After her incredible Vendée Globe, life has changed for solo sailor Pip Hare. She reveals what it’s like to live your dreams
We hit a wave, the bow bouncing into the air. The roar reverberating from inside the covered cockpit intensifies and I look out of the bubble window to a wall of seemingly solid water rushing down the deck towards me. Medallia lurches, the water crashes into the window inches from my face then cascades down the open back of the cockpit.
My fingers are curled around the edge of my carbon bucket seat. I need to ease the headsail, which I know will add some speed but the other side of the cockpit seems a long, treacherous journey away. I sit for a bit longer contemplating my moves while Medallia relentlessly thunders on.
I spent my first few experiences sailing my new IMOCA in this sort of stunned state. The boat is incredible, it holds the course record for the Vendée Globe race, it is powerful – simple in some ways, complicated in others – and seemed like such a huge step up for a sailor like me. Sailing this fast is the most incredible experience but I wondered how long it would take for this speed and violent motion to become normal – or if it ever would.
It is not just the boat that has changed over the last year. I started my 2020 Vendée Globe race as a rank outsider in an old yacht, having pulled a campaign together with crowdfunding, a lot of hard graft, and support from friends and strangers alike. But now I find myself as skipper and CEO of a fully professional offshore racing team.
We employ 13 people across the whole business, our focus is on delivering elite sporting performance and a solid tangible return to our sponsors. I am an athlete, a business person, a figurehead and I have responsibilities that weigh much heavier on a sailor than navigating any Southern Ocean storm.
The transition to this new state has been rapid. I’ve had to learn along the way and at times the business has paralysed me in the same way the boat did on the first few sessions. But one of the great attributes we have as human beings is our ability to adapt. My ‘new normal’ is a million miles away from what life looked like in 2019.
Fast track foiling
The best part of my job is, of course, the sailing. I’m not embarrassed to say that although the boat we chose as our next IMOCA was exactly the boat that I wanted, the first few times I sailed it I was intimidated by its pedigree. You do not want to lose control in a 60ft boat with 550-plus square metres of sail.
The mechanics of sailing the new boat are reassuringly familiar and most definitely easier to manage than on Superbigou. All sails can be managed from the covered cockpit and a central pedestal. The mast track has locks to hold the head of the main in position on each reef point (no more trips forward to reef).
The keel can be moved at the touch of a button and lines are positioned with corresponding halyards and tacks on opposite sides of the boat so winches can be loaded pre-manoeuvre and left. These details make a difference, and I quite quickly felt confident managing the boat on my own.
I got used to the foils in a ‘painting by numbers’ mode last year. Put them out above seven knots of boat speed and they will start to improve righting moment, allowing more power through the main. From 7 knots to about 18 knots of boat speed there is not that much difference in how the boat feels, it is just faster with the foils.
Above 20 knots of boat speed is when the magic happens. This is when the bow starts to lift out of the water and the boat becomes animal. I played around with this, following the tuning guide and having fun with the speed, but never felt I was getting the most out of the boat.
This season, with a new set of sails and having the confidence of a full and thorough refit, I worked for a couple of weeks with coaches to help me understand using my foils properly at speed. As with sailing a skiff, it is about keeping the bow up enough to clear the water, but not so much that you ‘wheelie’ or take off. This can be controlled with foil rake (we can rake them forwards up to 5° to lift off more) and fierce management of the ballast and sails stacking.
I’ve learned to feel the boat trim and when I need to lift the bow. Keel angle is also vital in this equation: above 20 knots of boat speed and the keel starts to provide negative righting moment. In simple terms it starts acting as a foil lifting the boat out of the water, so at high speeds the keel angle needs to be dropped to maintain control and for extra speed.
My race calendar for 2022 is busy. I have three solo races, and will be taking part in the Round Britain and Ireland Race with a full crew of five. The boat must be at the race village up to two weeks ahead of each solo event, and then there are deliveries to and from each start and finish.
This takes out nine weeks from 39 weeks on the water. I will be spending around five weeks racing. Then, so long as we have no major failures, I have reluctantly agreed to a roughly 60/40 custody share of the boat with my shore team. That leaves just 15 weeks to train.
Once again my performance goals are a steep, hard climb. My overall aim for this year is to learn to sail this boat to its full potential in its current configuration.
Medallia is a 2015 Verdier/VPLP design, it was the first generation of boats designed with foils (rather than have them retrofitted) and the only one of its generation which is still running on small foils. Foiling is a new experience for me, so my objectives for 2022 include learning how to sail well with the original foils. I will be changing to big ones in early 2023.
To fast track this I’ll be working with coaches – but even this is not simple. The IMOCA class is booming, and many people I might turn to for advice are already working with other teams or have projects of their own. This forced me to look outside the world of solo racing and begin working with coaches from fully crewed teams.
This, it transpired, has been a stroke of genius. Jack Bouttell and Ben Schwarz both raced around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race and are now on the Jules Verne crew for the maxi trimaran Spindrift. Having them on board has given me the opportunity to experience the ‘no excuses’ approach of the fully crewed world.
We have worked on sail crossovers for my new sails, polars, trim books (a manual of sail settings, foil adjustment, stacking positions and much more for all possible conditions), instrument calibration, autopilot settings, and so much more. At times all I could do was watch as this well-oiled team of strong, younger men put my boat through its paces. But with each gear change I learned and questioned, and felt how my boat should be when it is fully arced up and raging.
I can’t sail exactly like them. I’m a 48-year-old woman, alone, managing sails which are way in excess of my bodyweight. But now I have sailed with them I go out alone and realise I can achieve the same performance on my own – and when I am there I can sustain it. I just won’t be up there all of the time.
