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What does it take to be a Clipper Race Skipper?

by Mark Jardine 7 Jan 2019 04:00 PST
Clipper Race Deputy Race Director Dale Smyth © Kevin Sawyer

Clipper Race Skipper Dale Smyth has been sailing since he was around 8 years old, racing Hobie Cats and then moving into full-time sailing from the age of 18, starting off in the charter sailing yacht industry out of Cape Town, and then studying and working in the Merchant Navy as an officer on chemical tankers. After his time in the Merchant Navy Dale moved back into sailing, mostly in training and deliveries.

We spoke to Dale about what it takes to become a Clipper Round the World Yacht Race Skipper...

Whatever Dale has done, he's been drawn the sea, so we asked him what it was that attracted him initially towards the Clipper Race:

"When I started sailing at 8 years old, one of the key things which got me hooked and passionate about it was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston's book which someone had given me. Right through my maritime career he'd always been a big hero of mine and I'd followed the Clipper Race from a very young age. A seed was planted! Apart from the dream of completing a circumnavigation, Robin as a personality was definitely one of the massive draws of the event."

With Dale's background in charter, the Merchant Navy and in training, he was well set for the role of a Clipper Race skipper:

"For the five years previous to working with the Clipper Race I'd been working on distance training with some programmes in South Africa taking potential Yacht Master students on long-distance trips. So, distance sailing had been a huge thing for me. This led into some winter training for Clipper, just because the seasons were opposite to the northern hemisphere, and this then led into doing the race!"

The Clipper Race is both tough and rewarding as Dale explains:

"Leading a team of novices successfully around the globe and watching them achieve something they thought was impossible is extremely satisfying. Combining that with the obvious satisfaction of racing in one direction and then ending up in the same point again is great. A personal reward on one level and then allowing 30 to 40 other people to achieve the same thing under your leadership is probably the bigger reward.

"Managing the expectations of a large group of people successfully over the duration of 40,000+ miles is definitely one of the biggest challenges. Managing people and realising that you have their goals and their aspirations in your hands as well and all the intricacies that large groups of people bring with different personalities and dynamics. The people element is one of the huge satisfactions, but definitely one of the greatest challenges."

Taking part in a Clipper Race creates a close bond within a team, and Dale regularly chats and meets up with his crew:

"You create tight bonds with people during the race, and I know some of the crew will be friends for life."

Being a Clipper Race Skipper has challenges which are completely different from any other kind of leadership role; the continual close proximity of the crew, the dangers on board the boat, the dangers of the sea and also battling with elements which aren't in your control. We asked Dale what he thought was the single most important element to being a Clipper Race Skipper:

"Tenacity. The determination just to keep going. It is at the end of the day a marathon which has many challenges; the lack of sleep, the stress, the close confines, the interpersonal dynamics, and keeping repeatedly doing the same routines and checks over and over and over. You must push yourself to continually make that happen over 12 months. Tenacity is definitely the main attribute you need.

"Every time you wake up you need to do everything with renewed vigour, renewed enthusiasm and every stopover requires you to knuckle down again to start a new race with new people. The relentlessness of it means you have to make a decision at the beginning that you are going to achieve the goal and nothing is going to stop you. There are points during the race where you think the race is too much and taking too much from you, so the tenacity to keep going is vital."

The 2017-18 race was won by Wendy Tuck, who we interviewed recently on this website, and Dale has a huge amount of respect for this Skipper:

"Wendo's a really good friend of mine and she's one of the most experienced yachtswomen in the world. I have huge admiration for her. She's such a great person and she's invested two races into this win. She came back, and she'd learnt from her previous race the lessons she needed to employ. Her consistency is what got in the bag for her. She's an absolutely amazing person!

"She's tough and she can keep going day after day. Like any of us, she's quite happy to make mistakes and accept the lessons, and she sailed a very consistent race, and that's actually what it takes. You can do amazingly and have some podiums and then have some really big downers, but she had that consistency which comes from her nature and also having done the race before, knowing when to put her foot on the pedal but also when to back off a little bit."

The Clipper Race provides memories which last forever, whether you're a Skipper or a Crewmember. For Dale there were a few key moments: "One point which will be etched in my mind forever was the extreme conditions experienced in the North Pacific. We had phenomenal sea states and hurricane force winds and there were moments in the middle of that where we thought 'This is what we're here for', surfing at 35 knots. Those hours and days are absolutely etched in my mind.

"Another amazing point was sailing into my own home port in Cape Town after a massively competitive race for first and second. Unfortunately we were pipped to first by nine minutes, but the welcome we received there was absolutely fantastic. Also, the start and finish of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was so memorable."

So would Dale recommend to someone who has the right skills to apply to be a Skipper?

"Absolutely go for it! You need to know deep inside of you that you have the tenacity, backed with the experience, but if you do feel you have these attributes then 100%, it's probably one of the most memorable things you'll do in your entire life.

For anyone who has the attributes but perhaps not all of the experience required to be a Clipper Race Skipper, applications for Additionally Qualified Persons (AQP's), supporting the Skipper for the full circumnavigation as a Professional Mate, are open until 20 Jan."

Find out more about the race at

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