Q&A: Sailor Derek Hatfield

By Katarina Atherholt

At 61, sailboat racing skipper Derek Hatfield has more than his fair share of stories — from being demasted while rounding South America in 12 metre seas, to losing both mast spreaders after having his boat flip over during another race. He has endured intense physical and mental challenges, all to be able to claim the titles of two-time circumnavigator and the first Canadian ever to represent this country in the Vendee Globe. The Gauntlet sat down with Hatfield at the Calgary Boat & Sportsmen’s Show to shed some light on where he came from, where he’s headed and what makes the life of a solo racer so intense, exciting and unpredictable.

The Gauntlet: How did you begin sailing and turn it into a career?

Derek Hatfield: I didn’t start sailing until I was 24. A neighbour took me sailing for the first time on Lake Ontario. I was always very competitive so I started racing out of the local yacht club, then discovered single-handed sailing through magazines, and I was really attracted to that. So I built my first boat, a Northern 25, and started racing that and doing things, but never biting off more than I could chew. If you bite off too much and you defeat yourself, you might quit or get knocked out of a race early on then chances are you won’t come back to it.

G: Was it difficult to find support in Canada since competitive sailing is much more popular in Europe?

DH: Yes, sailing is perceived to be elitist in North America, and it probably is to a certain degree because yacht clubs and people keep it that way. In Europe there’s a professional circuit for sailors and they’re not rich — they’re paid by sponsors. All the single-hand racers come through that professional circuit whereas in North America you have to work on that yourself.

G: What do you find is the most difficult part of sailing solo?

DH: The psychological part is most difficult because of the mental toughness required. When you’re really tired and things break and you’re depressed — those are the most difficult times to get over and literally you cry yourself to sleep some nights in the bottom of the boat because you’re just so tired and you just want to stop. Luckily you can’t just stop and tie the boat up, or else you probably would. Then you have a catnap, and it’s impossible to wake up from a catnap and be depressed. Your body just rejuvenates itself.

G: How is it that you’ve made a living from teaching people to sail offshore?

DH: It’s all about the experience because if you’re planning to go offshore yourself, or someone is planning to do that, they really need to experience the conditions many times before they start off on their own. I know people who don’t have that experience and get on the boat and leave. They’re always defeated because they don’t realize what’s going to happen. It is tough, no matter what you’re doing, no matter whenever you go offshore. The lack of sleep, the tiredness and everything, it is debilitating. If you have no clue what’s going to happen it will defeat you almost one hundred per cent of the time.