Fitness training, diet, and sleep are also important parts of my routine and, as ever, hard to manage. My age is something that can’t be avoided. I’ll be 50 when I start the next Vendée Globe. At a time in life when many people are moving on to more gentle physical activities, I’ll be making my debut as a full-time professional athlete.
I need to work on my strength constantly, building muscle is essential to managing the enormous loads on the boat injury free. The only way I can build that strength is through focussed gym sessions and good nutrition. When you spend your life on the road, living out of Airbnb apartments and travelling to presentations, routine is near impossible.
Working with personal trainer Rob Stewart, we run three 6am sessions a week in my garage gym when I am home, and I fit weight training sessions in on other days. If I’m not sailing, I will add an hour of cardio training (usually running), while on sailing days the cardio takes care of itself.
My diet is proving harder to manage. In truth I seldom leave myself enough time to shop well and prepare good quality regular meals. The irony is that I eat best when I am racing because I am forced to plan my meals ahead.
Behind the scenes
Our shore team has grown, and they too have a big job to keep our beast of a boat in good condition. Joff Brown has stayed as technical director to the team and brings 20-plus years experience of running IMOCA racing programs. A winter refit allowed us to ‘undo’ Medallia’s post-Vendée fatigue. Now the team are focussed on keeping everything running, and working with me to develop and adapt, to make the boat faster, to make my life easier.
We’re moving away from the ‘keep it safe’ ethos that underlined boat preparation in my last campaign towards ‘make it fast’. The team is obsessed with details, weight saving, efficiency – and they need to be.
It has been very important for me to offer entry level jobs to young people as well as ensuring a high level of knowledge and experience within the shore team. Finding the right people has not been easy – many people apply for sailing positions on the team, but finding people who genuinely want to make a career in technical boat preparation has been hard. We are still relatively small compared to many of the IMOCA teams, so everyone has to take responsibility for their areas.
I have less to do with the boat preparation that I am used to. I hand over at the end of each day on the water; we talk through problems, suggestions, work up the job list. Joff is also working on planning for our 2023 refit. We’ll be working with designer Guillaume Verdier and Kevin Escoffier from team PRB on the new foil design. Building work starts this summer and installation will be at Carringtons in early 2023.
The other side of the team is the business. It is the engine that drives us all forwards, but it is not glamorous and is the bit that seems to suck my time. Lou Adams has taken over full time as head of business and operations. It has been a real relief to step back from the day-to-day running of our team, which is complex and complicated.
In the same way that Formula 1 teams pack up and move their operation to a different race track every few weeks, so we need to arrive at different venues, fully functional with a mobile workshop, tools, spares, and support boat. My only job now is to turn up with the boat and the rest happens around me. I cannot explain what a weight off my shoulders this is (though I still feel a little like a prima donna).
But when it comes to dealing with fundraising, finances and sponsor obligations, I cannot walk away. We are a team, and we race as a team – albeit in my name. However, as CEO and spokesperson, much of my time needs to be spent with the people who fund us (or who we would like to fund us).
As a naturally shy person I have had to learn to speak in public, to have the confidence to sell myself in meetings and it is still a struggle for me to come to terms with presenting myself as anything other than very normal. But, together with Lou, I have worked hard on developing a way to collaborate with our sponsors that genuinely brings them into the team, and addresses what they want out of a partnership.
The most stressful part of my job is managing the finances. We are a small team reaching high, and managing our cashflow is a huge challenge. I feel the weight of responsibility towards employees, subcontractors, and sponsors enormously and I am not oblivious to the world at large: we are in an immensely privileged position and I feel accountable for making the most of what we have on every level.
Most months I have big decisions to make that could change the course of the campaign. We need to sign more sponsors to complete our funding package and for both Lou and I this is constantly in the front of our minds. Although the last Vendée Globe race had a lot of mainstream media coverage, sailing is still a lesser known sport to sell.
Upping the ante
The world of IMOCA sailing has changed incredibly in the short four years that I have been involved and solo ocean racing is enjoying something of a heyday right now. The 2020 Vendée Globe race really highlighted the value of this international sporting event and there has been a big influx of sponsors into the class. This translates to more teams of a higher calibre.
Not only is there fierce competition on the water but we’ll also be fighting for places on the start line. In every other edition of the race, finishing the previous Vendée Globe race gave a skipper automatic qualification to the next. Not so this time round.
There will be 40 places available on the start in November 2024; 13 of these will be given over to new boats (there are 14 new boats in build), one is a wild card at the organisers’ discretion and the remaining 26 places must be earned by skippers competing in and finishing IMOCA races.
On a global level this is incredible for the sport. It means more events, more races to follow, more chances to compete. On the other it has upped the ante in an event which was already tough. We need to race and I need to finish. This adds up to more miles on the boat, more budget to raise, more time and resources to keep everything in the best condition. Every time we race there is risk. If we don’t race the risk is bigger.
There’s always too much to do and each day I need to try to work out the most important thing for the campaign. This level of pressure has been normal to me for a few years and I’m used to it. Now, at least on land, I have my team to shoulder the load.
The one thing that grounds me, the reason it’s all worthwhile, is the fact that I now find sailing at over 25 knots normal.
I’m constantly filled with wonder and amazement at what I, a small human being, can get this boat to do. Being alone in the ocean allows me to step away from the reluctant businesswoman I have had to become. I have so much to learn, I want to become a completely different sailor over the next few years, but getting to grips with a foiling IMOCA is blowing my mind.
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