Libby Greenhalgh: “Even now, I find it incredibly hard that we didn’t find John”

Two times Volvo Ocean Race navigator Libby Greenhalgh admits she is still in consolidation mode, looking for projects, after a mentally tough race on Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. She joined the team in Melbourne as a replacement, stepping on board for Leg 4 which they went on to win. She admits she struggles daily trying to come to terms with the loss of John Fisher just over one year ago, but she is quietly determined to move her career on to new levels. A director with the Magenta Project, spun off the Team SCA campaign, now a globally renowned initiative which is doing fantastic work to accelerate the opportunities for women in sailing at all levels. Most recently she was navigator on the Rolex Sydney Hobart all women Ocean Respect alongside many of her Volvo Ocean Race contemporaries. Tip & Shaft caught up with Libby.

Looking back now at your Volvo Races how do you reflect on your performance and that of the different teams? 
Well the second race was really one of two halves. It was a very different way to SCA. I felt I came late into SCA, and then very obviously came very very late into Scallywag.  Let us just say it was pretty interesting meeting the team the day before and stepping on the boat to be offshore immediately for 20 days. Now when I look back at the races and what I know, even with an SCA and even more with this one I would really struggle to join a programme in the role, or step in at all that late. I think it is a big ask when you are working with a team.  It’s quite full-on. But, never say never…..When I stepped on we were by no means were we on the speed, so we had to do something different I guess to get results. And it was great to see our first two legs pretty positive and when we were with the teams we could hang with them and at moments we were probably fast-ish.  But then I think ultimately after losing John, it was a different game, and a difficult game psychologically for a lot of the team. Meantime everyone probably learned lots from that leg that we didn’t. The latter end of the race, others were really moving forwards and getting faster and faster, we weren’t. We were kind of staying where we were at.  And that punished us – we were slow relatively.  It was hard to keep pace with people.

Such a situation, being slow, is especially tough on the navigator?
There is increased pressure on the role. They ask what are we going to do and you’ve got a choice. Even with SCA we were slow, we were 0.3 of a knot slower on the first leg, 0.1 and then maybe by the end we could match most angles, but we still knew we were incredibly slow under the A3. We knew the moment we put that sail up it was going to be painful for us. I mean I knew that, but whether the rest of the team really fathomed that……..   I think that is the thing, when you are 0.1 of a knot slower it doesn’t sound a lot but it is over days that is fricking miles. And then as soon as you are a few miles behind, that is it. You are into something different.

What were your takeaways from the race then?
I learnt lots for sure, you always do every time you do the race. I think from a personal point of view, I think there is a lot to be learned about how the teams come together and how late in the day they come together. For me now that is probably my biggest thing. Joining an existing team late or joining a team formed late in the period, trying to find a performance it is all on.

From your perspective, your role how was it on a mixed team?
The mix team, I didn’t really think much about that, it was just a team of sailors. It is being part of the team that is the biggest thing. It doesn’t matter it if is girls of boys, it is actually being part of that team. And that was something Scallywag did do very well – you were part of the team and it was a team. Some of the other crews, I don’t think had that. When we got ashore we were always still looking out for each other. I guess that when you go through something like losing John, you are more likely to be like that. But even before (losing John) we were all quite tight, asking, ‘what are you up to?’. That is what SCA was like. But then we were all together for quite a while. I think the team aspect is such a big thing.

And how has it been since the end of the race?
Personally I have found it incredibly tough since the race. And even now I find it incredibly hard that we didn’t find John – even if he were alive or not. I find that part incredibly hard. It is hard to put it to bed because I guess for me, it was my role. My role was to find him, and I didn’t find him. Or at least that is how I see it. I am sure people will say otherwise but I was tasked with doing a search plan and tried to point us in the right direction. So, I guess that is a big aspect but equally it does drive me to want to do it again, to put that all to bed. There is an element of doing it again for him. I think that is why we all got back on the boat. I think it was almost for me, a real element of ‘Jesus he might have gone but let’s just fricking get around Cape Horn for him’ because that was obviously something that he really wanted to do. For sure I would like to do it again, do a campaign that is set up early but right now I am still effectively getting my head around things rather than trying to press ahead and find that role, try and find that team. I think that the race, maybe now, is beginning to shape up, but I mean who really knows what it is going to look like.

What would be your ideal project?
I guess in a dream world it would be running a team of my own with probably a majority female crew, not ruling out a mixed team and not ruling out an all-female team. I mean even with the Rule, I think it would be interesting to see an all female team (in the IMOCA). I think you’ll get a lot of the Figaro sailors and solo sailors now joining the Volvo Race and that is where the pathway is now.

