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An interview with Emily Nagel on her evolution as a professional sailor

by David Schmidt 10 Feb 2021 08:00 PST February 10, 2021
Emily Nagel on the helm of 11th Hour Racing's IMOCA 60 © Image courtesy of 11th Hour Racing/Amory Ross

Emily Nagel might be "just" 27 years old, but this hasn't stopped her from racking up an impressive inshore and offshore sailing resume, in addition to earning her credentials as a naval architect. Nagel is perhaps best known in the international sailing world for her role as a crewmember aboard Team AkzoNobel in the 2017/2018 edition of The Volvo Ocean Race, but she has also been involved on the design side with other high-level events such as SailGP and the America's Cup.

Additionally, she has also been involved with some cool side projects, including sailing an F4 foiling catamaran from New York to Bermuda as part of a crew that included skipper Jimmy Spithill, and racing her foiling Moth in regattas large and small.

While these are impressive accomplishments, they didn't come easy. Not only was Nagel pressing into the world of professional sports, but she was doing so as a female in the historically male-dominated world of sailboat racing.

And if breaking gender-based glass ceilings wasn't hard enough, Nagel has also had to overcome some anxiety along the way. While plenty of most people would likely cringe at the thought of rounding Cape Horn on a VO65 in a highly competitive race, she turned more than one head with this line:

"Sending someone into the Southern Ocean who has anxiety really isn't a good idea," said Nagel. "Yet, it worked perfectly for me."

I checked in with Nagel, via email, to learn more about her evolution as a professional sailor.

What are your happiest memories of sailing?

Despite being an overly competitive person, it isn't with the races won or standing on podiums that my happiest memories lie but the moments of pure freedom, peace, and excitement. Moments like surfing down waves in the Atlantic on the F4 with a sky of stars and Bob Marley playing on the speaker. Or flying over the water my first time foiling on my moth, the moment the foils work and the boat lifts up and everything goes quiet as the boat accelerates.

Crossing the finish line of the Volvo Ocean Race in the Hague was another moment I'll never forget with thousands of people following us in; it was the end of an incredible roller-coaster year. And while [I was] sad for the adventure to come to an end, it was a surreal finish, heated right up to the finishing line.

What would you say have been your most intense or stressful moments on a sailboat?

Offshore the most stressful points I have had have been due to injury. There have been many times we've had damage to boats that I guess it would be assumed to be stressful but with a task at hand life becomes incredibly simple.

It's the frustration of injury that really stresses me out and the lack of control over that!

Inshore I think the most intense racing has been at the UK Moth Nationals. Eighty foiling boats on one start line is quite the experience, and [it's] safe to say my heart was in my mouth for most of it!

What had your attention more—sailing around Cape Horn on a VO65 or sailing to Bermuda on the F4? Also, why?

Both in their own way! Cape Horn for me was a huge career milestone and it meant so much on a personal level having achieved a childhood dream after an incredibly tough leg of the race.

But sailing to Bermuda on the F4 was the spark I needed to push me to chase after my dream. It was my first exposure to sailing with world-class sailors and [it] helped me realize that my crazy dreams weren't as far out of reach as I thought...[I] just needed a little bit of elbow grease and hard work.

You've spoken in the past about suffering from anxiety. How does this tend to manifest itself in terms of offshore sailing? Also, does it tend to spike in the days before, or when you're actually out sailing?

My anxiety has always been more of a shore-based fight. Before an event there are always some nerves, I think that's all part of the buildup to competition.

But once I start sailing that's when the anxiety melts away.

Sailing is one of the ways I manage my anxiety. [Sailing] is something that occupies 100-percent of my attention and allows me to focus.

In that same vein, what tends to be more of a trigger for your anxiety: bad weather or competition itself?

It's neither the bad weather or competition themselves that bring on my anxiety. But like in all other areas of my life, it's moments where I am unprepared.

There is no need to fear bad weather if you know the steps to deal with it and have a boat you know can deal with the conditions at hand.

Likewise, with competition there is always less anxiety when you get to the start line knowing you have done everything possible to put your best foot forwards. In that sense I guess I live by the motto of "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail!"

