The 2017 America’s Cup presented a lot of opportunities for many Bermudians, but the biggest success story belongs to Emily Nagel. From competing for a spot on Team BDA, to getting a job at SoftBank Team Japan, to earning a place in the world’s biggest, most grueling race on water, Ms. Nagel’s rise in the sailing world was as rapid as it was impressive.
After nine months sailing across the world in the The Volvo Ocean Race with Team AkzoNobel, the 24 year old returned to Bermuda last month and sat down with The Bermudian to talk about what it’s like to achieve your dreams.
How did you start out sailing?
None of my family sail, so it wasn’t something I was just thrown into. We lived next door to Adam and Debbie Barbosa, and he convinced me to get in an Opti one day when we were out on his boat, and that was it.
What made you keep going back?
Just the feeling of being on the water—the control, the freedom, I just loved every minute of it.
Ms. Nagel continued with Opti sailing for two years before hitting her growth spurt, where she found herself too big to remain competitive among the smaller boys. At 12 years old she moved up a class to Lasers, but here too she found her size a hindrance—this time she was too small. Her 4.7 square meter sail couldn’t generate the power the boy’s boats did with their 7 and 6 square meter sails.
Then I went to boarding school in the UK [Oakham School] and got into the RS Feva’s—little double-handed boats. That was when I really fell in love with racing. I’d raced pretty much straight away as soon as I got into Optis, but it was when I got into the Feva when suddenly I started to do a lot better and started to enjoy myself a lot more.
What was the difference? Just the change of boat?
I think it was the boat but also being with another person, having a crew—I really enjoyed that—and just the racing circuit that the Feva has. I’d spend all year going to different spots in the UK, training, racing, and then going to the Worlds and Europeans, and really just being completely immersed in the racing world.
How did you do?
A lot better. [At 15 years old] I was in the UK national squad for a year—that’s the top 12 boats in the UK—and we would train together in random places across the country with the national coach, then go and compete in the Worlds and Europeans—which you have to qualify for.
How did it feel making the national team?
Oh it was… pretty exciting. I mean… we were the only ones from our region—the Midlands—that made the team.
After sailing in the Feva, Ms Nagel moved into the Firefly where she participated in team racing events.
How did you find racing in a team versus racing on your own?
I love team racing. It’s super competitive and extremely tactical. It’s a lot less about the boat speed. Boat speed is important. If you’re the fastest boat you’re going to win. But it becomes much more of a team sport. You’ve got a team of six people in three boats learning to work together, there’s a lot more strategy and tactics involved which I really enjoyed. And I continued that at university then started with match racing as well.
You finished at the University of Southampton in 2016 with a degree in Engineering and Naval Architecture. What exactly is that?
It’s basically mechanical engineering but for boats, so they do the hydrodynamics, looking at boat design, everything from dinghies up to cruise ships and tankers. It’s basically the marine world of engineering.
Did that give you a different perspective when racing on the water?
They definitely worked pretty well together. It kind of gave me a better understanding of the technical side. When you’re on the boat you’re thinking about how the design is affecting the performance.
Did you get to use what you learned for Softbank Team Japan?
I got to use a lot of the computer programs I had learned to use at university but the maths side, the job I was doing didn’t require it as much. At SoftBank I was mostly 3D modeling, so I used the technical programs but there wasn’t a huge maths side to it.
What was your plan after University?
Just before I started my final year of university was when Team BDA was first announced, that they were going to [enter in the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup]. So that final year of uni, [Team BDA] became my sole focus. I had two things I wanted to do: get into Team BDA, and to one day work for an America’s Cup team. That was my final year goal, which everyone thought was insane. So that year I put actual sailing on the back-burner and lived in the gym trying to get big enough and strong enough to actually qualify for the team. So I was flying back and forth between Bermuda and university, going to the trials and the training camps, and once I graduated in the summer I came back to Bermuda, literally three days after my last exam, and was here training with Team BDA.
How was that?
Loved it. Getting to sail GC32s [a class of hydrofoiling catamaran, 32 feet in length and constructed of carbon fibre, with a top speed of about 40 knots] was something I’d dreamed of for years. In the UK everyone wants to sail boats like that, but it’s a tiny, tiny percentage that ever get the opportunity. So to have that chance here was absolutely mind-blowing. But in that summer we were only training for a week or two a month, so we had all this free time outside of that, and I don’t like free time. I like to be busy and I knew if the Cup was in Bermuda then I had to find a way to work with a team, whether it was sweeping floors or designing or being on a shore team. I didn’t care what, I just wanted to be involved. So I started talking to different teams, just pestering them, then eventually managed to get an internship with SoftBank. So I was working full-time but taking a week off every month to do the Team BDA training, and that continued until March when I got an offer from SoftBank asking me to come on full-time.
Was that before the final cut for Team BDA?
