Jerseyman Phil Sharp began offshore racing as a student whilst undertaking an MSc in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College. In 2005 he competed in his first major race, the Mini Transat, in which he raced single-handed across the Atlantic in a 21ft boat, finishing 4th out of 84 entries.
A year later Phil went on to score a triumphant victory in the 40ft class Route du Rhum solo transatlantic race, crossing almost a whole day ahead of his nearest competitor. Phil has since specialised in composite engineering, whilst fulfilling his need to race in additional classes such as the highly competitive Figaro circuit.
This year, as one of Britain’s most competitive offshore sailors, Phil has his sights set firmly on the Vendee Globe which will see him attempt to circumnavigate the world in under 80 days, the race starts in November, we spoke to him about life as a solo sailor.
Crewed sailing is a fairly popular pursuit here in Jersey, what was it about solo sailing that first interested you:
My first taste of solo sailing was when, as a teenager, I decided one day to sail a Laser around the island as fast as possible. It was really windy, I capsized a lot, but I found it personally very satisfying as it pushed me right out of my comfort zone. Crewed sailing is great fun, as you get to share the experience with others, but the challenge and personal endeavour of solo sailing I find more addictive.
What does it take to become a solo sailor:
The first and most important requirement is a can-do attitude. Basically solo sailing is just an extension of sailing a Laser dinghy! There are a bunch of things to manage and one has to be well versed in key areas such as sail changing, trimming, tactics and navigation. Also, when racing, the ability to switch off and go to sleep is important, whilst the boat ploughs along at maximum speed under spinnaker. The key is to manage all these aspects effectively onboard and making sure you devote time and attention to all of them.
In November this year you are participating in the Vendee Globe, 11 years since your first race, what have you had to do to be eligible to enter and how are you preparing for the race:
To enter and qualify for the Vendee Globe you first need to find the funding for the project and the boat, and then complete a transatlantic race to qualify. Securing the level of funding required for a Vendee Globe is by far the most challenging and this takes a lot of time, in order to build up the profile and partnerships, as well as the experience and skills required.
Can you tell us more about the Vendee Globe, and what about your entry makes you different from other competitors:
We are planning to do something very special that no one has succeeded in doing yet. That is to complete a non-stop circumnavigation on zero emissions, avoiding any reliance on fossil fuels. No vehicle has ever accomplished this on land, sea or air, so we have developed a unique fuel cell power generation system to replace the diesel engines that all race boats currently used. We are currently taking the steps to commercialise this technology also, which is very exciting indeed.
Not all of the challenges you undertake are solo, you recently completed a record breaking sail with well known adventurer Sean Conway, can you tell us more about that:
I love also competing in short-handed challenges, and met Sean who is a highly inspirational adventurer and was keen to add to his successes of cycling, swimming and running the length of Britain. The fact he swam the Lands-End to John O Groats route goes to show how much personal drive he has, so it was a great reward and a lot of fun to set a new Length of Britain record with him.
How was it taking a relatively novice, and often seasick, sailor to sea in the conditions you faced:
Sean gets pretty seasick but he likes being pushed out of his comfort zone. To be honest I was quite concerned that he’d be very ill the whole way, and would be unable to take much of a part in the record. However, despite being ill for the first half, he mucked in and got involved in everything he could, so he was in fact a great help onboard.
Whilst it’s just you in the boat when you race, what about the team behind you:
The effort for getting to a race of the magnitude of the Vendee Globe is the result of a substantial team effort. The skipper is there to sail the boat, but the team around you is what makes everything happen and everything possible: putting sponsorships in place, delivering high value media coverage for sponsors, preparing and maintaining the boat, and running all the logistics behind the project. The campaign draws on a lot of skills and expertise from different areas and is basically the same as running a business!
Do you have time to get lonely when you’re at sea:
Yes the solitude and the isolation definitely does make my mind wander when I’ve been alone at sea for a long time. On the longer transatlantics I definitely miss friends and family, but I reap a lot of motivation from this to sail as fast as possible for the finish! With satellite communications you have human contact, and you also have your competitors in the race to draw a lot of comfort from, so this helps enormously.
Do you have any advice to those that may be considering taking up sailing:
Go and give it a try! Get in touch with the Royal Channel Island Yacht Club and St Catherine’s Sailing Club who have fleets of Hobies, Lasers, and other dinghies, catering for all ages, so one can get a taste of sailing. Before you step onto a yacht it is best to learn the fundamentals in dinghies, plus they are really great fun.
How can we follow your progress:
You can sign up to our newsletter at our race website, www.philsharpracing.com, and we do consistent, frequent updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can find all these links from our site, so you can follow our exciting journey to the Vendee Globe.