Wendy Tuck is the first female skipper to have won a round the world yacht race. She is still amazed at the impact of her achievement, as Chris Eakin found out
There are few sailors who know Sydney Harbour quite as well as the Australian Wendy Tuck.
That cannot come as a great surprise given that she was brought up in this waterside city and is now famous for being the first woman to win a round the world yacht race.
But Wendo, as she is known to friends, was not initially part of the yachting scene at all.
She was brought up in a tough outer suburb, far removed from the glamour of the iconic harbour.
Wendy Tuck knows these waters because she worked the ferries for a living.
It is an unlikely story — from tough neighbourhood and dead-end jobs to shining example and inspiration.
On the summer’s day she led her amateur crew into Liverpool to win the 2017-18 Clipper Race, she unwittingly triggered a celebration which took on a whole new level.
She thought she had simply won a race. But to others, she had sailed into history.
Only now is this no-nonsense 54-year-old beginning to understand the significance of her achievement.
Speaking back home in Sydney, she says: ‘I have always thought of myself as just a person who goes sailing. I have never set out to prove anything.
‘So, it is overwhelming at times that so many people are interested. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It has been and still is bonkers. It is just crazy. I still don’t believe it.
‘But if it gets more people, especially young girls, to go sailing then job done.’
Wendy Tuck grew up in a hard, working-class suburb of Sydney called Mount Druitt.
The family lived in public housing, and money was tight, with her father selling tyres and mother running a primary school tuck shop.
Accidental route to sailing
Unemployment and crime were high and her school was the first in the country to be offered a crèche, such was the problem of teenage pregnancies among her classmates.
Tuck credits her loving family with saving her from the inevitably difficult life many of her school friends were unable to escape.
Most Boxing Days, the family would travel from their home on the edge of the city to the shore to watch the yachts setting off on the Sydney Hobart Race.
‘It is just what everyone did,’ she says. ‘It didn’t cross my mind at all to get involved. I was happy surfing and I loved going fishing in dad’s little motor boat. Sailing looked too slow to me. Maybe it would have been different if someone had stuck a sailing magazine in front of me.’
Tuck moved out when she was 17. Her first job was on a shop checkout till.
Sailing came along almost by accident, and in an unconvincing manner.
Anyone waiting to hear of the magical moment she was bitten by the bug will go away disappointed.
Tuck had married an Englishman and they were living on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
They used his relocation allowance to buy a small bilge keel boat from friends simply because it felt like a good idea at the time.
Learning from textbooks, they muddled along but soon lost interest.
It was only back home, now divorced and in her 30s, that she started sailing properly.
‘I helped out an elderly Welsh guy who had a 35ft wooden boat and wanted crew. He was the one who taught me how to sail.’
Working in a travel agency, and sick of working indoors, her move into seeking commercial sailing qualifications was all but forced on her when the business went into liquidation.
With a mix of charter and ferry work, it was a road which took her to the 2015-16 Clipper Race and, unusually, back-to-back Clipper races with less than a year between the two.
That first race finished with Tuck and her crew towards the back of the fleet in seventh place, a far cry from the recent victory. So, why the difference?
‘I sailed conservatively first time and didn’t push so hard,’ she says. ‘This time, I was more confident. I knew how tough it would be. The great unknown was not there.’
Perhaps surprisingly, given the outcome second time round, Tuck did not go into that race with the absolute, ambition-driven hunger for victory of some of her male colleagues.
‘I never said “I want to win this”. I’m a bit superstitious and it can put the knockers on it. ‘It is about the crew, too, not just me. When we talked about what we wanted to achieve I said I’d like to be in the top four — to be better than last time. Everyone seemed happy with that. But then we had a really good win in the first leg and the momentum just built.
‘Towards the end, we all really wanted the win. But I would say to myself, “If you don’t win, it’s just another race and not the end of the world”. I didn’t want to turn into that person. But I did want to win.’
Remarkably, given male domination at skipper level, the second placed boat was led by a woman, too; Briton Nikki Henderson.
‘I don’t know if being a woman makes a difference,’ says Tuck. ‘It is just people sailing. To me personally, it does not change anything.’
A tight team
‘They were a great team first time but I enjoyed it more the second time. I was a much better skipper. I learned to trust myself more. Everyone makes mistakes and I started to forgive myself more.
‘I also had some really good crew who made my job easier. I coached the guys who could already sail to help the others.
‘In running the boat, I had a lot of guys who had asked to be with me because I had done the previous race. But I had one crew who I found to be really hard work, always questioning me. He was very ABC logical. He was a young, very intelligent professional without a sailing background.
‘We were very different and a lot of the time I had to say, “You can have your say but I am the skipper and what I say goes”. I had to figure out a way to handle him, to look at the evidence of my thinking. Once I did that it was fine.’
Anyone who sails knows how tension can build up on even the shortest of trips, let alone around the world with paying amateurs on a 70ft race boat.
What irritates Tuck? ‘What I can’t stand is crew having a problem and bitching about it without coming to me, and trying to get something going against me. It happened rarely. My watch leaders were awesome. Our strength was in how tight our team was.’
Tuck’s style is a curious one. On one hand, she is proud of the way the wider team, including partners visiting at stopovers, became one big family.
On the other, she does not believe in spoon feeding her crew with entertainment. ‘Having said that, keeping morale up is so, so important and it is hard sometimes,’ she says.
‘We had a 200-mile lead on one leg and went into a high pressure system and sat there for two days while six boats sailed past. It was devastating. You have to get that out of your mind and claw it back. We ended up beating one boat by 35 seconds by just pushing. Staying positive is really important. But I don’t provide entertainment!’
Tuck’s two Clipper races also happen to be the first two, in more than 20 years, in which sailors on other boats have died.
‘I had to tell the crew, and without all the details. It is horrendous. You have to stop everyone speculating. But you also have to bounce back. You can’t have the risk of people not concentrating. It is one of the hardest things to do and I have had to do it three times. It is just horrendous. It is horrible.’
Tuck is only now getting used to telling her story. It has taken time for the public appetite to sink in.
She does not normally concern herself with wider issues in sport, like gender or equality. ‘I just like sailing,’ she says.
‘And I don’t think a lot about this sort of stuff. But in Liverpool, a little 10-year-old girl came up for a photograph and I thought ‘my god, this does matter.’
Tuck too has been inspired by others. In her own childhood, it was all about female surfers.
But later, she vividly remembers Dame Ellen MacArthur’s round the world record in 2005 on the trimaran B&Q.
It is therefore fitting that is has skippered on a leg of The Maiden Project run by one of the greatest trail blazers of all, Tracy Edwards, who made waves with her all-female crew in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race.
When it is put to her that her life has been tough and quite a journey, she laughs and says: ‘Sure. But oceans are tough too.’
How to skipper like Wendy Tuck
Everyone makes mistakes. Forgive yourself more and trust your decisions.
Coach competent crew members to help those less experienced. This will also help create a tight team.
Work out how to handle your crew. Figure out the best way to get your point across, although make it clear that ultimately you are the skipper and the final decision will rest with you. Remember, your technique will probably be different, depending on the person or situation.
Encourage your crew to come to you early if there is a problem, so issues can be resolved early rather than letting them fester.
Keep up morale and try and be positive no matter how bad the situation. Try to focus the crew to help them concentrate on the task at hand.