Shana Bagley – Clipper Round the World Yacht Race
Published on April 15th, 2010
(April 15, 2010) Forty year old Shana Bagley will leave on Monday (April 19) from San Francisco as a crew-member aboard California, the only US entry in the current edition of the 2009-10 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
The race is nearing the end of its ten-month route that takes the fleet of ten identical racing yachts across all the world’s major oceans and visit ports on six continents during the 35,000-mile race around the planet.
Bagley, a deputy attorney general from Walnut Creek in Northern California, sailed Leg 1 of the race and loved it so much that she immediately signed up for two more legs. Her only regret is that she didn’t sign up for the entire event.
Sailing journalist Michelle Slade caught up with Shana this week to learn more about racing around the world in an event where the crew pays their way:
Where did you start the race?
I did the initial boat delivery, a kind of a feeder race before the race start. Clipper owns all ten of the race boats and keeps them in Gossport, England. The race start was in Hull, on the northeastern coast of England, so we had to take the boats there before the race started. I got on the boat last August, the race started September 13, and I stayed on until the end of Leg 1 in Rio de Janeiro (BRA). We raced to La Rochelle (FRA), which took about three days, a fairly fast race, good weather, the Bay of Biscay was cooperative, and we had a few days in La Rochelle to get the boat ready for the big race across the Atlantic to Rio. The finish for me was the end of October, after 32 days, the longest I had ever been at sea. I’ve been off the boat since then. I can’t wait to leave on Leg 6 (from San Francisco to Jamaica), I am so excited.
How did you choose the legs of this event that you wanted to do?
I originally signed up for just one leg because it was all I could afford. It’s about five thousand pounds per leg on average, depending on the length. I wanted to check off a few boxes so I made a chart of all the legs, how long they took, whether it was a warm leg or cold leg, if there was something significant – ocean crossing, equatorial crossing – and made my evaluation from there. I chose Leg 1 and immediately after signing up I realized one leg wouldn’t be enough so I signed up for Leg 7, which is the very end – Jamaica to New York to Nova Scotia, Ireland, Netherlands and back to England. Then, shortly after that I added Leg 6, which starts here in San Francisco in a few days and goes to Panama and then to Jamaica. I wanted to add Leg 2 so that it would be balanced but my employer wouldn’t give me the time off. For some people one leg isn’t enough; I really wanted to do the entire thing but I didn’t have the time or money, and at the time I was married. It just wasn’t possible. But now, I really wished I had done the whole thing. I could have skipped crossing the north Pacific but again, if you’re going to do a circumnavigation, that’s all part of the package.
What’s the most compelling experience you had on Leg 1?
When I started the race, what I thought I was going to really get out of it was how to be a much better sailor. But, as the race went on, I realized you automatically become a better sailor, because you’re out there doing things you’d never normally do sailing around the cans in the Bay: working by an immediate watch system, nonstop racing for weeks not hours, constantly trimming, working as a team again for weeks not hours, not one evolution can be completed by one person, it takes an entire team. You are at the mercy of the elements, of the sea, and of your boat. The race is not delayed due to weather or sea state. You must keep racing. It’s so different to weekend sailing.
But, what I found out was that the harder challenge and the greater accomplishment was learning how to be adaptable, learning how to deal with difficult people, or people who don’t think like I do. Everyone’s under stress, everyone’s tired, how to make the most of a bad situation. It was more about learning about yourself, not just your physical limits but your mental and emotional limits, and appreciating people who may be completely different than you – you may disagree on every issue – but you learn to think of them as family. Every body on board, we were all so different but also connected so that by the end of the race it was very hard for me to leave. I felt like my home and my family was sailing away without me so I am very excited to be back on board for the next two legs.
What’s the nationality make-up of the crew aboard California?
Most of our 42 crew are from the UK but some are from Australia, Germany, Singapore, and our skipper was born in London but lives in South Africa. They all have different kinds of jobs, from truck driver to building contractor to lawyer to project manager. So there are people from all kinds of backgrounds and that’s what makes it interesting. It was learning to see the world in 17 different ways. We could all look at the same horizon but we’d all see something different. We started with 10 round-the-worlders and lost one who had insufferable sea sickness. He made it for three legs and finally couldn’t take it anymore. Most are only doing one leg but several of us have signed up for two or three. So I get to come back with some of the people I raced with in the beginning. I’m really looking forward to being back together again.
There’s always some criticism of this race because many of the crew are new to sailing and are paying for a berth. Did you really feel like you were racing out there?
We are because we’re constantly acting to make the boat go faster – evaluating the weather, evaluating the predicted weather, evaluating sail trim. California hit wind hole after wind hole for most of the 32-day crossing on Leg 1. There were squalls and nasty bits but most was slow going. It literally followed us the entire way. Our meteorological data is very limited on board and it is especially limited near Brazil due to its own limited projections. Few boats had sympathy for our plight until later legs when they suffered the same ordeal. (Shana laughs). So, you’re racing when there’s no wind and you’re racing when there’s a squall. We’re not going for a ride around the world – we’re constantly working to make the boat go faster.
