First Mate Rachel Burgess tells YM what it was like to race 28,000 miles worldwide to win the Ocean Globe Race with her all-female Maiden crew.

I got the call while sitting in a little cafe in Horta in the Azores. Say ‘hell, yes’ first, think about the logistics second. So that’s how I became First Mate on board the iconic yacht Maiden with our record-breaking all-female crew, racing like it’s 1973.

First I had to complete an Atlantic crossing. I then joined the team in Hamble in July 2023 for the final preparations ahead of the start. I also had to get my GMDSS GOC (general operator’s certificate) radio licence.

Little did I know that the HF radio would become a huge feature of the days on board. It was often our only access to weather information but also our social network, with jokes or ‘quotes of the day’ with the other boats at the twice daily buddy chats – these became a highlight for the crew. After each one I would plot the other boats’ positions and work out the distances covered to see if we had made gains or losses in the last 12 hours.

Maiden with the sun behind

‘Morale was high as we headed out across Christchurch Bay – next stop Cape Town.’ Photo: Rachel Burgess

Weather was always a hot topic. All information came from the slightly temperamental weatherfax and long-range HF radio forecasts – many stations have been shut down now and large areas of the South Atlantic have no broadcasts at all.

Part of the joy of the race was navigating as per the 1970s. Crack out the sextant and use the sun, moon and stars to cross an ocean. Suddenly the realisation of why you need an accurate course, speed, variation and deviation became apparent.

Rachel in action at the nav desk.

Rachel in action at the nav desk. Photo: Rachel Burgess

Every 2-3 hours we would enter the log and create a Dead Reckoning (DR) position, then use either Bonnie or Clyde (the two sextants) to calculate how close we were to that guesstimate.

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Maiden crew tactics and navigation

Early on, a tactical decision Heather and I agreed on was to take the shortest route. We suffered on Legs 1 and 4 from our weatherfax not picking up any signal. We elected to take the ‘common is common for a reason’ approach to routing.

The tactics and navigation were shared between Heather and myself. We organised our time into watches of six hours on, six hours off. Whoever was on watch was responsible for sail changes, keeping an eye on the weather and working out where we thought we were.

Rachel Burgess very excited to get a readable chart from weatherfax

Very excited to get a readable chart from weatherfax. Photo: Rachel Burgess

The crew were organised into four watches of two, always two watches on at a time, and rotating every two hours so that the oncoming watch went forward to take over the ‘pit’ for trim and grinder, while the ‘pit’ crew moved back and took the helm and mainsheet.

Changing crew every two hours is great for keeping the on-watches fresh, but makes a shared mealtime difficult. Like this, there was no time when everyone was together, so we ate freeze-dried food.

Every couple of days Junella would appear like Santa with a sack of food and put the next few days’ sachets into each person’s personal cubby area. Each crew could then choose what to eat and when. Mostly the off-going watch would heat the food when going to wake the next watch, so it was ready to eat as soon as they came down. We also kept UTC boat time on Maiden, as this took one mathematical step out of the navigation – important when you’re sleep deprived and the boat is bouncing around!

Maiden is not an easy boat to sail; she has a low freeboard and there is only one area that an average 5ft 6in crew can stand up in. The 12 crew lived on top of each other. We had tiers of pipe cot bunks, which we shared (hot bunking), with only one toilet and a small galley. We each had only 12kg of personal kit.

Rachel (right) and some of the Maiden crew under mackerel skies

Rachel (right) and some of the Maiden crew under mackerel skies. Photo: Rachel Burgess

The race start was spectacular. There were spectator boats as far as the eye could see. It was a downwind start, in fairly light winds and we popped the spinnaker just after the line, giving us a nice head start on some of the other boats. Morale was high and the sun was shining as we headed out across Christchurch Bay – next stop Cape Town in nearly 7,000 miles.

The crew started Leg 1 without having previously sailed together as a team. In the first few days we had lots of sail changes and we had to learn to manage energy levels and not do as many changes as you might on an inshore race. Tactically, we elected to wait at least 20-30 minutes before going for another sail change, even up to an hour if making the sailplan bigger.

With some champagne sailing downwind with the trades, the crew learned to steer the boat down the waves in a straight line as fast as possible. We crossed the Doldrums alongside Translated 9.

Molly, Junella and Rachel taking down a wrapped spinnaker.

Molly, Junella and Rachel taking down a wrapped spinnaker. Photo: Rachel Burgess

We came into Cape Town upwind in a strong 45 knots. On radioing VTS to ask about traffic, we were told to ‘wait outside for better weather’! We responded that we were racing, to which the lovely lady replied: ‘Well if you’re sure. There’s 50 knots in the marina here. Good luck!’ We crossed the line to find out we were only 30 minutes shy of beating Spirit of Helsinki on corrected time. But second in the first leg still felt like a good place to be.

Leg 2 proved to be a learning curve; the waves were bigger, the wind was more dense, colder and the sky was often grey. Heavy, exciting downwind conditions were the norm, with waves 4-6m and lots of fun surfing, followed by the 30-knot spinnaker takedown! The waves and grey skies made it difficult to navigate using the sextant, we just sailed extra miles to make sure we didn’t miss the waypoints.

