American singlehanded yachtswoman Elana Connor has completed her 3,000-mile fundraising voyage, sailing into Princes Wharf, Auckland accompanied by the Spirit of New Zealand tall ship
Solo sailor and former foster child Elana Connor has successfully navigated a figure-of-eight route around New Zealand in a 34ft yacht, to raise sail training funds for teenagers in care.
Voyage for VOYCE has seen the yachtswoman visit 22 ports, host more than 1,300 youngsters aboard her 1985 Sabre 34 mark I yacht, Windfola, and speak to more than 1,000 people at 19 different sailing clubs.
On Sunday, 16 May, Elana sailed into Princes Wharf, Auckland seven months after setting off, accompanied by the Spirit of New Zealand tall ship.
Originally from the west coast of the USA, Elana was stranded in New Zealand more than a year ago after COVID-19 closed international borders, putting her circumnavigation on hold.
Instead, she set her sights on supporting the New Zealand foster care community, developing a scholarship fund and fundraising voyage to enable teenagers in care to experience sail training aboard Tall Ship Spirit of Adventure.
Elana learnt to sail just seven years ago.
Since then, she and her rescue dog Zia have sailed more than 10,000 miles.
The yachtswoman faced many challenges during her voyage: the death of her beloved Grandma, storms and rough sea conditions, countless boat repairs and more recently, a very determined rat that stowed away for several weeks.
‘I was extremely committed to completing this voyage for these vulnerable young people.
‘More than 500 New Zealand teenagers ‘age’ out of foster care every year, and their journey to independence is often fraught with financial instability, lack of opportunity and issues arising from past trauma and experiences in the state care system.
‘Having gone through that specific transition myself from foster care, it’s a cause close to my heart.
‘I want to show them someone believes in their potential and, ultimately drive better life outcomes’, says Elana.
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All of this is in line with Elana’s own experience.
So far NZ$44,929 has been raised through her givealittle page, with every cent going towards a new scholarship fund for young people to take part in the Spirit of Adventure 10-day voyage.
VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, an independent advocacy organisation for children and young people in care, will administer the fund, supported by the Spirit of Adventure Trust.
‘I’m grateful for all the amazing donations and support the campaign has received so far.
‘It is an investment in the empowerment, wellbeing, and future of our care-experienced young people, and an investment in our youth is an investment in our collective future,’ adds Elana.
In interview with Yachting Monthly, we find out more about the inspirational Elana Connor, and why she has captured the heart of the cruising community…
After my first bluewater crossing from California to Hawaii, people thought that it was really cool that I’d just got the sailing bug and got on a boat.
When I made the return journey, which can be a tricky passage, suddenly sailors in San Francisco started to take me seriously, like ‘Ok, you did this, a lot of people ship their boats back to avoid making this crossing.’
By the time I left on the solo circumnavigation, three years ago, in Windfola, women especially were telling me that I was inspiring to them.
I was a bit resistant to it at first, like I can’t imagine anybody thinking I’m a role model.
I’m just a normal person, I make all the mistakes out there, I’m scared all the time, I get seasick.
But after crossing the Pacific, on making landfall in French Polynesia, I had dinner with a family I’d met on a cruising net.
At the end, the mum said: ‘Let’s take a picture, we’ve been waiting to meet you, Elana Connor.’
Their daughter, who was maybe eight, asked why and the mum said: ‘Well you know that crossing we just did, with your dad and brother, she did it alone with her little dog.’
The little girl just looked at me and I could see the gears turning in her head and she said ‘But who was your captain?’
It made me feel like maybe there is room for more female role models who are just learning things and who break stuff.
I’d like to demystify the idea that you need to have grown up your whole life fixing boats to take care of a boat.
I only started sailing in 2014, it’s all learnable and doable.
A lot of older women cruisers say they are impressed that I’ve fixed my engine a couple of times.
They might be career women who have done amazing things already but they feel intimidated by the mechanical stuff.
Because I’m a captain, the guys will also talk to me and I’m learning that many of them don’t know what they’re doing.
They’re smart fellows but they’re also bumbling around in the engine compartment, opening things, looking at the manual, watching YouTube videos, and eventually isolating what that problem might be.
