Peaks and troughs of a female clipper skipper

At 24, Nikki Henderson has become the youngest skipper in the history of the Clipper Round the World Race, in charge of a disparate crew of rookie sailors. She must be doing something right, though, as she led them to victory in the most recent leg of the race. The Mixed Zone’s Katie Smith spoke to her as she prepared to leave Australia behind and head homewards

Visit Seattle, one of the entrants in the Clipper Round the World Race, has a typical crew of novice sailors. They are a motley bunch of young and old, men and women, brave and brawny adventurers, some of whom had never raised a sail before easing out of Liverpool’s Albert Dock last summer at the start of a 40,000-mile, eleven-month odyssey. And at the helm was Nikki Henderson, then twenty-three, the youngest Clipper Race Skipper in the history of a series now eleven editions old. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit in the early days, it seems. Henderson recounts one particularly memorable day on the first leg back in August. Memorable, but not for the right reasons. “It was one of those days where everything just goes wrong,” she chuckles in hindsight. “Everything. Two of our three downwind sails ripped completely, fell into the sea and were obviously past the point of repair.

“We were all at the end of our tether and then someone came up to me and said we’ve also lost a rope, which they didn’t realise was worth around £1,500.

“And I just stood there and thought I could absolutely lose it right now. But the reality is, how could they know any better really? So I just had to swallow it. Those times are tough, but it’s then when you can gain the most respect from people when you say, ‘OK, that’s fine, let’s move on’.”

Six months on, the teething problems have apparently been sorted and the crew are all pulling in the same direction. So much so that last month Henderson led them to a thrilling victory in Race 6, coming home just 25 minutes ahead of the second-placed boat in the comparative 1,600-mile sprint up the east Australia coast from Hobart to Abell Point Marina in the Whitsunday Islands.

Not that there were any question marks over her ability to lead in the race she describes as the ‘peak’ of her career so far. After a rigorous application and training process, Henderson’s biggest leadership challenges only began with the race itself. “Leadership does come naturally to me and always has done,” she says. “Yet I still find the concept of leadership fascinating and in every single race I find out something else about it.

“I’m an emotional person, as I think women often are, and so you have to figure out how much of that do you show so that your crew know you’re human. You have to be able to share. You can’t be a rock,” she pauses. “Well, not an unfeeling, unapproachable rock. Also a lot of the time it’s simply being able to swallow everything and come up on board and smile and say everything is going to be OK.”

A self-professed sailing fanatic, Henderson started on the water at a very early age. By her late teens she had decided not to take up her place at Exeter University to pursue a sailing career full-time. An unadulterated love of the sport, and a commitment to learning, inevitably led her to the Clipper Round the World Race. “A big driving factor of this competition is enabling others to do something different, and I really like what comes with the sailing. The sailing itself is really great, but it’s far more about the opportunity to learn about yourself, and the development that people undergo through any extreme challenge like this.”

And what a concept this race truly is, as the skipper teaches their crew everything they can while also attempting to cover thousands of miles as quickly as possible and ahead of their rivals. Through hell and high water, the crew must adjust to life at sea and being away from family, friends and stable ground for almost a year.

  “As the race continues,” Henderson says, “the crew, who started as complete rookies, begin to learn a lot about sailing. Now, in some instances, they can sometimes feel they know more than me and forget that I taught them. And, of course, in some areas they do know more than me, and are better than me, and that’s great. But they still need to listen to me; keeping that authority can be challenging at times. You have to not think about being younger than them, or a woman.”

A race of such magnitude and extremity is not without its dangers, though, as the teams were graphically reminded with the death of Simon Spiers. The 60-year-old was fulfilling a life-long dream of taking part in the race, but was thrown overboard from the yacht Great Britain in November. He was buried at sea the next day.

Henderson becomes grave after a moment’s silent contemplation. “I think people sign up to this because that could happen,” she says. “They’re here for a challenge and they’re very aware of the danger. There were two deaths last year, and that comes with adventure sports. What happened to Simon was tragic, but it was an accident. It was one of those things, it happened just as something can happen when you cross the road. He died doing something he loved, though.”

Henderson, now 24, is one of two female skippers in a fleet of 12 in this year’s race. She sees this as a positive step in a sport that has been historically male-dominated. “Sailing is a mixed sport and that’s pretty rare for men and women to compete directly.

“But in the last race I actually had 75 per cent women on my team and we won. I don’t think you need to keep going on about it or making all-female teams. I think just be a role model by doing it yourself.

“There are still a few guys in the UK and the south coast who can be quite old school. They tut and shake their heads when they see a woman driving the boat. But, like most things, as soon as you show them that you know what you’re doing they’re more respectful.”

Pragmatic, confident and insightful beyond her years, Henderson sourced her own sailing role models as a young girl. “I read a book called Maiden by Tracy Edwards when I was growing up that definitely touched me. She’s a skipper and ran an all-female Whitbread Round the World Yacht campaign in 1989. That was very inspiring – to completely break the mould and kick some ass on the race course.

“And my mum, too,” she says. “She brought up three children, worked all her life and really instilled the value of what goes around comes around. Be a nice person, work hard and good things will happen to good people.”

With just under six months still to go until the conclusion of the race, and four days into the seventh leg, Nikki Henderson will not allow the recent win to overwhelm her team. “Since Simon died, we have a bit of a motto – ‘Sail with style’. So you try and do everything as well as you can, and do it properly and with good seamanship. I find then you can’t regret anything.”


Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.

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