Thirty-two year old Italian sailor Francesca Clapcich first established herself on the professional sailing scene as an Olympic campaigner, first in the singlehanded Laser Radial class in which she represented her country at the London 2012 Games, and then in the 49FX where – crewing for Giulia Conti – she won the 2015 European and World Championships before the pair finished in fifth place at Rio 2016.
After retiring from Olympic campaigning Clapcich switched focus to ocean racing after being offered the chance to fulfil a long-time dream to race around the world as part of Dee Caffari’s VO65 crew on the Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign in the 2017-18 edition of The Ocean Race. She describes that experience as “a crazy journey, an emotional roller coaster” but nevertheless at the end of the race she was left wanting more.
Now she has revealed plans to mount an Italian-centric VO65 campaign for the 2021-22 edition. Intrigued, we reached out to Clapcich – currently based in the USA – to find out more.
What was so compelling about racing around the world that made you want to be a part of the 2017-18 edition of The Ocean Race?
That race has always been a dream for me. When I was a kid, when the race was still called the Whitbread and from 2001 the Volvo, I had photos on the walls of my bedroom. For me, it was just incredible to see the teams racing so hard, in such a scary environment, away from home, land. The stories that I read in sailing magazines were just unbelievable.
There were not so many women involved back then and for me as a kid living in a small and not so powerful country, the race was kind of an “impossible dream”. The game-changer was in 2014, when I was following the SCA crew while I was campaigning for the Olympics in Rio and I realized that it was a dream that could come true.
A lot of of the sailors involved were not ocean racers but had come from a sailing background similar to mine. It was amazing and that totally opened my eyes!
How did you make that happen? Who approached who?
As it often happens in life – a little bit of luck and some stars that collide sometimes makes things happen! I was in touch with a couple of Italian guys working incredibly hard to try to put together a team with mostly Italian sailors involved. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but I got in touch with the Magenta Project and Sally Barkow and the GC32 team gave me the chance to sail with them in Madeira and that introduced me to the pro sailing world.
But my dream was still the Volvo and I wanted to put all my efforts to achieving that. I heard that Dee Caffari was trying to put together a team of young sailors and I realised that probably this would be my best chance. I sent my CV, emailed, and reached out in any way I could, and waited for an answer! In the end I got an email back saying that I had the chance to trial for the team in Lisbon. I got on a plane with a bag of borrowed foul weather gear and a head full of dreams.
As it turned out I got through the trials and I never went home! Instead I wanted to learn as much as I could, I needed to complete all the course to prepare for my Yachtmaster exam. That was the start of the adventure!
How much offshore/ocean racing had you done at that point?
Not so much – in fact almost none! From the age of 14 I had always been focused on Olympic sailing and that was my main objective until 2016. When I was at high school I did a couple of Round of Italy races in some 34-foot boats. That was a great experience but really far from what I would experience in a race around the world.
How did the experience of racing around the world live up to your expectations?
Way more compared to what I expected. It was a crazy journey, an emotional roller coaster, where you are always trying to push harder and harder. Even when you feel tired and overwhelmed you need to find a way to keep going, for you and especially for your teammates. You need to have their support and backing all the time.
Looking back now, was the race it harder or easier than you expected?
It’s hard. Really hard. I am not sure if it was harder than I expected, because I knew that it was going to be really tough.
The hardest thing – especially at the beginning – was being in an international English-speaking team. When we were talking about technical stuff I sometimes lost some parts of the conversation. When I was tired it was even worse as your brain is totally in power saving mode and having to communicate in a language that is not yours is incredibly hard.
I remember one time in the Southern Ocean on the leg from Cape Town to Melbourne and I needed to go up the mast to reclip the Tylaska so we could reef the main. From the back of the boat they were screaming at me about that Tylaska and how they wanted me to do it. It took me forever to understand what they were saying and meanwhile the waves were huge and not helping at all!
What were the highs and lows for you as an individual?
The biggest low of the whole race was the moment we knew that Fish [John Fisher, crewman on Scallywag] had fallen overboard. That’s the nightmare of all sailors, especially when you are sailing in freezing cold conditions, thousand miles away from any assistance.
We all froze when Dee came on deck and told us that Scallywag were dealing with an emergency issue. At that point we didn’t know it was Fish but it didn’t really matter – it could have been any of us. We were way too away far to help, and the weather conditions were getting worse, really strong winds a big waves.
I remember that after we heard, everyone on board was doing their job, not talking, not sharing; we were all just lost in our thoughts. That was the hardest time, everyone onboard had their moment, some people cried, some were just quiet. When we got to Itajaí it was not a celebration, just a moment to all be together and remember John.
There were so many highs too, in the last part of the race when we knew the boat better we were able to push harder and in a few legs we got so close to the podium. I will never forget the people in that team, all of us, the laughs, the dumb moments onboard, the Equator crossing and King Neptune taking my hair off, the leg finishes and the hugs with the loved ones. It’s just a crazy journey and I will always remember all of it!
