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At the Speed of White

At the Speed of White

Britain’s Hannah White is an all-action kind of girl who more than lives up to her bio’s description of her as a ‘broadcaster, sailor and adventurer’. Her sailing exploits include three solo transatlantic crossings and she is best known on TV for her British series, Go Hard or Go Home, where White coached members of the public to take on extreme sporting challenge events around the world. 

UK sailing fans will also recognise her as the co-host of BT Sport’s America’s Cup World Series coverage. Her many adventures include a 180 Kg sled pull, a kayak race across Lake Geneva and cycling across the French Alps. Most recently she kayaking across the breadth of England to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI).

Now, in her latest challenge - Project Speedbird - White is attempting to become the world’s fastest female sailor over a one nautical mile distance. 

“The ultimate goal is to break the women’s one-mile speed sailing record that’s currently held by the windsurfer, Zara Davis,” White explains. “I will be sailing on a high performance 18-foot dinghy. It’s based on the foiling Moth but has been custom designed and built for my record attempt.”

After a five year break from sailing, when the record attempt idea first surfaced during a casual lunch conversation a couple of years ago, White jumped at the chance to return to the sport she considers a significant part of her heritage.

“It was an exciting time to be involved in sailing: the success of London 2012; the formation of a British America’s Cup challenge in Land Rover BAR; and, the general ongoing development and popularity of foiling boats. 

I wanted to jump on that bandwagon and a couple of other things about the challenge attracted me too. Firstly, the skill level that I was going to have to reach to make this happen and, secondly, the broad appeal that the project could have, not just to sailors, but to anyone interested in design, technology, engineering, or speed. 

Sailing can be a complicated sport to comprehend, but speed records are easy to understand. From A to B – as quickly as you can. Everyone gets that!” 

White doesn’t come from a family of ocean-roving sailors - in fact, her parents have never been sailing even now. White herself was first lured on to the water by a family friend who was related to legendary British racing campaigner, Chris Dunning.

“They invited me along to Cowes Week one summer as ‘deck fluff’, on Chris’ infamous yacht, ‘Marionette’. I was 15 and I was instantly hooked,” she recalls.

She did more sailing aboard Marionette and after leaving school, flew to Australia where she obtained her Yachtmaster qualifications and spent some time as a deckhand on the ex-Whitbread Race maxi, ‘The Card’ in the Whitsunday Islands. On returning home to England she broke the news to her parents that she would not be going to university, but instead was going to ‘give sailing a go’.

That summer White organised her first sponsorship deals – from insurance company Skandia and, more unusually, from Ben Elton and Roger Taylor’s London West End musical about the band Queen, ‘We Will Rock You’ – to fund what was then the youngest ever crew to enter Cowes Week.

“That’s when my career began and since then I have taken on many sailing challenges, some successful, some very unsuccessful. Along the way I have learnt a vast array of skills and found out an incredible amount about myself as a person.

“My proudest achievement was finishing my 2009 single-handed transatlantic race in second place. I hadn’t finished the race in 2005 but I came back four years later as a better sailor and very much more prepared. That result was a huge moment for me and a massive life lesson that I have never forgotten.”

Although Speedbird marks a return to sailing for White, she is in far from familiar territory and says the project has pushed her further outside her physical and mental comfort zones than ever before. The physical evidence is there to back that up; so far her training injuries include one broken wrist and two black eyes.

Surprisingly perhaps for someone who has crossed the Atlantic solo three times by boat, her first task on the project was to learn how to sail a dinghy.

“I originally learned to sail on much bigger boats, so my dinghy sailing experience prior to this project was non-existent,” White explains.

Once she had learned to dinghy sail, White switched up a few gears to the foiling Moth – the twitchy high performance boat that her much bigger record attempt boat is a scaled up version of.

“Until I was 100 per cent confident on the Moth there was absolutely no point in trying to take on the challenge of trying to master Speedbird,” she says.

The Project Speedbird idea came about over a meal with sailing friend, Dave Chisholm, not long after the two had worked together on her kayaking expedition across England.

“Dave was really into his Moth sailing and he had just helped me paddle across England. We were in a Wagamama wondering what project we should do next when he mentioned that he would like to build a big fast Moth to have a go at a speed record. I instantly loved the idea, but I don’t think Dave realised at that point that, in my mind, it would be me sailing the boat and not him!”

Over the next 14 months the pair pieced the project together. Chisholm had the job of designing and building the boat as well as teaching his willing protégé to Moth sail. White focussed on improving her Moth sailing and pulling the commercial aspects of the project together.

