Globe race, we all lined up as equals. There are no excuses and there is nowhere to hide.
You are either good enough to sail one of these 60ft beasts single-handed around the world - or you are not. The Vendée Globe race was the greatest three months of my life. I feel I have battled my whole life to get to that starting line, and the three months of racing felt like a truce. The race allowed me to perform as the athlete I always wanted to be. I was judged on my actions, both good and bad. I didn’t have to justify my place on the ocean: I raced as hard and was respected as much as my fellow competitors, both male and female.
I love the sport, it allows me to be me. I hope that I might have helped other women to take part; might show them they belong, and in some small way change the face of a sport that I love.
Pip is currently working towards the 2024 Vendée Globe race with the aspirations of finishing in the top five. She lives in Poole, Dorset and will continue to race her boat from the harbour there. To find out more about Pip and how to support her visit piphareoceanracing.com or search Pip Hare Ocean Racing on social media.
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