Around the world in eight legs with the Clipper Race

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is the ultimate test for an amateur sailor. The brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and William Ward, now on its 11th edition, offers both sailors and sponsors a unique opportunity to take on one of the biggest challenges of the natural world.

Around the world in eight legs with the Clipper Race

For over 20 years the planet’s keenest amateur sailors have taken on the monumental 40,000 nautical mile Clipper Round the World Yacht Race with just a 70-foot ocean racing yacht between them and Poseidon’s unpredictable will.   

The almost year-long race was initially conceived in 1995 by celebrated British seaman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world, and UK businessman William Ward. Long-distance yacht races are usually the preserve of seasoned professionals but the Clipper Round the World is a platform for ordinary, everyday people to excel on.

Needless to say, the race is not for the faint-hearted.

The 2017/18 race departed from Liverpool’s Albert Dock on 20th August with the competitors embarking on the opening Atlantic Trade Winds leg which is ending, for the first time, in the Uruguayan port of Punta del Este, at the time of writing, a little over a month later.

Taking in stop-offs in South Africa, Australia, the USA, China, Panama and Northern Ireland, the Clipper is divided into eight legs of varying distances. Participants can choose to complete the full circumnavigation or to compete in select individual legs. It is the only boat race in the world where the organisers supply a fleet of 12 identical racing yachts, each with a fully qualified skipper to safely guide the amateur crew across the treacherous oceans and seas.

The marathon route concludes back in the city of Liverpool next summer, 11 months after the crews originally set sail from the same port.    

The 2017/18 Clipper race sets sail from Liverpool’s Albert Docks

Sleep deprivation, cabin fever, the unwelcome attentions of 90-foot waves and the genuine threat of fatality are some of the extreme tests for the unprofessional sailors, all of whom pay for the privilege to race. Even renowned British entreprenuer Sir Richard Branson would be hard pressed to sell this cold. However, it is what company chief executive Ward – who admits that he “wasn’t really interested” in round the world sailing “at first” – has done successfully for 11 editions of the nautical challenge.         

Each iteration of the race is inundated by requests and, to date, 5,000 people from all walks of life have taken part.

Knox-Johnston and Ward founded Clipper Ventures, the company that would go on to run the event, in 1996. Three years later the pair were joined by Jeremy Knight, who initially came on board as financial director and later became chief operating officer.

Knox-Johnston, Ward and Knight are currently the only directors on Clipper Ventures’ board. While the race has become bigger than any of those men could have ever imagined when the first fleet set off from Plymouth in October 1996, the ethos and spirit of the race remain the same.

“It is chalk and cheese between [now and] the first race,” says Ward, speaking to SportsPro in London in mid-September, with the current set of crews out over the Atlantic. “We have improved immeasurably the boats, stopovers and staff, but the fundamental thing of people wanting to achieve something is still the same.

“It is still those same oceans, danger and all the things that go with it, which is what drives the people to sign up and pay what they do for it.   

Wendy Tuck (right) will become the first Australian skipper to complete the Clipper Race twice when she arrives back into Liverpool next summer

Ward first got involved “very early on” – before the original boats were even built – and he quickly noticed that “they hadn’t really got the funding” that was needed to stage a yacht race of such magnitude. The Briton was initially hesitant to back the endeavour but when he started reading “applications from people that wanted to do the race, I saw the passion from the crew members” – and he never looked back.

Ward, who was 39 at the time and rebuilding his own business after the UK property collapse of 1989 and 1990, saw the race as an opportunity for a “bit of an adventure, not just a business”. And the fact that the revered Knox-Johnston was at the helm of the organisation meant that trips to prospective host ports were a slightly less daunting prospect for a nautical newcomer who, by his own admission, knew “little of the sailing world”.  

“I met Robin, I liked him and off we went,” remembers Ward. “I had never been around to ports, talked sailing jargon and so forth. However, in the early days there was no team – no race director, no PR people or mechanics – just eight skippers, Robin and myself. It was always very interesting and a great learning curve.

“From a business perspective, I knew nothing about [the sailing industry] but I do know that if people are willing to pay what we were charging at the time – and were so passionate to do it – there has to be some form of business on the back of it.

“I suppose that in business I am a gambler, so it seemed a good opportunity at the time.”

That first race – like the subsequent few – was “a well-documented struggle” for the organisers but they have since come through that shaky start and “turned it into a really good business”.

“I have a huge amount of respect for the people that took part in the first race: they were pioneers,” says Ward. “It is almost like Robin going off on his own and becoming the first person to go singlehanded non-stop around the world.

“These guys put a lot of trust in us to get them around. We had eight good skippers and off we set on the adventure. It is incomparable to the set-up we have now with 70 staff in place. This year we have spent more money on one stop that we did the whole race.”

As the event and the organisation have grown Knox-Johnston and Ward are “not as hands-on as we used to be”, partly because of the size of the business but also the “quality of people that want to come and work” with the company. The pair are nonetheless constantly monitoring the company that has been moulded in their images.

Ward feels that he and Knox-Johnston now fulfil the roles of “father figures” to the rapidly expanding team of international organisers.

