Last year, the American sailor Wendy Schmidt helmed Deep Blue, the new Botin 85 sailboat she owns, on its inaugural run at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. One of very few women skippers in maxi racing, Schmidt stood out from the fleet, winning the start and placing fifth in her class.
She starting sailing in 2007 when she was 52 years old. “My husband didn’t think I would spend much time on the boat because I was a tennis player,” she said. “But I ended up going out every single day. It’s been a gradual seduction ever since.”
Schmidt finished third at the Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez last year and also placed third this year in her class of Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille.
This year, Schmidt, 67, a philanthropist who is married to the former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, returns to Porto Cervo, Sardinia, with her mind on racing and spreading the word on ocean restoration. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about your debut last year at the Maxi cup.
We launched in 2020, but weren’t able to race her until 2021 because of the pandemic. We managed to practice in partial groups of our crew. We arrived as the new kid on the block.
This was our first race. We felt pretty darned good about staying up with those boats that have been around regattas for years. But the thrill for me was the start. You’re going 12 knots and crisscrossing with these big maxis. You need to time it just exactly right.
What do you hope for your return to Porto Cervo?
I don’t think we’ll do anything differently. We’ve made some improvements on the boat. That’s a constant course for any boat. But it’s always about playing. When do you get a chance to get 25 people together on a boat from different countries speaking different languages doing amazing things together? That’s the attraction.
What’s your approach to being a skipper?
There’s a great sense of family in my crew. I’m in awe of the skills around me. They know things I don’t know. Everybody on the crew knows something, and nobody knows everything. You are a collective brain and rely on each other, and deeply trust every single person on that boat. You have to do everything well together in concert like a ballet. When I’m driving, I’m looking at my instruments. I’m listening to my trimmer, tactician and navigator. It’s an enormous task of concentration and focus.
Even when you feel a boat breathing down your neck and coming fast, you don’t turn your head and look because you might turn the wheel a little bit. You need to practice focus. When you do, it becomes a Zen-type place.
What’s it like being one of very few women skippers in maxi racing?
I grew up in a household of four brothers. It never occurred to me there was anything I couldn’t do. I don’t really think about skippers as a gender role. There are some extraordinary women in sailing rising to the highest echelon of the sport. There are a lot of challenges for women in their lives and getting into this kind of work, but it isn’t impossible. The only challenge for me is the limit of physical strength. I’m not a big person, and I’ll never be strong like a big guy.
Finally, how can we restore the ocean?
It begins with connection, understanding and caring. The biggest threat to the ocean is ignorance. Understanding what we don’t know about the ocean is absolutely fascinating. Most of life on earth is hidden from us. Sailors are the most natural advocates for ocean health. They go places nobody goes and see things nobody sees. When you start to ask them what’s changing in the ocean, they’ll tell you.
Our group — 11th Hour Racing — wants to transform the sailing industry and change the way regattas operate. We do that through demonstrations that get people thinking about the ocean. There are concrete changes that can be made — races with zero waste, refillable bottles and water stations. I think it’s setting a new standard on how the race world should work.