A chat with British Vendée Globe skipper Pip Hare
The British solo sailor was a recent guest on The Yacht Racing Podcast
British solo skipper and 2020-21 Vendee Globe competitor Pip Hare was my guest on the latest episode of The Yacht Racing Podcast.
Growing up in the landlocked English county of Cambridgeshire, Pip Hare’s nearest sailing club was on a large local inland lake.
It’s not necessarily the ideal jumping off point for a career as a professional ocean racer and although Hare dabbled with the sport there, her love affair with sailing began closer to the open sea – sailing with her grandfather on his Folkboat on the River Deben near Felixstowe in Suffolk.
She fondly recalls those outings with her grandad as fun ‘really adventurous’ experiences. “It was Swallows and Amazons – jumping off the boat, making rope swings, that sort of thing,” she says.
Later, as a teenager sailing in south west England she became aware for the first time of the feeling of freedom sailing can give you.
“It's a very powerful thing. Teenagers are desperate to make decisions on their own and to have responsibility – but they're just not allowed to. And yet, you stick a teenager on the helm of a boat and they can make so many decisions.
Hare found the freedom sailing gave her ‘exhilarating’ and she soon recognised the sport’s potential to provide a gateway for international travel. “Seeing the world and adventure – that was it really that was all I wanted to do,” she recalls.
She had been bitten by the sailing bug and Hare now found herself working part time jobs before school and at weekends to pay for the train fares to the coast to go sailing.
Desperate for sea miles but without a boat of her own, she volunteered with sailing charities like the RYA Seamanship Foundation.
“These were mostly charities that provided sailing opportunities for disabled people and they were always looking for able-bodied volunteers. All I had to do was find the train fare and I could go and do that.”
Volunteering became Hare’s first stepping stone into offshore sailing and it’s an approach she still recommends to others with similar goals today.
“I think, as a way of getting into sailing, it's quite underrated by an awful lot of people,” she says. “They don't realise how much they can get out of it by doing it.”
When Hare turned her sights on the racing, however, getting the necessary experience was a tougher problem. Hare’s parents – although keen sailors – were strictly cruisers aboard the family Moody 33.
“There were normally eight of us rammed into it – and it was very waddly, slow cruising. So I did come from a sailing family – but no racing.”
Hare recalls at weekends gazing longingly at the racing boats coming and going on the Hamble River, but having no clue how to break into that scene.
“I'd see all the guys getting on board and going racing and I desperately wanted to do that. I read loads of books about the Whitbread [Round the World Race] but I had no idea how on earth to get a foot in the door.
“I was a very shy person and there was no way on earth I ever would have dared walk up to a crew full of men and say ‘Can I come racing with you please?’.
It was not until Hare was in her twenties and had worked her way up to Yachtmaster Instructor status that opportunities to race began to come along.
Even then – despite her qualifications and her thousands of sea miles she still struggled for acceptance in the male dominated yacht racing world.
“Back then participation in offshore sailing by women was probably less than two per cent. I was constantly questioned about what I was doing there, what my ability was, and if I really knew what I was doing.”
All of this made her goal of one day participating in the gruelling Vendée Globe single handed, nonstop, around-the-world race seem all the more remote.
For any skipper – male or female – raising the funds and garnering the necessary support to take on the Vendee Globe is a daunting prospect.
Hare had first dreamt about competing in the Vendée Globe back in Cambridgeshire aged 18, but says she always believed she had the qualities she needed to get around the world – if she could only get the chance to prove herself.
“Creating that opportunity to take part in the race is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and I doubt I will ever do anything harder,” she says.
“There were many, many, many, knockbacks along the way. People telling you that you didn't have the right background, you didn't come from the right place, you were too old, you were too young.”
She openly admits there were times when she thought about giving up the struggle and abandoning her dreams.
“There were a couple of times when I did say ‘OK I'm going to stop banging my head against the wall now because this is not happening and I just I don't think I can make it happen’.
“But then you park it for a couple of years and there is just this kind of ball of fire inside you just burning away – and it doesn't go away.”
In 2009 Hare took part in the OSTAR transatlantic race aboard the Oyster Lightwave 395 that she had been living aboard and cruising internationally double-handed.
In order to prove to herself she could take the race on, she sailed solo from Uruguay to the UK. That's an open ocean passage of 7,500 miles and way longer than the race she was about to take part in.
After leading the OSTAR fleet out into the Atlantic her boat’s broken shroud – and her own broken rib – forced Hare to return to Ireland for repairs. It was a crushing blow and she remembers sending an emotional email to her financial backers and other supporters apologising for letting them down.
However, despite restarting some 500 miles behind her competitors she somehow managed to overtake half the boats in the fleet to finish in 19th place.
Although her first solo ocean race had been somewhat of a baptism of fire Hare’s OSTAR experience proved to her she had the right stuff for one day taking on a race around the world.
After one more outing in her beloved Lightwave (nicknamed ‘The Shed’) – a double handed victory in the Round Britain and Ireland Race – Hare switched her attention to that famous proving ground for ocean racers, the Mini Transat Class.
She spent several seasons in the class racking up her offshore racing experience. She became the only British skipper to complete two editions of the Mini Transat race before it was finally time to set her sights on the main prize – participation in the Vendée Globe.
Working self-funded and on a shoestring budget Hare managed to secure herself a boat and qualify to enter the 2020-21 edition of the race. She also built an impressive support team around her – made up largely of willing volunteers who were inspired by her single minded quest to race around the world.
