Clipper skipper Wendy Tuck is the first woman to win a round-the-world race. Helen Fretter finds out how she got there
Wendy Tuck did not set out with ambitions of breaking new ground for female sailing when she signed up for her second Clipper Round the World Race. She hadn’t even planned to do a whole circumnavigation, instead offering to do a couple of legs as a returning skipper to help out. But the opportunity came up, and Tuck knows how to make the best of chances in life.
‘Wendo’, as she is widely known, 52, grew up in New South Wales, Australia, but the yacht clubs of Sydney were not her world. Instead Tuck played soccer and, despite living in one of Sydney’s less affluent areas away from the coast, developed an inconvenient passion for surfing.
“My family had always had little fishing boats, so I’d always gone out on the ocean with Dad. But as a kid we surfed – we didn’t live close to the water so it used to take me two hours at least to get to the surf. I’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, walk an hour to the train station… all that sort of stuff. But I’ve always had a real love for the ocean.”
Sailing didn’t come onto her radar until she was in her twenties, married to an Englishman and living in Spain. Some acquaintances were selling a small twin-keeled yacht and, confident that sailing couldn’t be too much of a mystery to someone who’d grown up around fishing boats and surf breaks, Tuck decided to buy it.
“We bought this yacht with no idea how to sail,” she recalls. “When we took it out the first time we read the book and did what the book said to do, and went ‘Holy shit! We’re moving!’”
Tuck later divorced and returned to Australia, where she got chatting by chance to an older yachtsman about his wooden classic. The pair started sailing together for fun, and Tuck got a chance to develop her skills.
“We just did a few twilight races on this beautiful 30ft boat. And he taught me all the seamanship skills; we used to sail it on and off the mooring with just the two of us, and onto the pontoons just to see if we could do it! It would be blowing 40 knots in the harbour and we’d just go for a sail, because the boat loved that.”
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In her thirties, working in an unfulfilling job in a travel agent – “I was sort of not made to work in an office!” – Tuck began to wonder if sailing could offer some more interesting opportunities.
“I thought maybe I could make a career out of this, just teaching or skippering charter boats, and I wanted to get into racing. So when the travel company I was working for went bankrupt, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to go and get my first ticket.”
Ambitions to race
Tuck qualified as a sailing instructor and began working for a large Sydney charter operator. But the racing bug had struck, and Tuck wanted to do more – specifically the Sydney Hobart Race, which didn’t fit with the busy charter schedule. “Every year, I’d ask ‘Can I have the week off?’. No! So eventually I just quit being employed full time and worked freelance so I could do my first Hobart,” she recalls.
It was a risk and, although she was able to pursue more racing, competing on boats like Wild Thing and ultimately earning her place on the honours board as an 11-time Sydney Hobart veteran, it came without the security of a regular income.
“It’s tough, you’re never going to make a fortune, but I always got by. Then in winter for the last few years I started working on one of the [Sydney] ferries as well. So I was first mate, and I was thinking ‘Do I get my next ticket so I can actually drive it?’ Then I got a call up from Justin Taylor, at Clipper.”
Tuck had applied for a Clipper skipper role two races ago, and had nearly been offered a position but didn’t have the correct visa to work in the UK for the training period before the race. But the requirements changed for the 2015-16 Race and, with visa issues resolved, she skippered Da Nang Viet Nam in the race, finishing 7th.
Her first Clipper Race was tough. They were knocked down in the North Pacific. Tuck was in her bunk at the time and was knocked unconscious and suffered broken ribs.
The more enduring challenge for Tuck’s first race, and for so many skippers and participants in the Clipper race, was the challenge of managing 60 different people over the course of an 11-month race, each with varying experience levels but also with very diverse expectations, fears, and ambitions.
Completing a whole Clipper Round the World Race costs £49,500; individual legs range from £5,500 to £7,000.
By definition, the sailors who sign up for it are often driven and successful individuals with strong personalities.
Each yacht’s crew is made up of a mix of ages, gender and nationalities (Tuck says that on her first race she had a high number of Yorkshiremen on her boat: “The Aussie sense of humour is pretty similar, very blunt!”), with sailors evenly split across the fleet so each yacht has crew with different levels of sailing experience and aptitude, as well as the required numbers of medics and engineers.
Leading new crew
There are also a huge number of crew changes – just eight of Sanya’s crew completed the whole round the world course; the remaining 60 were all ‘leggers’, booked on for one or more individual stages. Getting an ever-changing balance of personalities to gel would be a big ask for any leader, let alone the sole skipper of a 70ft yacht leading a crew in a demanding and unfamiliar environment.
“The first time was a little bit tougher – we had really different personalities and not quite as much experience,” recalls Tuck. “This time I had a couple more people who could sail quite well, and everyone just gelled together. I don’t know if it was anything I did, but it was quite clear to me it was a tight knit team straight from the beginning.”
Tuck says one of the hardest aspects for the role was when crew looked to her for more emotional support than she could give. “Some people have the attitude that I’m supposed to be their entertainment manager and keep them happy the whole time. You can only make yourself happy, no one else is responsible for your happiness. I can’t help you. I can sail the boat well, but I’m not here to make you happy.”
