Three-times world Para Sailing Sonar dinghy champion Hannah Stodel is preparing for one of the biggest challenges in her sporting life – she is taking on the 2020 Vendee Globe yacht race, the world’s most gruelling and dangerous sailing contest.
Stodel, born without a right hand and forearm, is planning to be the first disabled sailor to do the three-month solo non-stop round-the-world race they call the Everest of the sea. And the woman, whose life has been a constant challenge against adversity, could hardly have picked a harder test.
The race rules for the French dominated Vendee Globe are brutally simple: no stopping, no prepared routes, no help with repairs and no assistance if ill or injured.
The Vendee takes no prisoners and, although she has been sailing since the age of three and a Paralympian in four consecutive games, Stodel admits that her offshore sailing is limited and in fact she will be making her first transatlantic crossing in a 40-footer.
“Of course I realise what a challenge sailing an Imoca 60-footer non-stop around the world will be for someone like me,” 32-year-old Stodel says. “It needs meticulous planning and a careful build-up so that I don’t scare myself silly! Ellen has said ‘Go for it’ and that’s good enough for me.”
Ellen is sailing legend Dame Ellen MacArthur, runner-up in the 2001 Vendee Globe, whom Stodel first met when she was 13 and receiving a Young Sailor of the Year award. They have been friends ever since.
“It was after meeting her that I first wanted to do the Vendee Globe and it’s been a major ambition ever since!” Ellen MacArthur has pulled no punches about the ordeal that will be facing the race’s first singlehanded sailor.
During her epic 94-day circumnavigation Macarthur had to make four climbs up her 79ft mast to repair broken gear - and she had two arms. “I know I’ll have to think outside the box,” Stodel says. “But I’ve always had to in sailing.
“They said Ellen was too small and too young, and a girl, but she went out and did it. Essentially, when someone tells me I can’t do something I’ll go and do it anyway. Ellen has given me masses of wonderful help and advice and at the end of the day she just said ‘Go for it - why not?’
“And with taekwondo and badminton replacing sailing in the Paralympics from 2020 this is me kicking in the door of the Vendee Globe for everyone else to prove it can be done. I’ve been proving people wrong all my life!”
To raise funds for her Vendee Globe boat, Stodel has created Hannah Stodel Racing and is busy building her campaign and fundraising team for the attempt. Raising the money is nearly as daunting as doing the race - competitors in previous Vendees have spent up to £3 million with no guarantee of even finishing.
Even at this early stage confidence is high at Hannah Stodel Racing. “I’m very lucky to have a good bunch of people around me who I can trust with my life, and who really believe we can do it,” Stodel told us.
“It would be great to knock the French off the podium in the Vendee Globe, but there’s a long way to go yet. Offshore racing is dominated by the French - and by men. It’s about time that changed!”
Even so, no one is under any illusions about the magnitude of what Stodel is taking on. “She will be sailing over 40,000 miles and setting three to five records and world firsts just by completing her training,” says team manager Ben Forbes. “And that’s before we even get to the start line.”
Moving on from racing 23ft Sonar keel-boats now there are no future Paralympic racing opportunities, it’s no secret that Stodel was disappointed with her ninth place in last year’s Rio Paralympics, particularly after a bizarre incident at the 2012 London games when her team was denied bronze following a four-point deduction after a team bosun cleaned the side of the keel while inspecting the boat for damage.
An appeal was rejected by the Court of Arbitration in Sport in 2013.
“Having your medal taken away because of some incompetence in the decision-making was heartbreaking. I know in my mind that we won that medal on the water, where it really matters.”
On the positive side, she detected a definitive sea-change after London: “There was more respect for what Paralympic athletes were striving to achieve. There was less of the old ‘blankets over the knees’ kind of approach after London.
“We were seen more as normal people. Just because we had a disability didn’t mean we sat indoors all day.”
Stodel has clearly never done any of that. “It’s been one hell of a journey so far,” she says, looking back to the days when she was bullied at school and called “weird” and “the evil person with one arm.” Even when she started competitive sailing there were problems and she was urged to give up and try table-tennis instead.
She never gave up. “I kept coming back for more,” she says. “And I still do.”
In 1995 she was in the able-bodied national junior dinghy squad, feeling that disability events were a weaker option, but was later persuaded to make up a Paralympics Sonar crew with fellow UK sailors John Roberton and Stephen Thomas. They sailed together for 12 years and won three world championships.
At the 2004 Athens games, Stodel became the UK’s first woman Paralympic sailor. She recalls: “It was a pretty overwhelming experience both on and off the water. No one had really warned us about the circus that is the Olympic and Paralympic games and how it’s not just another regatta. Being the first woman was pretty special, though.”
Both Stodel’s parents sailed competitively and their daughter went to sea before she could walk. “My parents never really saw me as disabled. If anything it drove them to push me harder. From day one it was ‘Get in the boat and shut up, do your job and keep your head down!’ Luckily for them, I caught the sailing bug.”
Growing up in the East coast sailing community, being on the water became Stodel’s way of showing her independence.
“I never really had to adapt to my disability as I’ve never known anything else. I have just got on with things as best I could. I have tried numerous prosthetics but they all made me feel lopsided as I am so used to being as I am.”
Although she still dingy-races when she can and has a flourishing coaching practice, the Vendee Globe looms increasingly large in Stodel’s busy life. “It’s certainly going to be a massive challenge - every skipper I’ve spoken to has said it’s the best - and the worst - of offshore racing.
“I’m actually quite looking forward to that. At the same time I’m obviously scared of the challenge, but my uncle left me with a nice little saying to put on the boat: ‘I am strong, but the boat is stronger.’
“I’ve had a really positive reaction to my Vendee Globe plans. The race might be in 2020 but the timeline is pretty tight for an event like this.
“Everything about the project is a massive challenge but if I can inspire just one disabled person to have a bit more self-belief and take on something they previously thought was out of reach, then what I’m trying to do will have been worth it.
“One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter what people say. I once got told by someone to stop sailing because it wasn’t my sport and never would be.
“Sometimes people have those sorts of opinions about disabled athletes but if you think you can do it, the chances are you probably can. Give it a go…”