The author’s mother at the helm of Happy Place, getting ready to bid Lizzy and the Clipper fleet bon voyage.

I cannot believe it’s been a year since I sailed away from home with Team Seattle as a part of the Clipper Round the World Race. It has been a hell of a ride to process.

The Clipper Race is pretty epic in its own right, even before there was a two year pause for a global pandemic. 48° North readers may recall I shared my story of the training in Gosport, U.K. back in 2019 (holy crap that feels like a lifetime ago). In describing that experience, I said that everything was bigger and heavier than I’d ever experienced before; and it was true on the race too, and not just regarding the equipment on the boat.

Let’s just say MTV’s The Real World has nothing on the Clipper Race when it comes to crew dynamics. Seven strangers picked to live in a house? I see that and raise you 14 to 20 people with a broad range of sailing experience crammed onto a boat with two heads, no shower, and food options of “eat it or don’t.” Add sleep deprivation, malfunctioning wind instruments, a whale strike, wind holes measured in hundreds of miles, and pandemic aftershocks, and I’m thankful there wasn’t a film crew on board. Friends, this is not a Clipper fluff piece, this is how I experienced it.

Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad, and my first 12,000 offshore miles taught me so much. One thing the Clipper definitely gave me is an even deeper appreciation of the sailing community around Seattle. I have been so supported and encouraged by a huge group of awesome sailors who believed in me, before, during, and after this wild adventure.

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race was created in 1996 by Sir Robin Knox Johnson, the first person to sail solo nonstop around the world. He wanted to create an opportunity for people who didn’t have vast (or any!) sailing experience to go offshore racing. The Clipper owns and manages the fleet of boats, and ordinary people can sign up. Four weeks of training and some serious cash later, and they’re theoretically ready to help sail one of the eleven 70-foot fiberglass racing tanks across oceans.

The only paid people on the boats are the skipper and an “additional qualified person” (AQP, aka first mate). The route is broken up into eight legs, with stopovers in host ports between. Some people sign up to do the whole thing (“Round the Worlders”) while others sign up to do one or more legs (“Leggers”). The Clipper race has been visiting Seattle since 2016, which is when I became acquainted with it.

Once I signed on, I went full-tilt excited and passionate about the Clipper Race, which came as no surprise to my friends and family. By the time the fleet finally arrived in Seattle in April of 2022, I could not wait to get back on the boat that I hadn’t touched since training in 2019. My mother and I put our little Catalina 27 Happy Place in Bell Harbor Marina for the week so that it could be my combination floating apartment and the renegade hospitality suite.

The arriving crews had just completed the longest ever Clipper passage across the North Pacific Ocean — 35 days, due to light air. This delayed their arrival and shortened the stopover by more than a week. Many of the skippers, AQPs, and crew arrived tired and grumpy — foreshadowing much of my Leg 7 experience.

Before I knew it, it was time to realize my dream of setting sail from Seattle as a Clipper crewmember. Immediately, my dream and reality diverged. I had envisioned myself on the bow giving signals about traffic and the line to the back of the boat during an Elliott Bay buoy race prior to heading to the actual race start at Neah Bay. Unfortunately, the buoy race was canceled for lack of time and wind, and we were quickly heading out of the bay after a parade of sail. I was bummed, but it was still exciting to see the Seattle skyline slip away. We departed the same day as Seattle Yacht Club’s Smith Island Race, and it was special to see those friends waving us on and wishing us good luck on our way out.

After a day of refresher training and crew overboard drills off Neah Bay, it was race time. The Clipper uses a Le Mans-style start in which all crew have to be aft of the forward grinding pedestal, while the skippers motor to keep in the same line. At the mark, crewmembers raced to their designated spots and hoisted sails as quickly as possible. My Clipper race had well and truly begun.

Things quickly got interesting on board the good ship Seattle. We started the race with our Code 2 spinnaker up, the workhorse and lifeblood of the race. The kite had been stored in a sail locker in the Philippines for two years, and I was concerned about its condition with the building wind and the lumpy sea state. I voiced these concerns to the skipper, but was blown off. Thus, I was less-than-thrilled when, in the wee hours of the morning, all hands were called on deck to find a bunch of commotion and discover that the kite was in the water. Not my favorite team-building exercise.

To add to the fun, more than a few of my fellow crew members soon suffered from seasickness, or fell plain-old ill. Some people were barely able to leave their bunks. Making matters worse, those who had stayed on after the Pacific crossing had not gotten much time to rest and recover in Seattle. Morale was… not cheerful.

We had a mix of personalities, ages, and experiences — same as on every boat, I suppose — but this is uniquely true on a Clipper boat. I greatly enjoyed some of my crew members, but others made life aboard difficult.

