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Leaderboard FD July August September 2023

An interview with Charlene Howard about her experiences in the 2023 Round Iceland Challenge

by David Schmidt 4 Sep 08:00 PDT September 4, 2023
Bobby Drummond and Charlene Howard are racing Two-Handed on Charlene's Sun Odyssey 45 AJ Wanderlust © Rick Tomlinson /

One of the coolest aspects of offshore sailing is the ability to ply seldom-seen waters. The Royal Western Yacht Club of England’s inaugural Round Iceland Challenge, which began on May 14, 2023, on the waters of Plymouth Sound, certainly falls into this category. I interviewed Adrian Gray about the event ahead of the starting guns, when it was believed that there would be a few boats involved (the event’s original moniker was the Round Iceland Race).

Come May 14, however, AJ Wanderlust, Charlene Howard’s Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45.2, was the only boat to sail out to sea.

3,765 nautical miles and 39 days, 10 hours, 43 minutes, and 4 seconds, and what sounds like one too many pasta dinners later, Howard and her co-skipper, Bobby Drummond, crossed the finishing line, completing this epic journey.

(Since returning home, it should be noted, Howard and Drummond also completed the rough-and-tumble 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race, sailing doublehanded, aboard AJ Wanderlust in five days, 23 hours, 24 minutes, and 38 seconds [elapsed time]. Well over half of their class was forced to retire. This was Howard’s fourth time completing this challenging offshore race.)

I checked in with Howard, via email, to learn more about her adventures sailing in the Artic Circle.

How did you first get interested in the 2023 Round Iceland Challenge?

[I’m] pretty much a sucker for adventure, and the minute I heard RWYC talking about it, [it] sounded like a great adventure and [a] wonderful challenge for an adrenaline junkie. There is of course, the aspect of being a participant in the first-ever/inaugural race, a part of history.

Life is about experiences, and Round Iceland sounded like a brilliant experience.

When you signed up, did you know that you’d be the only participant? (If so, would that have deterred you from sailing this bold course?)

No, we expected a small fleet due to the rigor of the race, but [we] had expected other participants. While I hold a firm belief that each boat should leave the dock fully prepared to “save” themselves should something go wrong, the reality is that another race participant is often the closest help in an offshore race.

When Bobby and myself decided to go, despite the other two registered boats pulling [out] last-minute, it was with a conscious decision that at least one layer of a safety net would not be available.

However, the reality of offshore sailing is once you leave the “atmosphere and fanfare” of the start line, it is a very solitary experience. The boat, your sailing partner, and yourself.

While watching other competitors on Yellow Brick and pacing yourself against them is usual, each time AJ Wanderlust heads offshore, she is trying to sail to her maximum ability given weather or crew constraints.

What are you three best memories of the trip?

This is a hard question.

For me sailing is made up of moments, and the beauty of being fully in the moment and feeling 100-percent alive. The colors of the sunrise or sunset and how the light dances in the fantastical cloud formations. The dolphins (and we now believe pilot whales) that come to visit and play in the boat’s wake. The occasional small bird that is blown offshore and represents just how vulnerable and insignificant we all are in a big ocean subject to nature’s forces.

Seeing the deep blue ice in the ice flows, knowing it formed thousands of years ago, and wondering what other explorers may have gazed upon it. Seeing the first ripples appear in the water of a glassy calm ocean, and feeling hopeful and joyful anticipating wind again in our sails.

Honestly, every moment was special in a unique way – the significant and the insignificant.

AJ Wanderlust is our life pod offshore. Bobby and I, her crew, do our best to take care of her so she can take care of us.

So, the moment when you can feel the boat is moving really well, happily galloping under white sails, or flying off the wind under a spinnaker, are special.

Peaceful and quiet, just the sound of waves, wind and rigging.

Did you have any “Type II” fun? (By this, I mean the kind of “fun” that becomes more enjoyable the farther chronologically astern the memory drifts.) If so, care to elaborate? I remember skippering my first couple races and the butterflies that aways came the morning of the start. That uncomfortable feeling of pushing your limits and venturing into the unknown. The physical sensation of needing to vomit.

I have not felt the butterflies in recent years, as offshore became more “routine” to me and AJ Wanderlust.

Having sailed quite a bit with Bobby, there are also less butterflies, as we are a strong team and have managed a lot of “situations (technical breakage, weather, etc.)” successfully offshore.