“My forte would be to keep a lot of balls in the air, not specialising in one area,” states Ward. “Like any business, you develop and people take different roles. Bringing in sponsorship, which was down to me in the past, is now a team effort and for the first time now has someone else leading it.”

William Ward, chief executive and co-founder of Clipper Ventures

Unlike the first race, which was without any sponsorship and relied on private investment, the modern Clipper Race is funded by partners and host ports as well as crew registration fees. Ward doesn’t divulge the cost of running an almost year-long global sailing race but concedes it is “a lot of money”.

“No boat was sponsored [in the first race],” recalls Ward. “Now it is very much about the sponsors and trade: business to business, business to consumer, marketing, branding and the CSR. That said, gone are the days when a sponsor just puts a sticker on the side of the boat; they want a lot more and hopefully we are able to give them that.

“We haven’t gone for a title sponsor. Each boat is sponsored by individual ports or stopovers and then you have some sponsors. It is pretty simple in many respects – but long-winded in many respects as it lasts for a year.”

Entrants must pay UK£40,000 and Ward confirms that the “rate card team partnership [for yacht branding and activation rights] is UK£1.5milliion and UK£500,000 for a host port sponsor”.

“Registration still makes up a great deal of it but the host port partners and sponsors are catching it up, and will most probably overtake it by the next race,” explains Ward. “It is certainly our aim that by the next two races, sponsorship will be the main source of revenue.

“Funding came initially by me putting money in but that has obviously changed. We bought our last fleet from our own cash reserves and still a lot come from the crew members. The sponsorship is now coming up to the level where it is really making a difference with what you can do in the race.

“It costs an awful lot of money to run 12 yachts, all of the training, the kit and the human resources.”

The host ports are evidently the race’s key sponsors nowadays. It is therefore invaluable to find venues that will offer both the desired sums of money to Clipper Ventures but also ensure that the route still circumnavigates the oceans in a logical manner.    

“We do target key geographies to a degree but we are obviously going around the world in a circle at certain times of the year to avoid hurricane season or the doldrums,” notes Ward. “There are essential places to go and there are stop-offs that we visit that are business-orientated. It is a mix, without losing to the fact that this is a round-the-world yacht race – and entrants are paying to have an adventure, and that race.

Ward and his Clipper Ventures co-founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnston ring the Opening Bell at the Nasdaq Stock Market in Times Square in 2016, in celebration of the company’s 20th anniversary

“For us, going to the Middle East is not really something that we have looked at. We have been asked to go but it wasn’t something that attracted us because of the race route. We were tempted because the dollars are there but other than that, we avoided it.

“Asia is important. We will look to have one or two or even three more Asian entrants into next year’s race; more cities backed by commercial sponsors rather than just outright commercial partners.”

It is fair to say that sailing is a sport that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to traditional broadcast –  especially in the case of endurance ocean races. Ward admits that other than “the exception of the America’s Cup, sailing is all very samey”. Even for something like the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, which has professional crews going at extreme speeds creating visually incredible images, you have to be “really into your sailing to watch it”.

Round-the-world sailing is nevertheless a sport that can be effectively transmitted on over-the-top (OTT) and video-on-demand (VOD) platforms, either in highlight packages or live streams. It is these digital broadcast modes that Ward sees as the future home for the Clipper Race.       

“When we first started you could almost hide away on the boats but those days are long gone,” he says. “Our race started in Liverpool this year and we had a live feed there that a lot of countries, a lot of broadcasters took up. It was an hour-long programme and it is now so much cheaper pro rata than what it was 12 to 20 years ago.

“The programmes that we have made are more focused on human interest – on taking a shop assistant, fireman or bank manager being really out of their comfort zone. They tend to be documentaries and the last one was seven hours and went out to 190 countries.

“People like AT&T have signed up to do it digitally. We have seen a difference in the market now. [UK pay-TV channel] Sky Sports 2 is not really where we want to be now; it is coming into different areas to talk about that unique interest.”

Seeing amateur sailors battle 80-foot waves in the North Pacific has, as Ward puts it, the “wow factor”, and it is to many still the unique selling point of the race. Despite the increase in sponsorship, the expansion of the organising team and quality of the boats, the Corinthian spirit is something that Ward wants to remain at the heart of the race.

Ward in Qingdao for the race's Chinese stop

“The amateur factor is everything about the race; without it we are just another yacht race,” says Ward. “It is really important. We have the one professional skipper and at least one person on each boat that has been trained to a very high standard, but they are still amateurs and they are still paying to be on the race. That is really the be-all and end-all.

“If you start mixing [amateur and professional crews], then I think that it becomes very dangerous.

“By the time that the race finishes, many of the round-the-worlders become very, very good sailors and many of them have gone on to skipper our boats in future editions. There is an awful lot that they learn and they got hooked into the sport.

“Generally speaking, we provide a massive amount of new blood into sailing: you would be amazed how many people that have never sailed before end up with a yacht. For one, Sir Keith Mills, who had not sailed in a serious manner until 1998 when he went on the Clipper Race but he came back and bought a yacht and look what he has done. He has transformed sailing and done more for the sport than most people have in Britain.”