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Glass ceilings start shattering at the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

by David Schmidt 9 Jul 12:00 PDT July 9, 2018
Clipper 2017-18 Race Visit Seattle © Matt Dixon

Back in late April, I had the good fortune of joining the Clipper Round The World Race for a media-day sail aboard Visit Seattle, one of 11 identical, Tony Castro-designed "Clipper 70s" that are being used to contest this round-the-world event, which pairs amateur sailors with a professional skipper who works to train individual sailors while also building a big-picture team, during the event's Seattle stop over. Once aboard, I shook hands with Nikki Henderson (UK), Visit Seattle's extremely capable 24-year-old skipper, who wasted no time in issuing instructions to her pick-up-ball crew of media types and event VIPs, some of whom had never been on a yacht of Visit Seattle's size and complexity.

In fact, there was nothing about Henderson's onboard professionalism or seamanship that would betray the fact that she is actually the youngest skipper in the race's 23-year history, or the fact that she was well on her way to leading her team to a strong overall finish. (N.B. the event's second-youngest skipper is Alex Thomson, who, in 1998/1999 at age 25, lead his team to a first-place finish before moving on to the world of Vendee Globe sailing.)

Granted, conditions on Puget Sound were mid-Spring moderate (read: cold but light airs), especially compared to the monster conditions that the Clipper fleet experienced sailing across the wide-open Pacific from Qingdao, China, but there were still times when she needed to quickly grab hold of the situation, and there was never a trace of doubt or hesitation.

Impressive stuff from any 24 year old (pray tell, what boats were you skippering at age 24?), but what cast a lasting impression was the respect and borderline reverence that her decidedly older (and male) crewmates - several of whom joined our media day to serve as onboard experts - demonstrated towards her, both in terms of her authority, leadership and sailing skill, but also as the single person who would get them through a true muck fight, should conditions turn heavy.

Afterwards, once all docking lines were secured and the media types and VIPs successfully offloaded, and as her crew scampered around the boat preparing for the start of the next offshore leg, I joined Henderson below decks for an exclusive Sail-World interview (see www.sail-world.com/news/204483/Nikki-Henderson-on-skippering-a-Clipper-Race-boat).

Once the mic was hot, Henderson explained her role as skipper and the leadership and team-building challenges that it poses, but she also let slip a small comment that has resonated in my head for the past few months. When queried about her strategy for the (then) two remaining legs (Seattle to New York and New York to Derry-Londonderry, in Northern Ireland), Henderson replied, "As soon as we get through Panama we're in my home waters, so I'm really looking forward to that..."

While I quickly pounced on the "home waters" comment, Henderson stood her ground before delivering the plum quote: "Just keep on training until the end," said Henderson about her strategy. "That's probably the real defining factor of our team is that there's a real learning atmosphere, so we keep on trying to bring people up."

Based on what I saw from a few short hours of sailing together, Henderson is clearly extremely talented at teaching sailing, building strong teams and making crew members feel included, but I could also tell that this 24 year old has a competitive streak a mile wide that only reveals itself (at least to a sailing journalist) in small comments such as referring to the entire Atlantic Ocean as her home waters.

Given this backstory, you can imagine my delight when the news hit that Henderson and her Visit Seattle teammates were the first boat across the finishing line in Derry-Londonderry, taking top honors in the event's penultimate leg and securing their third win overall in the Clipper Race's 2017/2018 edition.

"I am so proud of how hard my team worked to get this win," said Henderson in an official Clipper Race press release. "The crew never let up over the past two weeks and really deserve this result. We will certainly be celebrating the result in Derry-Londonderry, but we all know the job isn't done yet. The leaderboard is very close so the final race to Liverpool will be very exciting."

As of this writing, Henderson and her Visit Seattle team are in third place overall and are sitting on 109 points, while second-placed Qingdao is sitting on 113 points; Sanya Serenity Coast is currently in the pole position with an enviable 132 points.

Interestingly, Sanya Serenity Coast is skippered by Wendy Tuck (AUS; 53), potentially setting up a battle between Sanya Serenity Coast and Visit Seattle for the first female skipper to take top honors in the Clipper Race.

While this leaderboard congestion likely places significant pressure on all teams who are vying for strong overall finishes, Henderson and company will at least have their "home water" advantage.

Sail-World.com extends our sincere congratulations to Visit Seattle for sailing a great offshore leg, and while we wish our best of luck to all teams in their remaining race to Liverpool (Sunday, July 22), we sure would love to see either Henderson or Tuck smash this particular glass ceiling.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, Sail-World.com North American Editor

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