Who is the person on board who maintains that pressure?
There are several people. There’s the skipper, and on our boat, the way the watches are set up, we have two watches with two watch leaders and they each have an assistant watch leader, so that’s five people who are pushing to race the boat faster. If the boat goes a little off course, a head will always pop out of the companionway to ask what’s happening. There are also crew who will call out, “Okay guys, let’s sit on the rail, let’s go!” So, there are certainly motivators within the crew. But there are also those who are there just to say that they have sailed across an ocean and those are the ones who you have to encourage. We all want to win but at the same time we want to enjoy ourselves. Our boat is competitive but we also have a very cohesive crew and we take care of each other. We would risk losing a place in the race to take care of a fellow crew-member or to stay happy. There are boats in the race which are super competitive but the crew doesn’t necessarily get along in port. I think we’ve already won the race because of our cohesiveness as a crew. We still have a good time even though we’re racing hard. We haven’t crossed that line where we’re racing so hard that it’s no longer fun. It is ten months of racing, not just a couple of hours.
What’s your current standing?
We’re ten out of ten right now but we’ve had a series of disasters along the way. On the way from Rio to Cape Town we were at the front end of the fleet when our steering wheel fell off. We couldn’t fix it because the shaft that it sits on had sheared in half and we didn’t have the replacement part so we had to finish the race using emergency steering which wasn’t as efficient and we lost our place at the front of the fleet. On the most recent leg across the Pacific, we were in second place when we were rolled and dismasted. It’s been one battle after another. We’ve had problems with our spinnakers – they are on strops instead of being on a sheave so the strops have chafed time and time again so we’ve lost a spinnaker into the sea which we had to then pull out, costing us time. We then did a 48 hour sail repair down below because it ripped from head to foot. We have a sail repair team on board but it takes up the whole saloon. The bunks are in the forward part of the boat so in order for someone to get to the head or have a meal, they’d have to climb out the forward hatch, clip on and go across the deck and back down through the companionway. It was trying for everyone, not only the sail repair team who were exhausted and had to be down below for all that time with the boat bouncing around.
How do you like the boat?
I really like it – it could be drier, but then no ocean racing boat is dry. It handles very well for such a big boat under immense load and pressure, the helm is very balanced. Part of that I think is because it’s a cutter rig so you have more options for how much sail area you have out. This boat is on its third circumnavigation so its getting a bit tired. They’re not Volvo or America’s Cup boats where things break all the time and there’s millions of dollars at hand to fix them; they’re just sturdy. At the same time, our wheel falling off, just when you think you’ve seen it all. One of our mottos is, “You just can’t make this up!” Upgrades and dual helms are in store for the next version of these boats. When you have 18-19 people on board, you have no personal space but it is still comfortable enough. We find a way to make it work.
Does everyone have to helm?
Everyone shares on all of the duties on deck, but some people are more specialized in bad weather, there’s always someone who’ll go up the mast or up the spinnaker pole – if anyone wants to do it, they can, but some people just realize their limits – that they either don’t want to do it or they’re just not good at it. I still have a lot to learn, I used to be terrible at the helm; they used to call me crazy Ivan because I would suddenly turn in the wrong direction for no apparent reason. In calmer conditions I was able to get down to within 5 degrees – the game I played with myself in the middle of the night was to keep the straightest course as possible.
How is the shift system on board?
Four hours on and four hours off during the day, 8am to 8pm, then at night, it’s three hours on and three hours off. Instead of one watch always having the sunrise or the sunset, every day is different. We typically have nine people on every watch, including the watch leader and the ‘mother’ watch, which is cooking and cleaning for 24 hours, so you’ll have one person from each watch on ‘mother’ watch. Some people consider that a break because you get to have a shower and a full night’s rest, but it takes you out of the racing action so you feel like you missed out on a whole day. Comes up once every nine days. It also disrupts your sleep pattern – you may get a full night’s rest but when you go back to getting only two hours of sleep a night, you have to readjust to the old sleeping pattern. It only takes me about two days to adjust to the sleeping, you just have to deal with it. Everyone else feels the same way… you don’t want to get out of your bunk, it’s cold and dark, you have to get your kit on with the boat bouncing around. I found I’d wake up before I had to because I didn’t want to be the last person up, I didn’t want to disappoint people, I wanted to be the first one there. Maybe that’s just me. But always something would happen. We had one head that didn’t work too well so if you were stuck in that head, you had to give yourself a good ten minutes so that you could make sure you could flush everything before you got back up on deck! The trick is to use the head before you get on all of your kit because it takes so much time if you have to go in the middle of your watch.
What was the worst weather you experienced?
Definitely when we did the feeder race/boat delivery, we hit a storm on the North Sea that had up to Force 11 winds. For 24 hours it was really bad, winds gusting to 45, lots of weather helm, very difficult to steer because of the short chop, the driving rain into your face, we now have a helmet with goggles. The boat handled wonderfully in that weather but because the North Sea is so choppy and swells came from every direction, I was seasick for the first time and that was the 12 worst hours of my life. I knew I’d recover but it was more like I felt I was disappointing everybody up on deck – it was storming and the rain felt like it was ripping the skin of your face, it was cold and wet and there I was down below warm and dry.
