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An interview with Mark Light about the 2019/2020 edition of the Clipper Round The World Race

by David Schmidt 7 Nov 08:00 PST November 7, 2019
Mark Light is the race director of the 2019/2020 edition of the Clipper Round The World Race © Image courtesy of the Clipper Round The World Race

When it comes to offshore sailing, experience is king. This experience is typically the lucky byproduct of a lifetime spent sailing, likely first in dinghies, followed by keelboats and then offshore racing boats, but what happens if one wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up in a sailing household or even a sailing-friendly community? How do these sailors gain the experience necessary to sail over the horizon? Enter the Clipper Round The World Race.

Some backstory: The Clipper Race, as its known colloquially, was started in 1996 by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (the first person to sail nonstop and singlehanded around the world to famously win the 1968-1969 Golden Globe Race) as an opportunity for amateur crews to circumnavigate under the tutelage of a professional skipper. Crew members pay for the opportunity to rack up offshore miles and experience, and they engage in pre-race training sessions before stepping aboard identical, Tony Castro-designed Clipper 70 monohulls to tackle a 10-month stage race that takes crews around the world (via the Panama Canal, not Cape Horn). This gives crew members the opportunity to sail the entire way around the globe or to fly in and join their team for a leg or several legs (not necessarily in consecutive order) .

This latter point also raises some serious team-building challenges for the skipper and his or her senior sailors, as crew changes can create a situation for the skipper of effectively having to build a new team with each new leg.

This is certainly not to imply a white-glove sailing experience. Clipper teams push their boats hard, and they sail through weather that has battered boats. During the 2015/2016 edition of the race, for example, several teams limped into Seattle with broken bowsprits and shredded sails, and one boat was even missing an entire port helming station. Moreover, sailors and boats have been lost during the course of the race’s 23-year history, placing an even greater premium on tight crew work and strong team-building efforts from the skipper and crew alike.

I checked in with Mark Light, race director of the Clipper Round The World Race, via email, to learn more about this demanding, pay-to-play race-cum-adventure experience. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the teams as they sail from Uruguay to South Africa?

Leg 2 Race 3 - Punta del Este to Cape Town is a 3,500 nm downwind sleigh ride of approx. 15 - 19 days duration. 

The keys to a successful race are to position the vessel on the correct side of the approaching low-pressure systems that roll across the South Atlantic in order to take advantage of the favorable downwind conditions. 

Equally as important, is the need to carefully monitor and look after the deck gear and sails. With lots of spinnaker work on this particular race there is a big emphasis on sail care and chafe management. 

The Clipper Race crew will be able to helm the yacht in some fantastic surfing conditions and it will be some of the most exhilarating sailing they will have experienced on the journey so far.

How much turnover do most teams typically see from one leg to the next?

Whenever we have a crew changeover between legs the typical numbers vary between four to ten crew per team. All teams have pretty much the same overall crew numbers and so the splits tend to even-out across the whole Clipper Race. 

All new joining race crew will complete a refresher training day on board with their race skipper including full safety briefs in the stopover port and this is in addition to the standard and intensive four week Clipper Race training program.

So is it fair to say that most skippers speed the first week or so of each leg working hard to create the right team dynamic and onboard learning atmosphere? If so, can you give us an example of this?

This is partly true although in fairness the skippers and mates (additional qualified persons; AQP) onboard each yacht will be constantly working on team dynamic and culture as well as instructing, coaching and monitoring. 

The team-building phase of each teams’ race campaigns started way back in May 2019 at our crew allocation day, which is where hundreds of race crew all gathered in Portsmouth, UK to find out exactly who their skipper will be, which yacht they will be on and who they will be racing with for the entire round the world race. 

The training and team-building continues through all of the final Level 4 training weeks in the build up to the race start on 1 September, 2019 and in reality won’t stop until the race finishes in early August 2020.

Do you tend to notice a big uptick in a sailor’s confidence from the time they walk down the dock (Yankee translation: quay) for their first offshore leg with the race, compared to the time they walk back up the dock on the other side of the leg? Can you explain or give an example or two?

Yes, we do. One of the best things I get personally from working and managing the Clipper Race is to watch the development of all participants. That goes for our skippers, mates (AQPs) and all of our race crew. 

Our Clipper Race training is absolutely second to none and we are highly experienced in training people to race offshore and to cross oceans. As a result, the development we see in our race crews is quite outstanding. You can see the confidence when they go about their day to day tasks on board - flaking sails, securing dock lines, whipping and splicing rope-work and even the way they walk around the yachts, as if they had sailed their whole lives.

How many legs does it typically take before a sailor really starts to feel at home on a Clipper team, both in terms of the physical duties and responsibilities, and in terms of the culture?

Given the fact that each leg on a Clipper Race is anywhere between 3,500 nautical miles and 6,800 nautical miles in distance, our crew can feel very accustomed to being on board and living life at sea after just one leg. It is incredible how quickly you get into boat life and racing mode after a stopover port.

How common is it for a sailor/student to return to the race as a skipper? Has this ever happened?

Our Clipper Race skippers are some of the most experienced and well qualified yacht skippers in the industry. They are highly professional and have to demonstrate excellence across the board. Our race-skipper selection process is deliberately tough and with good reason, to ensure we get the best people.  We also recruit and select an AQP to support the skipper on board each yacht. 

This is a great way for developing professionals in the yachting industry to step into large yacht racing and is naturally a great stepping stone to becoming a Clipper Race skipper. We have had success with previous Clipper Race crew members who have been selected as AQPs in this current race.  We also have two race skippers currently onboard [who] have developed through our own training program through the crew and AQP route, and so this shows that it is definitely possible to achieve. Guy Waites, skipper on Dare To Lead was an AQP on the last edition and Seumas Kellock, skipper on Visit Sanya, China was a crew member on the last edition.

On that same note, do you and the other Clipper organizers have a favorite skipper in the 2020/2021 Vendee Globe?

I have been interested in the Vendee Globe for as long as I can remember and have followed one of my favorite offshore race skippers, Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) since his early career. 

[Thomson] is well-known to us at the Clipper Race as he was the youngest winning skipper of a Round the World Yacht Race when he led his team to victory in the Clipper 1998-99 Race. With so much experience of the Vendee Globe and a phenomenal cutting-edge race yacht, I will be backing [Thomson] to become the first British- and indeed [the first] non-French-winner of this fantastic race. 

Can you please tell us about any steps that you and the other race directors have taken to help lower the race’s environmental impact/footprint, compared to the last few editions of the race?

We have taken and will continue to take steps to tread the globe with a minimal impact.  All of our events and stopovers have an ‘event health check’ to ensure they run as sustainably as possible. Onboard, we have watermakers, recycling bins and use eco-friendly products for cleaning, with refills available at port.

The Seattle team specifically will be focusing its attention on ocean health and environmental sustainability. Projects will also have a focus on engaging young people from the Pacific Northwest on these important environmental topics. On our most recent stopover in Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Clipper Race worked with a local sailing school to organize a beach clean[-up,] and this will continue as the race progresses around the world.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

As a former Clipper Race skipper myself, I can honestly say that leading a race team around the world is absolutely the best and most rewarding thing that I have ever done in my life. It is amazing to see people taking on the adventure and pushing themselves to accomplish things that they never thought possible. Battling against the elements whilst racing around the world is still one of the ultimate endurance challenges and for all crew that take on the adventure, the satisfaction that this achievement brings will be remembered for the rest of their lives.   Follow the [Clipper Race] fleet at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/race/standings

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