Archive for February, 2007


An Unrequited Dream

February 20, 2007   

An Article by Sutter Schumacher published in Latitude 38


When she packs for long distance races, her gear bag doesn’t just include a sail repair kit ” but an entire sewing machine. She’s raced offshore for more than half of her life, and, she is the youngest member ever admitted to the prestigious Royal Ocean Racing Club in London, easily amassing the required 500 miles of ocean racing by the time she was 15. Since then, her sailing odometer has rolled over a solid five figures…Emma Sanderson? Right country, wrong woman. Ellen MacArthur? Nope, though she counts Dame Ellen as a close friend.

She’s Ashley Perrin, a 29-year-old Mill Valley sailor and entrepreneur whose preparation, focus and intensity make her an asset on any crew. For more than half her life, Perrin has made her sailing dreams come true ” from racing on boats as large as 90 feet throughout the world to doing shore side support for an around-the-world campaign. Only one goal eludes her – racing around the world. Call it her unrequited dream.

She’s already done a ˜circumnavigation’ of sorts, flying to and from various projects. But you don’t have to be Honey. Cayard or Kostecki to know that going around the world on a 747 isn’t the same as doing it on a Volvo 70. But don’t count her out yet.

Born in San Francisco to an American father and British mother, and educated in the UK, Ashley sailed in the San Francisco YC junior program before moving with her parents and two brothers across the Atlantic at age 9. By then she was thoroughly hooked on sailing, and when she reached her 12th birthday, she proclaimed that she planned to sail around the world. Her parents were duly impressed, and even supportive. But her father announced that she would have to wait until she was 13 ” not to race around the world, of course. But to take the first steps by doing some offshore racing.

Barely able to restrain herself until the next year, she was rewarded by learning from one of the top ocean racers in Britain, Chris Dunning. Dunning is a former RORC Commodore and British Admiral’s Cup team captain who, over the last 40 years, has successfully campaigned a long line of keelboats, all named Marionette. Dunning and crew took a liking to the ambitious teenager and introduced her to life on the pointy end of his then-newest Marionette, a Lightwave 395. Her first race was from Southampton to St. Malo, France, and she recalls her performance as somewhat less than stellar. Basically, I just rolled around the foredeck, she laughs. I was useless, but they liked me, I think mostly because I did all the offshore cooking. But in exchange, they taught me the bow.

Soon she was spending all her free time sailing either on Marionette or her dad’s Express 27, which he’d brought over from the Bay Area with him. Southampton; where both boats were based, was a few hours’ drive from London, and her weekend schedule revolved around the long haul to and from the boats.

Predictably, schoolwork suffered. By her last year of high school, her parents and the headmistress had had enough of her dismal attendance record, particularly on Friday afternoons, when she left early to get to the boat on time. Her penance was a ban from sailing for the rest of her senior year. If anything, the ban only hardened her resolve. Within two weeks of her graduation in 1996, she took off on her first trans-Atlantic passage.

The trip had all the ingredients of a disaster: double handing a 32-ft boat from Newport, Rhode Island, to the UK, with an ex-boyfriend ” and no double handed or overnight experience. But, in what has become something of a hallmark in Ashley’s life, she not only made the experience work, but walked away better for it. It was amazing, she says. By the end of the trip, I was able to peel a kite at night without waking Jason up. Before then, I’d only done foredeck on a 40-ft boat, so this became a benchmark for how much I learned on the trip. She spent the following year on boats of various types and sizes before going on to university. Although she stayed away from the schools sailing team ” ˜They drove two hours to sail on lakes when the ocean was right in our backyard! she says, still in a mild state of disbelief ” she continued to sail any chance she could.

Taking her education seriously at this point in her life, she finished degrees in geography and oceanography in only three years. Then it was off on another adventure this time to New Zealand, where she had heard someone was trying to put together a team for the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race. The rumor turned out to be just that ” little more than talk. But as always, lemons turned to lemonade when Ashley hooked up with Dawn Riley’s America True syndicate, which was in Auckland campaigning for the 2000 America’s Cup. Ashley was offered a job at the organization’s San Francisco headquarters, so she returned to her childhood stomping grounds to devote the next 18 months to pursuing another VOR opportunity, this time a co-ed youth team under the America True banner.

This involved calling on many of her sailing friends ” including MacArthur, whom she met during high school when both were looking for sponsors for their sailing exploits. Ellen (who had recently catapulted to fame’ following her performance in the 2000 Vendee Globe race) expressed plenty of interest in the Volvo project, but by that time (2002), time was growing short to design and build a boat. In the end, Ashley says, ˜We looked at other options, but nothing came together.

