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Meet the Clipper Race Crew: Dario Schwendener

by Clipper Round the World Race 15 Sep 06:38 BST
Dario on the bow at sunset - Clipper Round the World Race © Clipper Race

For 27-year-old Dario Schwendener, circumnavigating was the ultimate sabbatical. With the Clipper Race providing a chance to travel the world, compete in a sport he loves as well as hands on experience of teamwork and leadership in an extreme environment. Valuing the challenge and experience that would be gained from sailing with such a multitude of people as an unmissable opportunity.

The Swiss born graduate, circumnavigating on board Dare To Lead, describes how the growth after overcoming the toughest of challenges is so rewarding and enthuses about the wildlife and moments that make the hard times worth it: "The essence of life is tough to record. You have to feel it."

He shares his Clipper Race journey so far...

How did you find out about the Clipper Race and why did you want to take part and sail round the world?

As a passionate sailor following offshore races from a landlocked country like Switzerland, I had to play the game Virtual Regatta to compete on oceans. That's how I followed the Clipper 2017-18 Race from Leg 2 onwards. Finishing my Bachelor of Science in Summer 2019 (Earth Sciences, ETH Zurich) allowed me to apply for the 2019-20 edition.

The combination of adventure, sporting event, working in a difficult environment and overcoming extremely challenging situations with an international team of all ages seemed the perfect match for me. I valued this experience higher than most other trainee programmes I could have done in a sabbatical.

As an experienced sailor how did you find the Clipper Race training?

The training was extremely professional and fun from day one. Getting regular feedback from training skippers and first mates helped improve my seamanship but also allowed me to reflect and recognise my character more profoundly to be a better team player.

Technically speaking, even as an 'experienced' sailor, it is rare to get a chance sailing something like a Clipper Race yacht on a regular basis. They are quite physical, which I absolutely like. Choosing the right equipment for a circumnavigation was a key point in training. Having the chance to train in early March, July, August and November prepared me for life on board in different conditions. It was during Level 3 when I first sailed such a gigantic asymmetric spinnaker in the English Channel. What a fantastic, powerful and exhilarating experience and what a privilege!

Did you get involved in activities in the run up to Race Start?

Yes, I took part in Crew Allocation, Team Building and prep-week delivery and always linked it to when I was completing my training in Portsmouth or Race Start in London, St. Katharine Docks, to save flights. Since kick-off day I felt very positive about the development of the team and I absolutely agree on our shared goals and values. Prep-week was more hands-on and we really had the chance to shape our race and life on board.

What did your family and friends think of you taking part?

Unfortunately, my dad passed away six years ago but being a passionate sailor himself I think he would have liked the idea of the Clipper Race and it's potential. My mum and my brother like sailing too, therefore it was not really difficult to win them over for this adventure. My girlfriend Gillian had the chance to visit me in London, Punta del Este and both Australian stops. She supported the team a lot and knows probably more about servicing the winches than I do;-). Many friends in Switzerland are not really familiar with offshore racing and the places we sail to. I am surprised by how many followed the race on a daily basis. Feeling the support and confidence of my close community is vital to doing such an extreme adventure.

It's been just over a year since the race started. What was that experience like, saying bye to loved ones, departing London and embarking on the start of your circumnavigation?

What an incredible Race Start! It was my first time ever being in the city centre of London. An unforgettable experience to show friends and family Dare To Lead, the impressive race yacht which would be our cozy home for the rest of the race. The departure into the unknown of our oceans, leaving everything behind was the ultimate feeling of freedom in a world where nowadays only fewest things are left to chance.

From the gun, the first race was very intense but a good taste of what to expect in the coming months. Along the race we had an upwind beat through a tidal driven English Channel, downwind surfing with 20 knots plus off Cape Finisterre and the windhole just before the finish in Portimão, Portugal. We all enjoyed some good rest days in the fantastic environment of the Algarves, before facing the challenge of the Atlantic for the first time.

You have now sailed over half way round the world, looking back on the first five legs what conditions have you faced?

Thinking back on the different legs I would say we almost had all conditions I could imagine, except snow and ice on deck. The blistering heat and wind holes in the doldrums, an impressive 12 hour lightning storm off the coast of Uruguay or violent storms with towering seas in the roaring 40s to mention just a few. Sailing in so many different climate zones really tests your capability of adapting to new conditions quickly.

As part of the race crew visit many wonderful destinations on the race route, have you been anywhere for the first time? Which stopovers have you enjoyed the most?

