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From surfer to Round the World Race winner: We speak to Wendy Tuck

by Mark Jardine 29 Nov 11:18 GMT
Wendy Tuck is the skipper of the Sanya Serenity Coast Clipper team © Martin McKeown

We talked to Wendy Tuck, winner of the Clipper 2017-18 Round the World Yacht Race who is also the first female skipper ever to have won a round the world race of any type. She has also recently been awarded Australian Sailing's Female Sailor of the Year.

Mark Jardine: How did you get into sailing in the first place?

Wendy Tuck: It's quite a funny story. As a child I used to surf, and my family always had boats. I have always gone out on the ocean with my dad, fishing. Then I did the back-packing thing around Europe, met a guy, and got married. He was English and we were living in Spain and working in Gibraltar. He had a 'living away from home' allowance and we lived in a marina. There was a boat for sale and I said, "Hey, I know boats! Sailing can't be that hard!" We bought this beautiful wooden boat, bought a children's book on how to sail, went out, got the boat out of the harbour without crashing, hoisted the sails, read the book, did what it said to do and the boat started moving.

Mark: Sailing is part of the watersports lifestyle now. So many of us take out SUPs, kayaks, and I think sailing can do a better job of attracting people from other watersports. Did you see this as you switched from surfing to sailing?

Wendy: Absolutely, as there's so many factors that are the same, like wind, weather, wave patterns; there's a massive crossover. I was lucky as I started in small boats from an early age and never got seasick. If you're into the outdoors and like a challenge, it's very easy to swap into it.

Mark: From this, starting from surfing, buying your own boat and getting sailing, what led you to the Clipper Race?

Wendy: I got back to Sydney and didn't sail for a bit. I was working in travel at that stage, so I travelled a lot, and was starting to realise I'm not good at working indoors. I started to think about getting commercial tickets. In Australia you can get commercial tickets to drive things like water taxis, and for teaching. I needed a change and the company I worked for went bankrupt, so it was a big push for me to go to TAFE - which is a college - to get my first commercial ticket, and someone suggested I start skippering charter boats. I didn't know how to park a boat, so they taught me and that's how I got into it. As to the Clipper Race, I had a friend do it years ago and I had skippered big boats already and had been teaching for years by that stage. I needed an adventure and a new challenge, and the Clipper Race is pretty challenging!

Mark: Had you done any racing sailing before the Clipper Race?

Wendy: Yes, a lot. My living was teaching sailing and skippering charters round the harbour and offshore, and I started racing straight away. I did my first Sydney-Hobart on a 38 footer and was sailing anything from a 38 to a 65 foot boat. Racing was my passion: earning a living was teaching and chartering, passion was racing.

Mark: So, you were used to charter crews and how a boat's mechanics work, with your racing side would you say that was the perfect combination for a Clipper Race Skipper?

Wendy: Yes, I think so. You don't need to have both, but with the teaching you know what people will do wrong. People are the same and generally make the same mistakes, so on a Clipper Race boat before we do a tack, even if we have people on board who have been there a while, you still check the fundamental positions, make sure no-one is standing where they are going to get hurt, sheets are on a winch the right way; that still happens occasionally even with experienced sailors. From teaching you have a mental checklist and you don't even think about. It only takes five seconds before any manoeuvre.

Mark: So it's one of those things that no matter how many times you have done it, you make sure every single time that it's done the right way?

Wendy: Absolutely, there will be that one time where you can't see because someone is in the way or something is loaded wrong. That extra time for checking is well and truly worth it.

Mark: The Clipper Race is an extremely long time at sea. What was your biggest challenge during the race?

Wendy: To stay motivated. We had some disastrous results where we had a wind hole and lost the lead by 200 miles and had to sit for 36 hours and watch the whole fleet go past us. To come back from that and get back into race mode! If my attitude is 'well we've chucked it away' then it's surprising how quickly the crew is like that. The crew is driven by my mood. If I'm in a bad mood, they are in a bad mood. I give myself a certain amount of time to pick myself up and get on with the racing. It worked out because we finished 37 seconds ahead of the boat that was in front of us and at the beginning of the day he was 18 miles ahead of us. We beat him by 37 seconds on the finish line and it was that extra point that allowed us to not to have to worry about the sprint at the end. You can never give up and that was probably the hardest, saying, "I'm not going to cry, I'm going to stand up and keep racing."

Mark: That applies to every sort of sailing, inshore and offshore. You can be in a wind hole on an inshore or offshore race and watch eighty boats go around you. As a skipper, was it your top-down attitude with the crew that helped?

Wendy: Yes, but I'm pretty honest about it all and I had some pretty cool crew. There were times I had made a decision that was wrong, or it wasn't quite evident that it was right or wrong, and I had a couple of watch leaders who would say, "It's your decision, but whether it's right or wrong, it's the decision you made and you need to stand by it." They would always back me up and say, even if it's wrong, it's something I had thought about. It was nice to know I had them backing me up. I say to the crew, "If you make a mistake you put a sheet on a winch the wrong way round. If I make a mistake we go from first to last." There's a big difference between their mistakes and mine, and a big responsibility, and that's what I take on. But it's great to have someone behind me.

Mark: Did you build up good bonds with your crew, and do you still speak to them now?

Wendy: Yes. We were extraordinarily lucky that with the wives, girlfriends, and boyfriends, we had a really strong support network. When we got into port we always had a lot of people waiting for us. They brought drinks, knew the best bars and the best places to stay, so it was that support network as well, it wasn't just the guys and girls on the boat. On our party on the Sunday, even before we had such a good result, we were still up to 130 people of past crew, current crew and families coming. When we had a better result it got up to about 150-200. There was always a big party and I think this was part of our success: the crew would always go out for dinner, or have a BBQ at someone's house. It was that gelling and bonding that made us do so well.

Mark: It was two female skippers battling it out all the way into Derry. What was it like, that final battle to the finish with Nikki Henderson?

Wendy: Out of the skippers I'm so glad it was Nikki. Sometimes I wish it had been her that won as it would have been so fabulous for her at her age. She was 25 when she finished the race and that's extraordinary. I don't think they realised what an amazing woman she is. I don't think she realises how amazing she is! To get first and second for two women is something no-one could have predicted, but we'd had a corporate day at the Round the Island race where I finished first and Nikki second, so someone that day had said, "this is how the Clipper Race will finish." Someone had predicted it, but I didn't find out until afterwards, thank goodness!

Mark: The Clipper Race has acted as a springboard for various people's further careers in sailing. You're already involved with the Maiden Factor; what would you like to do next within sailing?

Wendy: I haven't thought that far ahead yet! When Maiden came along, it was awesome and something close to give me another target. One dream would be to do a Volvo but I'm getting close to the age limit and I'm not as fit and strong as the younger girls, which is how life is. Or skipper a boat for the Hobart and get a good result, not just for the Clipper Race.

Mark: You've talked about Nikki and how much time you have for her. Would you hope the race will act as a springboard for her and her sailing, despite the fact she didn't win?

Wendy: Absolutely and it should do. She has skippered a 70 ft boat round the world, got everyone here safely, and came second. That's a really awesome result and as she sails more and her confidence gets bigger, she will do awesome things. I hope she still pursues a racing career.

Mark: John Curnow, our Sail-World.com Australian editor, was asking about your next steps and he'll be over the moon to hear there are local events in Australia for him to cover. We'll be covering closely whatever projects you're involved in so please keep us posted!

Wendy: Thank you!

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