Francesca Clapcich – Need for speed


We caught up with Francesca Clapcich last week in Lorient, France, where 11th Hour Racing Team secured a third place in the Speed Runs of the Défi Azimut regatta, before winning the 48 Hour Azimut The Ocean Race (crewed division) and taking 11th place in Sunday’s Tour de Île de Groix.

As a past world champion in the 49erFX Olympic dinghy class Italy’s Francesca Clapcich is no stranger to dealing with high-performance sailboats. In fact, she says her nationality gives her a general affinity to it – on the water and on land.

Nevertheless, after transitioning to a latest generation foiling IMOCA over recent months as part of the 11th Hour Racing Team the Italian Olympian says she has been awed with the American yacht’s blistering open ocean performance.

“It’s an incredible boat and like nothing I have raced before,” she says. “The 49er was fast, more wet and closer to water, but this boat is a speed machine. We just crossed the ocean and the speed you can do on the boat is really impressive.”

Clapcich is back in The Ocean Race for the second consecutive edition after cutting her teeth in the last race as part of the Turn the Tide on Plastic VO65 crew.

She first became inspired by the idea of racing around the world as a young sailor starting out racing dinghies in Italy.

“I remember when I was little this incredible race called The Whitbread where the best sailors in the world were racing around the world so close to icebergs in the southern ocean and wearing just wool fleeces. At home in my room I had a big poster of Illbruck and Ericsson – as well as Amer Sport Too.”

But it was in 2014 when Clapcich watched the all-women Swedish entry Team SCA racing around the world that she started to believe she could one day do the same.

Such was the international attention generated by the SCA crew that Clapcich remembers thinking at the end of the race: “They did it – and we can do it. We can do it really well – and we can do it even better”.

“It was their own sponsor and their own team and it made [the opportunity really real. I think that was a big turning point for a lot of female sailors of that generation.”

© Amory Ross / 11th Hour Racing

Since the last edition of The Ocean Race Clapcich has tried her hand at solo sailing with an entry in the 2021 La Solitaire du Figaro where she became the first Italian sailor to finish the gruelling event.

That experience, it turns out, has paid dividends while training aboard the 11th Hour Racing Team IMOCA.

“Sailing short-handed has been really helpful because I understand better the dynamic of how to sail the boat only with a few people, and how the autopilot works.

“In the beginning it was quite hard for me to work out how hard we could push it when we are driving with the autopilot and trimming the sails – and just how brutal it is to live down below.”

Although Clapcich jumped at the chance to join Charlie Enright’s US campaign she had to think long and hard about her commitment level after her first few sessions with the team.

“Life on board is not easy. The movements are pretty crazy and we sail the boat so flat that we are really just smashing in the water. I have heard a lot of stories about it but when you experience it you think: ‘Can I do this? Or is it too much?’

“I needed to make sure that I wanted to do it 100 percent before committing, because your team members don’t want someone on board who doesn’t want to be there.

“Being part of the 11th Hour Racing Team is an honour for me. It’s been great to be able to sail with them and be part of a project that is so focused on performance.

“In my first race we were a young and inexperienced team and for the first half of the race we were learning how to sail the boat and understand the dynamic on board. We were not really able to push as hard as the front teams.

“This time we feel like we are the boat that the other teams are looking at, to understand: How reliable are they? How fast are they going? How hard are they pushing?”

Sailing in a four person crew on a foiling IMOCA will doubtless make Clapcich’s second edition of The Ocean Race a different experience in very many ways – but, for all the differences, she says there are some key elements of the race that never change.

“It is going to be a really different race compared to the last one. There are less people on board and there’s a lot more to do. You are more covered [on board] but at the same time the speeds are higher. It is going to be all about understanding the reliability of the boats and making sure we are ready for anything out there.

“It’s still going to be about teamwork, as always. Whether you have 10 people on board, or five, or two, it’s about working together really well and it’s about helping each other in the moments that are hard.

“Out in the middle of the ocean you can get to some dark places and you need to push your brain and push your mindset to keep going. At the finish line you forget all the pain and it is about what you accomplished with a great group of people and you get a big reward for what you just did.”

In the next edition that reward could be delivered in Clapcich’s home country when the teams arrive in Italy for The Ocean Race Genova The Grand Finale to complete their 32,000 nautical mile (60,000 km) race around the world.