Founded by former Merchant Navy officer turned pioneering yachtsman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1996, the Clipper race is the world’s longest ocean adventure, and is also regarded as one of the toughest endurance challenges on the planet. This year, former Royal Fleet Auxiliary officer Peter Thornton led one of the 12 teams competing against each other in the matched fleet of 70ft ocean racing yachts. It’s no easy thing — around 40% of crew are novices and have never sailed before starting a comprehensive training programme ahead of their race. Peter’s yacht, Great Britain, came third overall and he was delighted with that.
‘We aimed for a podium finish and we achieved it,’ he says. ‘The crew deserved it.’ The experience was all that he had hoped. ‘Good in many ways,’ he says. ‘Not only in the enjoyment of the extreme sailing and seeing how much it really does change people’s lives, but one of the most enjoyable elements was being able to share that around the world through the growing media coverage. We could use this to promote the race partners such as the UK government’s Great Britain campaign, and show how well that fits into what the race stands for, and we could also give the crew’s friends and family the experience of staying involved throughout every up and down the race throws at us.’
Training and preparation proved vital, Peter adds. ‘I would have liked more time to concentrate on this area, but the run-up to the start was tight. The crews have their own lives to live and organise before arriving for their leg of the race. It was obvious to see how much better the sailing was towards the end due to the round the world and multi leg crew who had settled into their roles.
‘Having said that, no matter how much training and prep any of the teams complete, I believe there will always be elements that really test all of the teams. It is ocean racing after all, where bits break and people get tired.’ The race is organised into eight legs, and on each of these there were different crews onboard.
‘There were periods of gelling well, and periods of not so,’ Peter admits. ‘That’s not unexpected due to the differing backgrounds and the complexities of time onboard between circumnavigators, multi-leggers and single-leggers, but also every individual’s reasons for being on the race as well.
Some people are naturally more competitive than others, which can be difficult to link in high pressure and tiring conditions. ‘Having a turnover is not as challenging as some may think because it’s all about attitude and effort,’ he stresses. ‘It was obvious to see that even if an individual was not the most experienced sailor, if their mentality was to help in whatever way they could then that made a huge difference — often in a much more significant way than they realise.’ Peter said his yacht performed well. ‘They feel tough and overspecced compared to what they could be — which is what you want in the conditions we faced and who we have onboard,’ he explains. ‘In risk assessing you want to know your weakest links so that you can add extra safety measures and monitor them.
This was proven in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race when almost a third of the entries were forced to retire and the entire Clipper 70 fleet completed the race safely and intact. That was a remarkable achievement for the crew, and everyone arrived into Hobart on a high.’ Not surprisingly, conditions on the race varied from calm seas to hurricane force winds. ‘The North Pacific was relentless, and on the third week of the crossing I was actually looking forward to the winds reducing to a steady Gale 8 just for a small respite before the next frontal system roared on through,’ Peter recalls.
‘However, the worst was always when stuck in light and fluky winds with boats less than a mile from you that managed to pick up a little more wind and simply sail away into the distance while you’re still stuck.’ His highlights included completing the first leg into Rio after a gruelling four weeks with a brand new green crew, winning into Cape Town, fourth leg racing around Australia and completing the North Pacific crossing with an intact boat — not to mention ‘racing from Panama to New York and blasting pretty much through the centre of Tropical Storm Colin. And motoring up the Thames at the end’.
Lowlights were the typical frustrations of racing and the way that sail choice, weather, currents, and failures can set back progress. ‘It’s not so bad when you can work hard and find your way back into the mix, but difficult to find that extra effort to keep going strong when there is seemingly only luck that you have left to make a difference,’ Peter notes. ‘All you can do is continue to sail as best as you can for the duration, no matter how long that may be, and simply get on with it, but it can be tough to keep the boat racing and spirits up. As always, it always happens at night and it’s never just one little thing.’
The Clipper teams have so far raised more than £240,000 for the Unicef charity.
What was Peter most looking forward to returning home for? ‘A bit of a rest, for sure, and refresh,’ he replies. ‘Not thinking about the yacht every waking (and most sleeping) moments! Take numerous showers whenever I like! Going for a surf!’ He says he has learned a huge amount about people management and witnessing human endurance by those who didn’t think they had it in them. ‘If anything, this has fired me up for more racing and leadership expeditions, promoting the UK and around all of this, driving forward my underlying maritime career and interests in “performance related satisfaction” — my new buzz term! I just need to figure out how. Any ideas?’