Melodie Schaffer from Toronto was named Sail Canada’s 2023 Rolex Sailor of the Year, an award presented annually since 1986 to individual(s) who have provided global recognition to Canadian sailing and Sail Canada, and who are renowned leaders that have attained high levels of excellence with significant results and accomplishments in world events or activities.
Along with recognition for exemplary sportsmanship, they have also held the respect of their fellow sailors.
Schaffer started training at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and raced in Lasers, 470s, International 14s, 8m, Sharks, and J/105s. She has been an offshore racer for five years and has sailed 80,000 nautical miles.
She has competed in many offshore events, including the RORC Caribbean 600 three times, and has raced in the Antigua to Bermuda race, the Fastnet Race, the Normandy Channel Race, and the Transat Jacques Vabre. In addition, she has worked as a mate on a Volvo Ocean 60 and has competed in the Clipper Round the World Race.
From June 2022 to March 2023, she took part in the Globe40, a 35,000-mile, eight-leg, doublehanded competition that takes sailors around the world in Class40s. Seven teams took part in the 175-day event which started in Morocco and had stops in Cape Verde, Mauritius, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Argentina, Brazil, and Grenada before finishing in France.
Schaffer and her team had to face some highs and lows, including dealing with many changes. She pieced this race together, one leg at a time, and finally had six different skippers for the eight different legs, so the majority of the starts were with someone new. Her boat Whiskey Jack set three speed records – in legs 1, 7, and 8.
Overall, Schaffer and co-skippers Gary Jacques, Mikael Ryking, Jeronimo Santos, Robert Phillips, Paul Stratfold, and Tom Pierce, took 5th place, and set the overall speed record for the race with an average speed of 14.3 knots, for a distance of 347 miles in 24 hours.
Through the race, she also faced storms and countless broaches, dodged pirates, had to do over a dozen sails repairs with four needing to be replaced, had a damaged rudder and two incidents of smoke in the cabin, crashed a main computer and lost wind instruments.
On leg 2, five out of eight sails were damaged, the satellite navigation communications went down multiple times – resulting in days without weather updates or communication, while the primary and secondary wind instruments failed. The final 10 days were sailed by instinct and wool “tell-tales” tied to the shrouds. The leg, which was 36 days in length, finished with a repaired head sail flying in fragments and, despite all the trials, a podium finish.
On leg 3, leading the race after the first week, her team had a spinnaker wrap that took 36 hours to clear in 25 knot winds and 5 meter waves, and their mainsail tore from leech to luff. Again, the instruments went down and three weeks were sailed ‘old school’ by tell tales on shrouds.
On leg 5, the bow sprit snapped in half, so they could no longer fly spinnakers, and then a UFO (unidentified floating object) damaged the port rudder so they only had one active rudder for the rounding of Cape Horn.
From the nomination form:
“Melodie is made of pure grit, but she also dances to music on watch, is awed by the night skies, the ocean wildlife and delights in the people she connects with around the world. The maple leaf decorates the boat and she flies her club burgee and the Canadian flag with pride at every port.
“She may be smaller, female, and older, but it is her ability as an offshore sailor, her skill and her determination that define her. The message she shared is anyone can sail, girls and women can and should be skippers, and everyone can chase a dream! Unquestionably, Melodie opened the way for more female presence in major offshore racing and ocean racing and she carried the colors of the Canadian flag very high.”
Schaffer has a masters degree in biomedical engineering and is a sailing photographer, as well as a mother of three.
“Thank you so much, I am truly honored to be receiving this award,” said Schaffer. “I had the same dream as many, which is to represent Canada in sailing. I raced dinghies at an elite level until my early twenties, and then shifted gears to focus on my career as a biomedical engineer. I shifted again to my next career as a full-time, stay-at-home mom. I never stopped sailing, but for a while it was as a casual racer and for family time.
“In 2017, I tried offshore racing for the first time at the Carribean 600. I returned in 2018, and that was the beginning of where I am now – my third career as an offshore sailor. Offshore racing gave me the opportunity to be challenged again and to learn and grow in new ways.
“Fast forward to now. I stand here not as a 20-year-old athlete, like I once dreamed I would be, but 30 years later as someone with broad life experiences. I have had the epic experience of racing my boat around the world in the doublehanded Globe40 race!
“The challenges were immense, not just on the ocean, but also personally. I was away for two years training and racing. I went six months without seeing my kids. I had no full-time shore team, and managed much of the logistics myself. I used my own savings to make this happen, betting on myself and my dream in every way.
“There were so many challenging moments – but I also had moments of pride, and magical moments where I was in awe of the ocean and our world. I am lucky to have seen it from a perspective that very few have.
“I would like to thank my family and friends for their support and encouragement. I would like to thank my teammates who stepped up for each leg of this endeavor, the Globe40 race organization, Sail Canada for the support that they provide to so many of our amazing athletes, Rolex for their ongoing support of sailing in Canada, and of those that strive to achieve excellence in sailing.
“Being recognized with this award comes after a lifetime of sailing, with grit and determination, culminating in two years of perseverance to complete the Globe40 race around the world. I am honored to represent Canada on the international sailing stage, even more so as a woman, and a mom, coming to this as my third career. Canada is surrounded by three oceans, and with more lakes than any other country, we have every reason to sail, and to shine while doing so.
Remarked Hugh McGugan, Chair of Sail Canada’s Board of Directors:
“With my own background in sailing and managing offshore programs in the 1970s and 1980s, I have immense admiration for what Melodie has accomplished as well as a keen understanding of the adversity that she managed to overcome in achieving these successes.
“Melodie’s dedication in continuing to rekindle the passion for offshore competition with women in Canada is also an incredibly important accomplishment, and one that all sailors in Canada congratulate her for!”