Just like so many others, Tasha Hacker has a life-long obsession with traveling the world. Though unlike any other, this incredibly inspiring woman throws herself at the mercy of the unforgiving sea in order to do so.
Her passion for sailing and ocean racing has seen her set sail to destinations like New York City, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, South Africa, London, Rio de Janeiro, Australia, and so many more. She has sailed through the Caribbean, competed in many round the world ocean races, and crossed the infamous and terrifying Southern Ocean.
And while she often faces hurricane-force winds, cold conditions, 100-foot waves and brutal sailing, she says that there is nothing quite like being at the helm of a 70-foot racing yacht as you’re surfing down a 100-foot wave at speeds of over 30 knots.
And she says anyone can do it.
What inspired your life-long obsession with travel?
I think it started the first time I stood in a store in an English-speaking country, bewildered that no one could understand me. I was in a Tesco’s in London, trying to buy the ingredients to make a birthday cake and I kept stopping people in the sugar aisle and saying, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find confectioner’s sugar?” They would stare, shake their heads and walk away. “Powdered sugar?” No response. “The kind of sugar you use to make frosting?” Crickets.
Eventually a woman paused and said, “What do you mean by frosting?”
“You know, the stuff you spread on a cake. The stuff your mother lets you lick off a spoon?”
“Oh, icing!” She exclaimed and we both laughed. She reached for a box labelled ‘icing sugar’ and I was amazed that such a small vocabulary mishap could cause such a huge rift in communication. I loved it. It was like I’d unlocked a code once I figured out a word and that made what would normally be a mundane activity – like baking a cake – a little bit of an adventure.
That was my first experience abroad on my own and I couldn’t get enough of it. After my semester abroad in London finished, I bought a Eurorail ticket and traveled through 5 countries (Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France) with a friend. That feeling of turning up to a train station and staring at a departures board full of exotic destinations I could take the next train to excited my imagination.
I held on to that feeling for the remainder of my college days and decided that the last thing I wanted after graduation was a cubicle job in the States. I wanted a job that would take me traveling. So I joined the Peace Corps and went to the Russian Far East to teach English.
And that was the start of what has become a long career in teaching English around the world, which took me to England to get my Trinity CertTESOL, to Doha to teach business English to Qatari women, to Barcelona to do my Cambridge DELTA (Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults), to Sevilla to teach English to children and adults, and to New York, where I got my MA from Columbia University and taught English to immigrant high school students in the Bronx.
What inspired you to begin sailing the world?
My husband, Ryan – it was all his idea. An insane, off-beat, wonderful idea. When I first met him, we were both working in Doha, Qatar (he’s British and was doing ESL teacher training in the public schools in Doha), and he convinced me to do a Basic Keelboat course with him.
He was fixated on the idea of sailing around the world one day and I thought he was off his rocker, especially since I’d grown up in a land-locked part of upstate New York. I mean, who lives on a boat? No one does that, right?!
It turns out a lot of people do that; I just had never met anyone who did before.
Tell us a bit about your sailing CV.
When we moved to New York City in 2006, Ryan and I had no money to speak of, so I thought I was safe from the whole boat idea. But then the CELTA Training Center Ryan was teaching for shut down, which gave us the idea to open our own CELTA Training School, Teaching House…which is another story in itself.
But it’s relevant because our school grew very quickly and soon became a full–time job for both of us. And before I knew it, we’d saved up some money and Ryan began to revisit his idea of buying a boat and learning to sail in New York, which I had banked on never being able to afford. But it turns out the older the boat, the cheaper it is – and the boat we fell in love with was a 1986 Catalina ‘34. Just two weeks after we started looking at sailboats, we became the proud, inexperienced owners of a boat called Hideaway.
Luckily, it turned out I had an old friend who lived on a boat in New Jersey (you meet all kinds in New York), so we convinced him to teach us how to sail Hideaway by helping us deliver the boat from its location in Connecticut to its new home in Weehawken, New Jersey. And that trip was all it took to get us going.
