I wanted to sell a book. That's all. I had some hopes, because the svelte young lady looked like she'd spring for a copy of my new book "Sustainable Sailing." Then again, you never know. So I asked what kind of sailing she does.
"Right now I'm sailing around the world in the Clipper Race," she answered. Obviously she's had that conversation a few times before. "I'm on a stopover in San Francisco."
Elisa Jenkins, 31, is from Sydney, Nova Scotia, a town on Cape Breton Island, which fielded one of 10 68-foot sloops in the 2009-2010 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (www. clipperroundtheworld.com). Parsed into seven legs and even more stops, its course covers more than 35,000 miles around the globe and attracts amateurs who pay a nice nickel to sail with a professional skipper. Prices vary from around $6,000 (for a leg) to $49,000 for the whole enchilada. A mandatory 19-day training session, plus branded clothing, is $4,500 (included in the full-race package). The event, which has been held biennially since 1995, was conceived by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the winner of the first single-handed non-stop around-the-world race in 1969. The race began Sept. 13 from the Humber in the United Kingdom and is set to end back there in July. The fleet is scheduled to arrive in Cape Breton June 11-13.
Judging by the 2,300 Clipper Race participants thus far - 430 from 41 countries in the current edition - the concept of paying to be a deckhand hasn't lost its luster since it was pioneered in the 1930s by Warwick Tompkins or Irving and Electa Johnson. Instead of hiring crew, these early American bluewater vagabonds were taking on paying crew to defray the cost of cruising their pilot schooners. Great for them but, to me, paying to get wet, cold, hot, sweaty and tired, to fix my own meals and to share a bunk with a stranger seems backward. Sure, buying and outfitting a boat for a trip around the world costs more than 50 grand, but at least I'd be calling the shots.
Undeterred, Jenkins shared her tale, trusting that it would entertain and, perhaps, open my mind.
Hitching a ride to learn
Not too long ago, she was a fledgling sailor who wanted to "get across the bay and back in one piece," as she phrased it. She admired Canadian circumnavigator Derek Hatfield, who plans to sail Spirit of Canada in the next Velux 5 Oceans Race, and Naomi James, the first woman to sail around the world by herself. She's gone to Australia and the South Pacific to learn the craft, even clicked off some bluewater miles, but didn't quite know how to get to the next level.
When the Clipper Race stopped in her hometown in 2008. she got a chance to interview one of the female sailors. "I sat there for an hour and decided that I wanted to do this," Jenkins says. "Not in 20 years. Now." From that moment on, her life plan was all about making the next race. However, a physical therapist's salary wouldn't get her very far.
Then she heard that the Sydney Ports Corporation was entering and bankrolling a boat to promote Cape Breton Island. She interviewed and landed a sponsorship deal for the entire race. In exchange, she agreed to be the region's unofficial spokeswoman, which explains why she sounded so well-prepared. "I love racing, but I consider it skill acquisition," she offers. "In 10 months, this race teaches me what I need to know for outfitting my own boat for a long voyage. Had I done it by myself, it would have taken 20 years."
So it boils down to simple math: Instead of decades of puttering around, she decided to spend two intense years of fund-raising, preparing and doing the actual race. In the process, she gets sponsored for endorsing her hometown. Not a bad deal, I admit. Obviously, Ms. Jenkins likes to think things through.
A trial by storm
But knowing a little about sailing, I still had questions. How is it to cross oceans with strangers with unknown skills and personalities? What do you do if someone amps out in the middle of the ocean? "During the three-week training [race organizers] try to balance sailing and professional skills when they assign the crew," Jenkins explains. "Most people are level-headed and show an ability to meet challenges. Surprisingly, the slow, light-air passages seem to be more difficult than howling storms, which often bring out the best in people."
One of those storms left an imprint on Jenkins, literally and figuratively. It occurred on the 6,000-mile 29-day leg from Quingdao, China, to San Francisco during which the entry from California was dismasted in a knockdown. Cape Breton Island fared better and won the leg by a wide margin.
"Sailing under the Golden Gate was the most spectacular entrance to any port so far," she says, recalling the elation of winning. But there was an instant that could have turned into her moment of reckoning.
"The seas of white foam and [the] breakers were two stories high, like scenes from ‘The Perfect Storm,' " she wrote on the boat's blog. "A moment of terror followed. I was making my way from the helm area to the cockpit, crawling under the traveler and reclipping [the safety harness]. This generally takes several seconds at the most. I was literally 2 inches from the safety line when the first of many large waves picked that moment to submerge our stern and cockpit. Everyone went flying. I was thrown into the metal bar of the traveler, which gave a strong blow to my lower back. The impact was life-saving."
Jenkins declined to answer specific questions about her tether and deferred to race organizer Clipper Ventures, who did not respond to repeated queries. But remembering that Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets in the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race perished in a similar incident, I think she was damn lucky.
Despite having a brush with Davy Jones, she looked forward to the remaining legs, but especially the stop at Cape Breton Island. "We'll have a reunion of crew and family; there will be hundreds of people. And best of all, I will get to see my sister's baby for the first time."
I'm sure it will be quite a homecoming for the sailing ambassador of Cape Breton Island. Jenkins says she would continue to talk to people who are interested in the Clipper Race but, in the end, "they will have to decide for themselves." Just as she did back in 2008.
As for the book I wanted to sell her, let's just say we're working on that.
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. His newest book, "Sustainable Sailing" is currently available at www.sustainablesailing-book.com.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters sections of the July 2010 issue.