My first encounter with Hannah Harwood was during a lunch held by the Bahrain British Business Forum (BBBF) at the Holiday Inn. She had been brought in as a guest speaker to talk about her experience in 1998 as a member of an all-women sailing Learn on a record-breaking attempt to circumnavigate the globe in just 71 days. Unfortunately for the 11 crew members, they never made it past Chile due To a slight mishap – the mast broke! The whole experience was filmed by the crew and produced by the BBC and broadcast throughout the UK. The documentary was riveting and kept the whole room spellbound from start to finish. Hannah herself admitted during the talk that after her experience she uttered those fateful words “Never again”. Yet here she was once again promoting her latest attempt with the rest of the crew To give it one more shot – to break that world record of 71 days, 1 hours, 22 minutes and eight seconds, in 64 days! Is this girl crazy or what? I had to find out what made her tick!
When trying to arrange a meeting place, I suppose the most obvious choice had to be the Bahrain Yacht Club – home from home for her. Meeting Hannah, I think she would be the first to admit that she is not the sort of girl that you would choose to sit down with and discuss the latest beauty tips or the latest fashion collections, because frankly I think she would find it just a little tedious! Now if you were to talk about rugby, water sports or even the launch of a power drill you may get her interest. Don’t get me wrong; she is all women, extremely friendly, and very easy to talk to but she also comes across as somebody who doesn’t waste time. One of the first questions I had to ask her was “why” was she going for a second attempt to break the world record – had she forgotten those words that she uttered from her last trip?
“My friends suggested I watch the documentary again to remind me what I’m letting myself in for and when I said “never again”, I did mean it then”. Bur five years on she feels it’s unfinished business and this is partly due to the unexpected death of her father, who she was very close to, in January 2002. He was so proud of her last attempt and the shock of his death made her more committed to fulfilling all her dreams, sailing around the world being one of them.
Hannah arrived in Bahrain in 1993 for a holiday, but talked herself into a job teaching sailing during the winter months at The Yacht Club. When asked what she likes about the island she says that she thinks the Bahraini people themselves are really friendly. She likes island life and before she came here she had spent a long time living in Cowes, Isle of White (which is of a similar size). She loves the weather (except mid summer) and small communities because they tend to be safer and people know her unlike many other countries where you can live in the same house for years and not even know the neighbors! Hannah’s love of sailing stems back to her childhood holidays in the West Country of England. Although she was brought up in a land-locked area of Hampshire, two weeks out of every year her family would travel to Cornwall, and her parents would teach Hannah and her three siblings to sail in a little mirrored dinghy. But it wasn’t until 6th Form College and an opportunity to go to the Cowshot Activity Centre, which specializes in outdoor and indoor pursuits that an instructor recognized her potential and with that encouragement she trained as an outdoor pursuits instructor. Although it was still in the days before sports and leisure really took to and became the huge industry it is today, she still saw it as a great way to live.
It is obvious when talking to Hannah that she is dedicated to sports and she is the first to admit that she wasn’t the slightest bit academic at school, her only interests being sports and art. She tells me that she will give any sport a try but since being in Bahrain her other chosen sport would have to be rugby (she is probably the only girl who’s crazy enough to play with the men at The Bahrain Rugby Club). For the past year in Bahrain she has been working as a PE teacher at the British School and spent a great deal of time teaching children to sail something that she loves to do because in her experience they learn so quickly. She believes there is a lot of sporting talent on the island and it is a shame that they don’t get to compete more.