By this time, ˜with her bank account rapidly dwindling, Ashley picked up with regularly some maintenance work on Bay Area race boats. Once her knowledge and skill came to the fore, she was soon in high demand. It was about this time that the entrepreneurial bug bit her. Realizing that there were only so many hours in a day that she could sell her services, Ashley started a company called Ocean Racing. You may recall OR from its clever initial offering ” designing and building gear bags from old racing sails. But the overall purpose was much larger. I wanted to create a brand around myself to increase my marketability and give me work in the off-season, says Ashley. I couldn’t sell the hours that I was out sailing but I could earn money selling gear bags. The name Ocean Racing perfectly encapsulated everything she was working for ” which was basically working any angle she could to make a living and simultaneously move towards that still illusive round-the-world goal.

A new door toward that goal opened in 2002 when she joined Bruce Schwab’s Around Alone race campaign, Ocean Planet, as part of the shore support team. That was a learning experience not only for Ashley, but for Schwab himself, who was sailing the boat. None of us had much experience when we went into that program, Schwab says. But Ashley did a tremendous job of getting the right parts when we needed them and handling logistics.

Ashley looks back on the Ocean Planet experience as a perfect showcase of her boating skills and organizational talents ”with the icing on the cake being valuable experience in the global ocean racing realm.

Back in the Bay Area, she returned to her company and to sailing. One of her accounts ” for whom she both sailed and did maintenance ” was Mary Coleman’s Farr 40 Astra. Ashley is just an awesome sailor, Coleman says. I’ve never seen anyone more enthusiastic about going up a mast! And she’s not talking just about the 60-ft mast on Astra. When Coleman chartered an JACC boat to race on the Bay, Ashley soared to new heights on that 110-ft spar ” twice. Ashley is incredibly focused and competent, Says Mary. You couldn’t ask for a better sailor to have on your boat.

The world beckoned again in 2005. When she heard that the ABN Amro team was fielding applicants for its ˜young guns’ entry in the 2005-06 Volvo race, Ashley immediately submitted her resume. One of 80 candidates chosen from the 1,800 resumes sent in, Ashley took part in crew trials and made it to the semi-finals. Although most would be proud of that result, Ashley felt only frustration, It was a bit of a nightmare, she says, I didn’t make it far enough.

Ashley has incredible drive, says Ocean Planet’s Schwab, someone who is familiar with the trials and tribulations of chasing a round-the-world dream. He worked more than 10 years and spent every dime he had to finally realize the goal, in the 2003 Around Alone Race, and again in the 2005 Vendee Globe (he made history in the, latter by becoming the first American to complete the grueling nonstop, single-handed race); But what I really admire about her is that she doesn’t pretend to be the best at everything ” she knows her strengths, and she plays to those strengths.’

I’m not an after guard kind of sailor, says Ashley. I’m happy to leave calling lay lines or perfect sail trim to the people who are good at those things. What I offer are solid offshore skills. I have lots of experience out there, and I can fix just about anything that breaks, anytime. Up the mast at 2 a.m? No problem. .

˜To win round-the-world races I think you need both kinds of people ” good technical sailors and those of us who make sure the boat is prepared and will hold together.

While recent disputes with her Ocean Racing business partner have left the company’s future in doubt, she’s not starving for work on the water. In fact, 2006 was something of a watershed year for Ashley. She was doing boat captain or maintenance work for 15 local boats; racing aboard her brother’s Moore 24, and even getting in a little sailing back in the UK. (Between May and September, she was only home for 21 days.) But the highlight of last year was, doing the bow on Roy Disney’s maxZ86 Pyewacket. ˜Out on the end of a bowsprit doing 18 knots ” that’s the kind of stuff I like, she says with a sly grin.

Shortly after we spoke, to her, Ashley was off to manage Yeoman 32, a new Simon Rogers-designed IRC 46 that made its debut in Key West last month. Built in Thailand for current RORC commodore David Aisher, the boat is doing the IRC circuit in the Caribbean and on the East Coast before being shipped to its new home in the UK.

All in all, life is still good on the pointy end. But her focus never strays far from The Dream. Later this year, she and a partner are hoping to race double handed on the Open 60 circuit in Europe, and perhaps stage a run in the Barcelona World Race in November, if they can drum up enough sponsorship.

If I don’t go offshore for a couple of weeks at least twice a year, I’m a miserable person to live with, she says. Life is a lot easier out there. No lawyers, no phones. . . That’s where I really feel like I’m in my element.

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