In the South Pacific Ocean north of Sydney, in the early weeks of 2018, a 70-foot racing yacht was propelled by a light wind when the skipper noticed something. At just 24 years old, skipper Nikki Henderson is responsible for the Visit Seattle yacht and all 20 crew, some who’d never sailed before joining the Clipper Round the World Race. She spotted the nasty-looking cloud on the horizon—“like a big car moving in”—as it raced toward them with winds up to 80 knots.
From a dock in Sanya, China, a few weeks later, the Brit held a celebratory beer and recalled, over the phone, her crew’s actions with pride: They dropped sails just in time to avoid being bowled over by the storm. “When the team works well,” she says, “it’s a slick maneuver.”
More people have stood atop Mount Everest than have sailed around the globe, but since the mid-1990s this race has added to that tally. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who logged history’s first nonstop sea circumnavigation in 1969, launched the race with a fleet of identical racing yachts and amateur crews. Over 11 months and eight legs, 12 sponsored boats link ports on six continents. This year the Mighty Pacific Leg began March 23 from Qingdao, China, and will end 5,528 miles later in Seattle. The fleet will dock in Bell Harbor Marina mid-April and depart April 29. The yachts are open for tours during the layover.
In 2016, Gig Harbor marketing executive Dave Benz saw Visit Seattle parked at Bell Harbor; before the fleet departed he’d applied for this year’s race, a plan that led him to retire early. As a legger—only a fraction of the 712 participants are round-the-worlders—he crewed for Leg 4 and will reboard in Seattle for Leg 7, to again cram his gear into a foot-wide cubby and join one of the yacht’s two teams, Seahawks Watch and Mariners Watch.
Though Benz had sailed before, like many Clipper crew members he’d never braved the ocean. Participants undergo four weeks of training and total newbies are welcome: “They have no bad habits and we can build from there,” reasons Henderson. Still, round-the-worlders shell out about $62,000, while leggers pay at least $7,500 per section.
The ocean doesn’t play; this year one yacht ran aground near Cape Town, and three fatalities have been recorded over 11 races, including a 60-year-old man who fell overboard in November 2017. This year skippers gained first mates: Visit Seattle’s Nqoba Mswazi is the first black South African to earn the distinction of Yachtmaster.
Ask Henderson why she spends the whole year inching around the globe, and she laughs that she could list reasons forever: “Escape real life. Hit the reset button. Meet loads of really cool people,” she says.
“Sailing is the best way to be free, as free as you can be in this world.”