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A Q&A with Nikki Henderson about Leg 6 of the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race

by David Schmidt 19 Mar 2018 08:00 PDT March 23, 2018
Nikki Henderson leads Visit Seattle - Clipper Round the World Yacht Race - All-Australian Leg 4 © Brooke Miles Photography

At 5,528 nautical miles, Leg 6 of the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, which starts this Friday, March 23, and will take the race’s fleet of 12 identical Tony Castro-designed 70-foot offshore-racing monohulls from Qingdao, China, to Seattle, Washington, is a serious undertaking that promises cracking-good sailing intermingled with ample helpings of cold, wet watches that will make the sailors “earn their turns”, both behind the helm and belowdecks in their bunks, safe from spray and waves.

While a leg of this length would be a big commitment for professional offshore sailors, the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, which was the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (the first person to sail non-stop and singlehanded around the world during the Golden Globe Race of 1968-1969, which he won), pairs one professional skipper with paying amateurs of varying experience and skill levels in order to create a supportive, hands-on learning environment.

One other leg of this year’s Clipper Race is actually longer in terms of total miles (Leg 7), but it doesn’t girdle the globe or carve such a straight, bold line across wide swaths of blue, meaning that skippers and crews need to gel quickly, before they find the big conditions that inevitably lurk between Asia and North America.

The 2015-2016 Clipper Race also visited Seattle, and I remember meeting battered boats, some missing bowsprits and livery colors and others missing steering wheels and helming stations, as well as wide-eyed skippers and sailors describing the biggest conditions that they’d ever seen. And while every year offers different conditions, given that Leg 6 spans 5,528 nautical miles, all crews know that they’re in for at least one proper Pacific Ocean pasting (if not several).

I interviewed Nicola “Nikki” Henderson (UK; 24), skipper of Visit Seattle in the 2017-2018 Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, via email, to learn more about Leg 6, which the race has dubbed “The Mighty Pacific Leg”. Not only is Visit Seattle currently sitting in third place in the overall standings, but Henderson also holds the proud distinction of being the race’s youngest skipper of all time-a title that she lifted from Hugo Boss’ Alex Thomson himself (Thomson was 26 when his team won the 1997-1998 Clipper Race).

The Mighty Pacific Leg is just massive-as a skipper, how do you wrap your head around sailing 5,528 miles while being in a leadership/mentorship role? Do you do any sort of mental prep before legs, and if so, will you approach Leg 6 differently than some of the shorter legs?

The mighty Pacific Ocean Leg is definitely a massive Leg. It’s very, very long and far from land. I think that we’re looking at around four weeks for the crossing. The mental preparation is probably the most important bit. It’s just being in the right mindset to take on such a long and such a big challenge.

I think for me, especially for the longer legs, the most important thing is trying to chop it up into smaller sections. One of the nice things about the Clipper Race is that we have the Scoring Gate and the Elliot Brown Ocean Sprint and, on that Leg where’s it’s literally just from A to B where there’s not a lot of wiggling in the route and it’s just one straight line, I think that will really help.

So I think we’ll really try and cut it up…to the Scoring Gate…to halfway…to the sprint section…then to the end.

Tell us about your Leg 6 crew…have they all been on the boat with you since Liverpool, or do you have some rotations happening?

The majority of them will have been on the boat before, and I will have ten people on the boat since Liverpool. I have a couple of people coming back from another Leg and then I have another five or six guys and gals who haven’t been on the boat yet but I’ve met almost all of them. One of them is a firefighter though (www.clipperroundtheworld.com/news/article/a-firefighters-countdown-to-seattle) who I haven’t met before so I’m really looking forward to meeting her.

The crew is really strong. I think if you sign up for Leg 6, you know that you’re signing up for a pretty brutal four weeks. You know it’s going to be cold. It’s going to be rough seas. And so they are definitely a pretty extraordinary bunch of people signing up for a good challenge.

When you think of the challenges that the Mighty Pacific Leg may or may not have in store, what do you see the biggest challenges for the specific team that you’ll have onboard?

The biggest challenge will probably be the temperature—the cold. I think that we’ve done some long races but there is something just so draining about it being absolutely freezing and really, really wet. These boats will be so wet and you can’t just pop your head up on deck for five minutes. You have to get all your kit on to go up there.

From hearing stories from the previous Clipper Races, I think we are definitely preparing ourselves for that.

If memory serves, crews saw the biggest weather of their entire circumnavigation en route to Seattle last year—can you tell us about some of the big conditions that you and your team have experienced since leaving the UK and how you think this experience will stack up to what awaits you en route to the Emerald City?

It’s been varied and we saw some big weather on Leg 3 [from Cape Town to Australia]. We had some big seas. We had probably 10-15 meter seas and about 80 knots of wind at times, which was pretty extreme and good training for the crew. I’m glad we didn’t get that on Leg 1!

On the Leg up to Airlie Beach [Australia] we saw a couple of Southerly busters come through, which were also pretty big winds but not with the same sea state. I think that the Southern Ocean is pretty special for its big rolling waves and the crew learned a lot about helming, which I think will serve us well for this next Leg.

What kinds of skills do you plan to emphasize on the Mighty Pacific Leg? Or, is this something that you and your team typically determine before or during the first few days of the leg?

As a team, we sort of take it as it comes. We look at the weather and we look at the next few days and we deal with that. I think that if you were to sit there and look at the whole Leg to prepare [yourself], you can get a bit overwhelmed. We’ll just deal with the first few days and go from there.

The skills that the crew will need to prepare themselves for otherwise are to remember that it is a mental game as much as a physical one, so being in the right mindset is important.

Heavy leadership lifting aside, from a sheer I-just-want-to-have-fun-sailing perspective, what bits of Leg 6 are you the most excited about? What about your crew?

I’m not going to deny it – arriving into Seattle is going to be pretty awesome, so that’s probably the most exciting bit!

But I also love being out in the ocean, away from land, so probably somewhere in the middle will be awesome too, just being away from everything and it doesn’t matter how cold or how brutal the conditions are, you are always going to have one of those beautiful days where the sky is bright blue and there is beautiful sailing and everyone is happy with the music on, so I’m looking forward to that.

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