Girl in a man's world

Solo circumnavigator, Sam Davies, the 34-year-old Cambridge graduate who once wanted to be a ballerina, has beaten the world of the alpha male to take the top award in hairy-chested sailing: the 2009 YJA Pantaenius Yachtsman of the Year.

Yet still loves to dress in girlie clothes onshore and wears three tiny diamond ear studs and a belly ring which she bares when the sun is shining : in the Tropics she sails naked. ‘In the tropics, when it’s really hot, it’s better to do everything naked,’ she said. If she needs luck, she races in her special knickers: ‘My girl boxers with “Lucky” in pink diamanté.’

Sam comes from sailing stock: one grandfather was a submarine commander and the other a powerboat racer pilot. ‘My parents had a boat where we lived on Hayling Island, and we’d all take off after school: my sister Debbie and I would do our homework, then sit up at night in gales waiting to see if our anchor broke free of its moorings. My parents even taught me to cook a roast in a tiny galley in a force 8 gale.’

By the time she was at university, she was escaping from Cambridge University to sail at weekends, only giving it up in her final year to focus on her studies. Ten years ago she started sailing professionally – missing her graduation ceremony for a race: ‘I was in the middle of the Atlantic instead.’   
It hasn’t come easily. She qualified for the Vendée Globe in December 2007 by completing her first Open 60 solo race, and she’s been preparing for the challenge for the past year, practising emergency medical treatment by sewing up pigs’ trotters (a previous Vendée Globe contestant, Bertrand de Broc, had to stitch up his tongue after an accident), hanging out with meteorological professors, studying star navigation and learning about nutrition.
‘In rough seas, sometimes it’s too dangerous to boil water, so you just eat freeze-dried food,’ she told the Mail on Sunday. ‘But as I’m a girl, my nutritionist acknowledges that I have to eat chocolate each day!’
She has also been working with a trainer to bulk her up, for two hours a day, five days a week – swimming, cycling and weightlifting. ‘Don’t give me big muscles,’ Sam wails. ‘But you’ve got to pull up your mainsail, and you can’t do that without strong muscles,’ replies her trainer. ‘But my objective after the race,’ insists Sam, ‘is to have smaller, ladylike arms and shoulders!’

Which brings us back to the girlie stuff. Every few days alone at sea, Sam speaks to her boyfriend of three years, a French yachtsman called Romain. (He sealed their relationship by flying across the world to meet her at the finish in Brazil after the 2003 Transat Jacques Vabre race: ‘I was glad I’d washed that day!’ she says.) ‘We’re renovating our home in Brittany,’ she explains, ‘and he rings my satellite phone when I’m in the middle of the sea with impossible questions such as, “Where do you want the plug?”‘

Sam is a woman in a man’s world but, she says, it’s never really been an issue for her. ‘I’ve always been the one girl sailing with a male crew. Sailors used to think it unlucky to have a woman on board, but I started racing after Tracy Edwards had changed the idea of it being a male sport. By then it was seen as a novelty to have a female on board, and people thought it improved the atmosphere. I found myself being chosen in place of men who were equally good.’

Sam is good at having it both ways. She has added feminine touches to her cabin – pretty drawings and a fake orchid. When the boat’s ashore, she strides about in her bikini bossing around the crew she trains with – all men, one an Olympic finalist.
She hides her make-up bag from them. (‘Otherwise the boys take my mirror to look under the engine, my lipgloss to grease the engine and elastic bands to tidy the ropes!’) And she uses her sex to her advantage: ‘Whenever I don’t want to climb the mast to do a job at the top, I wear a short skirt so that I simply can’t get up there.’

Her parents, Paul, a retired engineer, and Jenny, his former secretary, now have their own replica 1928 schooner. ‘They sold everything – including their house – to buy their dream boat. They have no fixed address and refuse to have a safety beacon or satellite phone.’ Do they ring her onshore? ‘If their mobile works, and they hook on to the nearest wi-fi with an aerial that Dad made with Mum’s wok!’

On one occasion, when Sam hadn’t seen her parents for 18 months, she was competing solo in a race and sent them an e-mail with an estimate of where she was going to be. They sailed nine hours to meet her off
the Azores.