big dilemma

big dilemma

Our ‘sailor chick from the fringe’ checks in with her third slice of life from the deep, deep South. 

It has been a month and a half since I left Rothera station in Antarctica, leaving behind 22 people who winter over and will not see anyone else until October 16th. Winter was coming quickly with some heavy snowfalls in the week before I left station and some very deep low pressure systems with the associated winds. Lots of digging is now required to get the boats out; the whole procedure taking about two hours. It was an emotional departure, with parachute flares and hand held being set off by those ashore while we on the ship quickly disappeared into a blizzard. I have sat down numerous times to write this article, but as I readjust to life off station, I have found it very hard to figure out what to say and how to say it! While I was away, my older brother moved his family along with ‘my’dog to Bermuda, and I am writing this while sitting by his swimming pool. being a stay-at-home Aunty with the one and half year old twins fast asleep.

It took a month to get from station to San Francisco. We came out on last call – the RRS Shackleton – which took 14 days to ‘cruise’ back to the Falklands. It was a slower way to re-enter the ‘real’ world then Dash 7. We stopped at Jubany (Argentine base), Deception Island, Signy Island, Bird Island and South Georgia picking up people and cargo and dropping off cargo. At South Georgia we were reacquainted with soil and grass and on Easter Sunday were ‘hunting’ for baby fur seals in the tussock grass so as not to get bitten. As FIDS (Falkland Island Dependency Survey), we worked the cargo hold at the stops and did weekly gash duties (cleaning, helping in the galley) but there was also an awful lot of time to vegetate – most people worked on making videos. Crossing the Southern Ocean relatively late in the season meant for three days we got 50+ knot headwinds and large seas causing us to slow down to 4.5 knots. The hull shape of an icebreaker is not very forgiving and it was a nice change to not be the skipper and get a full night’s sleep.

A few days in the Falklands hiking before a long flight back to the UK via the Ascension Islands. and luckily, we arrived on the Wednesday morning  – Thursday morning the UK airspace was closed due to the volcano in Iceland. I spent the week of the ash cloud in England up to my elbows in fiberglass and resin, working on my father’s Capo 30 (Olson 911). My brother Myles and I are racing her in the Doublehanded Round Britain and Ireland Race  starting June 6th.

I arrogantly assumed that it would be a very easy transition back into the ‘real’ world for me as I spend so much time at sea and have never had a problem before. I really thought I would just smoothly transition back into my business, however, life has become a whole lot more complicated. I guess like Ellen Macarthur before me I have come back from a very simple lifestyle down South to a world which now feels over-commercialized, materialistic and very busy. Ellen felt so strongly about it she has put racing to one side for the moment and put all her energies and finances into championing a message of sustainable living. With her fame being put to good use I am sure she will make a difference and I really do hope she does. A question everyone asks me is about global warming and whether I think it is occurring – yes I do think it is and yes I do think it is a result of our abuse of the planet. Spend some time South and I guarantee you will be shocked by the adverse effects of civilization. The air is so clear and clean to breathe you can see mountains 150 miles away.

The Bay Area, while beautiful and bustling with so many amazing things to do, is so very expensive to live in that while grossing more than when I am South (in Antarctica), I end up netting less. I work so much to just survive and pay the bills that I don’t have the time, energy or money to enjoy all that it has to offer. I talked to my Uncle, who was a designer clothing salesman with a BMW and Armani suits living in Marin County with all the bills to support the lifestyle. He understands what I am going through now, as he made the jump to Sun Valley, Idaho without the suits and the cars, and now lives a much simpler life; happier than ever before.

To most people, sailing is what defines me, and it really has been my whole life for the last 10 years. Last year in a 5.5 month period I had only 5 days off and was only home 120 days. Down South I was happier, my lifestyle a lot healthier (I lost 22 lbs), and I woke up excited almost every day just to go and work.  Finishing work at 6 pm but with two Sundays and two half day Saturdays off a month, I was able to go ice climbing, skiing, alpine mountaineering, running, cycling, crevassing, diving, power boating, camping etc. Back home for 10 days I went to dinner party after dinner party, and all my friends say "what about sailing?" when I mention possibly going back South.

