Sailor Hannah White is trying to become the fastest woman on water.
In early 2016, she’s going to attempt to break the existing women’s speed record, over one nautical mile, in a new state of the art dinghy.
“It’s unbelievably scary,” says White, 32 who lives in north London. “I’ve been covered in bruises, scars and beaten to death from my training. I turned up to a beauty event recently with a black eye.”
White’s new boat, called Project Speedbird, is designed to help her complete this mission. It’s so impressive that it was on display at the Science Museum earlier this summer, but it’s also incredibly dangerous.
It travels at around 80km an hour, which means that if she falls out and hits the water, she can be flung around 200 metres from the boat.
“Of all the things that worry me about this project, it’s definitely staying injury-free,” she says.
The danger aspect of White’s goal is so severe that people are frequently surprised she’s taking it on as a woman – they expect a man to attempt a sailing challenge so extreme.
‘They don’t think a woman can sail my boat’
“When I’m training on the lake with the male designer of the boat, people go up to him and ask, ‘how long have you been sailing it?’
“He always says, ‘no it’s hers’ and they can’t believe it. But moments later I’m on the water smashing the wind surface, going far faster than them and anyone else.
“I’ve never been to the lake where there hasn’t been a crowd built up watching me going, ‘she’s actually flying’. People are really surprised”.
It means that the relatively few professional female sailors out there just aren’t as high profile and don’t get as much sponsorship money.
“Sailing is a male-dominated sport, absolutely it is,” says White. “The only women tend to be in the logistics, PR or commercial sides.
“There’s no question women are as good sailors as men in terms of multi-tasking and skill. But at some point it does come down to weight and strength. It is a physical sport and we’re just built in different ways.”
Sailing is one of the few sports that rarely has separate competitions and races for men and women. Apart from the Olympics, which does have gendered races, the biggest competitions are open to both sexes.
‘I’m not about spending millions’
But White is attempting to break the female-only record to be the fastest person on water, rather than the overall one.
“At the moment experience is stopping me [from aiming to break the outright record] and strength,” she explains. “But the guy with the ultimate record [Paul Larsen] had 10 years to do it, and millions and millions of pounds.
“That’s not what I’m about – spending millions on huge boats and disappearing off to Namibia to a specially built speed trench, which is what he did.”
Part of that is down to sponsorship.
White’s budget is around £250,000 a year, which she earns through sponsors. It’s nothing compared to the millions spent per month by the male America’s Cup sailors.
Photo: Anthony Cullen
This is partly why White thinks sailing is still a ‘posh sport’:
“It’s still got that elitist tag and at America’s Cup, it was as apparent as it’s ever been,” she says.
She first got into sailing through a school friend, who invited her on a family trip to Isle of Wight’s famous Cowes Week, aged 15.
“It was fun, but that’s because we camped, and there was beer and we met boys. It was definitely the social side of it that got me hooked, rather than actually sailing.
“When you think about it, sailing’s actually a pretty rubbish sport. It’s cold, it’s wet a lot of the time. You bang your knees. People think of it as very glamorous – but ultimately if you’re a sailor in the UK, it’s not.”
‘My first solo transatlantic crossing was a disaster’
She pursued sailing purely so she’d could go back to Cowes the following year.
“I knew I’d only be allowed back if I learnt to sail, because I couldn’t be ‘deck fluff’ again. There wasn’t even someone I fancied, it was just fun.”
By the time she was 19, White had her own crew to enter into Cowes Week, in a boat sponsored by the musical We Will Rock You. They didn’t win but that didn’t put a stop to her sailing career.
She spent her gap year sailing in Australia, and when she was 21, entered a race to cross the transatlantic alone.
“It was a disaster,” she admits. “What I lacked in skill I made up for in confidence. I thought I was ‘it’ – beacuse there was a lot of hype about me, as the young kid on the block. You start to believe your own hype but then alone in the Atlantic the cracks appear pretty quickly.
“I only got halfway across. It was probably the best lesson I’ve ever learnt, because if I’d made it aged 21 I’d think I was a hero. But I came home and had to swallow my pride.”
Photo: Anthony Cullen
She went back four years later, and came second. Since then White has built up a successful career sailing. She’s just set a Guinness World Record for sailing across the English Channel in a dinghy, has presented TV shows such as Countryfile, Go Hard or Go Home, and regularly broadcasts at sailing events.
She says the broadcasting side can be just as male-dominated as the sport itself:
“Sport can be a lads environment, as can broadcasting. I don’t think broadcasters are brave enough with [opting for female presenters]. I also think it’s far easier for audiences to criticise women”.
‘Watch this space’
White also says she’s often trolled on social media.
“I don’t give a toss though – people can say what they like. I know the sport and I know I’m good at broadcasting. There will always be critics.”
Simply, she’s too busy thinking about her own plans. She’ll attempt to break the female speed record early next year, and says if she doesn’t manage it, she wants to start training to try again the year after.
The only thing that could interrupt her goal is the thought of possibly starting a family, after she weds her farmer fiancée in December.
“There comes a time, especially in the sort of job I do, where you have to think about children,” she says. “It’s not going to be easy. Do I necessarily want to do this kind of thing when I’m a mum?
“But then I think probably, because it’s what I do. A dad would do it. Having kids doesn’t stop Bear Grylls – so should I be any different?
“Like any parent you probably take more precautions, because it’s so dangerous. But, you know, watch this space.”
We definitely will.