She’s an inspiration to women, athletes and sports-lovers; Hannah White is an adventurer, extreme sailing enthusiast and an incredibly hard-working woman. Hannah, 29, has over the last 10 years, made a mark for herself as one of the UK’s most talented and successful single-handed offshore sailors achieving podium position in one of the world’s toughest single-handed ocean races, the OSTAR (original single handed transatlantic race) in 2009. In a predominantly man’s world, Hannah has made a success of herself and is continuing to build on this with her recent venture into broadcast and commentating.
Hannah was recently the official MC for the world's premier offshore race The Volvo Ocean Race which takes place over 39,000 nautical miles of the world’s most treacherous seas via Cape Town, Abu Dhabi, Sanya, Auckland, Cape Horn, Itajaí, Miami, Lisbon, and Lorient. No day is the same for Hannah and she often spends long periods of time away from home travelling from country to country alongside sailing teams. However, her energetic life is what inspires her to stay healthy as she strives to reach her goals.
With the Olympics on our shores, it is set to be a busy time for Hannah. Here, she talks to FemaleFirst about the highs and lows of being at sea, the best places in the world to sail and a dangerous situation on the Atlantic whilst sailing in the OSTAR.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when sailing the Atlantic?
I had to very very slowly and very carefully free climb down a 50ft mass, in big seas, on my own, exhausted and that was absolutely without question the scariest moment of my entire life."
“The most intense thing was the longevity of it – there were quite a few isolated incidences when there was bad weather or things like that but actually the hardest thing about it is that it’s day in, day out hour in hour out – there’s no stop, no respite from it. It’s not like you can stop at night and put your feet up and say ‘well that was a bad day, I’ll try again tomorrow’ – it’s 24 hours a day for three weeks straight. That was probably the thing I found the hardest.
But also, as women, we really enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and even if you’re not looking to somebody to give you the answers and you’re just really sharing your thoughts. I really struggled without that - having nobody to really have a conversation with.
I remember one of the first things that happened when I came ashore is, my mum asked me ‘Well look what do you want for supper, what do you want to eat?’ and I was just like ‘I don’t want to make any more decisions, just put some food in front of me! I did have a lot of beer – well not much actually – I’m a bit of a lightweight.”
How did you keep yourself motivated?
“You have to keep reminding yourself ‘this is your dream’ and, for me, it really was a dream. It was the end of many many years of hard work and perseverance and of highs and lows. Even when it’s absolutely horrendous you have to keep saying ‘I’ve been given this amazing opportunity I have to make the most of it’.
But I was also really really lucky to have some amazing satellite communication on board and I was really lucky to receive thousands and thousands of messages from all over the world, from people sharing and offering their encouragement. And that keeps you going like nothing else in the entire world.”
Tell us about the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in while sailing…
“When I was sailing the Atlantic there was one time when I had to climb the mast and I was on my own. I climbed up the mast the first time to sort a problem out and before I climb the mast I have to phone somebody and say ‘look I’m about to go up the mast, if I don’t call you in half an hour, you can start to worry and if I don’t call you in an hour you can definitely worry.’
On that occasion my shore manager who I’m supposed to call, didn’t answer the phone, so I had to phone my mum and tell her – which was not a good idea because she panicked obviously. So I went up the first time and it was fine, but actually I made a mistake so I had to go back up again. So I phoned my mum and I said ‘look I’m just going up for a second time’.
It was getting dark and the wind was building and I was starting to push it a little bit and I rushed because of those things happening. So I got to the top of the mast and I look down, the device that I needed to get down [it’s like an abseiling device], I’d left it at the bottom of the mast.
So I was stuck at the top of the mast. So I’m like what do I do? And my first reaction, being a girl is that I always cry. And that lasts about 2 seconds because you sort of say ‘well this isn’t helping, I’m still stuck up here’.
And so I had to very very slowly and very carefully free climb down a 50ft mass, in big seas, on my own, exhausted and that was absolutely without question the scariest moment of my entire life. Because you’re buggered basically, it’s not like you’ve got a phone in your pocket and you can call someone up and it’s not like you can shout down and get someone to help you down – you’re two days away from the nearest person, in the middle of the Atlantic on you’re own, stuck. So you think if I fall, I’m probably going to be on the boat but I’m going to really really hurt myself and I’m in the middle of nowhere.
In fact when I got to the bottom it took about 2 hours for my hands to ungrip themselves because you just go into such a fear spasm that your fists just clench up and yes I’ve never experienced anything like it."
You’re a role model to many young female athletes trying to make it in sports. When you took up sailing what inspired you towards this sport in particular?
“When I was getting into sailing, what inspired me about the sport was the fact that it gave me the ability to be an all rounder. It’s definitely a sport where you can be a good all-rounder is off-shore sailing. When I was at school I wasn’t particularly great at anything, I was pretty good at a lot of things and I was a real all-rounder.
I decided when I was at school that there were only two real jobs that needed you to be a good all-rounder – one was being a Blue Peter presenter and one was sailing solo. I started off in sailing and now I’m in broadcasting too so who knows, I could be a Blue Peter presenter still!”
What do you eat when you’re at sea?