The ultimate test for intrepid yachtswomen

Next year’s edition of the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race has changed its rules to encourage greater female participation. But as Annie Lush, a competitor in the last race, emphasises to The Mixed Zone’s Liz Byrnes, it is not a boat trip for the faint-hearted. Lush uses the word ‘extreme’ liberally, and paints a picture of the Southern Ocean that would make Nelson blanche

“The tides are in our veins.” So said American poet and environmentalist Robinson Jeffers. The words ring true, too, for Annie Lush who has enjoyed a life on the water, one that began with her first boat as a seven year old in the English Channel off Poole in Dorset.

Now 36, Annie’s career has taken in the Boat Race, women’s world match-race success, the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA, the first all-female crew to compete in the gruelling nine-month event for more than a decade.

All in all an intoxicating and exhilarating journey and one she hopes can encourage other young women to follow her footsteps into professional sailing. That is the goal of the Magenta Project, for whom Annie is a director.

“The Magenta Project has race teams, but the other part is about inspiring and supporting others through coaching, mentoring, giving talks and running clinics – really trying to inspire younger girls into professional sailing,” she says.

“There haven’t been many role models. There are lots of successful girls at Olympic level, and the rules mean there are an even number of men and women competing at the Olympics now. But it is very hard to see any kind of professional career as a girl because there are hardly any doing it. I think some of it is that the boats have got more extreme, and I suppose some of the argument with the Volvo Ocean Race is that the boats are now too extreme to have girls racing in them. And I guess that is what we are going out there to test and prove that argument is wrong and show girls they can do it.

“With the clinics – we have run one in a foil, one in the M32 catamarans – it’s just trying to get some of the young girls into high-performance boats and show them that, yes, they are physical but you can race them. It’s how you organise your team and how you make up for less strength, but with more people, so you can compete.”

In a move to encourage more female participation, the Volvo Ocean Race has just introduced a rule change that will limit all-male crews to seven members – one less than in 2014-15 – meaning that for the 2017 race, mixed teams would have an advantage numbers-wise. An all-female team would comprise 11 sailors, while mixed teams would be made up of seven men and one or two women, seven women and one or two men, or an even split of five men and women.

It is something Annie welcomes. “The sentiment behind it is a good one: to try and encourage mixed teams,” she says. “I think that is really important because if you look at sailing as a sport generally – certainly at amateur level – teams will be mixed, and it is probably one of the only sports where that’s possible. But then, for some reason, when you get to professional level you end up not seeing any women on performance boats – or not very many – so I think it’s great they’ve tried to open it up.”

On whether the rule change will be universally welcomed, she adds: “Essentially if you are only going with guys then you lose one team member from the last race if you don’t take a woman, so you are having to compete with one less. So I guess that could cause some resistance.

“I think they certainly had to change the rules as they stood because how they were for the last race it just wouldn’t have been competitive to be mixed, even in terms of body weight and physical strength, it wasn’t right. So it was definitely right to change them so it was more attractive to be mixed, or that you could be competitive as a mixed team.

June 09, 2015. Team SCA passing by Costa da Morte - Coast of Death - in Spanish waters during Leg 8 to Lisbon.
June 09, 2015. Team SCA passing by Costa da Morte – Coast of Death – in Spanish waters during Leg 8 to Lisbon.

“Whether this specific rule is going to work or not I’m not sure, nor how it is going to be met. But a team has just been announced and they have said they will take one or two girls, so that is positive.”

When Annie competed in the 2014 edition, it was a step into the unknown after years spent training for the Olympics. There was the physical and mental exhaustion, the stress of competing when sometimes at her lowest ebb, the lack of any kind of personal space.

“With the Olympic team you spend four years or more together. It is a very long journey and you become close – and hate each other in the same way,” she laughs. “You can at least get away and make a phone call or sit down with your coach or go for dinner with someone else. You are at the top of your performance. You are fed and rested when you are competing and everything is as good as it can possibly be.

“In the Volvo it is completely the opposite: you are trying to get on as a team in the worst state you can be in as a human being. Sometimes I felt as if I was hardly human any more. I was so tired and got all kinds of illnesses and stuff related to the conditions you are in, notably the lack of any fresh food.”

There was also no safety net. No comfort zone. Everything was stripped away. And all with Mother Nature at her most unpredictable.

“The hardest bit for us in the last race was the Southern Ocean leg, very far south,” says Annie. “In this next edition, with the route change, there are two massive Southern Ocean legs. It’s really fun because it’s really windy so you are going really fast. But it’s freezing, the water is freezing, there could be ice caps. And the wind – it hits you really hard, and it’s quite unpredictable. Massive waves, big wind, freezing cold.

“We had an incident in the Southern Ocean and someone said – I don’t know if it’s completely true – that the closest person to us other than our competitors at that time was someone in the International Space Station.

“So the conditions are extreme and you are just very, very far from any other humans on the planet. I think people think that if anything happens, why isn’t there a helicopter, or why isn’t there anyone to rescue you? But there can’t be; helicopters, planes, they just can’t get to those parts of the world.

“I guess that adds to the extreme part of it and why the team-building is so extreme because you are reliant on each other. If something goes wrong you have got to fix it between you. And if you don’t, you won’t make it back. So you are reliant on your team-mates, not only to help you win, but at some point for survival.”


Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles

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