Anyone expecting a motherly approach from Tuck was on the wrong boat: Wendo is quick to crack a smile but freely admits she’s not the most naturally compassionate person. “It’s a really horrible trait not to have but I know I don’t have it. If someone’s really injured and is really in a bad way, that’s different. But if it’s just ‘Oh I hurt my finger today,’ I’m just like ‘Man up a bit’.”
Having been persuaded to return for a second full Clipper Race, Tuck was allocated the Sanya Serenity Coast team, which got off to a strong start with a line honours finish on the gruelling opening stage from Liverpool to Uruguay. That set the tone of the race (they went on to pick up five 2nd places, and a clutch of bonus points at the various scoring gates), and the team kept a competitive attitude throughout, which clearly fitted with their skipper’s no-nonsense approach.
“There was nobody lame – there’s always someone who you might say doesn’t do anything, but there was only a couple of people that you’d want to push off the boat, which out of 60 people is not bad!” she admits honestly. They took a leg win into Tuck’s homeport of Sydney, which she rates as one of her favourite moments of the race, and was first Clipper yacht – and first female skipper – in the Sydney Hobart.
The 2017-18 edition still brought its own challenges. Tuck says the South China Sea was by far the most draining stage of the race, slaloming fishing boats and nets as they sailed to Sanya in peak trawler season. She showed me a screenshot she’d taken from the day they met “a wall of Korean fishing boats coming down towards us”. She’s not exaggerating; it looks like a military formation with nowhere for a 70ft racing yacht to go.
As skipper she was also tasked with informing her crew of major incidents, including the death of Simon Speirs in the Southern Ocean, and the grounding of Greenings off Cape Town. After the Greenings incident Clipper added a paid first mate, an ‘additionally qualified person’ on each boat besides the amateur mates. For skippers like Tuck, this changed the dynamic aboard.
“It was tough at first trying to figure out how to bring them into play. Before [they joined] I’d always sleep when I could, knowing that once it was going to be rough I would be awake. So my sleeping patterns were all over the shop, like every other skipper’s – two hours here, 20 minutes there. But then to have someone else and one of us had to be on watch all the time, it was very hard to get into that.”
Although the additional mates were introduced for safety reasons, Tuck says that some had a big impact in how some boats performed. “You knew there was someone one deck 24/7 going ‘keep this boat going fast’. So I think it will make it a lot more competitive.”
Going into the final ocean stage, an eastbound Atlantic crossing from New York to Derry/Londonderry, then on to Liverpool, Tuck’s Sanya team was in the overall lead. But when Nikki Henderson, at 24 the youngest ever Clipper Race skipper, won the race to Derry/Londonderry the overall win was still up for grabs.
However, Tuck and the Sanya team had done enough, finishing ahead of Henderson’s Visit Seattle into Liverpool to take the overall win by just four points. Asked about the record achievement on the finish, Tuck said: “I didn’t start the race with that in mind at all. To find out that’s what has happened is extraordinary.”
Tuck was the first woman to sail back-to-back Clipper races, but there has been a female skipper in seven of the last eight Clipper Races, ever since Samantha Fuller skippered New York in the 2002 edition. A decade before that Vivien Cherry skippered an entry in the 1992 British Steel Challenge – the ‘pay to race’ sector has long been ahead of the professional racing world when it comes to gender equality, and Tuck says she always felt that she has been selected purely on merit for the unique skillset required by a Clipper skipper.
That’s not to say she never met opposition – after crew allocation both Tuck and Henderson had crew tell race organisers that they did not want to be with a female skipper, or such a young skipper.
Wendo has never seen herself as a trailblazer – from soccer to surfing to sailing, she has always naturally gravitated to male-dominated sports and considers it a ‘non-issue’. But she does hope that her and Henderson’s domination of the Clipper Race might help drive things forward for female sailors. “I hope so, absolutely. Just, anything’s possible isn’t it? I love saying that: anything’s possible.”
Whether she likes it or not, Wendo is an inspiration. She tells me about a friend’s daughter’s careers day. “She’s about 13 and was asked, ‘If you could be anyone for a day who would you want to be?’ And she said me. I can never get to the end of that story because I always get teary. “Hopefully she chose a day I was sailing and not in the pub,” she adds with an earthy laugh.
Her next big project will be a six-month stint as skipper of the newly refurbished Maiden, joining the yacht on her fund-raising world voyage from Fremantle to Tokyo.
She admits that joining a skilled crew, where she won’t be responsible for the minutiae of every decision, will be something of a relief after two Clipper Races. The restored maxi may not be competing, but the crew will be trying to get the most out of her on the way, “We won’t be racing but I tell you what, we will be going fast!” Tuck says.
The girls’ education message of the Maiden Factor project appeals as well. “I got brought up in a poor area – half my form at school were pregnant by 16, so I understand the importance of education and making women’s lives better.” Whatever she does after that, it’s a fair bet that Wendy Tuck won’t let any opportunities slide through her grasp.