Can we try and recapture our Youth? the feeling that anything is possible can be a powerful motivator for any crew says Nikki Henderson


As a team that is much younger than the rest of the competition, what superpower does that give you? That’s the question I asked of a group of teenagers this month during a sailing podcast interview.

Francesa Dougherty (aged 17), Isa Ford (15), Anna Cezik (16), Simone Ford (17) and Henry Thomas (15) make up a Race to Alaska team named ‘Rock the Boat’. They’re borrowing a Santa Cruz 27 and competing in this year’s 750-mile human-powered race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska. Oh, and if you were wondering, their theme song is the one you’re thinking of. And, yes, it was released before any of them (or me) were born.

Their nervous giggling made me think they didn’t quite see themselves as superheroes. ‘Energy and enthusiasm,’ just about summarises their bashful answer. As the ‘grown up’ in the room, it is now my prerogative to reflect on what else they could have said.

Something that struck me was how able and confident they were, in such a wonderfully humble way. Most adults see this race as adventurous, if not extreme. For these teens to even believe they can do it is a mark of impressive self-assuredness. To find a boat, spend their free time training offshore with mentors, and design and build pedal drive systems to fulfil the ‘human-powered’ (rather than sail-powered) element of the race by themselves is exceptionally resourceful.

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But as they detailed their ambitious plan, there was no arrogance, no cockiness, no overconfidence. Instead there was a lot of “No, you speak first!” giving each other space to talk, coupled with a lot of the aforementioned giggling. I’d be fascinated to watch their future sailing journeys unfold.

As we dug deeper into what ‘being young’ meant, they opened up. They feel an innate sense of responsibility as a young team. They have a sense of duty to be safe, make good decisions and compete at a high level, in order to set an example for other young teams, other young women, and other people of colour.

They hope to become role models in sailing for anyone else ‘who looks like them’ and lay a path that others can follow. Half an hour of talking later, I was feeling inspired – how brave, ambitious and optimistic adolescent energy is!

A true passion for something greater than the race itself – that’s their superpower. It’s that extra surge of energy they needed to go overnight training in the pouring rain last weekend. It’s the thing that will fire them up at 3am when they haven’t slept, and someone wakes them early to help with a sail change.

Team ‘Rock the Boat’. Photo: c/o Race 2 Alaska

It’s what will keep their frustration in check when someone inevitably doesn’t rehydrate dinner properly or forgets to flake the spinnaker sheet during a gybe. It will turn whatever result they have, even if they don’t make it to the finish line, into something that feels good for them.

I left the call with more questions than answers: always a sign of a thought-provoking conversation. Should we all be identifying more closely with our youthful selves, and embracing those ambitions that as adults we cast aside as naïve or inconsequential? I wonder if we are forgetting how powerful it is to go into a race, not to win, but ‘because it’s just so cool.’ Or even, ‘because we could affect the future’.

It’s easy to think that a relentless drive for first place is what elevates you to success. But the problem with the podium being the main motivator, is that if you fall back in the fleet so far that is no longer a realistic aim, your motivation disintegrates. Is success for you actually even winning? To me, they felt like winners because they wanted to inspire others, and I was inspired just talking to them. The race is still two months out.

The time has probably passed for any of us to believe we can change the world by racing to St Malo one weekend. But perhaps we could still find a golden thread – a deeper driver than just results – to weave into our upcoming season. (Cole Brauer making history in a hat emblazoned with the words WILD FEMINIST comes to mind, and remember, she didn’t win).

What would my greater motivation be for the summer? What would be yours? What difference could that make to us all if we flipped what ‘winning’ looks like on its head?

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