Several sailors clearly had the attitude that it was “their” boat, and were bossy with me and other crew members who had joined in Seattle. I absolutely understand a desire to help new crew get reacquainted with the boat, but their relentless condescension occurred sailing, doing boat work, even in the galley. As someone with ADHD and anxiety, it’s not productive to have multiple people yelling at you simultaneously, while giving contradictory instructions. Whatever I did, they took issue with how I did it. I started to feel really down and began second-guessing myself.

I had hoped to bring lots of fun and positive energy to the boat, but the unsolicited advice, yelling, and nitpicking zapped my joy and motivation; and I wasn’t the only one on the boat feeling that way. Eventually, I had a bit of a meltdown and burst into tears on deck, giving voice to the feelings that I didn’t belong and the frustration that I was being bullied by some of my own crew during an experience I had worked towards for so long. The skipper listened from the helm, but did nothing that I was aware of.

Ocean racing is hard on the mind and body, even when you’re with a team of experienced sailors you know and trust. With such varied backgrounds and levels of skill (or perceived skill) on our crew, the distrust reached new heights. And when things get tough offshore, there’s nowhere to go. The hardest thing about this leg wasn’t the adrenaline-fueled racing — we weren’t working well together, and because of it, we weren’t going to be competitive.

Transiting the Panama Canal was cool!

The racing itself didn’t offer many rewards either. If we weren’t stymied by wind hole after wind hole, we were called to slow down to be a stand-on vessel for our friends on Imagine Your Korea. Seattle to Panama felt like a glorified delivery leg — the race was halted for time, and we motored for nearly a thousand miles to make the arranged dates to transit the Panama Canal.

By the time we got to Panama, I could not freaking wait to get off the boat. A cheap hotel room to have some time to myself (shower!) would be a treat. There was certainly fun to be had in the port of Casco Viejo; and fun we had. It was good to blow off some steam with part of my crew and friends from other boats. I have a new appreciation for why shore leave is so important to sailors.

Just two days after arriving on the Pacific side of Panama, we transited the Panama Canal, which was pretty cool! Then, it was off to Bermuda.

The trip from Panama to Bermuda was relatively short compared to the near-month it took to get from Seattle to Panama. Bermuda would be the changeover port from Leg 7 to Leg 8, which meant some welcome crew changes. The crew drama wasn’t over yet, though. Much of the negative dynamic remained and, at one point, I finally blew my top on one of the people I had really been butting heads with. We were working to get a spinnaker up the forward hatch and had a classic too-many-cooks situation. I was leading the sail locker maneuver down below and the crew on deck had a different plan. Words were exchanged, and a fellow crew member and close friend looked at me with a grin and said “Well, you’ve got a short fuse haven’t you?” Still-heated, I responded, “This has been brewing since Seattle and I’ve finally had it.”

Going full redhead on this person was a turning point for me. I was tired of feeling like I didn’t fit in and didn’t know how to sail this boat, and reminded myself that this was the exact boat on which I had been much more comfortable during training. I resolved to get through the remainder of the race to Bermuda with this spirit.

The author repairing sails at Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
Some well-earned relaxation at Gosling’s Cellars in Bermuda.

In Bermuda, I had my first true Clipper stopover experience, with some fun activities organized by the race office (hello, Gosling’s Cellars!) and organic hangouts with fellow crew. I started connecting or reconnecting with some amazing people from training and from other boats. I also got to speak to my mom, husband, and friends back home, all of whom gave me much appreciated advice and encouragement.

With the crew changeover in Bermuda, I had a new watch leader who really listened when I expressed my frustrations about the previous leg and my goals for the next one. This watch leader believed in what I was capable of, and was excited to have me on board. What a difference that made.

Oh what a leg it was! Everything went much better on the race from Bermuda to New York. The start was an exciting one, and I finally showed what I could do on the pointy end when, shortly after the race started, we changed headsails in a lively sea state. Feeling alive and happy after that maneuver instead of frustrated, I rode that high. This leg felt like much more of a race — I was refreshingly engaged in the sailing. After seven days of shifty light air racing, playing the Gulf Stream, and a few fun boat-to-boat battles, we were on our way into New York Harbor.

It’s hard to say what was more unbelievable, the experience of sailing past the Statue of Liberty and approaching that famous skyline; or the fact that we struck a whale shortly before getting there, doing some damage to the sacrificial part of our bow. I was off watch at the time, but those on deck didn’t see any signs of a whale before the strike and said it smelled awful immediately. This led us to think the whale was already either mostly or completely dead. There wasn’t a nearby haulout option in New York and, since there wasn’t water intrusion behind the crash bulkhead, the maintenance crew did the best they could with a patch above the waterline.

