A Southampton midwife is swapping scrubs for spinnakers to take on one of the world’s toughest yacht races for the third time in a row.
Ali Millman is competing in this month’s Rolex Fastnet Race as part of Cowes-based Girls For Sail’s all-women crew, one of only a handful of all-female teams entered for the legendary race.
The mother-of-two – whose Twitter name is Fastnet Queen – is part of a team of 10 women sailing on the 40ft yacht Hot Stuff, with the UK’s only Royal Yachting Association (RYA) school dedicated to teaching women to sail.
Millman, 49, whose career as a midwife has spanned more than 20 years and has seen her deliver hundreds of babies, sees the biannual race as one of her most demanding challenges yet.
The Fastnet is the biggest offshore yacht race in the sailing calendar and sees more than 350 boats set off from Cowes on Sunday, August 16, and head for the Fastnet rock before returning to the finish line and race village celebrations in Plymouth.
Depending on the weather, the race can take between four and six days and conditions can vary from calm with light breezes to extremely challenging with full-blown gales.
Millman and her fellow crew members, who include two doctors and a lawyer, have been training and taking part in qualifying races with Girls For Sail over the last few weekends – including a team-building session led by round-the-world yachtswoman Vicky Ellis – in preparation for the gruelling 600-mile route.
Her passion for sailing developed during weekend trips around the Solent with her husband Adrian, a GP, and the couple completed several RYA training courses together before Millman decided to sign up for her first Fastnet in 2011, where she was the only woman in the crew of 10.
She said: “We had quite a scary experience when I was out sailing with my husband and the children, who were quite young at that point, where we were hit by a lot of wind and I became quite anxious about the boat heeling over.
“I realised worrying about it was a problem I wanted to overcome so decided to sign up for the Fastnet as I thought it would allow me to sail offshore, without the children, knowing I would encounter lots of different weather conditions and situations.
“We certainly saw a lot of different weather and varying conditions at sea but I really enjoyed it. Being on a boat with nine men was quite an unusual experience but it was brilliant – everyone worked really well as a team.”
Millman hoped to sail with the same team for the 2013 Fastnet but due to her team-mates’ other commitments, this wasn’t possible and she joined a different crew, which had one other woman on board.
Millman said: “I really enjoyed working with her but thought that would be my last Fastnet until a colleague mentioned it. I work as a specialist midwife in a women’s hospital and the majority of my colleagues are women, so I decided it would be exciting and empowering to go with an all-female crew.”
She signed up with Girls For Sail, the UK’s only all-female RYA sailing school, which was set up in 1999 by principal Annie O’Sullivan to give women the opportunity to learn to sail and race after she became frustrated at the lack of opportunities in a male-dominated sport.
Thousands of women have learned to sail with the firm since its launch and founder Annie has regularly taken novice crews across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean, competing in some of the world’s top races.
Millman said: “It’s a long, physical, race and when you’re on a boat with men, they tend to do the big strong stuff like helming. In an all-girl crew everyone has to step up and do what’s needed and everyone has done that. Our crew were strangers when we met but we have formed such a bond throughout our training and the qualifying races with Girls For Sail that we are a great team.
“It has been brilliant – the challenges of offshore racing for everyone are seasickness, fear and not getting enough sleep. Three hours on and off watch mean you’re tired and chronically short of sleep but on our Girls For Sail boat there are no cross words and no moaning.
“Annie is a very inspiring person and when you talk to her she makes things sound entirely possible. What has really impressed me being on the boat with our skipper Sophie O’Neill and first mate Carol Eccles is that it’s calm and organised. The standards of professionalism are high.
“You have to be quite driven to do this, and when you get a bunch of motivated, articulate women bonding into a team on a boat, it takes off and gains its own momentum. We laugh a lot and look after each other and the ethos is as long as we’re kind to one another, nothing will get us down.
“The way I see it, I survived my first Fastnet, sailed the second, and want to race the third. In an all-female crew, where there is less weight and strength, the need for close teamwork is essential and that is one of the really rewarding aspects for me.”
Girls For Sail founder and principal Annie 0’Sullivan said: “We’ve been racing in the UK and Caribbean for 15 years, often with novice crews, and this will be our third Fastnet too.
“There’s no doubt it will be demanding – keeping up the concentration of being on the rail for five whole days is tough and while our skipper and crew have been pumping iron and running at dawn this is potentially a very physically challenging race.
“We’re determined to help our all-girl crew have an amazing experience and show that the ladies can be competitive, fun and challenge for glory, without the help of the boys!” The Girls For Sail crew are raising money for two good causes during the Fastnet campaign – the Eve Appeal which fights women’s cancers www.justgiving.com/Fastnetqueens/ and a GoFundMe appeal, Fastnet for Erin, to raise funds to buy specialist assistive technology equipment for first mate Carol Eccles’ niece, who has the rare condition Sturge Weber syndrome http://www.gofundme.com/a25n84u5n4
For more information please visit www.girlsforsail.com.