This April, with the boat finished and White’s Moth sailing adjudged to be good enough, Chisholm moved on to other projects.

“Thankfully he is still available on the end of the phone and will continue to work with us moving forward,” White says, relievedly.

As the focus moved away from learning and on to performance, White brought in Olympic sailing coach Mark ‘Corky’ Rhodes.

“It was the perfect time for that shift in focus,” White explains. “We are also helped massively by James Head – a Dart Sailor who is an excellent boat captain for us – and by James Sainsbury who is always on hand to repair and refine the boat.

White’s Project Speedbird boat looks is fundamentally a foiling Moth on steroids and White isn’t ashamed to confess to finding her new ride a challenging to sail.

“It’s exactly that, a very big Moth,” she agrees. “18-foot long and everything scaled up to match - except the foils, which are a similar size to the Moth. Sailing her is intimidating (for me anyway) but her length gives her a certain slow motion feel and she’s a lot more graceful than a Moth which is notoriously skittish.

“Learning to Moth sail was a massive learning curve and stepping up on to ‘Speedy’ has meant embarking on a completely separate learning curve. The difference is that Speedbird is a completely new one-off boat, so there is no user manual to refer to. Before we got the chance to start slowly winding her up, there was a lot of time spent on the water going through the basics.

“Things like figuring out how to launch her, how to right her after a capsize, exactly where my weight needs to be when sailing, and a million other things.”

White admits that learning to sail a foiling boat from scratch was tough – particularly as she had no small boat experience to draw on.

“I had barely ever sailed a Laser,” she recalls. “It was the hardest thing I have ever learnt to do and stepping on to Speedbird felt a bit like like being expected to play the solo part in an orchestra a year after taking up a musical instrument.

“Thankfully, Dave was very sensible and patient. First he got me to nail the basics of handling a Moth; everything from launching and recovering, looking after the boat. Then, before foiling was even discussed, he had me doing hours and hours of ‘low riding’, to get my balance sorted. 

That all took place over two very long and very cold winters in the UK, but I also made two wonderful trips to the Pro Vela http://www.pro-vela.com foiling school at Mar Menor, Spain, which helped enormously.”
Despite her broken wrist and pair of black eyes, White maintains she is more worried about breaking her boat than her body. She says she now knows – albeit from painful experience – how to crash.

“I have a good feel for when to hang on and when not to – when to get off the bus and when to brace myself. Damage to the boat is inevitable but it’s also extremely frustrating and hard for me not to blame it on my lack of experience or talent.

“I reached a point with the Moth where I am under control, my fear is limited and I can enjoy pushing it a bit. However, I find sailing Speedbird still hugely intimidating. She’s a much bigger and faster boat, the loads are higher and the risks bigger. I’m not 100 per cent confident in my ability or hers just yet. All that said, on a good run when I perform well and I get the set up right, there is absolutely no feeling like it in the world.”

In contrast to the windsurfing record breakers who now need only refine their equipment and technique incrementally to continue to push the speed envelope, White has to learn everything about a totally new boat before she can even have a crack at the record. What makes the Project Speedbird concept so fascinating is the inherent uncertainty as to whether it can be done.

An interim attempt to set a new 500 metre record this year will take place on Grafham Water, a three-mile-long reservoir in the heart of the English countryside. That’s a far cry from the long narrow purpose-built trench in reliably windy part of Namibia that is used for windsurfing record attempts these days.

“Consistency is the key for us,” White explains. “The truth is that we have no idea if we will be able to attempt the mile record in the UK until after we have made the 500-metre attempt. Consistency, flat water, salinity and water temperature all play a part, but because we are foiling, high wind speeds are not crucial. For the 500-metre run our optimum breeze is 16 to 18 knots. We are still learning, still developing, still testing. There are still weak areas on the boat that keep breaking and need fixing. We need to find all her weak points before we can really wind her up.”

White freely admits that the 18 months since Project Speedbird started have been a massive test of her resilience and that she is now very much ready for a break.

“This project has been so much harder than I ever thought it would be,” she says. “To start with, I was pretty cocksure and confident. I had no real grasp on what the pioneers in this field had achieved, not just in speed, but also in the determination, ambition and inner strength that’s needed.

“Speedbird is on temporary display in Liverpool at the International Festival of Business and I have quite a lot of sponsor commitments to fulfil. During this time, we will take stock, have a rethink about a few things and try to bring in some more partners, so that we can come back later this year to attack the record mile attempt with renewed energy.”

[All images: Anthony Cullen]

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