What was it like getting ready for your first offshore leg(s) in the VOR? Nerve-wracking? Or, did all the training and experience kick in and help carry you through? Can you talk to us about this?

My first few legs of the Volvo were full of excitement and nerves and a lot of impatience to just get going! We had spent months training both inshore and offshore. Food was packed weeks in advance, as were all the spares.

Physically, we were all at the top of our fitness. As a team there was some drama to do with the skipper and the sponsor but as an individual, and as sailors, we couldn't have done more to get ready and that definitely showed.

Docking off I don't remember being fearful or nervous, just excited to get going and leave the drama and pony show of being on shore behind.

The crowds and support we had on shore were a surreal experience but after a few days of it all I wanted was to be out on the water racing. I've never been hugely comfortable being the center of attention or talking to groups of people so the race village was always quite intimidating for me, docking off was quite a good feeling!

I have repeatedly read your quote about the Southern Ocean "working perfectly" for your anxiety. Can you tell us how this played out? Also, did you have a good feeling about the Southern Ocean legs beforehand, or was it full-on trial by fire?

There's an interview from Alicante where Niall Myant-Best asks me what I'm most looking forward to in the race, at that point my answer was the Southern Ocean. It had always had this huge lure of mystery and adventure to me. But I'm not afraid to say that the day before we left Cape Town was a completely different story—as all the stories I'd been told had built up and there were some nerves.

Fish from Team Scallywag at this point was a great mentor who I remember reassuring me to take it one step at a time and to just be smart, clip on, don't get an ego, better to be safe than [to be] 'cool'.

The first day was certainly a trial by fire, some seriously rough conditions as we left Cape Town and I didn't even make it as far as the Cape of Good Hope before I injured my back down below.

Those first few days in the Southern Ocean were probably some of the darkest of the race for me as I questioned my own ability and whether I really deserved to be there. But then on day four we had a bad gybe and ripped off our mast track.

Despite this disaster, the carnage, and what was basically the end of any hope of doing well on this leg—the moment it happened was like a light switch. We had a problem, we had to solve it, that's all that mattered and it gave me something to focus on other than questioning myself.

The following Southern Ocean leg gave even more of a learning curve in how to control my emotions. With the incident onboard Scallywag resulting in the heartbreaking loss of John Fisher (Fish) there was a lot of emotions to deal with, but clearly down in that part of the world you can't afford to be thinking about anything other than what you are doing.

Chris Nicholson gave me some great advice about visualizing putting emotion into a black box and it worked for me. Obviously at some point you're meant to address those emotions but I was able to do so once we finally reached Brazil ten days later.

I wouldn't say it's the solution for everyone who struggles with anxiety but it worked for me.

Do you have any advice for controlling anxiety for other sailors who also struggle with this challenge? Are there any techniques or exercises that you find helpful that you'd be willing to share?

There's a couple of things I do that I guess help me, other than the black-box visualization which I'm not sure I'd actually recommend as a way of dealing with things, I think any psychologist would tell me off.

The first is a lot of visualization of my role and jobs onboard. It's something my former coach Richard Clarke talked about a lot, at the time it was to reference my roles onboard the GC32. We were training on[shore] but offshore I always try when I get into the bunk to picture the next sail change, what needs to happen in order to get it done, which halyard needs to go where, what side is the gear on, what order do we need to do things in the pit. It meant that when I'm woken up in the middle of my off watch to do something, I had already thought about what needed to get done and tend to be in less of a flap.

The other thing I always do when I get in the bunk is listen to music, typically the same playlist for the duration of a leg/race/delivery. It helps me switch off as my brain starts to associate hearing a certain song as a signal to go the hell to sleep. Always only with one earphone in though, I like to be able to still hear what's going on deck.

In terms of professional sailing, are there any remaining goals that you really hope to achieve? Maybe a Vendee Globe campaign? Or, are you more drawn to team pursuits such as The Ocean Race or the America's Cup?