How’s the food?
I think the food is fine but some people complain – I guess if you’re eating the same thing for 10 months it’s easy to get sick of it. We all do the cooking; we have a set menu for each day. Two of our crew are chefs in former lives so they helped put together a very nutritional menu. We have no refrigeration so lots of tinned meat, dried fruit. We all eat at the same time and it’s a big challenge to get 18 hot meals out at once in a bouncing galley. It’s a comedy of errors down there trying to keep things in the pot. We have fresh stuff for the first week. Meals on the other boats aren’t so good, as there are no real guide lines, each boat is responsible for putting together it’s own food plan, it’s part of the program, team building.
Does everyone on your boat have previous sailing experience?
Sort of. Clipper has a very rigorous training program. We have at least 30 days of training on these boats in the UK. We take a navigation and meteorology class. I have taken survival and marine first aid in addition. I only started sailing four years ago so in the grand scheme of things, I don’t have that much experience. There are people who have sailed their whole lives, and there are certainly people in the fleet who have never sailed before – they’re just crazy and fall in love with sailing as they did after their Clipper training. So it’s a broad spectrum of sailing experience. I think Clipper has found that people who don’t have much of a background make the best sailors because you can train them – they don’t have any bad habits.
When you sign up for a leg, does that include the training?
Yes, and it includes a full set of branded oilskins (foul weather gear). Even after going through the training they can de-select you, and you can de-select yourself, the training itself was worth the price. I have taken classes in the Bay Area and loved them, but there’s nothing like being on a boat with people who are also new to racing big boats with great trainers. It’s a great sense of accomplishment.
Was there a point on Leg 1 where you’d had enough?
Surprisingly, I was waiting for one of those moments, where I thought, “What have I signed up for? Get me off this ship!” That never happened even when I was bouncing a foot off my bunk over and over again, damp and unshowered – I loved every minute of it. But on Day 30 we were stuck in another wind hole so we took the time to clean the boat because we were going to have a very short turn around time in Rio. So I spent three hours in the lazarette sponging it out. I had bilge water all over me and I smelled something terrible. It was that moment when I thought I could really be in port right now, because all the other boats were in, they were showered, they had cold beer and steak, while I think we were on emergency rations because the trip took a few extra days longer than planned. We only showered once every nine days and a shower was a small pitcher of fresh water. You’re sticky five minutes later because it’s so hot and humid. I didn’t think I smelled until day 30 but am sure I was wrong.
Another hard thing about this race is the extreme highs and lows. I think it feels that way because you are so exhausted. One day I was helming under spinnaker and finally found that groove, where I felt like I was driving the boat through the spinnaker – I never had to look at the instruments; I was always on course and just felt one with the boat, with the wind. It was an amazing feeling. About two hours later the spinnaker stop failed and it dropped in the water and ripped in two. I started crying like a baby. It wasn’t while I was helming but here you feel like you’re this big tough ocean racer when it just takes something one little thing to happen and you get a tear in your eye and think you just can’t take any more. We had been doing so well, going fast and catching up. It seems like every time we’re in the lead or we’re getting ready to charge, something breaks. We’re very resilient now.
How do you think California can work to be more competitive on the next legs?
When we started the race we were being really conservative – we only got one set of sails and we knew that they had to get us around the world and that the boat had to make it around the world. Now that we have seen what she can do in really bad weather, we know how far we can push her without being unsafe and being at risk of causing damage. So we’ll keep that competitive edge and push harder. It’s a matter of racing every minute, checking sail trim constantly as opposed to sitting back and taking a rest, which I think tends to happen after you’ve been racing week in and out. But you can’t, you just have to keep going. Pushing each other, one thing we’ve started to do is to have a competition between the two watches so that we’re not just competing against the other boats, we’re competing against each other, friendly competition, you know fastest time at the helm, best speed over ground for the watch, and the occasional press up competition. We do press ups and planks if we are stuck in light weather to pass the time of day and stay fit.
What’s next for Shana? How do you see yourself fitting back to 9-5?
The hardest part of this race is not the weather, it’s not the lack of sleep, it’s not diaper rash for two months. It’s more like, what am I going to do when this is over, because it has become my life as it has everyone else’s on the crew. We’re in our own universe, we all take care of each other, we’ve all been through the same experiences. I definitely want to keep sailing, I want to do boat deliveries, more ocean crossings, and I’d love to have a Transpac in there, a Sydney to Hobart. Instead of starting to look locally, I am going to look globally. I race on small boats now – Santana 35, Santa Cruz 27, an Olson 911, and I’d really like to find a big boat campaign. I’ll be at sea for the next four months so I haven’t really started looking for that, but I’d like to more off-shore racing. Bigger plans – move somewhere warm and be in some sort of career than involves sailing. But, for right now, I like my job and it pays for the sailing I do now! It’s a matter of my horizons being wide open now, and I’m listening! But being realistic, I need to have a plan, and right now I don’t have one.