We sailed the waters of New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island for about 5 years, using Hideaway as a weekend getaway from our other obsession – our business. But after 5 years of working 16-hour days building our schools, we started to feel the effects – we were exhausted and looking for an inspirational change of environment.
So we decided it was time to set sail and leave New York. We gave away most of our things, packed up our belongings and our two cats, loaded them onto the boat and we sailed out of New York on October 16, 2012 and headed for the Bahamas. We spent 7 months sailing down the East Coast of the U.S., through the Bahamas and finally pulled into Luperon, Dominican Republic in April 2013.
How did you get involved with ocean racing?
That was all Ryan’s fault again – the man is insane. But in a good way.
We were in New York when the Clipper Round the World Race came through and his eyes just lit up. I had no idea he had thought about doing the Clipper Race himself, but after we had sailed our boat 1800 miles on our own, I guess the idea of it wasn’t too far-fetched anymore. Plus, by this time, I’d become totally hooked on the sailing/cruising lifestyle. It appealed to everything I loved – travel and writing and sports, and it was a challenge and learning experience. I learned so much about boats and about myself, sailing to the Caribbean. I know more about diesel engines now than I’ll probably ever know about cars.
When Ryan first mentioned wanting to compete in the Clipper Race, I immediately thought this was something he would do on his own. But then I started to think about it – if I was to get good at sailing, if I wanted to learn how to really sail without falling back on my husband for support, then I needed to go through the training myself and become a sailor in my own right. Ocean racing seemed like an incredible challenge to take on and I started to like the idea that, in the process of training, I would become the kind of sailor that Ryan is – someone who is not afraid to take a boat out on his own and could figure things out as he went.
Which is why I decided to sign up for the Clipper Race and compete on a different boat to Ryan. What I didn’t know at the time, though, was which races Ryan wanted to do and why.
Ryan signed both of us up for Leg 1 (from London to Rio de Janeiro, across the Atlantic Ocean) and Leg 3 (from Cape Town, South Africa to Albany Australia, across the Southern Ocean). And he chose these particular legs because Leg 1 would mean sailing out of his home country, which would be fun for him, and he chose Leg 3 because it is the most infamous and terrifying ocean any sailor could possibly cross. It’s famous for hurricane-force winds, cold conditions, 100-foot waves and brutal sailing.
In his words, “I’m not crazy enough to cross the Southern Ocean in my own boat. So if I’m going to do it, it has to be on someone else’s boat.” These were the words that came out of his mouth only after I’d signed up and committed.
So, as you can imagine, I experienced some intense anxiety just thinking about doing the Southern Ocean Leg.
But what I didn’t know was that it would become my favorite sailing experience of all time – there is nothing, and I mean nothing, like being at the helm of a 70-foot racing yacht as you’re surfing down a 100-foot wave at speeds of over 30 knots. The roar of the water rushing along the boat is so loud that you have to scream at the top of your lungs just to be heard by your crew on deck. It is the most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever had.
Is ocean racing not terrifying?
It can be terrifying, but when you ride that wave of fear rather than back away from it, you learn some pretty incredible things about yourself. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is the only way to learn and grow. That doesn’t mean ocean racing will be fun for everyone. But the reasons why someone would pursue ocean racing are similar to the reasons why someone would climb Mt. Everest, run a marathon or go skydiving. It’s a test of your physical and mental limits. It’s an incredible feeling when you conquer the fears that hold you back from achieving something incredible.
The unpredictable nature of the sport means something will always go wrong, no matter how well you prepare your boat and your crew. It’s just a matter of how you deal with the crisis at hand. You have no choice but to deal with it, so somehow your brain fires into gear and you immediately start trying to solve problems.
Over time, you solve enough problems that you become confident in your skills – you still can’t predict all the problems that might arise, but you are less scared of what might happen because you know you can deal with it, whatever it is. It could be an injured crew member, a snapped halyard that sends your sail into the water, broken rigging, or – one of the worst case scenarios – a man overboard. Which is something that happened to the Derry-Londonderry-Doire boat in the Pacific Ocean.
