Pip Hare – Against all odds
In the last of three features on RORC women members competing in the Vendée Globe, Pip Hare shares her thoughts with James Boyd in the build-up to the start.
While a lot of the hype surrounding the Vendée Globe focuses on the front end of the fleet, the new generation of gravity-defying foilers and who might win, the heart of the solo non-stop round the world race lies at the back of the fleet. Frequently it is the stories of the tailenders which resonate most with the public and the event’s fans.
Very much in this vein is the against-all-odds campaign of Britain’s Pip Hare. As an indication of what is possible if adequately determined and motivated, Hare came to shorthanded offshore racing relatively late, aged 35. She completed her second Mini Transat just seven years ago and yet here she is today with an IMOCA, better still an IMOCA emblazoned with a sponsor’s name. Impressively, unlike compatriots Sam Davies and Miranda Merron, she has achieved this without living in France and being integral to the French shorthanded scene. She seems mildly shocked and surprised that she has made it this far; her childhood dream become reality – ‘I’ve made it to the start line of the VENDEE GLOBE!’ This perhaps explains the semi-permanent grin she constantly attempts to conceal.
Coming from Huntingdon in landlocked Cambridgeshire, the Hare family owned a Folkboat and then a Moody 33 which was moored on the River Deben near Ipswich. Pip fondly remembers holidays down the Dutch coast with eight of her family crammed on board. Despite her cruising roots, Pip always aspired to race, first from reading about the Whitbread Round the World Race, then being completely caught up in the classic tomes of the solo sailors, and especially the women, notably Isabelle Autissier and latterly Ellen MacArthur. Thanks to this Pip knew from an early age that this was what she wanted to do but had no idea how to achieve it. As she puts it: “I was always too shy to walk the docks and ask for a place on a boat or whatever.”
Ultimately upon leaving school she moved closer to the centre of the action on the south coast and made her way, mostly, within the marine trade. She did an apprenticeship with a sailing school, gained her RYA Professional Yachtmaster qualification and worked for Sunsail. But her main break was with 5 Star Sailing: “I was teaching the cruising courses for them, but as a result I ended up racing quite a lot and then I did a lot of match racing with them.”
Aside from working on a building site for two years and more recently spending three with the RNLI, she has otherwise been constantly in the marine industry. However jobs have been diverse, including a stint on superyachts (‘I decided that cooking and cleaning wasn’t for me’) and spending two years in New Zealand that culminated in her working on the former Whitbread maxi Lion New Zealand and getting to meet one of her childhood heroes – the late Sir Peter Blake.
During the 2000s she spent eight years cruising the world, usually shorthanded aboard her Lightwave 395 wittily christened The Shed, commuting from wherever she was to work. One of her top clients was Cazenove Capital Management with whom she sailed during Cowes Week in 2008 and clearly impressed with this quiet, modest woman, they agree to back her. The green light came through in early 2009 and Pip found herself spending 58 days at sea on her own delivering The Shed from Uruguay back to the UK in order to compete in the OSTAR, singlehanded between Plymouth and Newport, RI.
Even by this time, Pip recalls that her skill set was appropriate for solo sailing: She knew how to keep a boat going and was a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none. Plus, bizarrely, I love being at sea on my own...” Despite having to put in to fix some rigging, Pip finished the OSTAR in 15th place.
The constant hurdle she has had, and why she is doing the Vendée Globe aged 46 rather than 24 (as Ellen was) is, as she puts it, the mighty step up from saying ‘I want to do it’ to ‘I am going to do it’. “To go and stand in front of a load of people and say to them ‘I am going to do this, it is going to be incredible - I haven’t got anything right now but if you give me a whole chunk of money I’ll make it happen,’ - I struggle with that concept. How do they believe you? What is your credibility? So I think I should always have ‘skin in the game’: If I want people to invest in me, I want to show them that it is not all coming from them. Ideally I want to put in more than they do.”
However, with a target budget of £1.2 million, the Vendée Globe required a variation to her approach. This time she says it was all about securing the boat. The only one she could afford was Bernard Stamm’s 22-year-old Pierre Rolland-designed Superbigou, which the Swiss veteran had sailed to victory solo around the world in both the 2002/03 Around Alone and the Velux 5 Oceans in 2006/07. She was offered the boat in June 2018 and finally took delivery in January 2019.
“I chartered Superbigou for not very much money in the grand scheme of things and I thought I would be able to raise enough money to continue that month on month,” Pip says. “The first thing I did was to take out a personal loan to cover the first three months and then I set up a Crowd Fund. That initial influx allowed me to charter the boat and to get it measured as an IMOCA and gave me a couple of months of breathing space to start the process to raise funds month by month.”
Another significant step forward was Poole Harbour Commissioners providing a berth close to her home, so she didn’t have to relocate.
“Basically all of 2019, I was just fund raising. ‘How am I going to pay for this month – not sure...’ We started the business syndicate, and some small local businesses were putting in local instalments. Then I started looking for bigger sponsors. My theory in all of this was that if I could keep the wheels in motion as this one woman band, if I could get out there to show them and myself that this was a reality by finishing all the races I entered, by gaining a place in the Vendée Globe, etc then as every new milestone passed I was becoming more investable and less of a risk. My theory was that eventually someone would go – ‘this is a good deal, we’ll invest’. I have this love of banging my head against brick walls.”
