Interview: Meet Lizzy Foreman
All of us who sail, at some point or other, have daydreamed about what it would be like to race solo offshore, perhaps across an ocean, or maybe even, around the world. For most of us the daydream stays exactly that – a fantasy scenario that we console ourselves with when real life gets too stressful, or too humdrum.
For a small group of people - extraordinary individuals - the daydream somehow morphs from fantasy to reality. It becomes a goal that refuses to be pushed to the back of their minds and instead incessantly demands they mastermind a plan that can bring it to fruition.
Lizzy Foreman is one such person.
Last year, at the age of 26, she fulfilled one of her childhood dreams when she completed the singlehanded Mini Transat Race from the UK to the Caribbean. As impressive an achievement as crossing the Atlantic singlehanded in a yacht smaller than most of us race around the cans at the weekend is, it is easily matched by the drive, determination and sheer bloody mindedness that got Lizzy to the start line in the first place.
We caught up with her at the London Boat Show to hear the remarkable story of how she made one of her dreams come true.
Lizzy says she can trace her dream of solo offshore sailing back to a visit to Pete Goss’s Team Phillips Project in Devon, England when she was nine years old.
“I climbed into a replica cabin of the giant catamaran that he was planning to race solo, non-stop around the world,” she said. “I decided right there that one day I would do something equally as challenging and adventurous.”
Like many British sailors Lizzy was introduced to sailing by her parents. Although some of her earliest sailing memories are rather traumatic, happily, they didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the sport.
“I vividly remember screaming my head off while caught in a squall at the age of eight. I was sailing a sinking Optimist with another frightened little girl. I think it was the third day of our RYA Level 1 course.
“Another time, I was out with my dad in our old Mirror dinghy and the mast fell down!”
“Looking back at those early experiences I think I've always quite enjoyed being in challenging situations and I had a quest for adventure from a very early age.”
Lizzy was four when her mother took her sailing for the first time on Queen Mary Reservoir near London.
“Mum had a blue Topper called Sprint and she used to take me and my sister out in it,” she remembers.
“Going sailing on a Thursday after school or at the weekend would mean an adventurous day of picnicking, before doing a few laps of the reservoir, and if we were lucky, tying up to the bund at Queen Mary to pick blackberries.
“I loved hearing all the halyards clatter in the wind in the dinghy park and making the boat sing with the water gurgling through the self drainer. Dry capsize practice made me feel invincible and I even loved the smell of stinky wetsuits.”
There’s no two ways about it, it was love at first sight between the young Lizzy Foreman and the sport of sailing.
“My first years of sailing were just about having fun - I was too shy to start racing until I was about 14, but having failed miserably at dance, gymnastics and ballet (once again I was too shy!), I was always happier with a boat.
Lizzy would count down the days until the summer holidays, because that meant two weeks at Challaborough Bay in Devon where she, her mum and dad and her sister, would sail or row the family Mirror dinghy around nearby Burgh Island.
“That was before it eventually sunk! I remember we had great fun anchoring off the private swimming pool and spying on the guests at the beautiful Burgh Island Hotel. I remember sometimes we would stop for a coke and salty crisps!”
Back at home Lizzy started to sail regularly with the youth group at Queen Mary Reservoir and at age 14 began to race in Lasers and RS Fevas. Looking back now she says she regrets not campaigning a 420 dinghy.
“It would have been a better size boat for me and I think I would have loved the technical aspects and the high level racing. But that's hindsight for you!”
When she left home for university in Reading Lizzy switched to a more challenging and high performance single hander although one perhaps not suited to her diminutive physique.
“I wanted a more exciting and technical boat to sail and so I saved up for an RS 700 dinghy. Of course, I was far too light to really get anywhere with it, but I never gave up, even in 20 knots I was out there!”
Lizzy took her first steps along the road towards one day running her own professional campaign when she secured a place on the British Keelboat Academy – an innovative programme specifically aimed at launching promising 18 – 24 year olds into a career in professional sailing, run by the Royal Yachting Association and UKSA – British youth charity that uses sailing and watersports as a catalyst to transform young people’s lives.
“Looking back now, the BKA really gave me a good grounding for all that was to follow. Phil Johnston and Luke McCarthy were the coaches and they ran a very professional programme.
“It wasn't just about the sailing but also personal and professional development - from building self confidence, to team building, problem solving, campaign management, sponsorship - the more you put in, the more you got out of it.”
