No matter how technologically advanced our sport gets, it’s the humans that make the difference, says Nikki Henderson


Gripped by the nail-biting battle at the finish for line honours of the Sydney Hobart race, as the leaders were heading up the Derwent River, I was 455 miles east of Martinique on day 14 of a transatlantic, glued to updates through a temperamental Starlink connection.

It was the second-closest finish in race history. It never ceases to blow my mind that a 600-mile race can come down to seconds.

We’ve all said it before when racing (particularly when you are at the back!): “It’s not over, until it’s over. Anything can happen.” But it’s when we see a finish like that, where we are reminded that nothing is set in stone until the finish gun sounds. Things can change quickly – a breakage on one of the front runner boats, an underdog’s flyer suddenly paying off, or simple human error can make what seems impossible suddenly within grasp.

Close finishes happen in all sports. But there’s something particularly engrossing about a cliffhanger end to an endurance race. That contrast between the closeness of the finish and the length of the competition sparks strong. It’s why the media goes wild for a sprint finish battle of the Tour de France after a gruelling 170km stage of riding – exhaustion and elation together.

But it’s not just the length of these races that makes close finishes in endurance events so amazing. There is something deeper that ties together a 12-hour ironman and 12-day trans-ocean sailing. Success in these kinds of competitions is not just about ‘going faster’. Endurance events are as much about humanity as they are about sport.

How do you consistently perform over a long period of time? How do you manage rest and nutrition? What importance do you put on mental and emotional wellbeing? When should you take your foot off the gas, and when should you make your move to push forward? Do you carry all the tools to fix breakages and weigh yourself down, or do you play conservatively and gamble on not incurring damage? Is it worth using energy to maintain team dynamics? Should you ever prioritise speed over safety?

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There is so much more to weigh up than first meets the eye. What looks like a simple question of ‘how do we make the boat go as fast as possible?’ becomes an intricate web of decisions that are more about the humans than the machine. LawConnect finishing just 51 seconds before Comanche isn’t just down to having consistency of speed or a fast boat (quite the opposite, in fact, owner Christian Beck gave a self-deprecating speech at the prizegiving, in which he admitted that LawConnect, which he referred to as a ‘sh*tbox’, was not as fast or well-funded as their rivals).

Instead it’s down to a consistency of behaviour, a winning culture and team ethos. It’s a delicate push and pull balancing the skipper and tactican’s gut feeling of when to play it safe one minute, versus the conviction to take a risk the next. And when the finish comes down to the wire, we all naturally want to know, of this complex tapestry of ‘winning factors’, which one was the key to victory?

As our sport becomes faster, and the boats look more like space-ships than sailing vessels, we understandably attribute more and more of the success story to technology, mechanics, and engineering excellence. But let’s never forget that it doesn’t matter how good the equipment is if we still rely on sailors to operate it.

Offshore racing stretches not only the craft, but also the crew, to their limits. Understanding how to get the most out of people is just as, if not more, important as the techy bits. Leadership, empathy, sensitivity – understanding psychology – these softer skills win races (in the right boat of course).

So, when watching any race finish, look to the human side of the success story if you want to really understand it and learn from it. There is an immense depth to offshore and ocean racing.

In fact, there’s an immense depth to any kind of sailing when it involves long passages. As I’m out here, writing from the mid-Atlantic, I can attest! Our safe passage has been more than just good weather routing and a strong boat. It’s been about getting the most out of the tools at hand – the most valuable of which is the people on board.

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