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Interview with Peter Thornton, skipper of GREAT Britain in the last Clipper Race

by Paul González-Morgan, @ShippingGib on 18 Dec 2016 18 December 2016
Peter Thornton on Great Britain during the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race © Clipper Ventures

Peter Thornton has always had a passion for sailing and the sea. His career extends from the Gorran and Mevagissey Sea Scouts in Cornwall, to being awarded an MBE at the age of only twenty-five for a period of service as the Flag Lieutenant to the First Sea Lord and Admiralty Board at the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

After fifteen years of service, Peter moved into sailing chartered yachts, having recently completed a circumnavigation as First Mate on a 225 footer.

Peter also enjoys competitive racing, where he participated in the latest Clipper 2015-16 Race (Rolex Sydney-Hobart, Leg 4), helping take the GREAT Britain Team to the podium in this challenging endurance event. More recently, he has just started a new role as Relief Captain on the super yacht "Sea Eagle", which will involve sailing around Europe and the Caribbean.

Q: What made you take up the Clipper Race Challenge?

Peter: The desire to be employed to race across oceans and build a team to do so.

Q: How did you prepare for this event?

Peter: Prior to believing I was capable enough to achieve the task, I took every opportunity around my RFA and large yacht career to continue sailing and racing yachts. I enjoyed learning from some very experienced sailors around the world (I still do!) as well as developing those skills as Skipper and Instructor by teaching when I had the chance. Once I had been selected and joined Clipper Ventures which was five months prior to the race start, the organisational bullet train gets going and you happily get swept up and stuck into the lead up. Initially, and one of the most important aspects was, preparing a document which details the structure of your team with values by which you wish to live and race by. The importance of which is due to the fact that you never have all of your crew in one place at any one time - I had 55 people of various nationalities and ranging in age from 18-75. All of course with different levels of ability and reasons for putting themselves forward for the challenge - some I did not even meet before they joined for their race leg because they had signed up after Race Start.

Around this core crew document and ashore briefings / preparation, it is a series of training periods whereby you take every opportunity to get to know the boats and teach as many crew how to sail as possible!

Q: Being out at sea alone for so long must be difficult. What was you most challenging moment?

Peter: It's difficult to name one most challenging moment. There are many situations that were tough due to extreme weather - be it dead calms in stifling heat where you may get stuck and painstakingly watch your competitors sail away or worrying about the balance between racing the boat too hard versus safety in all conditions, day and night with crew on deck 24/7.

Then there were the freezing relentless storm force mid ocean battles with non-professional crew looking cold, tired and frightened. It's the whole package that's the challenge, but that is the reason we do it... There is a huge sense of satisfaction and relief at the end!

Q: What has been the media impact of such an achievement?

Peter: For me personally, large - in the sense of being part of a documentary aired on Sky Sports, and being interviewed in each port and on the boat by various newspapers, magazines and TV/radio stations, who are all very interested in the challenge we are taking on. It was a great, fun part of the job and an element I enjoy doing as I truly believe there is nothing else in the world quite like this race for people from all walks of life to achieve something they thought unlikely.

In terms of official media figures, these are still being calculated but early indications are that media coverage for the 2015-16 race more than doubled that of the 2013-14 race edition, and appeared in over 16,000 press, online and broadcast articles with a unique global audience base which exceeded 1.5 billion people around the world. It's a unique event and that is reflected in its ever growing media appeal.

Q: What would you recommend others if trying to undergo the Clipper Race?

Peter: As a Skipper, provided you're confident in your decisions as a sailor, it's really all about crew management. You have got to enjoy looking after and connecting with all sorts of people. I am far from perfect and I know I could have opened up a bit more when I had the chance. It's odd to say it but I probably concentrated too much time on assessing performance, maintenance and safety. Taking more time for the crew when all of the other three elements were satisfactory might have enhanced the experience for the crew more.

Q: What's your next challenge?

Peter: Good question. I've taken a bit of time to relax and I'm now open to my options.

Q: What has been your most memorable shipping experience?

Peter: Before the race it was seeing my first iceberg! With binoculars on a cold, open door bridge at around 11:00 PM under a partially moonlit sky just north of South Georgia and I as a first trip OOW on RFA Diligence was delighted to see the first one of the voyage.

Now, (although this is not strictly shipping as such) it is probably getting picked up by a huge set of waves in the dead of night in the North Pacific. We had been blasting downwind for nearly two weeks in averages of F8-9 and taking front after squally front of cold gusty F10-12 winds with corresponding seas. The winds had eased but the seas were big - a dangerous situation when racing. We were with two reefs and one small headsail, I'd come up and taken the wheel as you could feel things were changing. Before long, in the dark, one particular wave picked us up, not unlike many others but then it kept going.

You know it's big when you're on a 70' yacht displacing 36 tonnes and you feel like a kid on a skateboard at the top of a half pipe. Boom! We were off like a rocket and surfing in between what has got to be the biggest set of waves I have ever experienced. Spray shooting out both sides and whiting out the deck as we tried to keep the right angle to the waves - no idea what speeds we were pulling as we were concentrating on the helm and holding on for any big lurches. So, that sticks in my mind.

Well, that was just one night of four weeks of harsh North Pacific racing from Qingdao to Seattle and there's a lot more to the story. But we came out of it unscathed, as well as the rest of the voyage, and I was a very happy Skipper to say the least.

Q: What's your favourite ship?

Peter: Now there's a question. One that I'm not too close to if I'm on a yacht. Or one with a swimming pool if I'm onboard. Or one that is operating at its optimum. One on which you feel proud to be part of, performing day and night in a professional and skilled manner.

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