While Pip has been pushing her media credentials in recent years and is now a regular columnist for Yachting World for example, perhaps the biggest exposure she received in the build-up to the Vendée Globe was in the Rolex Fastnet Race. This she sailed doublehanded with the world’s fastest sailor Paul Larsen. Against all odds, on the first night the dynamic duo, through a mix of luck and design, found themselves leading the entire fleet, ahead of even the fully crewed maxis.
To complete her Vendée Globe qualification Pip went on to compete in the Transat Jacques Vabre with Dutch former Mini sailor Ysbrand Endt.
Her hand-to-mouth finances continued until a fateful May bank holiday weekend when a personal email arrived out of the blue from Leslie Stretch, CEO of the NYSE-listed customer and employee experience management company Medallia, based in San Francisco. “It was literally just one line - ‘we might be interested in sponsoring Pip. Are there any opportunities?’ You get so cynical – you look at it and go is this real? But we set up a Zoom call and two days after that he said, ‘okay, we’re not messing around – we are your title sponsors!’
“Medallia specialise in customer experience and employee experience. They make lots of products that enable people to understand and gauge how their customers and employees feel about products/experience. They have software called Living Lens that allows you to analyse people’s facial expressions during video conferences and they do real time text analysis as you are having a conversation. You can look at trends in the vocabulary people are using and the subtext behind word choice and stuff like that. That interested me as that’s what I did my dissertation in.”
So – why Pip? “A lot of their engagement with customers and contractors is through live events which they do all around the world. They were looking something that they could use for engagement and to tell a good story that could be shared company-wide as so many big events have been cancelled this year. The Vendee Globe is only once every four years and because it was still going ahead there was a huge amount of value in it. Also, a number of their clients sponsor Vendée entries, so it is a space they are quite keen to be in. And Leslie is a fan of the race.”
Now that Pip is just days away from the start, it is worth mentioning the size of the mountain still ahead for her. While she doesn’t have the same level of experience as her other British compatriots, she had spent much time at sea on her own and seems comfortable with that side. But her boat is a beast.
While the latest generation foiling IMOCAs might provide a filling-loosening ride as they crash into wave tops at multihull speeds, Pip faces a different set of challenges with her boat. Designed and built following the disastrous stormy 1996 Vendée Globe, hers is part IMOCA race boat part battleship as best demonstrated by its interior structure. This features not just the class mandatory athwartships watertight bulkheads but also full scale, hull to deck fore and aft bulkheads. The end result is an ultra-stiff boat but one that is a rabbit warren.
“This is the woolly mammoth of the fleet,” Pip quips. “It is of its age, so it is built like a tank, but the mast is fairly far forward, so the mainsail is huge. I don’t have any cover in the cockpit and all of my sail changes have to be done on deck and forward - I have to go forward to reef.” Aside from the sheets the only ropes led aft to the cockpit are the furling lines.
While fast moving of the stack has long been a requirement of smart IMOCA design, not so on her boat thanks to its bulkheads. “Stacking is really hard. I have to take my sails out of the forehatch and down to the back of the boat.”
Then there’s the canting mechanism for her keel. While the majority have a hydraulic ram (that are even one design on the last two generations of IMOCAs) operated by push button from the cockpit, her boat has a potentially more reliable but personally far more arduous arrangement with a block and tackle operated by an electric winch. “Whereas everyone else is doing a double tap on a little button to swing the keel through a tack, I have go down, manually drop the keel to the centre of the boat, come back, tack the boat and then grind the keel back up again.” She can’t drop the keel fully before the tack as the boat simply won’t go through the wind like that.
The ballast system is no less user unfriendly. “It takes me an hour to empty a ballast tank and I have to do the last bit manually with a suction hose. The Vendée may be about consistency and making it easy to perform with minimal effort – but everything on my boat is hard work. Everything...”
All manoeuvres are possible, just, singlehanded, only they take far longer and are very much less efficient than if they were fully crewed. So which manoeuvre takes longest? “Gybing and a big breeze tack are about the same. In big breeze we have to do this falling-over tacking method because the boat just won’t tack normally. To put the boat hove to – you force it into a tack with the jib backed and the keel on the windward side and with the runners on. Once you have it laid down on its side then you have time to sort everything out [sails, runners, canting keels, etc]. It is such an unkind thing to do to the boat and not pretty at all, but it really is a super strong boat.”
Sponsorship has enabled Pip to fit some gear to make Medallia more reliable and a little easier to sail. She has been able to install a coffee grinder and upgraded the autopilot, and acquired hydrogenerators, new batteries and a new lighter suit of sails.
While there are certainly shinier IMOCAs on the famous, but this week near empty dock in Les Sables d’Olonne’s Port Olona, despite her difficulties, Pip remains like the cat that got the cream, happy with her lot. “I am not envious of what anyone else has got. This is what I have got. It is a ‘very special’ boat, but I am really happy and I will make the most of it.”
The only sadness is that all of the many, many people and companies that have helped her, not just for the Vendée Globe, but her previous campaigns too, have been deprived of visiting Les Sables d’Olonne to see her off in person. “The people who have helped me are so much part of this. I am so sorry that they are not going to be there.”