What were the biggest things you learned about ocean racing and about yourself?
About ocean racing, I learned how to push a boat not for just couple of hours but for days in a row. How to manage sleep, rest, performance and food in an uncomfortable environment. It takes a lot of teamwork and understanding of each other and you always need to be making an effort to be more human!
About myself – I learned that I can do it. Even having had an inshore sailing background I found it easy to use that knowledge in a different environment. I learned how to perform better when tired, to keep a positive attitude – even if it was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. It’s so easy to fall in the trap of being negative, tired, hopeless in some of the most miserable conditions. It happened to me a few times and it was not easy to get out of it – but I did manage to, and I am proud of that.
What was your overriding emotion at the end of the race?
The weirdest morning was waking up in the hotel in The Hague and realising I had to go to the airport to fly back home. It felt so unreal. After two years it was time to leave, no more getting onboard the 65, no more briefings with the team, or dinners all together. From one day to the next I was switching to a different life again.
It took me a few months to adapt and to sleep properly again, but the desire to be out in the ocean again never went away.
So your first round the world race has left you wanting more?
Yes! A few times I asked myself what I was doing out there – especially when we were sailing in freezing conditions. But then when it all was over, I had the feeling that I learned so much and I was just getting ready to go again and put everything in practice!
What have you been doing since the last race finished in The Hague?
I’ve been coaching a lot, especially Olympic classes and the 49er FX. I tried to share some of my knowledge of the boat and Olympic racing. I also did some match-racing. Then in 2019 I skippered the 90-foot Maxi Wind of Change, we took part in some events in Trieste (including the world famous Barcolana Race) with a full professional women’s team including a lot of young sailors from the Olympic classes.
I had eight young and inexperienced sailors onboard and everyone had the chance to drive, trim, do the bow, and to learn how the ballast, engine and all the yacht’s systems worked. It was an amazing experience and it gave me the chance to be able to give more opportunities also during the delivery of the boat from France to Trieste prior the regattas.
For the first time I fully understood what it means to be a skipper, be responsible for your crew and the weight of taking tricky decisions at times. I already had the goal to put together a team for the next TOR and this experience triggered something inside me even more.
The race finishing in Genoa opens up the exciting possibility of an Italian team raising the funds required to mount a challenge. What can you tell us about interest in the race in Italy so far?
Genova as the Grand Finale is an incredible opportunity for my country and there is a lot of interest for sure. The race will visit our national waters at last – and at the end of the final leg when all the teams will be fighting for victory. That will make for an incredible atmosphere for the public ashore – the city will be the capital of the sailing world for more than a week!
Having the finish in Italy is important commercially and teams will have the chance to create amazing activation projects. Racing-wise it will be a really hard leg from The Hague to Genoa, it will be a headache for the navigators trying to avoid as much as possible long upwind parts or windless zones. The Med is not easy: it can be quiet – too quiet sometimes with really light and unpredictable winds – or a really tough place to be, with strong winds and a short, high chop. We all know how many damage the Med did in previous editions, with some teams dismasting or sustaining hull damage just few hours after leaving Alicante.
The funds required to mount a winning team are not insignificant, but we are working hard on our campaign. The COVID19 situation is not helping but we are all in the same boat. Sometimes you need to wait for the storm to pass to make gains again.
What can you tell us about your specific plans to put together a VO65 campaign?
Our vision, as a team, is to put together a young, talented and professional group of sailors who are able to perform at the highest level for nine months and develop as athletes and human beings in that time.
My goal is to lead a team where many Italian sailors and team members will be involved – together with international professionals.
I want to give more opportunities to skilled women sailors who struggle to find their way from Olympic to professional sailing. The professional sailing scene is still a hard place for women in every country in the world, TOR is doing a lot adding quotas and rules but we want to be able to do more, give even more quotas and make sure we can give a professional future to the best sailors in our country and in the world.
There are so many amazing and great sailors out there, it will be a challenge, but we want to have the best ones in the perfect roles. The women and men involved will need to be hungry, dream big and have specific skills in different areas. Everyone will have a role and, as a team, we don’t want anyone stepping on each other’s toes.
It sounds like you are planning a very Italian campaign. Why is that important to you?
It’s been over 30 years that an Italian flagged team entered the race. We are a country surrounded by water, we have had Olympic champions, America’s Cup teams, lots of sailing clubs, sailing schools and amazing sailors.
It’s time to bring my country back to the toughest regatta in the world, the Everest of our sport. Especially with the Grand Finale in taking place in Genoa, I believe it’s an opportunity we can’t miss.
I love my country, I represented it twice at the Olympics, I won regattas with the Italian flag on my mainsail and I’m proud to be Italian. I had the chance to race in many of the most important regattas in the world and I want to be able to give that chance to more Italian sailors and workers of the sailing industry. The skills are there, we need to find the funding and make it happen.