I took the offer before [the final team as announced.] They were going to decide on team members in the first week of April, or somewhere around there, so I had about a month left with Team BDA where we didn’t know who was going to be picked and I just couldn’t turn down the chance with SoftBank. I kinda had to go through the adult conversation in my head. “You can sail in the big fast boat or you can be part of a real team and actually be there for the Cup.” It was an incredibly hard decision because I loved all the guys. It was a team of crazy, crazy brothers… we’d sailed the GC together and it wasn’t long before we were going to get to the 45… but joining SoftBank was what I had to do. I couldn’t turn down the chance to work with some of the most experienced designers in the world. Everyone there is an expert in what they do.
Was it a big learning curve?
Huge. But I loved every second. I’d be at work at 6 AM so I could fit in a gym session before, start work at 7, wouldn’t finish until 7, 8, 9, midnight… but I loved it. The shore team took really good care of me. At first there was the initial, “Ooh, she’s a girl. Can we give her tools and stuff?” But I would be there helping out with the wing lift [placing the wing sail on the boat] just wanting more and more jobs, so by the end everyone would just be like, “Yeah, yeah, she’s got this one.”
Was there much of that? Of push-back because you’re a girl?
Definitely for a couple of weeks, but the guys there were really good at suddenly noticing that actually I was clicking with everything and kinda rebelled against the social norms. Most of the girls on the team were on the logistical side. They didn’t get involved in things like the wing lift and stuff like that. But I made that one of my daily jobs—roll the boat out, get everything in place, wash the boat down at the end of the day. Any little task I wanted to do. I wanted to do anything I could.
So you came pretty close to accomplishing both of those goals you set for yourself.
Yeah. It was definitely disappointing not being on that final team for Team BDA, but I was so proud of all the guys, watching them race, and I still got my moment with SoftBank.
Looking back on it now, how do you view the whole SoftBank experience? Is that something you want to pursue going forward?
I’d definitely like to go back to the design stuff one day, but I’m not quite ready for that just yet. I love the design side of it, the technical aspect, but the one downside of being in design is that you don’t get to be on the water. For me, I’m still at the stage where being on the water is everything, whatever boat it is, I just enjoy being out on the water and racing. I’d like to one day combine them both and to be able to be a designer but also get out on the boats, but not quite there yet.
So from there it was onto the trial process for the Volvo Ocean Race. How did that start?
For me it all happened quite quickly. After I left TeamBDA I set my sights on, “What am I going to do after this? The Cup is about 100 days away from when I joined the team [SoftBank], I’ve got to have a plan for whatever’s next.” I’d always wanted to do the Volvo, it was something I’d always dreamed of, and I was finally meeting so many guys that have done it. A lot of the America’s Cup sailors had been involved in Volvo campaigns, whether it was sailors or shore team, so I thought, “How am I going to get there? Well, they’re allowing girls in the teams now, surely that will continue that in the future.” Basically every team, if they wanted to be competitive, needed to have a girl. A lot of guys said at the beginning, “No, not a chance. We’re not taking women.”
[Emily sighs] Women are too emotional, we’re not as strong, we cry about everything obviously, someone would end up pregnant… everything imaginable was said at some stage… whether it was serious or not, other people can be the judge.
So people like Ellen MacArthur are just outliers…
Oh yeah, just random chances. Girls can never do this race, blah blah blah, despite the fact women have done the race previously on all-women teams. A lot of the guys didn’t even want to consider it. But then certain teams started girls along to trials. Dongfeng [the Chinese team] were actually the first. They decided to take two girls and one of them had been on Team SCA, the all women’s team, and one was a French Olympic sailor.
Okay so back to your preparation to be one of these women…
So women were happening in the Volvo race and I had to get strong. I was in the gym twice a day doing a lot of grinding, actual monkey-on-the-handles work, every day just trying to be able to do it. Because that’s how you sail a Volvo 65, it’s grinding and a lot of moving sails. So it was a lot of weights, a lot of grinding, and I just wanted to get as strong as I could and fit as possible.
So this is the montage sequence in the Emily Nagel movie, your Rocky running up the steps moment.
Pretty much. But it was in our little SoftBank gym which was made out of shipping containers. There every day just trying to copy whatever grinding session the Cup sailors had been doing the day before that was still up on the whiteboard. I mean, obviously I couldn’t do the same levels they were, but that was my motivation. And then in the final week of March Simeon [Tienpont] came back to SoftBank Team Japan—he’s the skipper of Team AkzoNobel but he’d previously been with SoftBank as a grinder but left to start up the Volvo team. But one of our grinders got ill, so he came back for a week to fill in and help with training. And when he was there I was just like, “Okay, so you do what I want to do one day…” It took me about a week to actually build up the courage to actually talk to him. I wasn’t trying to get a spot on the team, it was more just, “What do I have to do to get there in, say, five years time?” I wasn’t thinking I had any chance in the world of getting in for the next race.
