The Performer: Derek Hatfield, solo sailor

On being competitive, setting goals and letting go of your fear of failure.

(Photo: Chris Reardon)

In 2002, a 50-year-old Derek Hatfield set out for his first solo around-the-world race. After six months at sea, the New Brunswick native finished third, despite wrecking his rigging off Cape Horn. During the non-stop Vendée Globe in 2008, Mother Nature rolled his boat, destroying Hatfield’s chances along with his mast. Undeterred, the former RCMP investigator and securities compliance officer completed another solo global race in May, placing third in the Velux 5 Oceans. He was just the 126th sailor to complete an around the world race alone, and the first Canadian to twice complete. He spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Thomas Watson.

Born: 08/30/52
Career nautical miles: 130,000 and counting
Around-the-world races attempted: 3
Around-the-world races completed: 2
Transatlantic crossings: 17
Favourite freeze-dried meal: Beef stroganoff
Favourite knot: Bowline

How does someone go from monitoring securities to watching wind speed?
Well, you don’t just wake up and decide to race around the world. I started sailing for pleasure when stationed with the fraud squad in Toronto. I lived in Whitby, Ont., and was asked to go sailing by a neighbour, who was dreaming of cruising the ocean with his family. He got me hooked. Being competitive, I started racing right away.

A storm killed 13 sailors in the Fastnet yachting race in 1979. One survivor spent a night being tossed in and out of the water, tethered to his crippled boat along with a dead mate. You race solo. What kind of person willingly risks Mother Nature’s wrath alone?
I don’t sail on my own for fun. I do it because I am competitive and solo racing is a very competitive contest. When you leave the dock single-handed, you are responsible for everything that will decide whether you win or lose. Tactics. Weather analysis. Boat handling. The sense of accomplishment is huge.

You take on other sailors, acts of God and yourself. Who is the biggest threat?
Yourself, for sure. You can push too hard, break the boat and there is nobody else to blame. When you are gone for months at a time, the psychological battle becomes a big endeavor. You have a team that you can call for support or medical advice, but you are alone on performance issues. You must overcome loneliness, and you must overcome fear, which you can’t prepare for. You fear failure. You fear leaving family and friends behind.

In the Velux 5 Oceans, you’re sailing alone for 130 days. Is boredom an issue?
It sounds funny, but when everything is going great—like when you hit the trade winds and you can’t do anything more to go faster—boredom does creep in. You fight it. I don’t take books or anything like that. They become a crutch and distract you when the going gets tough. When bored, you must find something to do. If tired, you can sleep. If not, you find sailor work to do.

How did your first around-the-world race change you?
I no longer worry about quitting. I now know that if you focus on goals, you can accomplish almost anything. Racing around the world doesn’t sound like a realistic goal. But for me, it now seems perfectly obtainable. I am no longer afraid of failing.

What extra skills does a club racer or day sailor need before attempting a 30,000-nautical-mile challenge?
You need more confidence in your ability to endure. Gaining the right amount is a long process. In my first race across Lake Ontario, I dropped out after 27 hours because I was hallucinating and totally discouraged. I had no wind and people were waiting on me at the finish line. I gave up and motored in, totally demoralized. Confidence grows with success, so you start off with shorter races. I did four transatlantic races before attempting an around-the-world race.

What is a good night sleep during a solo sailing race?
About 20 minutes. Any longer on autopilot and you can lose performance. It also becomes harder to wake up quickly and be alert enough to quickly check instruments. So you cat nap, wake up, check things out, then catnap. If all is well, you can do it from your bunk.

Do racers play mind games with each other?
British skippers always report a problem. The French never do. They think others will somehow exploit the weakness. When satellite status reports are taken, some captains will pull a Crazy Ivan [an evasive manoeuvre], to slow their boat down or head in a new direction, to mislead the competition. Misinformation about morale is also part of the game.

You were knocked out of a non-stop race when your boat was capsized by monster waves while you tried to rest. What goes through your mind when you find yourself on the cabin ceiling looking up at the deck?
There is not much you can do when it happens. It’s like being in a car crash. You ride it out, then react as soon as you can. When my boat rolled back over, I ended up back in my bunk. I went topside and found the mast broken. It was a non-stop race, and there was nothing to do. My heart sank, seeing five years of effort and support go down the drain.

Was that your worst experience at sea?
No. I was caught in a hurricane rounding Cape Horn during my first round-the-world race. Winds were 80 knots. Waves were 60 feet. I pitchpoled the boat [flipped it end-over-end] and broke the mast. I did an ass-over-tea-kettle and ended up in the water. I got back on the boat, eventually docked in Argentina, fixed the mast, set new sails, and finished third. But I came close to being lost at sea. That taught me to train myself to react in life-threatening situations.

Describe your most priceless moment.
Until recently, Cape Horn was unfinished business, sort of my nemesis. But I had beautiful conditions last time rounding it. There are only about 35 days a year when that happens. I won the lottery. I sailed in close, off shore by just a couple of hundred yards. It was fantastic.

Docking after an around-the-world race, do you shout, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” like an exhausted Apollo Creed in Rocky, only to later want another bout with the sea?
Yeah. It takes about two or three months for all the bad times to fade, and then you want to sail again. Right now, I am not sure I’d do another round-the-world race. I wouldn’t do it for me. It would have to be for a good cause.