I was halfway across the Pacific when it all clicked, I thought if I were willing to tell my story, and be honest about where I came from, maybe I could inspire more than just women and girls on the water; I could also inspire other kids in care.
When my circumnavigation halted in New Zealand – due to COVID border closures and the cyclone season – I wanted to put this into action.
During my time in foster care, I never once met anyone who had left the system and achieved success.
I want to encourage young people to imagine a better future is possible for them.
I grew up in a very violent home, and it all peaked around 14, I ran away and was crashing on friends’ couches.
My father was eventually imprisoned for abuse and during that time, I tried to take my own life because it was just really hard.
The care system took custody of me, I was able to escape the violence and I got the mental healthcare I needed.
However, I was moved around so much, I went from being an honour student to barely finishing high school.
I had to work really hard to get myself to university at 21 and it was a harder path.
We’re housing and clothing and feeding foster youth, but we’re not nourishing their souls, that’s a big oversight.
That’s what’s so cool about partnering with VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, it’s this advocacy organization in New Zealand, that’s there to make sure the voice of the young person is heard.
I’ve met with more than 1,500 young people, of all ages, through schools and local sailing club programmes, and a lot of youth who are either in care, or have care experience.
It’s amazing to let them explore Windfola. Kids who have never been on a sailboat before have no idea that it’s like a tiny home, so they think that’s really cool.
You can see that the whole idea of being able to sail around and kind of be free, just sets their imaginations on fire.
They like meeting my rescue dog Zia, who’s nine and the most wonderful company.
When I’m sailing, she’ll suddenly sniff the air really fast and I’ll see dolphins or whales; she’s great at detecting marine life.
When I started the circumnavigation, I hadn’t heard of anybody else doing a figure-of-eight voyage around New Zealand.
I’ve since heard of a man doing the same route decades ago, although I’m still the first woman I know of to do it — surprising in such a sailing-mad country.
The 3,000 mile route started in Auckland on 14 October.
Travelling southeast to the Bay of Plenty, around the East Cape, through the Cook Strait, down the west coast of the South Island, through the Foveaux Strait, north to Dunedin and Christchurch, through the Cook Strait to Wellington, north to New Plymouth, around Cape Reinga, past the Bay of Islands, and back to Auckland.
It’s been a lot more engine use than I’m used to, going in and out of bays, or when the wind drops off, so I’ve needed to do more engine maintenance.
New Zealand’s wind is very changeable, so I sometimes had to wait two weeks to get a weather window to sail for 48 hours along a long coastline, with no harbour ports.
I have a tiny income source through patrons via my website.
It’s not enough to do any refits on my boat, just enough to live very simply, and that’s fine with me.
I’m very thankful that along the way, during Voyage for VOYCE, all of our berths have been free and if I’ve needed help to fix something, there’s been a local mechanic willing to assist, so I’ve just paid for parts and food.
The big lesson I’ve learned the last few years is that we need so much less than we think we do.
What’s next for Elana Connor?
I still feel a conviction that I want to finish this solo circumnavigation.
However I consciously slowed down two-thirds through the fundraising voyage when it began to click that I was not going to get back to Auckland in time for the America’s Cup.
It was more important for me to connect with young people in care and turn over every possible stone in each port, than to get back at a set time.
For the last three miles of the voyage I was joined by four care-experienced young people – all members of VOYCE’s National Youth Council.
One was a young man who is mad about sailing, and he helmed most of the way in. He recently began a boat-building apprenticeship and I’m certain he has a bright maritime future ahead of him.
Another was the young woman who was our first scholarship recipient.
She was so excited to be out sailing again, and she did much of the trimming as well as flaked the mainsail when we dropped it. She said her voyage aboard the Spirit had a big impact on her and was a really enlightening experience.
I asked them to come aboard and join me because it is just so important to me that the young people are front and centre in what I do, and also to illustrate a point I often make in the talks I give: that we almost never arrive at our goals alone.
I have never achieved anything without the help of my community, and these kids need their community to support them toward a brighter future, as well.
I’d like to fund 500 kids to do tall ship sail training.
It’s an America’s Cup year and for those wondering where that next generation of sailors, engineers and boat builders is going to come from; it could be some of these young people who get a chance to go on a tall ship.