I got into professional sailing and managing race boats because of what I saw when I was 12 years old, following Maiden in the Whitbread.  I decided then that I wanted to be a sailor when I grew up.  I started offshore racing at 13 on Marionette, skippered by Chris Dunning MBE (Admirals Cup Captain for Britain). I was the right weight and could cook food for the guys on the rail in any weather. At 17 I did my first Fastnet, 18 my first transatlantic double handed on a 30 footer, and 19 I raced double handed round Britain and Ireland on a 30 footer, coming 2nd. I talked to everyone I could about what I needed to do to get on a Volvo/Whitbread they all said you need to do more than sail. I went and worked as a sailmaker and a rigger in my summer holidays. When I graduated from Southampton with Honors in Geography and Oceanography I went off to New Zealand to work for a woman who had started a Women’s round the world Volvo campaign. This failed, so I went to work for Dawn Riley at America True and put together a co-ed youth team under the age of 25. By the time the race started, I had run out of savings and didn’t make the start line (even though Ellen was on the team as navigator after her 2nd place Vendee). The stock market crashed and sponsors didn’t have the money. I needed to find some paying work so I managed Ocean Planet shore side for Bruce Schwab in the Around Alone and then started my own business. When I went to the ABN AMRO tryouts, I sailed the worst I had ever sailed, but after being told the first night I was there that no women would be on the boat, I was a bit demoralized. Why would no women be chosen?  Are they not strong enough (despite Ellen having just got her round the world singlehanded record on Mobi)? Twenty years, 70,000 miles, multiple podium positions in major ocean races later, I am no closer to a Volvo, and my only reason for making my passion into my job was to do the race.

I was only South for five months – there are people who spend 30 months on station before BAS makes you go home. I knew there was a chance that I would get ‘hooked’ on being South as the number of people who return year after year is very high. My position as Boating Officer however, means that I can only sign up for 16, 18, 24 or 30 month contracts. I have been offered another posting at either Rothera or King Edward Point South Georgia and have until middle of June to make a decision about whether to take up the offer. The last five months have been the adventure of a lifetime – how many people have flown a twin otter over the Antarctic Peninsula, dived in 27F slush ice with almost limitless visibility or stayed in a hut in Antarctica with only one other person for 250 miles in all directions and got paid for it? On top of all that, helping out with the science is very rewarding; I believe people need to know that what they do in their everyday life is effecting the world we live in.

Do I go back to running race boats, not getting the gigs that I feel I should? Is this because I don’t hang out at the bar, haven’t been in the right place at the right time, am a girl or because I am just not good enough? My friends in the industry tell me I am good enough but then again they would. I have never used being a girl as an excuse but as Dixie pointed out on the front page the other day, the stats are pretty obvious. There are not enough spots on Volvo boats for the skippers to take a ‘risk’ with a woman who hasn’t been around before, and there are so many proven guys who are physically stronger. Sailing on an all-women boat is not something I would particularly be into doing, but if it meant a round-the-world race… Rules are in place to encourage having women on the Volvo, but they’ve been useless, and VOR management doesn’t seem to have a problem with this, despite Stan Honey’s thoughts on the subject.

Am I just banging my head against a brick wall? Should I just throw in the towel in SF and go back south? Financially, for my stress level and short term happiness, it makes sense to go back South.  But that means giving up on a twenty year dream, disappointing my friends and clients, and potentially ruining a relationship with a great guy in Ireland.  I have told you the above not to show off, but to make my dilemma clear.  I’m not looking for sympathy either – I know very well that lots of people would kill for my situation!  These are all questions I need to look in the mirror and answer – something I will have plenty of time to do this summer as I race the RBI and then the Pacific Cup, including a delivery back to the mainland afterwards.

Reading this article again I realize it is probably not what SA was looking for from me but there we go. It will create discussion amongst my family and friends for sure! I was surprised by how many people followed my blog, and I want to thank all of you SAers for tuning in and sending me such nice notes.  I’ll continue to update you all on my adventures, and you can check in to see at what point in the Round Britain I throw my little brother overboard!

-Ashley Perrin, Racing Yacht Management