Since I have not travelled to any of the destinations before, every single stop was a new and exciting experience. It is really hard to answer the question because you can't compare the different locations. I know it is cliché for a Swiss, but hiking table mountain in Cape Town with my brother and mum was definitely amazing. Visiting Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays or the Asado in Punta del Este would be other outstanding experiences so far

What's been the toughest part?

For me it was on Leg 2 without any doubt. Sailing with a relatively small crew we faced three major storms in five days which showed us our limits. The second of it was the biggest storm we had so far and much stronger than forecasted. Winds picked up at around 2200 and built dramatically. It was an absolutely dark and foggy new moon night and we probably had the spinnaker up for a little too long. Within three hours we wrestled all sails down including the Main sail. Unfortunately we damaged Reef 3 earlier in the race and the conditions forced us to lash the boom to the deck. Luckily we practised everything in training and skipper Guy Waites and AQP Hugues Stellio did an excellent job in leading us through the difficult situation. The next morning we still averaged around 10 knots of boat speed with surfs into the 20s, without any sails up.

How does it feel when you overcome something such as that as a team?

In this difficult moment we stopped racing and cared about our safety. The team performed on the limit and we helped each other wherever possible. Everybody arrived in Cape Town exhausted but healthy and this is the top priority. Therefore we achieved our goal! Growing over such intense experiences, as a team, is very rewarding and probably sticks us together for a lifetime.

Have there been any stand out moments which make all the tough times worth it? Why do they mean so much?

The nature of our oceans is absolutely fascinating. A calm morning in the Philippines, around sunrise, a massive whale dived only two or three metres underneath our hull and leaned to its left side showing us his white, furrowed belly. Everything happened so quickly, but it was a deeply touching moment to see a mammal, the size of a bus, within touching distance.

Earlier, when in Australia, Dolphins travelled and played with us at night time. Only illuminated by phosphor fluorescent plankton, they looked like glowing torpedoes speeding around pulling off an amazing show.

The essence of life is tough to record. You have to feel it.

As one of our youngest circumnavigators this edition, what is it like being part of and building a team made up of such a diverse crew? Especially as a circumnavigator welcoming new crew into the Dare To Lead culture?

To me it is a huge privilege to embark on the Clipper Race. The daily work and sharing a dream alongside great minds with enormous life experience is inspiring. Coming from various backgrounds and all ages has a huge potential in problem solving but only if you manage to give everyone a voice. This is the struggle, you are often tired and under pressure. Staying positive and respectful even in case of conflict has to be the goal in every team, giving up or hardening your own viewpoint is the easy way.

The longer the race the more important is the mentor role of circumnavigators. Allowing to pass along all your knowledge and accepting the fact that your 'student' might become better than you is important to make the team stronger.

What have you learnt from the experience so far?

Strong leadership is not about having the loudest voice or dictating everything. Guy is a brilliant example of a strong leader including and empowering everyone to take over responsibility without putting his stamp on everything. Accepting your weaknesses is a very humbling experience which probably underlies the described. I am glad to have the chance to learn about this during racing around the world.

The Clipper Race was suspended in March due to the global pandemic. Can you explain what it felt like for the race to come to an abrupt halt?

Being very honest here, it was a nightmare. A situation was forced upon all of us and we cannot do much about it. This makes it really hard to accept, even months after. No need to say how much I miss the team and the whole race environment. The sacrifice of racing 11 months around the world was huge. I just want to sail Dare to Lead back to the UK. This is our mission and as long there is a small chance to finish the race, I believe in it.

In lockdown, what have you missed most about being on board? Have you been keeping in touch with the Dare To Lead crew?

The community that makes everything happen is what I really miss. Passionate people who say "c'mon let's do this" and then really achieve it. With my team mates Patricia Dale and Bettina Neid, a fellow circumnavigator, we hiked three days in the Swiss Alps. A beautiful chance to wallow in memories. With my friend and teammate Patrick Angehrn I go for lunch once in a while and yes if you read this, it is about time again. With other teammates I write and phone once in a while and the group chats are on fire. Sometimes I have the chance to sail on Swiss lakes too. But seriously it can't compare to crossing an ocean on a 70 footer or blasting in 35 knots wind with a Code 3 up off the coast of Taiwan.

Quick fire questions:

Upwind or downwind sailing - Beam Reach
Favourite meal on board - Green Thai Curry
Describe the Dare To Lead team in one word - Family
Working on the bow, mast, pit or helm - Work is work
Teammate to guarantee to lift your mood - I am always grumpy;-)
Your Clipper Race experience in one word - Life-changing

For more information visit www.clipperroundtheworld.com.

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