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Celebrating throughlines in sailing leadership and the sailing world's newest hero

by David Schmidt 7 May 18:00 BST May 7, 2024
The youngest skipper in the OGR fleet Heather Thomas after arriving in Cape Town at the end of Leg 1, 3rd in line honours and IRC © OGR2023 / Aida Valceanu

Back in mid-March, Sail-World celebrated Cole Brauer's fantastic achievement of becoming the first American woman to sail nonstop and solo around the world aboard her Class 40, Morning Light. This bold achievement earned her second place in the Global Solo Challenge, which circles our lonely planet via the three great capes, and (as its moniker implies) is raced singlehanded.

I referred to Brauer in this newsletter as America's newest sailing hero, and I'm now happy to report that we have another sailing hero, albeit one who carries a British passport.

Some backstory...

In 1989, skipper Tracy Edwards (GBR) entered Maiden, a 58-foot aluminum hull sloop that had been built in 1979 to designs drawn by Bruce Farr, in the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Race (now The Ocean Race).

Edwards, herself a veteran WRTWR sailor, raced Maiden with an all-female crew (including another sailing hero, American Dawn Riley), and the team pressed the yacht to a second-place finish in their class.

Edwards became the first female skipper to lead a team around the world in this grueling, fully crewed race, and she also became the first woman to win the Yachting Journalists' Association's coveted Yachtsman of the Year Award (it also earned her MBE title).

While this was a proud showing, it wasn't until Wendy Tuck (AUS) won the 2017-2018 Clipper Round the World Race that a female skipper ascended the top step of the winner's podium in a fully crewed round-the-world race. (N.B. the Clipper Race transits the Panama Canal, rather than rounding Cape Horn, however it involves a mammoth, 6,000 nautical mile passage from Qingdao, China, to Seattle, Washington.)

I've been fortunate to interview Wendy Tuck several times over the last several years for articles that I've written for The New York Times, and I have always been impressed with the fact that Tuck, who has also competed in 16 Sydney Hobart Races, has spent years of her career mentoring tomorrow's sailing leaders. (N.B. Tuck spent a decade working as a Royal Yachting Association sailing instructor and charter skipper.)

Tuck was also kind enough to help me understand the historical throughline that runs from Edwards and her trailblazing Maiden crew all the way to the sailing world's newest hero, skipper Heather Thomas, who just led an international, all-female team, also racing aboard Maiden, to victory in the 2023-2024 Ocean Globe Race.

Impressively, this retro race eschews the use of modern navigational tools, including GPS, satellite communications, and weather routing - not to mention modern yachts.

It's fair to say that while Thomas and her crew achieved greatness when they crossed the OGR's finishing line on April 16, 2024, Tuck played an early role in her ocean-racing success.

This is because Thomas sailed with Tuck, who was then skipper of Sanya Serenity Coast, for the massive, 6,000 nautical mile North Pacific leg in the 2015-2016 Clipper Round the World Race. (N.B. Tuck has skippered yachts in the Clipper race twice.)

"At the time she was a dinghy instructor in Yorkshore, [in the UK], teaching children how to sail on inland waterways," Tuck said, recalling that Thomas won her opportunity to sail the Pacific passage through the Andrew Simpson Foundation.

The leg was anything but easy, and (despite its peaceful-sounding name) the Pacific lived up to its reputation for delivering sometimes-brutal conditions. I personally saw the fleet in Seattle, and several of the boats were bruised and battered from this leg.

"This was Heather's first ocean crossing, [and] during this leg we had a major knockdown," Tuck recalled, adding that Thomas, now 27, was only 19 at the time. "Heather showed maturity way beyond her years [by] comforting a crew member who was trapped under the port helm cage and had nearly drowned. [Thomas] made a lasting impression with her learning and ability, she fitted in well with a crew, the majority who were a lot older than herself."

Flash forward eight years, and Thomas - standing on the shoulders of giants including Edwards and Tuck - just pulled off a fine victory.

"It's very exciting to be the first all-female crew to win an around the world race," said Thomas in an official race communication. "It's a historic moment. The girls have worked really hard for it, and we're very proud of our achievement. We have the best crew and the best boat so what can I say!

"To those we raced against it's been a pleasure to get to know them and we're going to miss them. It's been an incredible first OGR and I hope the ones that follow are as good. Maiden won't do the next one, but I will."

Them be fighting words, but - based on all empirical evidence - it's fair to say that Thomas will continue to be a contender in this race, and in any other that she chooses to enter.

Sail-World tips our hat to Thomas and her Maiden crew. Theirs is a massive accomplishment, and we can't wait to see where Thomas and her crew will take their sailing careers in the coming decades.

May the four winds blow you safely home,
David Schmidt North American Editor

Many thanks to Wendy Tuck for reaching out to explain the throughline that runs through this heroine's tale of racing big boats across significantly bigger swaths of brine, and for being a longtime and trusted source.

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