Sally Barkow: Ready to climb a new mountain

Published on January 8th, 2014

American Sally Barkow has been sailing most of her life, competing in the Olympics and spending hours on the water racing to cross the finish line ahead of her competitors.

The finish line for her next race is quite a bit in the distance. Like more than 39,000 nautical miles.

The Nashotah, WI native was recently selected to an all-female crew competing in the prestigious Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world race. Sponsored by a Swedish hygiene and forest products company, Team SCA will be the first all-female crew to compete in the Volvo race in more than a decade.

Barkow, 33, competed in the Beijing Olympic Games, was twice named the U.S. Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and has won many races. But the longest race she’s sailed lasted just five days in the waters off Malta. Her next race will last eight months.

“The Volvo Ocean Race was always a distant dream for me unless there was an all-female team,” Barkow said in an interview at her parents’ home during a brief visit this month.

Because physical strength is key in such a long and arduous competition, rarely have women been selected for Volvo racing crews over the last few decades. Consequently, there are no women with Volvo racing experience, so Team SCA has built the 11-member team in stages, with Barkow the latest to be named to the team.

So far she’s the only American.

Barkow was the Collegiate Women’s National Champion in 2002 while at Old Dominion University and finished seventh overall in Yngling Class at the Beijing Olympics. Until now, her bread and butter has been small sailing boats on short courses in races that last a few hours.

But this will be a new mountain to climb. Big boat. Big Ocean. Long race. But the goal is the same. “It’s like going from driving a horse and buggy to a Ferrari. That’s taking a little bit of time to get used to,” Barkow said.

When Barkow heard in 2012 an all-female team was being formed to compete in what was formerly called the Whitbread Round the World Race, she submitted an application.

She was invited to the team’s base in Lanzarote, Spain, in late 2012 and early 2013 for a trial sail, essentially a tryout. She was contacted again last summer and asked to come back for more sailing. Last month she learned she had been chosen.

“We see a lot of potential in Sally. She brings a competitive racing pedigree to the team, and although she is inexperienced in offshore racing, she is a fast learner and a very good team player,” Team SCA coach Brad Jackson said in an email. “She is a good communicator and very motivated to do this race.”

Hundreds of applications were submitted by female sailors from around the world. Around 40 have been invited to participate in sailing trials in the Canary Islands.

All Volvo Ocean Race teams will use the same boats — 65-foot-long high-performance racing yachts that are five feet shorter than those used in the race three years ago. The difference in length and lighter sails have evened the playing field somewhat for an all-female crew, Barkow said.

Her job on the boat is driver/trimmer, meaning she’s sometimes at the helm steering the ship and sometimes controlling the sails through winches that resemble coffee grinders on pedestals. Like everyone on the crew, though, Barkow is learning how to perform all jobs onboard.

While Team SCA is spending as much time as possible on the water getting to know the pink-and-blue-painted vessel and learning to work together as one unit, the sailors are also in the gym every day lifting weights to build muscle and boost upper-body strength.

The race starts Oct. 4 in Alicante, Spain, on an easterly route: South Africa, Abu Dhabi, China, New Zealand, Brazil, Newport, R.I., Portugal and France, before finishing in Sweden the following June. Comforts will be few. Team SCA sailors will follow a rotating schedule of four hours on, four hours off, with freeze dried food to supply calories.

Through onboard video cameras, spectators will be able to watch the races around the clock and pose questions via Team SCA’s Facebook page.

Barkow’s parents, Dick and Leslie, who met while sailing on Pine Lake in Nashotah, plan to travel to a few of the race’s ports. All five of their children are good sailors, and their son, Carl, competed in the America’s Cup in 1999.

They’re happy for their daughter but also nervous because the route traverses some of the most treacherous waters in the world.

“The great thing is we’ll be able to go online and always see where she is,” Leslie Barkow said.

The Barkows are not surprised Sally wanted to participate in the Volvo Ocean Race. She’s always been a competitor. When she was 12 she raced against her three older brothers for the first time. Her folks told her if she beat them they would buy Sally her own 16-foot X boat.

“When she got back to the dock, she said, ‘Make mine pink,'” recalled her mother.

“We did,” added Dick Barkow. “So it’s ironic she’ll be sailing around the world in a pink boat.”

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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