None of her siblings sail today – her twin brother works in the City, her elder brother took up their father’s profession as an architect, and her sister followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an interior designer. For a good few years the whole family despaired with Hannah’s chosen profession because it was not considered a “proper job”. After qualifying as an instructor, she worked at the Cowshot Activity Centre for two years and then found it difficult to find another centre that offered so much choice, so she found herself drifting back into water sports. In 1987 she got a job teaching windsurfing and dinghy sailing in Breetez, Turkey. She loved both the teaching and the country. Sailing has given her the opportunity to travel and she has visited (mainly through deliveries or big sailing boats he UK) Spain, Portugal and different points in Europe. To date, apart from trying to break the world record of a non stop around-the-world trip and the smaller regattas she has competed in her C.V reads as follows – represented Great Britain in the Nations Cup twice, in 1994 and 1996, and was the skipper in the 1996 event. In 1995 she was the UK Women’s Match Racing Champion and the year before that was helm for the British women’s team in the IYRU World’s. She has also gained further wide experience during three full seasons taking part in the RORC offshore programme, including the Fastnet. Hannah’s forte is an extensive knowledge and experience of the running and maintenance of high performance racing yachts and has achieved outstanding honours in both on and offshore sailing. But all has not been plain sailing. One less than happy memory was competing in The Channel Handicap European in Silley, Pueloma, and she managed to get a really bad ear infection and spent a miserable time in hospital. What she remembers most about the whole experience was the dirty wooden floorboards and she was convinced she had slipped back into the Victorian era. Horrendous was all she could mutter.
The yachting community tends to be very friendly and most people know each other. Internationally there are very few professional sailors in the world but the very top ones (Peter Blake, who unfortunately was killed last year, and Laurie Smith) could earn as much two million sterling a year mainly through sponsorships and advertising. Hannah does point out that she has got a long way to go before she even makes her bank manager smile! Asked if there are any professional sailors on the island, she shakes her head, although Sammy Khoheji and Sameer (last name) are currently Hannah has reluctantly resigned from her teaching post at the British School and expects to be back in the UK early August to start preparing for her next attempt at the world record. Although they have much of the original team back together, their main concern is the lack of sponsorship (this has been due mainly to the World Cup). Previously it was the Royal & SunAlliance Insurance Company sank around 4.5 million into the venture. It paid for the boar, the sailing and land crew, houses and anything to do with the boat and getting it around the world which for them turned out to be unbelievable value due to the amount of international publicity the crew received. Apparently before they set sail their sponsors had jokingly said there would be two things that would be really good for them 1. Obviously breaking the world record or 2. Having a disaster Unfortunately for the crew they had the latter (their sponsor took a full page advert in the English press which included a picture of the stranded boat and how they where helping the girls get home).
When they returned to the UK, they had a very intense two weeks of being celebrities. Every day they where doing some form of publicity from appearing on Blue Peter (she has the badge to prove it), Breakfast T.V, meeting Betty Boothroyd, ex-speaker of the House at the House of Commons (Hannah points out she was amazing) and the big one … a spread in Hello magazine (at which point she burst out laughing and says that’s when knew she was famous). Listening to Hannah talk about all the publicity she received it was incredible and some thing most people could only dream of. The GDN carried an update virtually everyday of Hannah’s epic voyage and on her return to Bahrain she was amazed at how many people had taken an interest and recognized her.
Speaking about her future trip I asked whether she envisaged as much publicity, to which she replied defiantly: “Probably more. Because of the failure last time, people want us to succeed and break the record”.
The original record was recently broken by one week by a French crew. Hannah does not feel the slightest bit daunted and is very positive that they can do it. She feels that life is full of different challenges and it doesn’t matter how hard or great they are as long as they keep you busy, and you try.
Hannah tells me that she hates the thought of being lazy and she always tries to keep busy and if it is not teaching, sailing or playing rugby – it is making things! She would love to have a workshop and her ultimate dream would have been to build a house that her father designed. Unfortunately that is not possible, so, instead, she spends her time repairing her brother’s home instead. She hates smoking and loves beer’ Hannah doesn’t have any real plans for the future – she is just happy to drift and see where she ends up next. Fortunately, because of her qualifications and chosen profession, age has no limit, unlike many jobs. She couldn’t imagine having her own sailing school because she sees it as far too much responsibility. Nor is she the sort of person who worries about money particularly as she has had to struggle in the past to get to where she is now. Overall she really does seem to take one day at a time but not in a reckless manner, more like someone who has taken as much responsibility as possible of her own destiny.