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#ChangingTack- From Fitness Coach to First Mate on the world’s toughest ocean adventure

#ChangingTack is a series about how seafaring and time spent at sea in the rawest and wildest environments changes us, and can inspire a life or career change.

In her early twenties, not long out of college, Mary Vaughan-Jones worked as a fitness instructor, unsure of what the rest of her career would hold. Ready for a big challenge, and facing what she dubbed a ‘quarter-life crisis’, Mary decided to sign up as a circumnavigator on the Clipper 2019-20 race, despite never having sailed before do not have.

Speaking about taking on this challenge which would take her around the world, Mary said: “At that point in my life I thought I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, why don’t I go around the world or something? Then my dad saw an article in the paper about the Clipper 2017-8 race, starting from Liverpool, and me being from Lancashire just up the road. He said why don’t you give it a shot, and I ended up signing up to do the whole thing.”

She talks about her training experience: “My first week of training was during severe storms – so it was quite cold! Honestly, I loved it because of the people. Alex, who was my first partner, is the same age as me and showed me that it was so much fun to sail and do the race as a young person.”

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Image: Mary at work on board

In September 2019, Mary and her teammates were on board eastern point slipped lines from St Katharine Docks in London and began the eleven-month circumnavigation that would see Mary and her fellow crewmates across the world’s largest and wildest oceans. The adventure began with a race from the UK to Portimao, before sailing across the Atlantic to Punta del Este in Uruguay, before crossing the South Atlantic to Cape Town and then the intense Roaring Forties of South Africa to embarked on Western Australia, from Fremantle to the Whitsundays Australia. Mary’s ability was soon recognized by her Skipper, Jeronimo Santos Gonzalez, and she was given responsibility as Watch Leader during the first half of the circumnavigation, clocking over 20,000 nautical miles.

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Image: Mary on board Punta del Este with her crew members

Mary talks about her experience as a crew member and notes her unforgettable experiences as crossing the equator for the first time, a phenomenal storm just before arriving in Punta del Este after Race 2, and above all “Leg 3, which sailing in the Roaring Forties with the big sea conditions I wanted to experience.” Mary and her teammates on board eastern point faced huge sea waves, gusts of more than 76 knots as they raced from Cape Town, South Africa to Fremantle, Australia, where her family was waiting on the dock, which she cites as another highlight. She says: “It was so wonderful to see them after such a big leg and for them to see what I do and love.”

Unfortunately, the Clipper Race was suspended in March 2020 due to the global pandemic, with Mary and the Clipper Race Crew having to return home from the Philippines. Once the race was stopped and the world closed in, Mary re-evaluated her career. “I knew I enjoyed being a fitness trainer. I didn’t want to stay on as a personal trainer, but I certainly didn’t plan on becoming a sailor. However, I knew I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of being an instructor. When the lockdown hit I thought I really enjoy sailing and don’t really want to stop so I might as well go and do some qualifications. When I really thought about it, I decided I really wanted to do this as a career.”

During the UK lockdown, Mary completed her sailing theory qualifications and then achieved her Yachtmaster ticket in December 2020 and started working as a Cruising Instructor, a staff skipper for a youth trust, getting young disadvantaged people into sailing as well than to have a Farr65 in Antigua ready for racing. As soon as the Clipper Race had the green light to restart, Mary applied for the role of an AQP (Additionally Qualified Person.) After a tough selection process, she was chosen to fill the role with Visit Sanya, China with Skipper Mike Miller for the second half of the Clipper 2019-20 race, leading the crew across two of the world’s most challenging oceans: the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.

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Image: Mary as AQP with Skipper Mike Miller

A First Mate on the Clipper Race works closely with his Skipper, using their own expertise and supporting the goals of the team. The AQP supports the Skipper not only to drive the team to push themselves in the race, but to apply people development skills to help create a capable, competitive and enthusiastic racing team. This is an important role and supports up to 22 crew on board at any one time in a range of sea conditions.

On taking up the post, Mary says: “I decided to have a career in sailing and I knew I wanted to complete the race, but I wanted to do it in a way that would be beneficial to my career. It was a natural step from Watch Leader on the race so it made sense to apply for the AQP role and continue to learn from possibly another Skipper. I especially love being on a bigger sailboat where we have to work as a team to make the boat sail well and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you usually do – in the middle of the sea crack you with it.”

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Image: Mary with her team on board Visit Sanya, China

After five months of racing the Visit Sanya, China team sailed into London in sixth place overall, and Mary had a full circumnavigation under her belt at just the age of 26. As an AQP, Mary cites a highlight on the race route as: “arriving in Bermuda because it was the first win for our team and they sailed the boat – Mike and I were there to facilitate. The crew were so happy – it was amazing to see them celebrate!”

She continues: “The most rewarding part of my job is that you have people on board with little self-confidence and by the end they are out on the bow helping to take down or retrieve a sail in big weather. It’s great to see them enjoy it and see their progress.”

The unique challenge of being a Clipper Race AQP provides solid experience for the further development of a professional sailing career, with the opportunity to progress to Skipper. Mary has set her ambitions high, with ambitions to continue this path to Skipper, and to develop her offshore sailing career. Speaking about working for Clipper Ventures, she said: “The company is really supportive of our development, especially for us as AQPs. They encourage us to develop and get more qualifications. The team is always there for a chat about your next steps.”

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Image: Mary on sail repairing duties

Mary is currently based in Gosport working on rebuilding the Clipper 70 racing yachts ready for the next edition of the Clipper Race. Regarding the maintenance work, she says: “Well, I know where all the boat’s plumbing goes after I got it all running again! The Maintenance Team is so knowledgeable and very happy to help us. There are many jobs that are not glamorous but very necessary, and it is about getting to know the boats like the back of your hand, for example working on the rigging. Working as part of the repair team really helps cement knowledge of maintenance during the race.”

Citing community as one of the main reasons she loves her job, Mary describes her experiences as a professional sailor: “There were five female first mates in the last edition of the Clipper Race, which was so fun because sailing and sea racing ‘ a male-dominated industry. We’re all treated the same, but it’s definitely nice to have other young females around you. We’ve also been quite a young group which is really fun, and we’re so supportive of each other – we know it’s a race, but we support each other wherever we go.”

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Image: Mary with her team

Not only being a twenty-something unsure of what career path to choose, Mary talks about her steps to change her life after experiencing ocean racing and offers advice to those in a similar frame of mind: “I am one of four siblings, including a doctor, lawyer and an accountant, so I empathize with the feeling of pressure to have a conventional career! I think ultimately, if you’re not doing a job you enjoy not, then why do it?

“I don’t see my job as work every day, which sounds really cliche, but I don’t wake up and think ‘I don’t want to go to work today.’ Even on those days when you might feel less enthusiastic, once you get out on the water it’s so much fun – I’m working with my mates and doing something I love. So if there’s something you want to do, just shoot the shot and really go for it.

“I think you really have to put yourself forward sometimes and try things. Before I entered the Clipper Race I was quite shy and didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself, whereas now I’m sure I’d be described as a bit gobby! In all seriousness, now I’ll just go ask and find things out, and push to get more knowledge for myself.”

There are so many skills involved in the role of AQP, from leadership and team building and from technical sailing ability. If you can relate and are looking for a rewarding career in sailing like Mary was, and are looking for a change of direction, why not apply to be part of the world’s greatest ocean adventure in a professional role , or check out our other diverse career opportunities?

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