But the other thing you realize is that boats are incredibly solid — more solid than most crew, in fact. The crew will be freaking out because the boat is heeled over (tipped over) so far that the sails are dragging in the water, but the boat is like, “Whatever, I’m designed to do this.”
What kind of jobs are there on a racing yacht?
This is a blog post in itself – with 18-22 crew on board, there are a lot of jobs, which I wrote all about.
But the general breakdown is this:
Skipper, foredeck, cockpit, helm, watch leader, assistant watch leader, navigation, engineer and mother.
Describe a typical day at sea.
A typical day at sea on the Southern Ocean contains a mixture of physical and mental exhaustion, moments of terror, constant action, counting the minutes until you get down below to your warm sleeping bag, waking up feeling exhausted, getting woken up halfway through your off-watch for an “all hands on deck” crisis, and waiting for Clipper’s position reports to come through every six hours so you know how close you are to winning.
When we were sailing across the Atlantic from London to Rio, we had very little wind during the day, so the crew had time to socialize and get to know each other before the squalls would kick up at night time, keeping us busy on deck.
But when we sailed from Cape Town to Albany, Australia, I felt like we were in crisis-management mode for three weeks straight. No one on deck spoke except to scream deck commands through the howling wind. It was impossible to socialize and that made the race tougher. Mentally, it was the toughest thing I’ve ever taken on.
I would wake up for my watch every four hours and every time I popped my head up through the hatch to see what the weather was like, an icy wave would crash overhead and drench me where I stood. Every single piece of clothing I owned was soaked in freezing salt water and it was hard to stay dry.
Once I got up on deck for my watch, I would usually go straight to the helm (which was where I spent most of my time), where my shoulders and my stomach would be clenched for hours at a time as I fought like hell to keep the boat steady and racing while we were blasted with winds gusting up to 60 or 70 knots. It was like stepping into a war zone every single watch.
Having said that, I absolutely loved it. My mind felt like it was 100% acutely aware of my surroundings, the wind and the motion of the boat at all times. The experience was full of moments of surprise and exhilarating self-discovery in a way that made me feel incredibly alive and aware of my tiny place in this humungous world. I found myself craving the thrill of these moments over comfort, peace and quiet.
Does boredom ever kick in?
Absolutely. We were stuck in the Doldrums for ten days with little to no wind. There is nothing more boring than sitting still…especially when you’re racing.
I used that time to write, if I wasn’t on deck, or do push-ups, or anything to stay active and sane as we sat motionless with a view that never changed. You can only stare at the never-ending expanse of water for so long before you go a little nuts.
Weather always affects travel. What kind of weather have you experienced at sea?
The extremes were the toughest and the margin for favorable wind and weather seemed incredibly small. We had no wind for as long as ten days, so we sat there, crawling out of our skin, hoping the wind would pick up and we’d move again.
But then we had hurricane-force winds with gusts of up to 75 knots, where my whole body would be engaged in trying to stay steady as we were being tossed around in the waves. What we really hoped for constantly was the middle-ground: 30 knots of wind behind us or off our beam and following seas (waves going in the same direction as the boat). That’s when we could race most efficiently.
What has been the highlight of your time ocean racing?
For sure, nothing beats being at the helm when you’re fighting to develop your technique and build your strength to surf as long and as fast as possible.
But also the teamwork involved is what makes ocean racing so special. You can’t do everything yourself – you have to work with others to sail the boat as fast as possible, and that motivates you to work harder than ever; you don’t want to be the one to let your team down. And you don’t want yours to be the error that causes you to lose the race. There are real and serious external motivators to do your job well – if you’re careless or you don’t follow safety procedures, one of your teammates could get hurt. Or you could get hurt.
And, obviously, the worst case scenario is someone could die. That is something we all realized acutely when Derry lost a man overboard and it took them 90 minutes to find him. Luckily, the crew member was wearing a dry suit and had an AIS beacon on him – or else, he would have died.
