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Meet the Skippers Taking the Helm of one of Planet’s Toughest Leadership Challenges

21 March 2019

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race has today revealed the eleven professional Skippers who will each lead a team in its 2019-20 edition; a job which is surely one of the toughest leadership challenges on the planet.

Racing a 70 foot yacht around the planet, taking on Mother Nature’s harshest environments for almost a year, is not a job for the faint hearted. Add in a non-professional crew of varied, age, backgrounds and experience levels to the mix and race organisers needed to find exceptional candidates to take the helm.

The eleven Race Skippers, who have a combined total of 1,312,300 nautical miles in their log books, hail from the UK, South Africa and Spain. The group bring a vast range of experience. One already has three circumnavigations under his belt, and one is a former Clipper Race crew member whose skills were so impressive he is now returning to the global sailing event as a Race Skipper.

Legendary yachtsman and Chairman of the Clipper Race, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who was the first person to sail solo, non-stop around the planet 50 years ago, explained: “Not many people are capable of racing and leading a team in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.”

“As well as being excellent sailors who are proven in taking on the planet’s most hostile environments, Clipper Race Skippers must also be outstanding instructors, exceptional motivators, and strong role models. They will need to be calm and patient under pressure, and understand all types of personalities.”

Sir Robin added: “The role of Clipper Race Skipper is one of the toughest, but most rewarding jobs that exists anywhere in life. It’s a real test of seamanship, and incredibly challenging but is also probably the best job in the world. Our Skippers will work very hard but the rewards are immeasurable. It will be an experience of a lifetime for them.”

Regarded as one of the toughest endurance challenges, the Clipper Race is the only event which trains everyday people to make six ocean crossings, covering six continents, testing them to their absolute limit. Fewer people have sailed around the world than climbed Mount Everest, and with 40 percent of crew having no previous sailing experience before signing up, the challenge ahead for the Race Skippers will be to shape them into ocean racing sailors.

One of the newly announced Race Skippers, Ben Keitch, 42, from Eastbourne said: “Sailing around the world has been a dream of mine since I was 13. To be named as one of the eleven Clipper 2019-20 Race Skippers is a huge honour for me and is without a doubt the pinnacle of my sailing career.”

And Jeronimo Santos-Gonzalez, 44, who was born in Galicia, Spain and is the first ever Spanish Skipper in the Clipper Race’s 22 year history, says: “The sea has always been in my life. My father and my grandfather were both sea captains and I loved it myself from a very early age.  It is of course an added bonus that I am the first Spanish Skipper in the race’s history and I feel enormously proud to have the chance to represent my country on the international stage.”

Race Skippers need to display an extraordinary amount of focus and determination over the almost year-long challenge. Storms, cyclones, icebergs, extreme heat and cold, and even the potential threat of piracy, will soon all be in a day’s work for the Race Skippers.  Not only do they have to face tough conditions but they will also be responsible for managing emotions, motivating a multinational crew who can range from aged 18 to 75 (no upper age limit), and resolving conflict, whilst also aiming to be competitive.

More than 700 crew members have already signed up for the 2019-20 race and are currently training for the challenge. Representing over 40 nationalities, with day jobs including an A&E nurse, a hairdresser, and a gas fitter, among others who will be leaving their day jobs behind to take on a rather different challenge.

The Race Skippers start their job this week and have an extensive training schedule ahead. In May, the Skippers will discover who their crew will be, at a special event to be held in Portsmouth.

The eleven Race Skippers are as follows:

Ben Keitch, 42, from Sussex has an impressive 30-year sailing history which includes racing at a national level, skippering Oxford University’s yacht team, and, most recently, leading novice crews on ocean crossings. Ben’s highly diverse career also includes achievements in physics and computing, diving, the British Antarctic Survey, and much more.

Jeronimo Santos-Gonzalez, 44, who hails from Galicia, is the Clipper Race’s first ever Spanish Skipper. Coming from a seafaring family, he represented Spain in various national and European Championships in his youth after his family moved to Melilla. This dedicated and experienced sailor is now realising a lifelong ambition of sailing around the world professionally.

Mark Burkes, 54, Worcester. Mark feels fortunate to have completed many ‘bucket list’ items in sailing, including a circumnavigation (Clipper 2011-12 Race), skippering in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and Fastnet, and crossing all the world’s oceans more than once, but he is now highly driven to lead a full Clipper Race campaign.

Seumas Kellock, 26, from Edinburgh, knows the Clipper Race inside out and has been working towards the goal of becoming a Skipper for the past three years. Seumas’ natural leadership skills came to the fore while racing almost 50,000 nautical miles aboard Unicef in the testing conditions of the 2017-18 edition of the race; he was put forward and excelled at the Clipper Race Coxswain Course, and was then appointed as a Watch Leader for the full circumnavigation.

Ian Wiggin, 30, from Plymouth, is a passionate racer and sailing instructor who has been working towards his goal of becoming a Clipper Race Skipper for the past ten years. He has extensive sailing and instruction experience across Europe and the Mediterranean, and recently completed his seventh Atlantic Ocean crossing.

Chris Brooks, 33, from Essex, has been a high-performance sailor since leaving school and has a very competitive edge. As a self-described results-oriented skipper, Chris boasts an impressive 95 per cent podium result rate from hundreds of regattas. He has also raced in RORC Fastnet campaigns and qualifiers, and co-skippering ARC’s racing division.

Nick Leggatt, 52 from Cape Town, South Africa, brings a wealth of experience to the role of Skipper. With more than 280,000 nautical miles in his log book, Nick has circumnavigated the globe three times and has set five world speed sailing records, including a round the world record with Steve Fossett’s crew on Cheyenne (Playstation) in 2004.

David ‘Wavy’ Immelman, 48, from Cape Town, has extensive offshore racing experience and since catching the sailing bug at age 5, he has recorded more than 350,000 nautical miles in his log book, with over 200,000 as skipper. For the past three years, David has been working as a Yachtmaster Instructor in Cape Town, with his role including skippering training runs from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, Madagascar and back with ten RYA Yachtmaster Ocean students on board.

Josh Stickland, 31, from Southampton, has over 100,000 nautical miles in his log book, having dedicated his career to sailing and instructing all over the globe. He also has an in-depth knowledge of the Clipper 70s thanks to previous roles as a Clipper Race Training Mate and re-fit team member.

For Mike Surridge, 55, originally from Canterbury but now living in West Sussex, sailing around the world has been a long-held dream.  Since starting sailing in his early twenties, Mike has recorded in excess of 100,000 nautical miles in his log book and had extensive racing experience, taking part in five Fastnets, thirteen Round the Island Races, the ARC, and BVI Regatta to name a few. Away from the water, Mike is a keen motorcyclist and has ambitions to learn complete an east to west coast route 66 ride.

Guy Waites, 52, from York, is a highly-skilled racer with a vast, varied experience gained over his 26 year sailing background. Highlights have included refitting and preparing two yachts to sail solo across the Atlantic, and completing the second half of the Clipper 2017-18 Race as a Mate.

The Clipper 2019-20 Race Route
Starting from the UK later this summer, the Clipper 2019-20 Race route will see the teams race from the UK, across the Atlantic to South America; the South Atlantic to South Africa; across the Southern Ocean’s Roaring Forties to Western Australia; around to East Australia, back into the Northern Hemisphere to China where teams will race to Qingdao, via Sanya and Zhuhai; across the mighty North Pacific to West Coast USA; to West Coast USA via the famous Panama Canal; and then it’s a final Atlantic crossing; before arriving back to the UK as fully proven ocean racers.