An Unstoppable Force: Yachtmaster Katy Campbell’s Life at Sea
At 3 a.m., as we pounded through the worst sea state I’d ever encountered, I wondered – and not for the first time – why on earth I was doing this.
My heart had been lodged in my mouth for hours. I was worried about my crew and thinking about my boat being battered in the square-topped washing machine waves that were throwing us every which way. My watch captain and I took short watches at the helm. Battling fatigue and a healthy amount of fear, we just tried to keep driving through to escape the good ol’ fashioned Pacific Northwest gale off the notorious Brooks Peninsula.
When we broke free of the horrifically confused sea hammering itself into Brooks and wind gusting over 40 knots, the sun finally came up. We found ourselves changing gears in the dying wind to drift determinedly back towards Vancouver Island and the finish line for this leg of the 2017 VanIsle 360 International Yacht Race. I assessed the carnage – a seasick and exhausted crew, a mountain of wet sails filling the cabin, new leaks, and an enormous jobs list to be achieved at next landfall – and I knew exactly why I was doing this.
Despite nature’s best efforts to beat us into submission, we had persevered as a team.
That amazing crew were still smiling, still sailing for the finish line, and still looking after each other. To me, that’s true strength and courage. The kind that gets us through life’s inevitable hardships and allows us to fully enjoy all the happiness the world throws our way.
We sailed to five podium finishes in the nine legs of that VanIsle 360 and a fourth-place finish overall. For an entirely rookie crew (most of whom I’d trained myself over the prior 12 months) on one of the least tricked-out boats in the fleet, it felt like the accomplishment of a lifetime. I was utterly shell-shocked over it.
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I’ve since come to accept that this is my mission, and I probably shouldn’t be so surprised when it goes well! A sailing crew is a special kind of team, dependent on each other for success and survival in a way that is hard to replicate in any other environment. To take a group of strangers on a yacht and push them to bond together into an unstoppable force and go so far beyond their comfort zones that they can’t find their way back, that makes all the challenges of this job worthwhile.
I was a dinghy race coach for ten years before making the leap into training on yachts in the UK and later launching Sea to Sky Sailing in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dinghies accelerate technical development and understanding of the fundamentals of sailing. Still, there’s nowhere like a sailing yacht for pushing your boundaries mentally, emotionally, physically, and geographically. Offering the only Royal Yachting Association training on the west coast out of Vancouver through the main sailing season and racing internationally and adventure cruising in the Caribbean through the winter, I push those boundaries for myself and my crew at every opportunity.
I can’t measure the amount of blood I’ve spilled or tears I’ve cried in this strange career that has always felt like a wild roller coaster ride between frustration and jubilation. I can count (approximately) the number of sailors I have had the privilege to launch into the wide world of nautical adventures. We’re coming up to almost 1,000 individuals who are better positioned to sail through life, explore over that next horizon, and continue with the lifelong learning that the ocean offers us. For me, sailing is about the people and the experiences we share that shape us from the moment we set sail together and #livebeyondland.
Words & photos by Katy Campbell