It's friendly, easy to get started and exhilarating, says transatlantic sailing veteran Hannah White
‘I rushed to the top of the mast. I was tired, hungry and being bashed about. Then I realised I’d left my descending gear at the bottom and was stuck 50ft up in the middle of the ocean on my own in the dark,’ says Hannah White.
In 2005, she was the youngest female to compete in the OSTAR race, one of the world’s toughest single-handed transatlantic sailing events. In 2009, she went back for more and, with only three months of preparation, finished in second place.
‘Normally you’d have a crew to winch you up and down. It’s not like I could reach into my back pocket and pull out my mobile phone to call a mate and ask for help because I was two days away from any other human life,' Hannah recalls.
The race begins at Plymouth, UK, and finishes more than 3,000 nautical miles across the water in Newport, Rhode Island in the US.
‘I had visions of being found as a skeleton of my former myself, hanging from the top of my mast.’
After crying for a while, then realising that wouldn’t help, Hannah found the courage to free-climb down to safety and shelter from the night’s storm.
'I look back at those hairy moments and I think I could have died out there.'
Still only 29, Hannah’s extensive sailing and TV career has seen her present international events including the extreme sailing series in Italy, Brazil and France; the world’s premier offshore Volvo Ocean Race and more recently, the London 2012 Olympics live sailing.
She believes the sport has definitely increased her confidence. ‘If I ever feel like I’m struggling with something, I just look back to that time when I was stuck up the mast and then the moment I crossed the finish line – which was unquestionably the best day of my life – and I don’t have any excuses to give up then.’
No time for fear
Left to single-handedly command a huge boat and battle through rough ocean waves would be enough to scare anyone, let alone close shaves like Hannah experienced. ‘Being a good sailor is all about reacting to the situation and preparing for what the sea throws at you,’ she says.
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Start sailing: just jump aboard
Hannah discovered sailing in her schoodays, while on holiday with a friend’s family. ‘They invited me one summer and that was it. I didn’t look back.’ She took a few courses and then joined her local club.
It may seem like a difficult or daunting sport to start but Hannah believes it’s actually really easy, especially when sailing bigger boats, which need a crew. ‘There are always noticeboards [in sailing clubs] with people advertising crew wanted. There are lots of courses or opportunities to try it for a day, too.
‘It’s a sport you can just go along to and get involved with. But be totally honest about your experience. People are always willing to help and teach you. It’s a very friendly sport so don’t be afraid.’
Hannah says although sailing is perceived as an elitist sport, it is accessible for everyone. ‘A 40ft boat takes 10 to 20 people to race it, but only one person needs to own it. People who own those boats can’t race them on their own. Sometimes finding a crew can be the biggest headache for them. If you can show you’re keen, willing, want to learn and you’re committed - then getting a spot on a boat is not a difficult thing.’
A man's world
Sailing is a sport that women are naturally good at, says Hannah. ‘You have to be an all-rounder, good at multi-tasking and be a team player.'
Yet sailing is a male-dominated sport and Hannah believes she’s still a woman in a man’s world. ‘Not only do you have to be good - you have to be better. Being able to keep up is not enough. If you’re at the same level as a man you are still seen as not as good.’
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A sailor's workout
To be strong enough to sail alone Hannah focuses on her upper body, especially her back, with upright rows and flyes. She does lots of light reps rather than lifting heavy weights.
Her training is also about injury prevention. ‘You need to be fit enough to survive in pretty harsh conditions with very little sleep or food.’
At sea, you burn 3000-5000 calories a day, while surviving on mainly freeze-dried food – what Hannah calls a posh Pot Noodle. ‘Leading up to a race I just try to put on weight so that when I’m at sea I can still function.’
While sailing is a great form of exercise, it’s also an extremely sociable sport. ‘I guarantee every time you go sailing you will meet a new bunch of likeminded people.
‘Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, is the biggest sailing regatta in the world. Nearly 1,000 boats take part. On average each boat has six or seven people and the biggest boats have nearly 20. That’s a lot of people to meet and hang out with.’
Hannah dreams of sailing around the world, but right now she’s swapped her boat for a bicycle and earlier this month cycled almost 100 miles across North Wales in the Etape Cymru.
Find out what Hannah’s up to via her website or follow her on twitter @hannahwhiteuk
Fancy giving sailing a try? Check the RYA website for courses
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