Have you heard of any all women IMOCA teams yet? 
No, I haven’t, there has been rumour mongering that there’s been a couple of teams that are looking for people that are keen, but no-one that I know of is currently leading that, so I am not sure. That is not to say that there are not other people. I would be surprised if it wasn’t people with experience doing that.

But could you see an all women crew winning or on the podium?
I don’t see why not. It is a new boat, the biggest thing with that IMOCA class is it is who builds the fastest boat. Its back to an arms race which in a way, unless you have already got a sponsor, and are already on that programme you are highly unlikely to be one of the boats winning it. For me realistically looking at it, the option is to join a team this race and get yourself in the right position to have your own team and be starting that process for the next race, when it is much clearer how it’s working.

What do you hear as the likely number of teams to build?
I think that ultimately there will be maybe three boats that build, otherwise it will be IMOCA teams and maybe they build too. I don’t think that you build a boat that wins the Vendée Globe and and the Volvo. Last time around we were trying really hard off the back of SCA to find the funds and put a team together and the sponsorship finding, it’s not impossible but it is hard and I think that is the big thing. You now need 25million. For the last race we were looking for 15m going down towards 12m as time went on.

Is there not a wealthy female patron or benefactor out there to get you started? 
That is exactly what everyone said last time around. Maybe there is but I don’t know them. We went through all the contracts, we know and that is what we were trying to do. We went surely there is a wealthy female, someone who believes in using this fantastic vehicle to drive equality but you need to know them and find them and we tried bloody hard last time but we didn’t find anyone. We had gone to Mark Turner with what we wanted to do – the all female team –  and my guess is he wanted mixed teams and this mixed youth team that he then brought Dee to head up. Even if you look at that mixed youth team it actually only gave opportunities to two new girls and all the other boats had that same opportunity – two girls. And they had more guys that they rotated than they had fixed number of girls. They had three new girls vs five new guys. I think what will be interesting will the 65 with Bianca Cook announcing her team. I suspect that it will be an all-NZ team, I am not really sure what the take is on that. But whether they go 50-50 on the boys and girls or whether they like, are…  And even in an interview I saw, you got to have this many under 30s, this many under 20s and three girls… I really expected the race to say that there were going to do a 50-50. I guess I am a bit frustrated about the whole thing.

Things are moving in a positive direction though? 
Probably but I want it to move forward quicker. It’s going to take about 120 years, realistically for gender equality based on the society changes that actually need to happen. Not for sailing, but you know sailing is probably the worst example of gender equality in life, and that is the other tragic thing. It is a poor example when you look around other sports and businesses, or just stuff like that that is so far ahead. It is so different. I know people say you (women) can’t compare like to like, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke. But why not there’s Olympic medallists out there that are not being given the opportunity to go on this race because they are a girl? And those girls haven’t really done much offshore, and they are suddenly in there, offshore and shit, pretty much skippering the boat by the end of it. Its swings and roundabouts.

Sam Davies is doing well competing on equal terms and is increasingly respected in France and around the world? 
Yeh briefly, she’s pretty busy, she’s relaxing after the Sardinha Cup now. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that they won. I think it just goes to show the experience of short handed offshore sailing that these both those two have, Yann and Sam. They obviously work very well together.

There is a greater respect for women in sailing in France, not least because of the successes of Autissier, Chabaud, Ellen and now Sam?
100%. I think ultimately if someone was to say how do I get into The Ocean Race I’d say you’ve got to go live in France and become French. Get ingrained live the life there and its fine. I guess in a way if Ellen had continued on doing more high profile sailing it probably would’ve changed things progressively in the UK. She was a known name.

What is your own plan to move up the career ladder, as it were, are you still ambitious? 
In some ways I feel its only just started. But it feels like it’s an interesting point to be in, I’m reflecting upon that a lot at the moment. I think I’d like to carry on and be able to do five Volvos and be a legend in offshore sailing, that kind of thing. But it is interesting when you look at the last Volvo I was probably the least experienced navigator on any of the boats almost even though I’d done a race before. So actually, even within my role, there’s people there who’ve done 5,6,7 Volvos. So you kind of got to wait for people to die or move on (smiles). It is very much if you’re going to pick someone do you go with someone who has done it 6 times or you can take somebody who’s done it once.

But on The Ocean Race it will be allrounders rather than specialist navigator….
I feel I very much got pigeon holed into that ‘oh you can navigate, and you can do the weather but I’m not very sure you can sail’. But actually, I’ll think you’ll find I’ve sailed and raced a stack load more than I’ve ever done navigation and weather. So for me I think that’s what’s more exciting about the IMOCA is you will be part of the sailing and the boat which is good whereas you don’t sail the boat on the 65.

Photo : Konrad Frost / Volvo Ocean Race

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