What has been the most challenging aspect of sailing around the world?
Living with 20 tired, hungry, cold teammates. But, really, the biggest challenge of that was battling the selfish impulses inside myself. When you are frozen and exhausted, both mentally and physically, sometimes you lose sight of the big picture – everyone is guilty of this.
The more uncomfortable you get, the more you focus on that discomfort – maybe you start thinking about that steak you’re going to eat in the next port, how much wine you’ll drink, how you wish your hands would warm up, when you might get to sleep again, and you become distracted from performing at your best for the next hour, or four hours.
Four hours in the grand scheme of a 3-week race doesn’t seem that important when all you can think about is getting to sleep or getting warm. But those hours add up to days and weeks, and every bit of effort and teamwork means the difference between pulling ahead or falling behind the fleet.
The biggest challenge is putting your own discomfort aside to help elevate the team. When everyone shrinks inside their own miserable heads, the morale of the boat drops and team performance drops.
If you can put your own misery aside for a bit, you might find ways to boost the morale of teammates around you who are feeling down, and if everyone does this, the boat performs better because they’re happier and more willing to keep pushing. An ocean race is a marathon, and marathons are mostly a mental challenge.
Does sailing/ocean racing make it difficult to actually experience a destination, i.e are you constantly on the move or do you manage to find time for land exploration?
Yes, it makes it incredibly difficult to get out and explore when you’re in port for such a short time. Which is why I’m glad we took the leg off between 1 and 3, so we could get off the boat. We rented a car and travelled around South Africa for a month before we got back on the boats to race again.
The Round the World Crew have it the toughest – they are constantly on the go for 10 months with very little reprieve. The “leggers,” like me get off in port and they don’t have to get right back on the boat – they can travel if they like. But if you’re RTW Crew, you might get into port, spend three days provisioning and repairing the boat, have a day to go sight-seeing and before you know it, you’re back on the boat preparing it for departure again. That’s pretty tough going for ten months straight.
When you’re cruising on your own boat, it’s different – you make your own schedule. You can stay in one port and explore it for months, if you feel like it. You don’t have that luxury with a race schedule.
How do you deal with sea sickness?
I personally don’t get seasick much, which is truly a gift. But certain circumstances will bring it on, even for me, like being down below deck, working in the galley in rough seas (I was on “Mother Duty” – cooking duty — on the first day of the race out of London) or being on the bow, hanking on a sail as you’re dropping 40 feet into the troughs of waves (like the start of our race out of France).
But I’m lucky that seasickness only affects my body and doesn’t affect my mental ability to keep working. I was throwing up as I was hanking the sail onto the forestay and it was fine. Hank. Puke. Hank. Puke. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.
Do you have to be physically fit to pull off an international sailing expedition?
You need to be in reasonably good shape, but it really depends. There are different jobs on a racing yacht – and there is a job or skill for everyone. Some jobs require more physical strength than others – but the level of your physical fitness will determine how hard you can work before you fatigue and how much discomfort you can mentally endure.
And, for sure, training yourself hard physically means you have experience in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone – and that helps you in ocean racing.
What’s the best thing about travelling by sea?
There are some places you can only get to by boat because they are so remote and uninhabited. It is a real treat to turn up to a completely deserted island, set your anchor, jump in the water, spear some fish, cook your catch on the grill and eat dinner overlooking a pristine, untouched white sand beach that you’ve just arrived to using the power of the wind.
It makes you feel like a true explorer, like you’ve accomplished something really meaningful. It makes you hope you’ll never have to return to the consumer-driven, paved paradise, parking-lot society you’ve just come from, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.
Are there any opportunities out there for regular travellers to get a taste for international sailing?
Absolutely – I’m always meeting people on boats who volunteered to crew on small private boats, just as an interesting way to get somewhere or just for the hell of it. Most of the young people I met crewing on boats temporarily had never sailed before they volunteered to crew. But it’s not hard to learn. Anyone who can sail their own boat can teach you as you go.