“Over the years I have met an incredible number of people, some of whom have maybe had the same aspirations as me at one time, or have been down some of the journey, but not all of it. You end up with a kind of tie to all of these people.
“I think when I said ‘Sod it! I am putting everything on the line and I am just going to make this happen’, lots of people just wanted to help because they wanted to see if it was possible.”
As social media boosted awareness of her campaign Hare regularly found herself receiving offers of assistance from people she did not know and had never met.
“At the start of the Transat Jacque Vabre transatlantic race her unsponsored team had a shore crew numbering 17 – only five short of the 22 people fielded by one of the best funded teams: Alex Thompson’s multi sponsored, Hugo Boss.
“They [Thompson’s team] were all there in their matching kit and rucksacks, and we looked like a travelling circus, or something, Hare recalls. “But everyone was there to help and I gave them access to something from the inside that they never would have seen otherwise.”
Despite all this camaraderie, the pressure was mounting on Hare. The race was looming, no sponsors had been secured, and things were getting tough financially.
The outbreak of the Covid 19 global pandemic did not help. A promising ongoing conversation with a keen potential backer who had committed the money to cover the refit, suddenly went dead.
Hare remembers feeling at one point that she had finally hit rock bottom
“I was days away from bankruptcy,” she recalls. “I mean, I was Googling: ‘What happens when you go bankrupt?’, because I didn’t know.”
Then one day, completely out of the blue, an email arrived that changed everything. It was from Leslie Stretch, the CEO of a Canadian company called Medallia, and it contained just one line asking ‘if any sponsorship opportunities were still available’.
Hare initially wondered if someone was playing a cruel joke on her. Some Googling established that Stretch and Medallia were the real deal and she sent a single line email in return explaining that there were still sponsorship opportunities but that a phone call needed to happen immediately.
On that call – which inevitably at that time took place on Zoom – Stretch explained how Covid meant the company had shut down all their normal conferences and staff travel. This had created some surplus budget and this was now on the table.
Two weeks later Hare had a title sponsor and it was all systems go for the race.
Fortunately for her she had invested lots of time in the planning for the campaign and now had a clear roadmap of where the money needed to be spent.
A whirlwind few weeks of preparation later and a weary and worn out Hare was at the helm of the Medallia IMOCA 60 on the start line of the 2020-21 Vendee Globe.
Although she remembers being elated to finally be fulfilling her childhood dream of racing solo around the world, she also recalls what poor shape she was in mentally and physically as she began the race. “It meant a lot to be there, but I was so tired, I was exhausted,” she says.
The detail of Hare’s solo circumnavigation in that race is a thrilling roller coaster ride of a story that will surely one day soon emerge as an inspirational and best selling book.
Suffice it to say that the British sailor more than lived up to her reputation for gritty determination as she overcame a raft of daily challenges. She made it back in 19th place and was the first British skipper to finish.
Asked about her highest and lowest points in the race she cites the first part of the Southern Ocean as the memory she most likes to relive.
“That’s where I really really started to put my foot down and overtake people,” she enthusiastically explains. “I knew I was pushing that boat harder than it had ever been pushed before. I loved that experience – I loved walking that knife edge.”
In contrast, the lowest point was not breaking a rudder near Cape Horn (to the relief of those of us following her race on social media she successfully managed to refit her spare one), but rather it was becoming crippling ill on the return section of the Atlantic from Cape Horn to the finish.
“I guess I was massively run down. I had lost a huge amount of weight and I got this terrible allergic reaction and I was really, really ill.”
Hare developed huge painful blisters all over her body making every movement she or the boat made agonising. Unable to sail the boat even close to its potential Hare had to endure the further anguish of her competitors overtaking on all sides.
“I was so disappointed with my body for letting me down,” she says. “I never thought it was going to be me that let me down. I always thought it would be the boat – and then I would fix it.”
Now Hare is back for another tilt at the Vendée Globe. Medallia are back on board and have funded the purchase of a newer foiling IMOCA 60 from 2016 for the 2024-25 edition.
With fewer than 1,000 days until the start of the race at the end of 2024, the British skipper has mapped out a busy programme for herself and her team between now and then.
“My first race is the Bermudes 1000 which is from Douarnenez to the Fastnet [Rock], to Finnistere and back – and that's a solo qualification race. Then it's the Vendee Arctique which is solo 3,500 miles around the top of Iceland and then back.
“Then I'm doing the Round Britain and Ireland in the summer. It's not part of the IMOCA circuit, but it’s a great race and I want to support our British offshore racing scene. Then it's the Route du Rhum at the end of the year.
“In 2023 we are upgrading to bigger foils which will take about six months to fit and adapt the boat. We will do a Transat Jacques Vabre, hopefully Fastnet too. Then in 2024 there are two solo transatlantics to the US and back – and then it's the Vendee Globe.”
It used to be that past Vendée Globe finishers automatically qualified for the following edition. However, new rules for the next Vendée Globe mean Hare will need to qualify again by way of her performance in the IMOCA 60 series.
The competition for a Vendée Globe spot is more intense than ever before and the qualification series is going to be intense. “There are 40 places available in the race and 52 interested teams,” Hare explains. “That means we have to finish races.”
The pressure is on for sure. Few people though would bet against Pip Hare’s guts and guile getting her to the start line for her second around-the-world adventure – when, of course, we will all be back to follow along.