It was no easy ride, however. For a girl brought up far away from the sea the BKA experience was somewhat of an alien environment.
“This was the first time I had been on keelboats and yachts, so at the beginning I felt a bit out of depth,” she explained.
“It wasn't always a pleasant environment to be in. The rest of the squad had grown up sailing yachts and racing on the Solent or cruising to France. I had never even spent a night on a boat, had no idea what a jib peel was and no experience sailing on the Solent or offshore.”
“She toughed it out and in her second year began to really get to grips with it, and was chosen to take a lead role in the BKA’s J109 ‘Yeoman of Wight’ Commodore's Cup campaign, alongside her friend Alex Gardner.
“Ashore this meant I was involved managing the team, organising training dates, coordinating meeting times, organising the required equipment for the yacht and attending meetings with the regatta organisers on behalf of the team. On the boat my roles were around sail trim and learning more about navigation.
For Lizzy and the rest of the team the regatta was a great experience. They finished third overall and picked up several trophies along the way.
Armed with her BKA experience Lizzy plucked up the courage to apply for a place at the 2012 Artemis Offshore Academy. The gruelling three-day selection trial comprised fitness and psychological tests, problem solving, and short handed racing on the Academy’s fleet of Figaro yachts. It was an intimidating process, but Lizzy toughed it out and made the cut – the only female in that year’s intake.
After graduating from the AOC and from university as a Speech and Language Therapist, she was offered an internship with OC Sport – the company behind the AOC as well as the Extreme Sailing Series, The Transat Race and more recently the Chinese entry, Dongfeng Race Team, in the last Volvo Ocean Race.
Throwing herself wholeheartedly into the internship Lizzy soaked up knowledge like a sponge.
“My time there really allowed me to see what it takes to run a professional campaign. I worked as part of a small team managing logistics, boat maintenance, and lots of other stuff, while also doing a few RORC double-handed races and acting as a ‘prepateur’ on the Mini 650 circuit.
“I was working again with Phil Johnston and also John Thorn, both of whom were key figures in helping me map out a future in offshore racing - from invaluable advice and coaching on the water to help around 'seeing the bigger picture' and understanding a racing campaign as a whole.”
Lizzy set her heart on competing in the 2015 Mini Transat Race. But, out on her own after finishing at OC Sport, Lizzy found the prospect of planning, organising and funding a campaign of her own to be a daunting one.
Typically though, she channeled her fears and uncertainty into a drive to succeed.
“I was very aware that I still didn't have much offshore experience and that I faced a steep learning curve. I worked late after work to find sponsors and make plans for the campaign.
“I decided to target the 2013 Southampton Boat Show to try to drum up some sponsorship money and by the time the show was over I’d somehow managed to confirm 15 sponsors and organise the loan of a boat.”
At the beginning of 2014 Lizzy set off in her van to drive to the spiritual home of singlehanded offshore sailing - Lorient in northern France. She was a girl with a van, but without much of a plan - other than to get there and see what happened.
“I spoke no French, didn't know anyone and wasn't really sure how it was going to pan out - I just had a dream, and I had decided it was time to start living it!”
Once again Lizzy found herself alone in an unfamiliar environment as she struggled to make her meagre funds stretch far enough to enable her to keep on training and complete the necessary solo sailing miles in her borrowed boat to allow her to enter the race.
“I never at any point had full financial backing, which meant I was forever waiting on a new piece of kit or a race entry fee. I remember not having enough money to even buy a new set of guys for the boat and having to use scraps from other boats.
“It meant I couldn't train properly at the few organised sessions I could afford to attend. It was a ridiculous situation, but it highlights just how difficult it is to get going on your own.
“There were times when I felt really lonely - I'd be offshore on my own for three, four or maybe even up to 10 days at a time, then working on the boat alone, or attending training sessions that were all in French. The language barrier meant it took about year for me to get to know people and to be known as somebody other than 'that English girl'.”
Lizzy was learning the hard way how solo campaigns can consume a sailor – hoovering up all their available time and attention, leaving no time left for any sort of life outside the campaign.
“There was never any down time. When I would go back to England, I was constantly chasing equipment, or having meetings, or doing stuff for the press. All I got to talk to people about was the campaign, so I felt like I lost my identity - it was a bit surreal!
“My friends back home aren't sailors and so they wouldn't really understand it or be able to relate to the struggles, and then of course my boyfriend would get fed up when once again I'd need his help at a weekend to put a new mast in the boat, or rewire some electronics or whatever it was on the job list.”
