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A Q&A with Daniel Smith, the Clipper Race’s new deputy race director

by By David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 9 Jan 2017
Daniel Smith, the new deputy race officer of the Clipper Race Clipper Ventures
Plenty of sailors dream of racing around the world, but for most mere mortals, the idea of transitioning from Wednesday night races or even casual distance racing to the challenges of round-the-world sailing is simply a bridge too far, shy of serious mentorship and plenty of build-up experiences (read: transoceanic voyages). Fortunately for any sailor who has the means and the time, but not the right group of offshore-sailing mates, the Clipper Round The World Race offers an opportunity to head offshore on a 70-foot raceboat with a professional captain and a paying crew of amateurs to compete against other identical, similarly crewed boats on an around-the-world voyage.

While the racing can get intense between boats, for most Clipper sailors, the real goal is to evolve their skills while learning the ropes of offshore teamwork in a complex and highly dynamic environment. For the sailors, this translates to a lot of learning opportunities, and for the skipper it translates to plenty of team-building and “teachable” moments. But for the Clipper Race’s supporting staff, each edition of this storied event (which began in 1996) represents a massive logistical hurdle that requires a clear understanding of the rigors of offshore sailing and the challenges that each crew faces, as well as an ability to help troubleshoot complex issues as they arise.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sail with Daniel Smith (36; SCO), skipper of Derry~Londonderry~Doire for the 2015/2016 edition of the Clipper Race, when the fleet reached Seattle last spring. While our day was wet, cold and largely windless, it was a great opportunity to meet Smith and some of his crew and get a taste for the kind of leadership role that all Clipper skippers take on as they lead their teams around the world.

Now, after a successful 2015/2016 Clipper Race, Smith has been hired as the event’s deputy race director-a job that will test many of the skills that he developed and polished as a skipper. I caught up with Smith via email to learn more about his new job and the kinds of responsibilities that come with a job that has a fixed horizon.

How long have you been involved with the Clipper, how did you get started, and in what capacities have you worked and sailed with the program?
I’ve been involved with the Clipper Race since 2014 when I put my application in to skipper one of their boats for the 2015-16 race. After an interview and an intensive skipper trial, I was given a job as a training skipper, where I helped to train the crew during the remaining eight month lead up to the race, before I was announced as the race skipper for the Derry~Londonderry~Doire team.

Our teams were decided in April, so then I started getting to know my crew and working with them daily in the lead up to the race on all sorts of things to prepare for our race campaign, including goal setting, team building, role selections and tactics. That’s where the fun really got started, and it continued for the next year really. I had a great crew, we achieved a lot together, including an excellent second overall place, and of course during that time I also worked closely with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Mark Light, who is now Race Director, and the rest of the organizing team.

The Clipper Race is more than just a job, it has been my life for the last two years and it was a fantastic experience so I feel very happy to return.

What do you anticipate being your biggest challenges as you step from a skipper role into the position of deputy race director?
It’s a change of role for me and I’ll be driving a computer now more often than driving a boat, which will be the main challenge I guess, but I hope to still be hands on and spend some time afloat. The Clipper Race is a huge operation. With 700 crew expected to take part on the world’s largest matched racing fleet, taking eleven months to complete, the logistics are extensive, plus Mother Nature will always add some unpredictability, but the organization is well-prepared This next race will be the eleventh edition and Sir Robin [Knox-Johnston] and his team are highly professional. I’m joining a very experienced team, so I have every confidence it will be a big success.

What will be your prime and principal responsibilities in your new job?
I’ll certainly be keeping myself busy. [My] main responsibilities include helping to recruit the twelve race skippers who are currently being selected from hundreds of applications. Once selected and announced, I will then manage and support them in the lead up to, and then during, the race so it is really helpful to be so fresh from my own experience in their shoes. I know exactly what they’ll be going through.

Being a race skipper is a tough job, so it is definitely good to have the knowledge of their world.?I will also be managing the allocation of crew to their teams, with the aim of maintaining a level playing field across the fleet; assisting the race director with the planning and management of the race route and schedule; monitoring fleet safety and rules while they race; plus helping to plan and organize the schedules of up to 14 stopovers, which includes fleet maintenance, crew changeover dates and sponsor activations.

There will be many other jobs I’ll get involved too I’m sure but these are some of the key responsibilities.

Personally, do you think it will be tough going from a position of sailing all the time to more of a staff job, or will memories of that big storm that you guys encountered in the Pacific keep you content onshore?
I’m sure there will be times I will miss the action and the competition, which was fantastic, but the memories of the race will always be with me. There will be parts of it including the cold waves and wet bunk that I won’t miss though, and I’m also sure it will feel a lot more relaxing to fly to the race ports! Seriously though, the Clipper Race staff are great and one of my round-the-world crew has also just joined the race team, so it will be great to work together again. Hopefully we’ll all enjoy being part of another exciting race, which will still be a challenge and will prove satisfying in new ways. Getting to watch people grow and develop as the race goes on is always something that will give great pride, whatever role I am in.

You’ve obviously made a big commitment with the Clipper Race in terms of years of your career-what is it about this race that keeps pulling you back? The people? The sailing? Can you explain?
While I skippered in the race I saw the massive positive effect it had on the individuals taking part. Working as deputy race director will give me the chance to keep making that positive impact and make it a great race for everyone involved. This is what keeps pulling me back. Forget sailing alone, there is no other event on the planet like the Clipper Race.

Leadership is obviously a huge part of being a good skipper—how do you see these skills matriculating to your new position?
I’ll be hoping to use my same leadership skills from my previous experience with the race team, the next race skippers and the crew. I guess you’ll have to ask my crew what those were for the real answer but I always did my best to be fair and inclusive, but highly driven to achieve, so I’m hoping my style transfers and continues to work well.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?
That should cover it, I hope. I really enjoyed my last experience so when I was asked to consider this role I was honored. I had a great mentor in my now boss Mark Light, so I feel well-prepared and am looking forward to the challenge from a different angle.

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