Cape Horners

One of the biggest sailing achievements (other than winning) was to sail around Cape Horn. Leg 3 saw us leaving Auckland in shorts and T-shirts to cross the world’s most remote ocean. Our path would see us dive deeper into the Southern Ocean than any of us had been before. Race control had placed some ice limit waypoints at 50°S and 53°S.

Chasing down Translated 9 on Leg 1. We played cat and mouse with them for almost the entire Doldrums passage and had some good fun chats over VHF.

Chasing down Translated 9 on Leg 1. We played cat and mouse with them for almost the entire Doldrums passage and had some good fun chats over VHF. Photo: Rachel Burgess

The Southern Ocean was remarkably kind to us. We had calms at 50°S, renamed the Cold Doldrums or Coldrums and we wore the swimsuits on deck just for the fun of saying we sailed in swimsuits that far south.

Closing in on the second waypoint, we had been engaged in a close battle with the Spirit of Helsinki when the weather changed to heavy fog, making it tricky to be sure of our position. Suddenly over the VHF we heard them making a warning to another vessel on a collision course. It turned out we were also within VHF range of both Triana and Neptune.

Celebrating Cape Horn aboard Maiden

Swimsuits out for Cape Horn! Photo: Rachel Burgess

The racing was tight and we inched ahead, ‘power reaching’ our way towards Cape Horn in the lead of our chasing pack. Just before Cape Horn we damaged our bowsprit; it lifted clean out of the deck whilst ploughing down some big waves, so we actually sailed past the horn under white sails wing on wing! Sadly for the crew we rounded the Horn in darkness, with only the flash of the lighthouse to guide us.

How do you keep a team fresh on a boat for eight months? This proved tricky sometimes but essentially it comes down to communication. Once a week we tried to have a team meeting on deck where our ‘chief of morale’ Lana would regale us with a story or inspirational quote and the crew could voice any issues. Our battle cry of: ‘Who runs the world? Girls!’ and some cake to end the session left everyone feeling upbeat.

When you go off to sea for up to six weeks at a time, especially racing, it can be easy to forget to have fun, and this was really a vital part of keeping the team fresh. Fleet birthdays were celebrated over the radio with the girls making up songs.

'Morale was high as we headed out across Christchurch Bay – next stop Cape Town.'

‘Morale was high as we headed out across Christchurch Bay – next stop Cape Town.’ Photo: Rachel Burgess

We came up with ‘quotes of the day’ and jokes to entertain ourselves and the other boats through our Maiden Radio. We also featured ‘Heather’s Weather’ and a Cupid service on Valentine’s Day, reading poems from starry eyed lovers over the radio for all to hear.

Leg 4 turned out to be our most challenging leg and showcased the real resilience of the team. A westerly course to start was risky but paid off around Rio. We had breakdowns of the inverters, generator and watermaker, leaving us with rationing on food and water for a large amount of the race.

Rachel trying to slow down a leak from the seal on the water tank whilst on passage.

Trying to slow down a leak from the seal on the water tank whilst on passage. Photo: Rachel Burgess

We collected lots of rainwater, managed to work through some of the equipment problems and ultimately managed to keep the boat sailing as fast as possible. Really the girls showed just how tough they were, getting on with the job without complaining and often offering to drink less than allocated if it would help keep us racing.

Large areas of hot weather and no wind made it difficult to navigate. To add insult to injury the weatherfax also stopped working so we had to rely on HF forecasts and the kindness of some of the other navigators to make our routing decisions.

Sunset in front of Maiden

After being at sea for weeks, a sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection. Photo: Rachel Burgess

The Azores high seemed to chase us up the Atlantic where we again played cat and mouse with Outlaw and Spirit of Helsinki. It was incredibly demoralising to be within 15 miles of another boat and then for them to sail off and be 100 miles ahead within 24 hours.

A nice low pressure system gave us a final blast up the Channel. We had an amazing reception sailing up the Solent in the sun and even managed to fly the spinnaker one last time over the finish line.

A joyful moment after the finish line in Cowes.

A joyful moment after the finish line in Cowes. ‘Educate a Girl, Change the World’ is the Maiden philosophy. Photo: Rachel Burgess

A few days after the race, we had the absolute honour to meet Queen Camilla at St James’s Palace. The words on the galley wall just say it all: ‘With faith, honour and courage, anything is possible’.

Would I do it again? Absolutely!

Rachel Burgess: diving deeper

‘Why do we go to sea for such long times and cross oceans? I think it has to be the freedom the ocean brings. There is a lot of time for deep contemplation and there is nothing more bonding than late night chats in the dark, looking out at the stars as the boat slices her way through the waves leaving a glittery wake and it’s all quiet except for the sound of the waves.

‘On off watches, I love to listen to the musical hum as the water rushes along the hull, signalling we are making fast speeds, often accompanied by the whoops and cheers of the on watch as we surf down waves.

Sailing through the ocean at night.

Sailing through the ocean at night. Photo: Rachel Burgess

‘Maiden is like a racehorse chomping at the bit ready to take off at the crest of the next wave.’

Rachel is an RYA Yachtmaster Ocean with over 70,000 miles experience of ocean racing, including two circumnavigations, one via Cape Horn. She has sailed the Sydney-Hobart race (2022), a Clipper circumnavigation (2019-2022) as well as in various offshore events in Australia, the Channel Islands and the UK.

Rachel graduated as a veterinary surgeon in 2010 and worked as a horse vet for 10 years before taking up professional sailing.

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