Offshore sailing has always been a male dominated sport and in its 40 year history only around 5% of crew in the Whitbread and Volvo editions of the race have been women. But one of the first was Clare Francis.
She was the first female skipper of the race, leading ADC Accutrac to fifth place in the 1977-78 race but her journey to the start line was an unlikely one.
Growing up, she trained as a ballerina before studying economics at University College, London. Afterwards, she worked in marketing but quit after three years to go travelling. Having learnt to sail as a child on the Isle of Wight, she bought a small boat and sailed across the Atlantic. She set out from Falmouth and arrived in Rhode Island 37 days later.
This led to sponsorship to take part in the Round Britain Race with Eve Bonham where they finished in third place. In 1975, she took part in the Azores and Back and the L'Aurore singlehanded race; and the following year she competed in the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, finishing thirteenth overall and setting a new women's single-handed transatlantic record. This was her apprenticeship to leading a crew of 11 – of whom two others were women – in the Whitbread Round the World Race.
Besides her seamanship during the Whitbread, Francis is also fondly remembered for leading a conga straight into the swimming pool during a riotous party at a local yacht club – this being in the days when hedonistic events fuelled by sponsor beer were not uncommon.
During her first transatlantic voyage Francis had used the time to read, listen to music and try her hand at writing, which led to three books about her adventures at sea: Hell or High Water (1977) and Come Wind or Weather (1978), and The Commanding Sea (1981). Following this success she turned her hand to fiction and has since published numerous best-selling novels.
Her career in sailing may have been short – but it paved the way for other women to follow in her wake and prove that women were just as capable as men.