I had only been to New York City once in high school and was very eager for the stopover, but also needed some alone time to prepare for our Atlantic crossing. My Clipper race was now more than halfway over, and it went in the blink of an eye. I did a lot of reflecting in New York. I really wanted Team Seattle to show the fleet, and ourselves, that we were capable of great things. We had a solid team and had not been on the podium yet. We were hungry for it.

Monkeying around on the way into
New York City.

Things got wild on our Atlantic crossing, and there were some very special moments and incredible highlights. Our crew kicked into high gear. For over half the race to Northern Ireland, we were on the podium, which was even more amazing considering the extra drag where our bow had been blunted by the whale strike. We sailed 303 nautical miles in a single day, a realization that led to major whoops and hollers at the midday team meeting.

Other than the very handy, very analog Windex at the masthead, our wind instruments — which had been flickering in previous legs — gave up the ghost a few days out of New York. Our lack of wind instruments got interesting when we learned that a 30-40 knot storm was forecast to be in our area when approaching Derry, Northern Ireland. Things got rowdy! It’s probably for the best that we didn’t have wind instruments, since we later learned that other boats had clocked wind speeds closer to 60 knots. This storm held so many, “wow, am I glad I’m alive” moments. I’m sure I even said that out loud a few times.

During that storm, we saw what happens when a Tylaska shackle gets sideloaded beyond its breaking strength, and the results were disastrous. Our Code 3 spinnaker dropped with frightening speed. I was called in to perform what was quite literally the splice of my life. It was so special when we put the kite back up and my splice held, and I even got some rare praise from my skipper.

Alas, the race was not done teaching lessons in disappointment. What was left of the sacrificial bow tore off completely, and we became the “Seattle Snowplow.” Another kite gave in to wear and tear. And to top it off, after these failures had slowed us down, race officials needed to add more distance to the race course. All this meant we did not get our podium spot, instead landing a 5th place finish that we fought like hell for.

Arriving in Derry, two milestones overshadowed any disappointment: this was the first time I had experienced the joy of first smelling, then seeing, land after an ocean crossing; and it was the last time I sailed into port before the end of the race. Derry was amazing, welcoming us in like heroes with our team songs blasting and crowds lining the Foyle River to cheer us in. Locals were so kind and excited to have us there.

In Derry, there were a lot of familiar stopover shenanigans, mixed with quiet reflection to consider what I hoped to squeeze out of the end of the race. St. Columbs Park became a safe haven away from the festivities, where I could hear myself think. I took stock of how the race had already changed me — I kicked myself for getting so down on my first leg, but was very proud of the way Leg 8 had gone. I resolved to accept that I had no control over others’ negativity, and to believe in myself even when others don’t.

My advice to anyone planning their own Clipper journey is to be sure of yourself, and don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. Your skipper and your crew have a big influence on the dynamic aboard, but you determine how you experience it. You’ve worked for your spot just as much as anyone else and you should enjoy your time.

Three months and 12,000 offshore miles on the Clipper race taught lessons about managing and changing expectations. I came in hoping for a full-send racing experience beyond my wildest dreams and, yes, I got some of that on the Atlantic. At other times, this journey was an exercise in perseverance — which would be true on any offshore passage, but felt particularly true for my Clipper.

I am still not proud of how I let the difficult things affect me — the bullying, that my skipper didn’t “get” me, the self-doubt. But I learned to laugh or roll my eyes at some petty things, and refined the art of nodding and smiling and carrying on while someone decided to be a butthead.

I came to terms with the fact that not everyone understands or appreciates my desire to live in a world of glitter and rainbows and sailing unicorns, but I also realized that’s on them, not me. In time, I was able to find my people on the race. They are the ones who kept me going, even if they sometimes thought I was as crazy as I was amusing. Those relationships were so important, since I spent more time away from my mom than I ever had. Boy howdy was that an amazing hug at the finish! Leaning on the people who love you for you is a lasting lesson.

Lizzy with dear friends and fellow members of Foredeck Union near Derry, Northern Ireland.

This trip halfway around the world showed me that my body is capable of some amazing things even when really tired; and that includes being able to fall asleep in my bunk almost instantly, even at 30 degrees of heel. Adjusting to a watch system came quite easily for me, and gives me structure I’ve been unable to replicate on land. I learned a lot about sail trim and helming in the ocean — for offshore dump trucks, these boats are incredibly fun to steer.

There were truly remarkable moments when I felt that the ocean was my home. Massive waves soaking me during sail changes on the bow is like a baptism that made me feel so alive, even if I said things that would make a sailor blush at the time. Seeing stars with absolutely no light pollution made me feel things I simply can’t describe.

Most importantly, after such a long, bumpy, and winding road, I finally finished what I started. I am now looking forward to many more ocean crossings and offshore races, with a solid group of sailors.