Is an all-female crew being considered?
Of course it’s being considered. It would be amazing to give more sailing opportunities and have a larger number of female athletes involved. The team, by the way, is made up of men and women aiming for the same goal. We have a commercial side that is men-led and a women-led management; the shore team will be full mixed gender. All the team members will be chosen for their skills and potential. We are considering a few different options, but ultimately we want to be sure that we will be successful and sail hard every leg.
Do you have any partners on board at this stage?
We have been in contact with a few potential partners and companies, but we all know the COVID19 situation is not making it easy at the moment. Their priorities have been switched to the health care area and we all know how much that is key at this time.
We believe that people come first, we respect that, and we all stay at home, working on planning, creating documents and storytelling. We want to be as much ready as we can as soon this horrible situation will be over.
Italy has been hit really hard by the virus and we are really close to all our healthcare workers, doctors, families.
I believe that sport can be the light at the end of this dark tunnel. The Ocean Race, teams, all of us, we can express our emotions again about something positive, a new challenge, new adventures. We need projects in the near future to make us feel alive again, that challenge us, yet give us emotional goose bumps, great stories, victories!
Who is helping you/who else is involved?
There are lot of incredible skilled people involved in this stage. We created a company few months ago to deal with all the legal aspects. Professional sailors like Sally Barkow and Elodie Mettraux have been giving me useful advice and help to make this project happen.
We have a commercial team focused on the funding research and a media team working on the way we want to deliver information. Martina Orsini, a pro sailing photographer, could potentially cover the role as On-Board Reporter (in the next race each team is responsible for hiring their own OBR).
Everyone involved is adding a big piece of this puzzle and I am really thankful that so many professional found the project interesting and are willing to help!
The pillars of your campaign are diversity, equality and sustainability – can you expand a bit on those? Why are they particularly important to you?
I believe that there is still lot to do in our sport, especially in trying to minimise the current gender gap. A lot has been done on the Olympic scene, where the quotas in sailing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be the same for men and women. Yet the problem is not over. In professional sailing numbers are hugely different, salaries are different, opportunities are different.
We are just not there yet. There are lot of onboard roles that can be covered irrespective of gender, but still it’s a men-ruled world.
The Ocean Race is doing more compared to other events, but a lot is still in the hands of the teams. In the America’s Cup there are no women sailors and even the shore team quotas are ridiculous.
In SailGP this year there are no women sailors.
It’s something that we can change all together, men and women need to work together to understand which are their strong points and use them at the team’s advantage. But if there are no opportunities, how can we get there?
Sustainability is especially relevant in our sport. We ‘use’ our oceans, beaches, harbours to play our sport and we need to respect our environment. As sailors, we need to be the ambassadors for the change we want to see in our planet.
The only good thing this virus is showing us is how nature it’s taking back its space on the planet. Our seas are cleaner, and so dolphins are showing up more often. Our mountains are less congested, and deer can walk freely. Our skies have less smog and we can all breathe better.
In The Ocean Race we sail to the most remote places in the world and we still see too much damage caused by man. We are guests on this planet, and we need to respect it!
The pandemic has obviously had a huge impact on Italy as a country and on the economy. What are your thoughts around this? How has it impacted your plans? How do you view the future in terms of opportunity for an Ocean Race campaign?
The situation in Italy and worldwide is not easy. My country has been hit hard and we are not out of it yet. We don’t know exactly what will happen in a couple of months and how many conversations we will be able to have with companies that have been hit economically by the pandemic.
We have slowed down the proactive part of the project (talking to potential sponsors, travelling to meet people to introduce the project) but we have not been impacted on the organisational side as we are working from home – we meet, we plan, and we get ready. We need to stay positive and trying to see the light in this dark moment.
What are the key milestones for your campaign once life begins to return to some sort of normality?
We have a strict timeline and as soon as we can we want to come back to normality. We need to start talking again with partners and companies with a clear commercial idea. Of course there will be a moment in the next 12 months where we will need to draw a line and understand where we are with the funding and where we can go. We believe it can be a successful journey and we are working hard to give ourselves the best chance.
Finally, given the terrible toll that the pandemic has had in Italy, do you want to make any sort of comment or statement about this as someone who has represented their country on the world stage at the Olympics?
It’s hard to deal with all that’s happening. Italy is a small country, pretty powerful economically, but still relatively small. Too many people are sick and have lost their lives to the virus. We are losing our grandparents – the ones that took care of us when we were kids, the ones that always had some incredible advice to make us better people.
At the same time I’m proud to see how my country is fighting back, how the doctors are in the first line, sailmakers are producing shields and masks, many businesses are switching sector to help the health system. Italians are known for being happy, for their genius, art, food, for their incredible cars and fashion, for leading in such sectors, we will be out of this because of our strengths and because we put human health first.
I’ve always been proud to be Italian, now even more. We are all in this together and we will get out of it together.