by Richard Crockett
Phillippa is well known in Cape sailing circles as a no-nonsense committed sailor with tons of ability and enough drive to make most of us feel tired!
She has, at her tender age, already circumnavigated the globe with Nick Leggatt in a two-handed race, so her sojourn into singlehanded sailing is really not surprising. I suppose it’s a case of, if you can sail two-up you should be able to do it singlehanded, as in many instances when two-up just one person is doing the work anyway!
In about a week’s time (2 November) she will be on the start line in the Route du Rhum race, a transatlantic single-handed race which takes places every four years between Saint Malo, France and Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. This is a distance of 3 500 nautical miles.
I interviewed her just as she was leaving the Hamble to cross to St Malo for the start.
Firstly, congratulations on having got this far and being accepted as a competitor. I believe that you have had a stormy passage so far with funding?
Getting to the start of these races is never easy – and the hardest part is trying to find the funds and the boat. Once you have those in place you are ‘a’ for away. I managed to get on board a team that normally send a boat to do the race, but unfortunately they developed rudder problems and cannot go – so their partner Aspen and Snowmass are sponsoring me. The owner, Rod Knowles, of the boat, Swish has put a lot of time and funds into getting all the electronics and the boat ready as well. Cape Crisp and my parents have funded the sails, and most importantly Southern Ropes for whom I work have given me the time off. Cobham are supporting me with satellite communications. This is a big part of the race funds as I will have to down load weather information because we are not allowed to have onshore weather routers to help us with our navigation.
The boat has done well in the past as she came top 10 in the previous Route du Rhum and recently won the Round Britain & Ireland Race. She is a Rogers design with a hard chine which is good for reaching. The class has developed a lot in the last few years, but I will be giving it my best shot! There is one of her sister ships sailing. The skipper must put her in the right place and look after her to get to the finish line.
How many classes are there in the race?
Ultimate multis which are trimarans between 70′ and 140′ long. IMOCA 60’s and the 50′ trimarans. In my class, Class 40, there are 43 boats, 43 skippers with 40 guys and 3 girls. Then you have the Rhum Class which are multihull or monohulls. All of these classes are sailed single handled.
What’s your single handed experience? I know you have a lot of double handed experience, but have you done much single handed sailing?
Not much. I did my thousand mile qualifier and that is it.
And where was that to and from?
I sailed from St Malo north of France and around Wolf Rock which is near Lands End on the English coast. Then down to Cape Finistere and back to Plymouth.
How did you find that, and were you comfortable on your own?
Yeah, it was great. I was very lucky with the weather and really enjoyed the six days of sailing. It was good fun.
3500nm on your own is a long way. What are the challenges for you specifically?
Getting to the start has definitely been a bit of a challenge although I have had such a huge group of supporters. A friend Paul Peggs has worked on the boat every day for the last six weeks, so that has been a huge help.
In terms of the actual sailing, when something goes wrong you often want to talk to someone so it’s going to be a bit weird not having anyone to talk to. It’s also about managing my sleep as I can’t go down for three hours and not worry about things. When two-up there is always another person on watch. So I will have all my alarms set up and will have to manage things a bit differently and sleep for a shorter period of time than normal. 10 minutes at a time at times.
What are your strengths in terms of single handed sailing?
I think that I am very fortunate with my vast experience in sailing Class 40s. I have a good feel of what they need to feel like most of the time, so I can wake up and instinctively feel if everything is okay or not. So knowing these boats and having 80 000 miles under my belt already is going to be a huge plus.
The converse – what are your weaknesses?
I like my sleep, so that will be a challenge. As I haven’t actually done much singlehanded sailing I will simply have to find out as I go along. Having said that, with the sailing I have done I am luckier than a lot of the fleet as I have a lot more experience on Class 40 boats than a lot of the guys on the race. That may give me a slight edge – and that gives me a positive mental attitude.
Any navigation challenges or hazards that you need to be aware of?
Well you start in St Malo in the English Channel where you not only have the fleet to worry about, but you have the shipping and the fishing boats too. Once out of there it’s decision time as you then have to go either West or South. That’s the first major call. It’s still too early to have made that decision, although I am studying the weather every few hours.
So what you are saying is that the first 24 to 48 hours is going to be some of the most challenging of the race?
I think the first three to four days actually. At the moment there are quite a few dissipating hurricanes coming across from the States which are not helping and which is why I am watching the weather quite carefully. Last year at this time the weather was so awful that the Mini Transat start was delayed for a month!
What is your motivation to do this race?
I sailed around the world double-handed and when I came back last year a lot of people said to me “what’s next”? I did not really have an answer at the time although I did know one thing that I hadn’t really done was some solo sailing. The Route du Rhum seeds were sown, and when the boat that got handed to me the question I asked myself was simply “Pip do you want to do it?”
It was an offer I could not refuse. Everyone in the UK has been very, very supportive. I have got so many friends who are solo sailors and everyone has pushed the boat out for me.
So the opportunity has come and you are grabbing it with both hands – awesome. Is it too early to ask you whether singlehanded around the world is next?
Hmmm I am not so sure, but never say never. I think my parents would probably have a heart attack first. They said to me when I finished the round the world race – that’s it… let’s see what happens – let’s try and enjoy this one first.
I think I am right in saying that you will be the first South African lady to race across an ocean – singlehanded?
Well, no South African has ever done the Route du Rhum. (Phillippa was very dismissive about this as obviously records, ‘firsts’ and achievements are not what she is about.)
Do you have a hero in sailing – someone whose footsteps you might be following to get you where you are going?
When we were kids Dad used to talk about Isabelle Autissier. I thought if she, as a girl, could do these things, then so could I!
I asked her if there is anything about herself she thought people might like to know?
After some thought she shot back with “I have a huge loan at the bank – anyone want to contribute?? She then mentioned, not as an aside, but as heartfelt thanks to Nick Leggatt one of the great sailors she double-handed with, and whom she says “is the one who started all this”.
In closing Phillippa was adamant that she wanted to thank Southern Ropes for giving her the time off to go and do these things. “I work full time for Southern Ropes – and without them giving me the time off to go and do these things it wouldn’t be possible. Plus a huge thanks to everyone who has been there to support me and push me along”. (She has a huge following in the Hamble).
This is a massive commitment Phillippa has made, not only mentally and physically, but also financially – so her closing remark was heartfelt as South African sailors simply don’t have easily available finance and sponsors to assist them in realising their dreams.