Bianca Cook, the only Kiwi yachtswoman in the Volvo Ocean Race, can now celebrate having sailed around the world. On land in Cardiff, she tells Suzanne McFadden what it’s meant to be part of a new wave of inclusivity in yachting. 

Even though there are still two legs until the end of the race, you’ve now officially circumnavigated the globe for the first time. How does that feel?

It’s crazy. It feels like this race has gone so fast [it started in Alicante last October]. We’ve only got seven more days of offshore sailing together. But there were times when it felt like the longest thing in the world. I’d definitely do it again, though.

The Volvo Ocean Race has new owners – Atlant Ocean Racing Spain. Have they talked about retaining the crew rule incentivising teams to include women crew members in the 2021-22 race?

Unfortunately they haven’t mentioned that yet. But Richard Brisius, the current CEO of the race, is one of the new owners and he is very much for it. He’s been a great supporter of women sailing in the race, and he put together the all-female crew Team SCA in the 2014-15 race.

How critical has it been to have women in every crew in this race?

It’s so important, not just for the race but for women in yachting in general. Before the race started, a couple of skippers didn’t know if it was such a good idea. But we’ve proven we can be just as strong as the guys and having those extra pairs of hands on board has been a great thing. It also means this will be the first time in the history of the event that a woman will win the race. It’s still a very much male-dominated sport, but I think we are starting to change minds.

What’s it like living and working in a mixed crew?

I think the mixed team has worked well. All of my sailing, other than a little women’s match-racing, has been with mixed crews. Sailing around the world in a mixed crew would be my preference. It’s easier. If you feel like you need to say something, it won’t be misinterpreted. We all chip in, there is no hierarchy. It would be nice further down the track if we don’t have to have the rule at all, and we’re just seen as sailors, not women sailors.

Do you feel you’re able to inspire other young women to take part in the round-the-world race?

It’s been incredible the number of young girls who come up to me when we’re in port, asking how they can get into it. All of us have serious sailing backgrounds – there are Olympians, America’s Cup and offshore sailors. My best piece of advice for young women is to get your qualifications and plenty of sea time. Throw yourself at it.

Your young crew on Turn the Tide on Plastic has had a frustrating race – you’ve yet to make the podium in a leg, although you’re often battling it out with the leaders during the race. How tough has it been?

Painful to be honest. The scoreboard doesn’t reflect the race we’re having. We are finishing just hours and minutes behind the winners, not days. Dee [skipper Dee Caffari] is frustrated – in her last race onboard Team SCA they were finishing days behind the leaders. Now we’re finishing minutes behind, but it’s the same result on the scoreboard. But I can say I’ve sailed around the world, so I’m pretty happy right now.

Has this experience exceeded your expectations?

Absolutely. I came into this thinking I knew what the race was all about, but you don’t understand it until you’re in it. I have pushed myself harder than I thought. But more than anything, it’s been the massive mental challenge that has surprised me. But I love it. A couple of times before the legs have started, Dee has had to say to me ‘Calm down Bianca, we’re leaving soon’. I just get so excited by the thought of going back out to sea.

Even at the thought of diving into the Southern Ocean?

I hopped off the Southern Ocean leg [Auckland to Itajai] and realised it was the most incredible experience in my life. You go down there and you are completely detached from the rest of the world. You’re constantly pushing the boats hard, surfing down massive waves. I remember approaching Cape Horn, seeing it from a distance, and thinking ‘Is that it? We’ve risked our lives to go around that?’ As we got closer, I thought it was really quite stunning. And as we passed the lighthouse I thought ‘I can’t believe I’ve gone around Cape Horn!’

How hard has it been physically?

It’s extremely physical. Right now, my cardio fitness is so low compared to when I started this race. You don’t get that kind of fitness offshore. I tell you what though, my arms are massive! You’re constantly moving the stack of sails backwards and forwards. It’s so demanding. As the race goes on, you get more tired. You’re energy is so low, you’re completely putting your body on the line in really trying conditions.

What will you miss most?

I was quite late to join the team, and when we started off I felt I was a little on the outside. But now we are a family – the sailors, the shore team, the tech guys. It’s so easy to forget you have another real family. Sure you have your moments – when you’re tired and grumpy, sleep deprived and sick of freeze dried food. But the hardest thing will be saying goodbye. I certainly won’t miss the food, or sleeping in my wet weather gear.

Once you’ve finished this race, what’s next?

I’ll have a few things on the go. I’m doing some women’s match-racing in Sweden with the Magenta Project straight after the race. Then I want to finish my Officer of Watch certificate to sail super yachts. I’m also looking at putting together a mixed team in the World Sailing offshore double-handed series. Eventually I’ll come home. We have a family-run business [Yachting Developments] that I want to be involved in. And I’d like to go sailing with my sister, Paige, and maybe do the Round North Island double-handed race together. First, we’ve got to make sure we can stand each other for more than a couple of hours!

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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