Scarborough sailor Diane Reid selected as first Canadian female skipper for around the world race
Diane Reid was halfway into a solo cross-Atlantic yacht race when her years-long dream came to a heartbreaking halt.
Part of her mast snapped amid rough seas, putting her race and ambitions on hold, and leaving her with a disappointment she couldn’t shake — until now.
The Scarborough sailor has been appointed the first female Canadian skipper in the world’s longest ocean race, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which takes more than 10 months to complete.
“I’ll be very honest . . . there’s an element in my life that’s missing, and it’s getting across the next ocean,” said Reid, speaking to the Star from Gosport, England, where she’s training for the race. “The Clipper race puts it all together for me, all the pieces that I’m looking for.”
The competition will see Reid, 42, set off in August to race 40,000 nautical miles around the globe on a 23-metre yacht crewed by amateurs.
This is Reid’s chance for redemption and the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“I was on the boat technically before I was born, when (my mom) was pregnant with me,” said Reid, who grew up in Port Hope, Ont.
Her earliest memory is of being in a boat race at age four or five, with her mom explaining the importance of “flattening out” a boat by sitting on the high side.
Reid’s parents weren’t competitive sailors, but as a teen she stoked her sailing passion by joining Sea Cadets, going on to become a sailing teacher.
Moving to the Toronto area in the 1990s, she and husband Paul purchased a racing boat and joined the Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club. But while Paul, admittedly more of a “casual go for a sail, have a beer” type of guy, enjoyed cruising, Reid craved bigger adventures.
“She can do anything,” said Roger Van Vlack, Reid’s friend and campaign chairman for her 2013 transatlantic race. “She’s extremely handy; she’s not just a sailor.”
In 2009, she set her sights on the Mini Transat — a solo race from France to Guadeloupe — and spent the next four years preparing.
Despite the crushing blow of not finishing that 2013 race, Reid didn’t give up on racing. She’d caught the bug, said Van Vlack, and continued expanding her sailing knowledge.
He describes her as “smiley, happy” and an extrovert — traits that will no doubt serve her well when managing the race crew, many who’ve never sailed before.
“How are they going to take it when you’re out there in the black of night and let’s say you’ve got huge waves and 50 knots of air?” said Van Vlack. “It’s panic city.”
But last year’s winner, fellow Canadian Eric Holden, said his team — a mixture of doctors, baristas, students and others from all over the world who pay tens of thousands of dollars to participate and receive training — were “completely capable” despite not knowing entirely what they were in for.
“There are really no showers on board, and there’s two toilets for 20 people and you have to clean the toilets yourself,” he said. “Mostly you’re using baby wipes and hand sanitizer (to bathe).”
For Holden, the greatest challenge was time management.
The skipper’s job involves coaching crew, reporting back to Clipper headquarters, writing blogs, navigating the boat and even providing first aid. At sea, he never slept more than four hours at a time and during storms, he’d work up to 36 hours straight.
“You’ve got to make sure you save enough (time and energy) for yourself so you don’t burn out,” he said, adding that time on land between the eight legs is limited to about a week.
And skippers have to be ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
In the 2014 race, a tornado flipped a yacht on its side, tossing crew into choppy water, leaving them scrambling for safety. None were injured but footage of the incident is chilling.
The other alternative is getting stuck in an area with no wind.
“I still think she’s a bit crazy,” said Reid’s husband of 19 years, Paul.
Paul said he’s worried about his wife’s safety — albeit less so than when she sailed solo — and isn’t looking forward to spending months alone. But he wasn’t about to stop his wife from pursuing her dream.
“Really, it’s a chance of a lifetime,” he said. “It’s tough having her away from us but I’m very supportive of what she’s doing.”
He plans to visit Reid at a few ports throughout the race, including Australia at Christmas, but says he’ll miss her on other important dates, such as their anniversary.
“(Paul) is one of the bravest guys you will ever meet because he watches his wife leave him all the time,” said Reid, her usual jovial tone turning serious. “He’s my glue.”
Reid has spent good chunks of the year away from home before, especially when she was preparing for the Mini Transat race, but the Clipper race will force the couple apart longer than ever before. Communication will also be lacking, with email access limited and phone access even more so.
“I have to give up my life at home, to be really, really blunt about it,” said Reid, who also has a retriever named Chuck at home. “I’ve had to walk away from those relationships.”
Aside from loneliness, the bubbly Reid is eager to start her adventure.
Even meeting the crew — which she’ll do in April — and teaching them is exciting.
“Some of these people have never sailed before in their lives,” said Reid, who runs her own sailing school and a boat repair business in Scarborough, and calls teaching her second passion. “I really do love seeing people have this moment that washes over their face of, ‘Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing.’ ”
It was Reid’s zeal for helping people, along with her technical skill, that set her apart from other applicants, said race director Justin Taylor.
“She stuck out for me because she can clearly sail a boat,” said Taylor. “What also impressed us is the way that she managed her crew. (The job) takes huge amounts of empathy.”
This year, the Clipper team received 200 skipper applications from all over the world, said Taylor. After whittling down the pile to a select few, organizers invited candidates to England for a stressful three-day, on-the-water interview in October. From there, they picked the final 12.
The position is paid, with Reid receiving 30,000 pounds (approx. $56,000) for 12 months of work, money that will be hard-earned over the coming months.
Reid said her schedule is “absolutely rammed” as she trains in England and prepares to meet her crew members — up to 60 of them — some of whom will rotate throughout the legs of the race. The yachts hold only 24 people.
From there, a month-long sail from the United Kingdom to Brazil kicks off the first leg of the race.
Reid said she’s not thinking about what’s next after the race — though she’s certain it won’t be her last — but for now, she’s still thinking about the past.
“Crossing the start line of the Transat race was one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. To then not be able to finish the race was one of the most crushing things that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “Part of looking for a new project was to satisfy that hunger to get back out there and to triumph.”
Reid sets sail Aug. 31.