All that said, and despite the low points, Lizzy says the lessons she learned and the experience gained at that has proved invaluable.
“I just love every aspect of offshore racing and I loved every moment out sailing. Even when things went wrong and I was lost or too close to the shore - it was always a challenge that could be overcome.
“I learned how to cope better with sleep deprivation (I haven't hallucinated for two years!) and finally got to grips with navigation. I learnt about sail making - having made all my sails myself and I taught myself about the importance of proper nutrition offshore.”
Lizzy racked up over 4,000 miles at sea during her months of training for the Mini Transat, honing her sailing skills and steadily building her offshore sailing experience.
The pressure to raise funds remained incessant though and in the final month before the start Lizzy had to raise £8,000 if she was to be one of the 74 competitors on the start line.
“Any sponsorship I gained went straight onto the boat, and my family helped out where they could with living expenses such as insuring the van and paying for a mobile phone.”
Somehow she pulled it all together in time and on September 19 Lizzy and her 10-year old, 21-foot yacht ‘Hudson Wight’ set off from the French port of Douarnenez on the first leg of the 2015 Mini Transat to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. She finished Leg 1 nine days later – thirty-fifth out of 44 boats in the Series Class.
Now there was nothing left to worry about other than racing across the Atlantic Ocean alone for the first time in her life.
“It was such a huge commitment - financially, physically, mentally - that I was really happy to finally cross the start line in September, and once we got to Lanzarote, it was really the first time in two years that I could just relax!”
Lizzy’s exploits on the second leg across the Atlantic to Guadeloupe could – and might very well soon - fill a book.
Until then, the short version is that despite blowing up one of her spinnakers soon after the start she completed the 2,770-mile transatlantic leg to Pointe-à-Pitre in 19 days and finished in thirty-second place.
“I would have hoped for a higher position, but the truth is just getting to the start line in 2015 was a massive achievement for me. As soon as the race was over it was a mad rush to pack up the boat, get to Paris for the prize giving, and then head to England to wrap up with the sponsors. I think I'm only just coming to terms with what I have achieved.”
With her first Mini Transat campaign completed, Lizzy is a lot further on than most people who aspire to race around the world alone. The experience left her mentally and physically battered and bruised but her drive to move on to the next challenge is still strong and a Vendée Globe Race campaign remains the long term goal.
“Pretty much everyone is broke after their first Transat campaign. You’re shattered and yet there is this burning desire to continue. You get this feeling of ‘this can't be the end, surely??’
For now, Lizzy is working as an English As A Foreign Language teacher, doing some coaching and the occasional bit of corporate sailing. She is planning an active 2016 racing programme as she fine tunes her goals for the next couple of years.
“I hope to be able to campaign a new boat for the 2017 edition of the Mini Transat, or if things are really going well, a Class 40 for the OSTAR race and the Transat Jacques Vabre.
“Neither of these projects can happen without sponsorship (the Mini campaign alone is a £90,000 budget), so I am making the most of every opportunity to get as much sailing in as I can.
“I’m working really hard on my fitness, training with a triathlon club, as I feel it really dipped with the stress of the lead up to the Transat and I have also enrolled on an intensive French language course.”
Lizzy will be racing an RS 800 dinghy at the 2016 European Championship and campaigning a Class 40 for the Round Ireland Race and the double-handed Royal Southampton circuit.
“I am also continuing to improve my offshore racing knowledge by attending shore based training with Lorient Grand Large, and I will be doing a few races on the IMOCA 60 Artemis.
For more info on Lizzie's future plans click the log to go to her campaign website.
Lizzy’s Thank You List
“I want to also thank my sponsors, in particular my title sponsor Hudson Wight Performance Sailwear who helped so much with the initial tranche of sponsorship funding and all my technical and shore clothing and some brilliant contacts. I have also been fortunate to have superb public relations advice and support from Peta Stuart-Hunt/PR Works.
The Royal London Yacht Club, Red Funnel, SailSpy and English Braids have been absolutely fantastic and played a vital role throughout the campaign – supporting with promotion and making key contacts. Everyone was always there for me. I loved 'going home' to Cowes - and always felt very welcome after many solo channel crossings to get there! Also Solo Sails were a real backbone; I learnt about sail design and sail making, and together we created a good story to promote both parties.”