Fit & Fab: Come hull or high water

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 8:55am

As a photographer and surf ski distributor, Barbara Yendell spent her life watching action from afar. But that changed in 2011 when she set sail around the world, competing against other novice sailors in the renowned Clipper Race. At the time, she barely knew her way around a boat, and was scared of the open water

Before taking on the challenge, she had her doubts. "I thought, 'Is there any way I could do it?' The fear factor, being out on the ocean on this enormous yacht in these extreme conditions," she says.

But England-born Yendell, a Hong Kong resident for 22 years, just couldn't let the opportunity go. Less than a year later, she handed over the reins of her business, dug into her savings and undertook four weeks of training. She set sail with a crew of 40 other rookies in July 2011, battling high seas, roaring winds and herself. Eleven months and 65,000 kilometres later, Yendell and her crew of Gold Coast Australia emerged as the winners of 12 out of 15 of the race's stages - a Clipper record.

It wasn't just the experience of a lifetime, but an experience that made her life, she says. "It's so tough, incredibly challenging, terrifying and exhilarating. We sailed though remote waters, dodged icebergs, endured hurricane force storms and drifted for days in the doldrums," she says.

There were countless hair-raising moments, and no training could prepare her for the exhaustion of ocean sailing. Her daily routine was split into four-hour cycles - on deck, attending to duties such as cleaning and cooking, followed by precious little sleep.

"Once you get all your wet weather gear off, you'd only get about 21/2 hours' sleep, if you could fall asleep. They say that's enough, but in actual fact you feel awful," she says.

Yet the trials and the tears were worth the lasting impact the experience has had on her life. "Before the Clipper, I didn't know what direction to go in," she says. "Suddenly there was this focus. Everything I was doing was towards this goal."

Though she sometimes still gets scared in the water, sailing is now a part of her everyday life. She is training to be a skipper and hopes one day to become a yacht master.

What was the scariest moment of the Clipper Race?

When we left Cape Town heading for Western Australia, we dipped into the [strong westerly winds] Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean. There was very big wind and high seas. It was night and in that weather the boat suddenly spun on its side, wrapping the spinnaker [the front sail] around the forestay [the metal rod running from the bow to the top]. It was mayhem. While usually you could steer yourself out of it, as it was early in the race, the crew was still inexperienced. The skipper had to get on a harness and climb up to get the spinnaker down. He was hanging from a rope, and because of all the wind he kept getting thrown around like a rag doll. We thought he was dead. That was my first memory of being absolutely scared beyond belief.

There must have also been a feeling of excitement as well?

At that point, no. Looking back on those early times, I was just really scared. I had knots in my stomach, wondering what was going to happen next. But there was an incredible wildness in it all, which was also beautiful. We didn't see anything for weeks. There were no aircraft overhead, no boats. It's strange, you feel like you're at the bottom of the world. There was a sense of excitement in that.

Was there a moment when everything felt right?

There were definitely a few, certainly when experiencing the natural beauty and peace. Being away from computers, phones and technology, and realising there's so much more to life than the frenzied life we live here in Hong Kong. We're so trapped in our little shell of obligations and have pressures on our time. But out there you slip into a different zone and it's very calming. You know what you have to do, and when you have to do it. And you realise you don't need all the trappings of modern life. As long as you're dry, you've got some clothes and something to eat, those are the main things.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned from the race?

You can push yourself so far beyond what you think is possible. When you think you've reached your highest level of fear or tiredness, or wanting to get off really badly, you can go beyond it. I remember a moment in the Pacific Ocean where I was in the "snake pit" [where there are a lot of ropes and winches] during a horrible storm and had to be ready to throw up ropes or slam different things. I was so frightened. But after the storm had passed, I just thought, "I got through that". It's amazing how tough you can be, if you really have to be.

What's been the biggest change in you?

I don't think I take so much notice of what people think any more. I used to be very concerned about what people thought about me. Now I just think, "I don't really care, actually". Looking back on it, I feel an enormous sense of achievement.