And yet you were still working out like you were trying to make the team.
It’s kinda always been my mindset. If you want something you’ve gotta be ready for it in case it comes. So I thought I’ve gotta get there somehow, this is the place I need to start, then thinking about how I get into a shore team for this rotation of the race. So I was asking questions about what kind of skills you need to have, how big are your shore teams, who do you normally hire, just trying to find out how all the teams are set up. I didn’t really have much of an idea. And he entertained all that, and then was like, “You know what, just send your CV over. I’ll take a look at it and give you some feedback.” Sent him my CV, he went back to Holland, I didn’t hear from him for a month. Kept on working, kept on with my gym and my plan, checking my email every day, then I heard that he was coming back in May, so when he came back I still didn’t really pester him about it, but all of the guys who had been seeing me train for the past month started pestering him—jokingly. “When are you gonna take Emily for a trial?” He thought they were joking for a lot of it, and then over lunches and stuff I think he started to realize that I was actually serious and Volvo was where I wanted to end up one day. And then, just randomly after racing one day, after the Cup had started, I was de-rigging and he said, “What are you doing at the end of June?” I said, “I dunno… I don’t have plans that far ahead really. Go to Australia maybe?” And he was like, “Hm, do you want to come do a trans-Atlantic with us?” “Yes… I would.” Trying to keep cool, you know, really trying to keep it cool.
Were you staying cool on the inside?
Not at all. I was completely losing my mind. I was so excited I went around the other side of the wing—after I said, “Yes, thank you, that’d be great”, and he told me he’d email me—I went round to the other side of the wing, saw one of the grinders Winnie [Winston MacFarland]—he worked in the design container a lot with us so he knew how obsessed I was with Volvo—and I was just bouncing up and down like a five year old. “Winnie! Winnie! Winnie! I’m trialing!” And then he told me I needed to act cool and calm down, so I gathered it together a little bit, finished de-rigging the boat, and then four days after SoftBank got knocked out I was on a plane to Europe.
The race went quite swimmingly except for an injury you picked up. What happened?
I did a backflip across the boat and damaged a nerve in my back and dislocated my shoulder. Basically the boat was reaching along—these boats live at an angle of 30 degrees, they’re actually faster heeled over than they are flat. So they’re always at a ridiculous angle that makes moving around quite difficult. I was down below getting a pair of spare sheets to take up on deck, we went over a big wave, and I went flying across the boat, down to leeward, backflipped, over the engine box and landed on my back. There was the initial scare, had the team medic check things over—he was our navigator who had just done a medical course so he’s qualified to make sure you’ve not broke anything. He took photos over the next few days and send them off to the doctors on shore to make sure that it wasn’t anything serious, in case I started bruising loads which could be a sign of damaged kidneys or things like that. I wasn’t dying or anything so I was good, so took some ibuprofen and it was back up on deck.
How long were you out of commission for?
I took two hours in the bunk when I first did it, then had to get up on deck for watch.
Did you get any sympathy from the guys?
There was the initial, “Are you okay?” But once you’re on deck it’s time to go and either you’re working your ass off on deck, or if you’re too injured to be doing that you’re in the bunk. And I wasn’t going to stay in the bunk for two weeks. Then after that leg I was still in quite a large amount of pain, the skipper and I decided it was best for me to take the next leg off until I was strong again. So I was in Australia for two months just gym and physio. Then I flew out to Hong Kong, they were happy with my progress but wanted me to wait a bit longer, by which time I was really trying to chomp at the bit, trying to hide the pain. It was still there at the time but I was trying to fight through it. Then I got to Auckland and I was good to go.
Looking back now, how do you look at that girl bouncing up and down like a kid to actually being in a race that could cost you your life? Has it sunk in yet, exactly what you just did?
It sunk in when I was out there. It took a while. Even after the start I couldn’t really believe we were in the race. I think that first Southern Ocean leg it really hits you quite hard. Up until that point… leg two was hard. It was a three week leg, 22 days from Lisbon down to Cape Town. That was a long time in a boat, a big learning curve. We had some bad conditions in the beginning, then some drifting, then some reaching, so it was kind of all over the place, but there weren’t many points in that leg where you were afraid. But Leg 3 it was scary straight away—Southern Ocean, the one everyone talks about—and that was the moment where I went, “Wow. I’m really in the deep end here. I’ve never done anything quite like this before.” I’ve done a bit of offshore before, and the F4 experience was pretty dangerous [sailing a foiling catamaran from New York to Bermuda] because it was a boat we hadn’t really sailed much and the conditions were quite bad. But the phrase that was used to describe me then was “blissfully ignorant.” Because I was still so excited and it never clicked during that, really, that we could actually die. I just trusted the fact that I was with Jimmy Spithill and Shannon Falcone, what could possibly go wrong? So when we got to the Southern Ocean it was like, “OK, this is actually quite dangerous now.”