Personal Growth

Disruptive DNA: Sail like a girl

September 2016

A Wave of Women sweep sailing stereotypes overboard: Lisa Blair joins them

Lisa Blair is a woman on a mission: later this year, she will launch from the port of Albany, West Australia, aiming to be the first woman to circumnavigate Antarctica by sea, solo and non-stop. On the way, she hopes to break the speed record set by one of only two people to complete the circuit before her.

In 2008, Russian adventurer Fyodor Konyukhov took 102 days to complete the same journey - around 16,000 nautical miles. Lisa hopes to do it in ninety days.

She's been preparing for three years. Though her fibreglass yacht, Climate Action Now, is just 15 metres long, it is resilient. Renewables power everything: solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells and a hydro-generator mean there's back-ups for all critical systems.

Empty plastic bottles cram the forward compartments, to buoy the yacht even if the hull perforates. The tiny cabin will protect her for snatched minutes of sleep as she battles through some of the wildest weather on the planet.

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Lisa Blair on her yacht

Sailors name the winds of the Southern Ocean for their latitudes. In that vast expanse of sea south of the 40th parallel that encircles Antarctica, there's no land mass to halt the onslaught of the “Roaring Forties," the “Furious Fifties" or the “Shrieking Sixties." Those high winds and huge waves are the stuff of legend.

“I'm expecting storms that average roughly eighty knots of wind, every three to five days as the low pressure systems pass over," she says. “It's manageable - providing your boat is set up correctly for it. You just have to ride out those twelve to sixteen hours of really big winds."

Worse, she says, are the high pressure systems in the wake of a big storm - where the wind drops dramatically, and the boat wallows with no control as waves break in huge swells. Though she'll steer clear of icebergs, lurking just below the surface is a bigger menace: “growlers."

These iceberg fragments range “from piano-sized to truck-sized" - and can cause terrible damage to a small yacht. But with infra-red cameras trained on her surrounds, she's hoping to spot them before she gets too close.

Her solutions: technology, teamwork and taking advice.

“I'll have a pretty solid shore-based team who can monitor these conditions and send me suggestions, things like - get above this latitude by this time or you'll hit that low pressure system."

“The only difference was they put their mind to a goal and they stuck to it - and they succeeded”

Setting Sail

Lisa acknowledges her journey to extreme sailor has been a surprising one. “I grew up totally landlocked, in a rainforest in Queensland, with no power, no running water," she says.

It wasn't until she was studying teaching at university that she learned to sail.

“In the uni summer holidays, I got a job as a hostess on a charter yacht in the Whitsundays - which changed my life forever, really."

She fell in love with sailing, and stayed on for a year. Her job involved cooking and cleaning for more than thirty guests who would board the yacht for a three-day cruise.

Lisa studied for the “tickets" - qualifications - and occasionally gaining a shift as deckhand on one of the company's smaller yachts, where she discovered a forte for deck management: she could sail the boat and quickly mastered the role.

“I kept petitioning the company for a deckhand role on one of the big boats - but when the job I'd wanted for months went to a guy with zero experience who wrote, 'Please hire me' on the back of a chocolate bar, it became very obvious that I wasn't going to get that job."

Although she knew sailing was a male-dominated industry, until Lisa experienced such a blatant snub, she hadn't realised just how unfair it could be.

Disillusioned, she quit and went back to uni. But soon after, a friend who was sailing from Australia to Hawaii called her mid-way, from Samoa - their boat had lost a crew member who had to leave for a family emergency. Would Lisa like to join them?

“I ended up sailing for three months over to Hawaii. That was my first blue-water ocean experience - and I just loved it," she says. “At that point I had no idea you could make sailing a career. I just knew I wanted to keep sailing."

She stayed in Hawaii for nearly a year, working on yachts and in marinas, before her visa ran out and she returned to Australia.

