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Sailing with style: A conversation with Nikki Henderson about skippering a Clipper Race boat

by David Schmidt 25 Apr 17:10 BST 25 April 2018
Nikki Henderson leads Visit Seattle - Clipper Round the World Yacht Race - All-Australian Leg 4 © Brooke Miles Photography

Spend enough time distance racing, and one realizes that sailing fast offshore has far more to do with creating and cultivating a positive, supportive team atmosphere and providing strong leadership and positive learning opportunities than it than it does with bleeding-edge yacht design, at least for the vast majority of offshore sailors. Factor in a One Design race and the playing field becomes especially flat in terms of sails and hardware, but this sameness places an even higher demand on skippers and crews as teamwork and smart navigation are usually the deciding factors. But what happens if the crew have wildly different experience levels and may or may not have sailed together as a team prior to racing?

If this sounds interesting, welcome to the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, which pairs professional skippers with crews of varying levels of experience aboard 70-foot Tony Castro-designed Clipper 70 monohulls that are raced around the world in a series of pit stops. As the event's promotional materials read, "No Experience Required".

While all Clipper crews undergo extensive training prior to racing, some crewmembers elect to make an entire "lap" while others are "leggers", meaning that they only sail for a leg or so before stepping off the boat.

As a result of this crew flux, Clipper Race skippers essentially have to create new teams each leg, and while an overall attitude or culture tends to prevail aboard each boat as it circumnavigates, it's the skipper's job to hone square pegs into round ones while also trying to sail well against the rest of the fleet. Because of this, the Clipper Race really becomes two races for the skippers, the first being an internal contest to quickly forge a strong squad, while the external battle involves fighting for scoreboard points amongst the other skippers.

If this is sounding like a heck of as lot of responsibility on the skipper's shoulders, you're on the right track.

While I've been lucky with my job as a sailing journalist to have spent time with the last two editions of the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, a young skipper named Nicola 'Nikki' Henderson caught my attention last year when her Visit Seattle team started posting strong results, and, as a Seattle resident, the yacht's name stuck.

Flash forward, and today I had the chance to meet and sail with Henderson (UK; 24) aboard Visit Seattle as part of the event's official media day, and I will admit to being extremely impressed with her ability to quickly take charge and guide a group of strangers through the complexities of hoisting and trimming sail aboard a heavy, ocean-going monohull in relatively crisp (for Seattle) airs, albeit on flat waters.

A quick search revealed that, prior to Henderson, the race's youngest skipper had been Alex Thomson, now of Hugo Boss and IMOCA 60 fame, who at the age of 25 won the 1998-1999 edition of the race. As of this writing, Henderson's Visit Seattle is in third place overall with two offshore legs remaining, meaning that Henderson's team is still in the hunt.

I caught up with Henderson aboard Visit Seattle to learn more about what it's like to lead relative novice offshore sailors across large swaths of blue in her role as the race's youngest skipper.

You started sailing when you were 11 years old-how did you go from being a novice to skipper of a Clipper boat in just 13 years?

I always ask myself that question! I'm someone who goes all or nothing, so I saw an opportunity to go sailing and I threw my whole life into it since I was 17.

So you're familiar with the last young person to skipper a boat in this race—he did very well. Alex Thomson.

Alex Thomson. So, are we going to see you on an IMOCA 60 in a few years? Is that where you want to go with things?

If I ever sail around the world on my own you can call me crazy! I'd never do that.

You'd never do that?

No-I do this for the people. To sail on my own isn't something that excites me.

So you're in this for the people aspect, not the sailing aspect?

Oh, I love the sailing, but the dynamic of being part of a team and leading a team and meeting the type of people I meet on this race is a huge draw to the job and why I still sail.

Talk to me about that. How did you learn about leadership? Was it through the Clipper Race?

I've always naturally fallen into leadership [roles], ever since I was very young, and I think that the Clipper race is the ultimate skipper challenge and as a skipper you are a leader and a teacher all the time-it doesn't matter if you are with beginners or not. And I think I wanted to push myself to the ultimate on that side of things.

I know with the Clipper every boat's culture is a little different as to whether they take the racing seriously or not, but you guys are in third place overall. I'm assuming you're focusing on some racing?

I came up with this mantra of "sailing with style"-that's our team motto. The idea is to hold yourself to high standards, and we're here to race, so I try to teach them to race and sail to the highest standard. But we're also here to be a team, and it's the team that races the boat, so your team has to be strong for you to produce good results.

It must be a massive challenge for you to take crews-some of whom are essentially greenhorns, others of whom just stepped on the boat-and take them across almost 6,000 miles of the open Pacific.

I always thought that the 'leggers' would be the challenge, but actually the 'around the worlders' are the challenge. The leggers bring brilliant new energy, and often the 'leggers' have slightly more sailing experience than someone who is going to sail around the world.

Because the leggers are picking and choosing the adventures that they want?

Exactly. They are really prepared; they know exactly what they have signed up for a lot of the time. The 'around the worlders' by now are getting quite tired-eight months is a long time at sea. So, the leggers are really massively important for keeping the energy up.

I assume that each skipper has a fair amount of leeway to set the protocols and culture on the boat?

Correct.

So where do you factor the balance between performance and safety?

Safety always comes first. You're never going to have a good performance if someone gets injured or if something breaks. You always have to go first with safety. I think that it's an endurance race so if you don't do something at top, top speed, it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win or loose the race.

You have two legs left, from here to New York and then New York back to the U.K. What's you're strategy?

As soon as we get through Panama we're in my home waters, so I'm really looking forward to that...

...the whole North Atlantic is your home waters?

[Laughs.] Yes! So I'm really looking forward to that. [Laughs.]

We still have a shot of winning and we haven't played our joker yet [editor's note: a 'joker' is each team's one and only opportunity to double their points from a leg]. I think just keep on doing what we're doing.

Some of the 'around the worlders' are very strong [sailors] now.

Just keep on training until the end. That's probably the real defining factor of our team is that there's a real learning atmosphere, so we keep on trying to bring people up.

Do you have more new sailors coming on board?

Yes. And some returning faces too, which will be nice.

So you guys are done in July-what's next?

I like keeping my options open-I'm not really sure. I'd like to continue building my leadership and people-management skills, but maybe putting that with some more formal learning.

Within the realm of sailing, or would you take this to a corporate boardroom someday?

Maybe someday.

One of the reasons that I'm here is to inspire other people and to inspire young people and women, so I'll probably take a year or two speaking and sharing my story and hopefully encouraging other people to do stuff like this.

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