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Skipper Dale Smyth on Leg 3 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 30 Nov 2017
CV26 GREAT Britain Clipper Round the World Yacht Race Southern Ocean Clipper Ventures PLC .
When it comes to count-on-it big weather, the Southern Ocean has a reputation for delivering the windswept goods with far more regularity-and ferocity-than just about any other patch of brine on the planet.

Yet stories of the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties from experienced sailors usually involves accounts of some of the wildest sailing imaginable. For generations, sailing’s deep canon of high-latitude literature and our species’ natural curiosity have pressed the bravest amongst our fellow salts to weigh anchor for serious adventure. And while some people grow up around boats and evolve into sailors capable of high-latitude passages on their own accord, others find offshore sailing later in life and seek to accelerate their learning curves.

Enter the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first yachtsman to sail non-stop around the world singlehanded and without outside assistance (wining the 1968-1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race) aboard his trusty Suhaili, founded the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (aka, “the Clipper Race”) in 1996. The concept was simple: paying sailors would join onto One Design boats that were skippered by professionals who would offer sailing instruction and team-building skills-while also trying to ensure safety-as crews raced their way around the planet in a series of stage races.

Today the Clipper is still going strong, with 12 different teams racing aboard identical, 70-foot Tony Castro designed monohulls. The event has become a biennial affair, and while the course is subject to change with each edition, the Clipper Race has a fine history of steeping crews in the wind-swept depths of the Southern Ocean. The 2017-2018 edition of the race is no exception.

After starting in Liverpool, UK, in August, teams raced to Punta del Este, Uruguay, before pressing on to Cape Town, South Africa, where they are at the time of this writing. Next up is a big push from Cape Town to Fremantle, Western Australia, a distance of some 4,754 nautical miles that’s sure to involve some of the biggest conditions that any of the sailors have seen, while also rewarding crews with some of the planet’s fastest, most sustained downwind sailing.

I caught up with Dale Smyth (35), skipper of the Dare To Lead team in this year’s Clipper Race and a Liverpool, UK, native who now calls Cape Town home, to learn more about the challenges of leading a relatively fresh team into serious offshore conditions.

How is your crew coming together before your first big Southern Ocean experience?
They’ve been coming together really nicely. I think Leg 2 was great training for Leg 3–[they] experienced many of the same conditions and temperatures. Having seen them work together on Leg 2 and deal with some fairly fruity, strong weather days, and different sail changes that I employed, I’m really happy and comfortable to be going into the Southern Ocean with them.

Can you talk to me about the kinds of goals that you and your team have set for yourselves, going into Leg 3?
We’ve always said from the beginning that we want to be competitive, so there’s always going to be that edge for us, pushing hard and making sure everyone is working at maximum. At the same time, [our finishing-line success] can’t be at the expense of us as a team or their welfare and safety as team members. It’s going to be a leg of working hard together and seeing what we can manage.

Generally speaking, is your team more focused on learning the ropes of offshore sailing, or are you guys gunning for podium finishes?
I think they go hand-in-hand. If you don’t train your guys well, you’re not going to be able to achieve podium finishes. It’s a constant balance of training during racing, not always using necessarily the best people for the job, otherwise you end up very short of skilled people, which in the long run really effects your performance.

It’s a little bit of trying to train slightly weaker crew members up into roles so that you end up with better results at the end.

What are you the most excited about, heading into this big offshore leg?
I think there’s always the excitement of hard, fast downwind conditions, and when you’re in them you’re not particularly enjoying it because of the wet and the cold, but there is definitely a thrill in pushing these boats up into the mid-to-high twenties and seeing really what they are built for.

As skipper, what have been your biggest learning curves since taking command of the vessel and crew?
I think the management of the boat, with understanding your crew strengths and weaknesses, is one of the most challenging parts of skippering one of these boats.

You may often be trying sailing that you know the boat can take, but can the crew manage to change sails as the conditions worsen? That’s often a question that you’re faced with, whether it be spinnakers, white sails, or even shaking reefs–it’s always about the people management and wanting to keep the crew safe, but competitive at the same time.

What do you see as your biggest challenges as skipper as your team gets your first real taste of the Southern Ocean?
I think the duration of the wet and the cold, and keeping the guys motivated. We found a bit of that in Leg 2, just waking up and getting the job done despite the cold, the wet and the water blasting you on watch for four hours. [Also,] keeping a good level of humor up and keeping a tight-knit group [are crucial].

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