So, in an odd way, I was absolutely thrilled when I struggled to get breakfast down the morning of the start of the Around Iceland Challenge…unsure if the butterflies were going to throw it back out. The RWYC had arranged a full English sit-down breakfast, and there was great excitement in the air, which somehow makes it all a bit more alien as you are the subject of the excitement but also subdued by your internal thoughts of the responsibility that comes with accepting such a challenge.

Summing it up, while offshore sailing is enjoyable in the moment, there is the pride of accomplishment at completion which makes the cold, wet, exhausted, and uncomfortable moments worth it.

But I think the ice flows were definitely our biggest challenge. What started out as a bemusement and wonder, soon became frustrating. Like a giant maze that AJ Wanderlust was unable to escape from.

How did the Round Iceland Challenge stack up to see of the other adventure sailing that you’ve done?

Iceland was definitely up there in terms of adventure. The adventure starts far before the sailing commences.

Convincing an insurance company to give you race [coverage] for a small ransom. Trying to locate detailed port information (should you need to make landfall due to emergency) and finding every resource is written in Icelandic.

I take great pride in having AJ Wanderlust well-prepared for any eventuality, believing that at least 50-percent of successfully finishing a race is in the preparation before the race.

Related to weather, while we had good weather download abilities on board, we had asked someone to monitor ice for us and send thru any ice forecasts.

While I was off watch and asleep, Bobby came down and said “Charlene, can you come have a look at this,”

There is a routine to how Bobby and I wake each other for watches, and Bobby was off script, so I jumped up quickly knowing something was amiss. Once on deck, eliminating obvious possibilities, got the binoculars and ICE!!!

This was when we also realized our knowledge of ice was woefully lacking.

When we got the Greenland Survey plane reports, and talked to other ships in area by VHF, they used technical terminology related to the ice coverage, that we did not understand the meaning of.

What Bobby and I learned about ice, is long before you can spot the ice, you can spot a white haze above the water.

In what was an amusing, turned frustrating, 60 hours of zig-zagging back and forth to attempt to escape the ice flows, we were able to form a picture, by marking encounters with the ice on the chart plotter of a north/south direction to the flow. But the ice flow moved, AJ Wanderlust would sail for clear water, only to find her path blocked as the ice morphed.

Finally, we sailed south, about 35 miles, and picked our way thru close to the northern shore of Iceland.

What kind of weather did you guys encounter? Also, did you see any ice or bergy bits? Or, perhaps, the aurora borealis?

No Aurora Borealis or Northern lights as it was daylight 24 hours a day.

Ice! Oh yes, we were stuck in ice flows for 60-hours! Thank God for the daylight or this would have been significantly more scarry! But long before we reached the shores of Iceland, our most agonizing decision was to head to Faroe Islands.

Bobby and I both have a strong desire to complete what we start, and “never give up” is an AJ Wanderlust motto. However, given the sustained duration of this storm, and the large area it covered, we believed staying at sea hove-to would not have been prudent.

Did you have an opportunity to explore the Faroe Islands when you made your weather detour?

Yes, an unexpected but very pleasant detour.

When it became inevitable that we would need to detour for weather, we asked permission from RWYC to go ashore. Permission was granted.

In honestly, with the prospect of five to seven days stormbound, I think Bobby and I both independently assessed the amount of bleach on the boat and determined there was not sufficient quantities to cover a murder scene.

In seriousness, Bobby and I get along fabulously 98-percent of the time and are both wise enough to retreat the other two percent.

We rented a car for four days and explored every part of the Faroes accessible by road, bridge or underwater tunnel. Gorgeous scenery! Bobby was especially taken with the underwater roundabout.

Think you’ll sail into the arctic circle again? (Or, perhaps the southern high latitudes?)

I hope so! I would love another foray into the Arctic Circle.

Is there anything else about your adventures sailing around Iceland (or your stop at the Faroe Islands) that you’d like to add, for the record?

It was a magnificent experience.

Certainly, a highlight was the RWYC RIB meeting us and escorting AJ Wanderlust the last five miles or so to the finish line.

Bobby and I were deep in concentration, for fear of wind dying, but it was magic knowing how excited the RWYC was that we had completed this challenge.

The trophy! The most exquisite Viking Ship. The trophy was once used in 1997 for a one-legged race Plymouth to Reykjavik.

Twenty-five years later, it was dug from the RWYC vaults and presented to AJ Wanderlust.

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