British Paralympic and World Champion, Hannah Stodel to take on the 2020 Vendee Globe
She'll be the first disabled person to compete in the grueling race
I was in denial, but I had felt a wave of seasickness coming over me for quite some time.
I tried to persevere but after focusing far too long on every wave that hit the Sunsail F40 yacht as I steered, I had to take some time out to catch my breath.
“There’s a big taboo around sailors getting sea sickness,” British Paralympic sailor and world champion, Hannah Stodel, says as we sit on the side of the boat. She tries to take my mind off the overwhelming urge to be sick and suggests looking out to the horizon.
“But it happens to everyone,” she laughs, “I redecorated my yacht the other day!”
We were sailing on the Solent off the Isle of Wight ahead of Lendy Cowes Week – a regatta that’s been taking place since 1826 and is one of the oldest in the world.
Stodel, who has represented Great Britain four times at the Paralympics and is a three-time world champion, was born without her lower right arm. It seems she was always destined to follow in the footsteps of her parents who were both competitive sailors – her mother just missing out on selection for the 1988 Olympic Games.
She’s been on a boat, Stodel says, for as long as she can remember.
Everest of the seas
In 2015, much to Stodel’s disappointment, it was announced that sailing was to be dropped from the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
“I think they’ve killed it, that’s the trouble,” she says over lunch when asked if she thinks it’ll be back by 2024. “As disappointing as it is, we fought hard but the damage is done now because no countries are funding teams, so no one’s training, no one’s sailing; it’ll take quite a long time to rebuild.”
But now, with the Paralympics no longer on her radar, Stodel has her eyes set on an even bigger challenge: the “Everest of the seas.”
In 2020, the Vendee Globe will see competitors set out from Les Sables d’Olonne in western France to circumnavigate the globe – nonstop, and solo. It’s considered one of the toughest sporting challenges in the world.
“It’s been on my mind a while if I’m honest but it’s never really been the right time,” she tells CNN Sport. “I had all my Paralympic ambitions and then obviously sailing got dropped so it kind of nudged me into action.”
“It’s a completely different discipline. I mean, I thought I could sail but then I had to learn everything else in between like engine maintenance, my sleep deprivation, how I handle the stress of it all, being alone for such long periods of time. It’s been challenging.”
It’ll be a first for the Vendee Globe, with Stodel aiming to become the first disabled sailor to compete and finish – bringing a whole new meaning to the Vendee Globe’s “single-handed” nature.
“Definitely I’m worried about the physical aspects of the race, it’s obviously a huge boat to deal with two hands, let alone with one,” she says. “We’ve got a big task ahead of us to make this possible for a disabled person to do.”
Her team are currently working on ways they can adapt Stodel’s boat to suit her needs – including using a static bicycle instead of a traditional grinding pedestal, similar to what was used by Team New Zealand during the 35th America’s Cup.
“We’ve never seen it in an offshore format so that’s going to be an interesting set up to see if that can be made to work,” Stodel says.
Stodel is well aware of how grueling the race can be – and if anything goes wrong, she’ll have to fix it alone.
“The more I do more the more I’m realizing that I just have to keep saying to myself just solve the problem one thing at a time, just work through it, figure out how I can fix this and how I can come up with an inventive way to do it,” she says.
She says while she is relishing the challenge of the Vendee Globe, it’s the fear of the unknown that scares her most.
“The unknown of ‘what if it goes wrong, what if this happens, what if I get unwell?’ it’s the things you don’t know. You can plan everything down to the minute detail but there will still be unknowns on November 7, 2020 (the day before) and it’s just how you deal with it.”
Stodel hopes the uniqueness she brings to the competition will inspire others.
“I’m not out to win the Vendee Globe, I’m not out to even podium at the Vendee Globe, I’ve said that all along – the whole point of this journey, this challenge, this massive dream of mine is to inspire people to challenge other people’s views on things.”
Though that doesn’t stop her feeling a little competitive – still setting herself the goal of finishing the approximate 24,000 mile (40,000 kilometer) race in 100 days.
“My super competitive nature is hard to hide,” she laughs. “That would be a cool little tick in my world.”
‘This is normal racing, we’ve just got bits missing’
Until Stodel was 15, she had always competed alongside able-bodied sailors – representing Great Britain at youth and junior levels in world and European championships. She says she viewed disabled sailing as the “weaker option.”
“I grew up racing against able-bodied kids,” she says, “I never needed to do the Paralympics but then I met Andy Cassell (gold medalist from Atlanta 1996 Paralympics) and I came to train with him and he told me I was being an idiot and opened the door for me and that this is normal racing, we’ve just got bits missing. It just changed my whole viewpoint.”
Stodel’s sailing career hasn’t been without some discrimination though, she says.
“I think we (women) certainly have come a long way, but I still wonder how far we’ve actually come occasionally,” she admits.
“We’ve got a long way to go to be on equal (terms) with the men but I think we’ve certainly seen people punching in the ceiling.”
Stodel thinks that certain roles within sailing, like that of a tactician, are still given more often to men.
“If you get near a tacticianing job or an important job you’re doing well, I’d say.”
She says more opportunities need to be provided for women to close this gap.
Against prosthetics…until now
Until recently, Stodel had also generally been against using a prosthetic – unless she’s riding a bike.
“All they (the UK’s National Health Service) do is create prosthetics that look pretty to make you feel like you’ve got another arm and I’m like ‘I don’t need one of those, I want something that’s useful.’”
That was until she met Izzy McInnes who wanted to make one for her final year university project.
“She’s got the most incredible mind and she’s like ‘no, what’s the problem? Let’s make something that’s useful,’” Stodel said.
“She’s 3D printed a lot of the finger joints and things so, when it moves, it’s so well put together compared to an NHS electric arm which I initially had.”
Last minute entry to Round Britain and Ireland
While Stodel’s eyes are on the Vendee Globe in two years time, for now she’s got the Round Britain and Ireland race to worry about – a course which is sailed clockwise around the British Isles and Ireland every four years.
It’s no easy feat with the course covering approximately 2,000 miles over five legs, and while the current record stands at 15 days, organizers advise sailors to allow around 23 days to complete the route.
Stodel’s team only found out earlier this week that they were going to be allowed to compete on August 12, after a last-minute entry was accepted.
“I’m terrified obviously, it’s the first big race for me and my team,” she says, adding that the team ruled out competing earlier this year after the boat they were training on was no longer available.
“I didn’t even think we’d get an entry because we hadn’t done the qualifying races. I just phoned up and was brutally honest and said ‘look, this is my situation, this is what happened – I was going to do the race, I lost my first boat, now I have a boat’ and scarily enough my name’s now on the entry list.”
It’s a busy life she leads, training around the clock – with barely any time to herself. She’s even managing to fit in Lendy Cowes Week next week where she’ll be helming.
“I tend to pass out in corners quite a lot,” she laughs. “I get back offshore training and literally my tactic is to sleep regardless of the time of day.”
She says finding a balance can be tough.
“I’m going to have to be so careful, there’s Cowes Week and the opportunities are there for fun but at the same time in the back of my mind I’m like ‘and next week we’re leaving to go offshore for a very long time,’ so I’ve got to be sensible.”
But Stodel’s positive attitude will prove to be her strongest attribute when juggling everything at once – especially when the time comes to taking on the Round Britain and Ireland race, as well as the Vendee Globe.
“I am hugely positive even on the boat when things are going wrong.
“I run a happy boat, I don’t shout at someone unless they’re going to die, I don’t believe in raised voices … I do believe there’s a positive in everything and I think that’s what pushed me this far.”