Family legacy drives solo sailing first

At 55, Tamsin Worsley became the first woman sailing solo to complete the iconic Coastal Classic yacht race. But not without a raft of challenges, she tells Suzanne McFadden. 

At 4am, somewhere off the coast of Cape Brett, Tamsin Worsley had to rally herself to keep going.

It was still dark, and the north-easterly wind that had driven her up the east coast from Auckland had suddenly deserted her. Worsley was alone in a 36ft (11m) yacht that was “virtually going backwards”.

Without any self-steering mechanism to stabilise the boat, she couldn’t leave the wheel to set a spinnaker.

“It’s quite hard when the wind dies – it just plays with your mind,” she says. “You’ve just got to keep going mentally, get through it. And I was pretty determined to finish.”

Her fortitude held out, and 55-year-old Worsley crossed the finish line of the Auckland-to-Russell Coastal Classic yacht race just under 27 hours after she started. In doing so, she became the first woman sailing solo to complete the race in its 36-year history.

Worsley was also committed to finish for her family, who have a long and deep history with the iconic race.

Her late father, Alexander Flynn, was a founder of the Coastal Classic, the 119 nautical mile race contested every Labour Weekend, marking the start of the summer sailing season.

It was Worsley - one of Flynn’s three daughters, who encouraged her dad to start up a women’s division in the race- around 30 years ago. “He was always very supportive of us girls and our sailing,” she says.

One of Worsley’s sisters, Emily Flynn, is now the Coastal Classic’s event and race manager. Her other sister, Amanda, is a race veteran, but this year stayed on land. “Amanda was a star, an inspiration to me. During the night she was ringing me to make sure I was okay,” Worsley says.

And their brother, Matt, also sailed in this year’s race single-handed, on board his Pogo 40 yacht, Krakatoa II.

He sailed in the very first Coastal Classic, in 1982, with their dad on board a 24ft (7m) trimaran - the smallest boat in the 12-strong fleet. Now, the race commands a fleet at least 12 times bigger – this year, 165 boats crossed the start-line inside the Waitemata Harbour.

“Right from the time I decided to do this, Matt was giving me tips. But at the same time he didn’t mollycoddle me; he left me to it,” Worsley says.  

“I suspected he would beat me. He’s had a lot of solo sailing experience, but it was nice to be racing against him.” Matt Flynn, a maritime lawyer, was the first solo sailor to finish in Russell, seven hours ahead of his sister.

Worsley also wanted to get to the finish-line for her mother, Robin. Although she’s never sailed in the race, Robin Flynn has always been in Russell to greet her sea-going family. It was also her birthday, and the rest of the Flynn family were waiting for a tired and dehydrated Worsley to finish, so they could have a celebration lunch at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel.

Worsley has sailed in the Auckland-to-Russell race a dozen times – last year on one of the quick A division boats Equilibrium, and the year before in a 10-hour blast on multihull Exodus - but this was the first time she’s attempted to do it alone.

She’d wanted a new challenge – which, the mother-of-one says, she undoubtedly got. “It was no mean feat." 

Her first challenge was to find a boat to sail. She approached Auckland boat charter company YachtShare, who gave her Oro Rosa, “the quickest boat in their fleet”, ideally set up for single-handed sailing.  

“Right from the start, I felt she was going to be a good boat for me, in terms of manageability. She’s quite big, but she’s reasonably light, so she never felt too daunting,” says Worsley..

Determined to be fully prepared for the race, Worsley trained at the gym, strengthening her balance, and equipped the boat with all the safety gear she’d need.

“I also pre-studied all the lights up the coast, so I knew by the number of flashes in the distance what light I was approaching.  It’s hard at night to judge distances, and without self-steering, I couldn’t go below to look at charts,” she says.

Before the race, Worsley spent the week in bed battling a chest infection. She was well enough to start, she says, but felt like she was operating on "half a tank" of energy.

Starting the race in a solid 10-12 knots of breeze, Worsley enjoyed a great sail up the coast. But she realised early on that it was going to be a long haul, sailing on the wind. “You just have to settle in and enjoy the beautiful coastline,” she says.

Her toughest challenge came at 4am the next day when the wind petered out at Cape Brett - the headland jutting out of the Bay of Islands, notorious for its fickle winds - and she seriously questioned why she was doing it.

Sunrise brought with it new hitches. "Without being able to get off the helm, I had to have everything in the cockpit with me,” Worsley says.

“I had my winter woollies on overnight, then when the sun came beating out in the morning, I wasn’t quite equipped. I had to do a quick change into a sunhat. 

“Because I went a bit longer than I’d expected, I didn’t have the provisions to be on the water that long. I didn’t have quite enough fluid with me, and I was quite conscious that I was getting dehydrated.”

And then, when she was 50 metres from the finish, thirsty and weary, the breeze disappeared again, and she and Oro Rosa had to patiently drift across the line.

Once her race was over, Worsley was asked by her brother if she would attempt the Coastal Classic on her own again. “To be honest, I’d have to think about it. It’s taken me quite a few days to recover,” she says. “If I did, I’d do it with a self-steering boat, so I could be more competitive.”

Her dad, no doubt, would be proud.

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