I have been obsessed with this year's Vendee Globe campaign and have a lot of respect for the men and women racing. Ellen MacArthur's book was what inspired me to race around the world when I was ten. But I have absolutely no intention of spending 80 days on a boat on my own, it is an incredible challenge but I definitely prefer crewed racing.

I find my goalposts are constantly changing and growing. I want to compete at the highest level of our sport for as long as I can, but I am certainly indecisive about what direction I go. I have the issue of loving all aspects of sailing whether its offshore, match racing, One Design, fleet racing, or foiling (which really is my greatest addiction these days).

I would love to do another edition of The Ocean Race, in particular I'd really love to win The Ocean Race. But I am also determined to make my way into the world of fast foiling boats within SailGP and the America's Cup.

I have been involved with both [events] on the shore side but it's the sailing side I am determined to break into.

For now my Moth is the ultimate training tool and my favorite toy and it has been incredible to line up with some of the world's best [sailors] in it. But it has fueled the fire to show the boys there's a place for women in the world of high- performance racing.

A huge part of my experience in the world of professional sailing has been seeing the inequality that exists, sometimes intentional sometimes not. The frequent frustration of being held back by my gender rather than my abilities. While I wouldn't say I'm a diehard feminist, and I don't see myself as a fearless female paving the way, I do want there to be more opportunities for women across all areas of the sports.

It's one of those things that I don't think talking about helps (sometimes it hinders). Its far more effective to just show that women can keep up - whether it's in the Moth, offshore in the Volvo or onshore doing technical work.

Furthermore, I think it is important that if women want to work in the marine world, they should have the kit to do that. That's where my partnership with Mustang Survival comes in.

For the past three years I have been involved with the Mustang Survival team as an ambassador, but what I love about the company is that I am not just wearing their gear and talking about how good it is (it is good, but that's not my point), but they actively involve me in the design process. I get to sit down and discuss with the design team what works and what doesn't work throughout their sailing range.

Most excitingly, this has meant I have had the opportunity over the past two years to help develop the new Women's collection, [which launches on March 17, 2021]. For the first time, it is a kit that has specifically been designed to fit athletic females, not just gear that has been designed for men and colored pink. There are biological differences that do mean clothes just don't fit the same way, and as a female it really is annoying rocking up to join a team for an event just to find that all the kit is in men's sizes and not only will you look ridiculous, but you can't move since it's all proportioned so wrong. This past winter, I was lucky enough to be sent samples of all the new women's line pieces. It's safe to say I love what the team has produced.

Looking ahead, are you more interested in growing and sustaining your career as an offshore sailor or as a naval architect? Also, which pursuit do you find more rewarding?

I honestly loved working as part of the design team at SoftBank Team Japan, and doing the data analysis for SailGP. Both were incredibly rewarding because you're working with such amazing talent.

But on the water is always where I am happiest. Sitting onshore watching the boys dock off every day I was riddled with jealousy. I love being challenged intellectually and being part of a shore team is incredibly rewarding. But I love racing and being on the water. Both inshore and offshore, its where I really come alive.

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

Personally, it is important for me to say that I don't want to be just a one-trick pony. I love all aspects of sailing and my intentions going forwards are just as serious for inshore high-performance racing as they are for offshore.

But equally, the world of professional sailing is not kind and I won't be slowing down with the data analysis and technical side, I'm a firm believer that all sailors should have their 'side gigs' - it makes us more rounded human beings and helps plant one foot at least on some solid ground.

Equally my advocacy for mental health is only one side of me. It's something that was very important to me during the last Ocean Race because of the active stigma in the sporting world against talking about emotion and weakness. But I think it's important to remember how young I was as well. I didn't necessarily see it at the time, but I was naïve and immature and had a flair for the dramatic. A lot of learning how to deal with my anxiety, I believe, was due to gaining a lot of maturity during the race, being surrounded by so many experienced sailors all a lot older than me.

A few years on now and I'm amazed they didn't throw me overboard for being so annoying.

While supporting mental health is still a big part of who I am, there are a number of causes within our sport that I think are equally as important. Including improving equality and diversity in the sport and improving our relationship with the environment and helping protect our oceans.

Jack of all trades, master of none, but I get too excited by too many things to just have one focus.

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