When my husband and I arrived to Luperon, Dominican Republic, after sailing 1800 miles from New York, we ran into a couple of 28-foot boats in the harbour who had crews of 3 or 4 young people on each, all of whom had just hopped on board as the boat made its way south.
One of the boats had 3 twenty-something hipsters from Brooklyn on board, and they told me they connected with the skipper/owner of the boat through Craig’s List – he advertises for crew every now and then and just swaps out one crew for another as he goes.
It’s a win-win for both parties – the skipper gets help in sailing his boat and the crew all pay their own way in food and diesel, and they learn how to sail as they go. It’s an amazing opportunity – and sailing doesn’t cost nearly as much as getting around in a camper van – the fuel costs nothing because you can use the wind, you bring your own home wherever you go, and cooking on board means you spend very little money on food. There’s just the expense of alcohol, really – sailing requires a lot of rum drinking. Or, rather, being in port requires a lot of rum drinking.
Three things you won’t hit the unforgiving sea without?
- Coffee. Lots of coffee. When our watermaker failed on the Atlantic Ocean, we were forbidden to drink coffee, as it would further dehydrate us. And I just fell to pieces, as my teammates can tell you. For one whole night watch, I was curled up in a fetal position on the floor of the cockpit, unable to lift my head up, practically drooling on myself. It was impossible to stay awake during my night watches without coffee.
- A tether to hold you to the boat if and when you get thrown around unexpectedly. When Ryan and I sail alone, often one of us is asleep while the other is on watch. And my #1 worst fear is to come up on deck after a few hours’ sleep to find Ryan’s fallen overboard and I have no idea how to locate him. We make sure if one of us goes down below, the other is attached to the boat with a tether. The same was true of the Clipper Race – our tethers were much more important than our life jackets because if any of us fell in the water, we’d only survive a certain amount of time before we could be rescued. But a tether will keep you from falling overboard.
- A satellite phone. We didn’t have a satellite phone on board our own boat, Hideaway, when we crossed from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, so we had no access to weather information to plan a good crossing. But luckily we were with a buddy boat who had a satellite phone, and he was able to download weather grib files using a satellite connection so we could plan when and how to make our crossing.
You continue to circumnavigate the world using everything from ocean rafting yachts to camper vans. Tell us about the most unique form of transpiration you have used to travel?
I learned to drive a 125 cc motorbike in the Dominican Republic, and when we got to Bali, Ryan and I decided to take a motorbike trip across the island – I rented my own bike and he rented his own.
It was so much fun, zipping through the hills with views of the rice paddies and beaches and feeling the wind whipping through your hair.
Funny you should ask! I answered these questions only a few weeks ago, talking about being back in New York and working with Ryan on expanding our CELTA Teacher Training Centers to 14 locations across the United States. The summer is our busiest period for students, so we are here, living on a rented motorboat in Liberty Landing Marina with the Statue of Liberty in our “backyard”. It’s the best view one can have of New York, but the view I’m really craving is the one from the bow of our boat as we’re sailing through the Caribbean.
However, since I answered these questions last, there’s been a new development – I am getting back on the Henri Lloyd yacht in Derry, Northern Ireland and racing with my crew to the finish in London! This is completely crazy because I wasn’t expecting to be able to do the last leg with all the work I have, plus I have a business trip planned to Mexico in a few days. But the Clipper Race is currently in New York now, and I was offered a media berth in exchange for writing about the experience and promoting the Clipper Race.
I guess what this illustrates is that the answer to “what’s next” is never predictable. One minute I’m working, the next minute I’m on a racing yacht, and who knows what’s next? The most rewarding things I’ve done in my life so far have been completely unexpected and unplanned, so I wouldn’t dare discount any possibilities for the future, no matter how bizarre they might be. Your guess is as good as mine. The future is a blank slate just waiting to be scribbled on.