Back home, Lisa started reading about Kay Cottee, Jesse Martin and Jessica Watson. “I was fascinated by these amazing solo sailors and the incredible adventures they had -and the thing that struck me about all of their stories was - they're all just regular people. The only difference was they put their mind to a goal and they stuck to it - and they succeeded."

Round the world in a Clipper

Her reading led her to Robin Knox Johnson - who founded the Clipper Round the Wold Sailing Race.

Lisa was captivated - that was her next goal, right there! There was just one little problem. “The entry fee was £40,000 - and I was working in a shop, earning $20 an hour. Paying the deposit meant I'd have zero savings left."

Signing that contract was a big commitment. “I saw a TV ad about Jessica Watson, and I thought - if a sixteen year old can do it, I can do it." She was 24 at the time.

After signing the contract, Lisa had twelve months to raise $80,000 or she would lose the deposit and miss the race.

She worked on it round the clock - organised fundraising dinners, cycled from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast, wooed corporate donors - but she was still short about half the amount when the time came to leave for the compulsory four-week training course for the race.

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Devastated, she realised that the training would help her learn to become a better sailor, even if she didn't make the race - so she turned up and gave it her all.

The deadline inched closer and donors stepped up. With days to go, a $2,000 donation from an American man working in China who had heard of her plight got her over the line.

“The Clipper Round the World experience was amazing," she says. The race is almost 50/50 men to women, which means women get far more opportunity to get involved, she says. And key to that is the structure of the race.

 

“Effectively, we all pay to be in this amateur race around the world. We all pay a berth fee, and while the skipper delegates what you do and where, you do have more opportunity to try crewing all different positions on the yacht. Because you have paid, you can stipulate a little bit."

Half-way through the race, though, her crew focused on what they needed to do to win the race. “We pushed hard and ran it as a race boat. The skipper chose me as one of the two female watch leaders - because it worked out we were the better people for the job, so we managed the boat while the skipper was sleeping."

For most of the trip, Lisa was also the number one bowman - the first up the mast in any storm. “I'd be up the mast in fifty knots of wind in the middle of the night in the Southern Ocean in a 30-foot swell." But it was all worth it when her team crossed the finish line in first place.

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Compass on her yacht

Solo Goal

Her mission accomplished, Lisa was ready to take on a new challenge. Back in Australia, she's moved through a few sailing jobs. She was quietly chuffed to accept a job offer as skipper of the Whitsunday charter company that snubbed her six years earlier.

Sailing's macho image is shifting, she says. There's still just a handful of women among the 80-or so skippers in Sydney Harbour, but that's slowly changing. “I think equality is happening in a lot more fields, especially in business and that's influencing all sorts of other areas - like sailing."

'Flash' race teams used to comprise lots of young men and an older (male) skipper, she says - but now, those boats usually have one or two women, who are just as athletic and working just as effectively as their male counterparts.

“For some of the physical roles on a boat you might choose a guy first - but sailing is a team sport and those decisions are often strategic, that's around strength and speed."

Being a woman has some benefits: sponsors realise there's more marketing avenues, she says.

“A decade ago, I wouldn't have got a hearing because many sponsors wouldn't have even thought I could do it. Now, I think the women have the advantage."

Another benefit is the strong mentorship and support she gets from other women who have sailed solo journeys - including youngest solo world sailor Jessica Watson, and Australia's Anne Lise Guy, who was the first woman to sail to Antarctica in 1993.

Lisa knows the journey is dangerous and will be hard. She wants to prove to herself - and to others - that dreaming big can pay off, by being the first woman to complete the circuit, and by becoming the world record holder.

“I know that all the preparation I am putting in means that I can do it faster and do it safely," she says.

“I'm doing it because I see this as a really valuable record to attempt, whatever your gender. It's an immense challenge and I really want to make it worth all the application and the effort going into it, and to see it through - to succeed."

 

Writer: Fran Molloy

Photographer: Brendan Fitzpatrick