Teenage sailor sets off on world’s toughest race

Heather Thomas at Otley Sailing Club
Heather Thomas at Otley Sailing Club
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She’s been sailing since she was seven and now Heather Thomas is taking on the biggest challenge of her life. Catherine Scott reports.

Sailor Heather Thomas has set sail on a life-changing opportunity to race across the Pacific Ocean in Leg 6 of the famous Clipper 2015-16 Round the World Yacht Race.

On Sunday, Heather, 19, from Otley left Qingdao in China to race more than 5,000 nautical miles across the notorious North Pacific Ocean to Seattle, USA, spending more than a month at sea on board team Da Nang-Viet Nam.

Heather was nominated by Otley Sailing Club where she volunteers.

“It’s my ultimate dream and this race could be the springboard into other opportunities, giving me some of the experience and knowledge to fulfil my dreams,” says Heather. “I am really hoping that I can help my team to do well - it would be fantastic if we won. I also really want to know more about the awesome people I am sailing with - I have met the majority of them before but I would love to get to know them all better.

“Preparation for the race has been pretty full on. I’ve had kit to get, visas to sort out and of course the four weeks of training. I did all of my training over the summer and I learnt an amazing amount; because of my dinghy and sail training background, I knew most of the basics but it was really interesting sailing on a boat built for racing. I learnt a lot about maximising speed. Visas were an interesting experience - I have never had to do one before, as I haven’t been out of Europe so I was surprised by the questions and the amount of detail I needed.”

Heather started sailing at age of seven and became a dinghy instructor by 16. In her spare time, she volunteers with everything from kids club sailing to the adult and disability courses. For the past two years, she has also volunteered as a watch leader on the sail training vessel James Cook, run by Ocean Youth Trust North.

The opportunity was donated by Clipper Race founder and chairman, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation (ASSF), the charity that Sir Ben Ainslie helped to establish in memory of his friend and Olympic sailing gold medallist Andrew “Bart” Simpson. Taking part in the race, Heather is representing the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, a charity which aims to improve the lives of young people through sailing.

The Leg 6 prize is worth more than £10,000. Heather and the teams will face tough yet exhilarating conditions with towering waves, howling winds, and high speed surfs on the world’s largest and deepest ocean. “I am really looking forward to the adrenaline of the race on board the biggest adventure of my life. I think I will find the cold the most challenging,” said Heather before se set sail. “I really struggle to keep warm when sailing so getting the layers right will be important and also keeping motivated to keep trimming and keep sailing the boat to its full potential will be challenging at times, especially when you are really tired but I suppose that’s why we have a team to keep each other going.”