Irish sailor Pamela Lee on a daunting transatlantic challenge: ‘You think, what the f*** are you doing?’

The Greystones-born skipper and her French team-mate Tiphaine Ragueneau are one of just three all-women teams in the Transat Jacques Vabre race

On the day after the Rugby World Cup final, it won’t just be rugby fans departing France, but also competitors in the Transat Jacques Vabre race, an offshore sailing event that follows the historic coffee-trading route between France and Brazil.

One of these teams consists of the Greystones-born Pamela Lee, and her French team-mate Tiphaine Ragueneau – one of only three all-women teams out of a total of 95 teams in the race. “It’s transatlantic and it’s every two years. It’s one of the big races on the calendar,” says Lee, the only Irish sailor involved this year.

The race departs from Le Havre, France’s leading coffee-import port, and ends in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, 4,350 nautical miles away.

“It’s not a simple thing to do, it’s a pretty big undertaking to do a transatlantic race unassisted the whole way through. It’s going to be [around] 20 days at sea, starting from the English channel – which can have pretty bad weather up there – and then down south through the Bay of Biscay – known for being pretty hard to tackle – all the way down past Portugal, past Africa. And then you go across the Atlantic in the trade winds and get to the other side.”

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If the Olympics are about competitive racing, and something like climbing Mount Everest is an expedition, then offshore sailing marries the two: you have to be able to sail competitively, but you also have to survive on a boat unaided.

As skipper, Lee is responsible for the majority of the pre-race preparation. “One [part of it] is doing the sailing, but then it’s all the planning and logistics that go into it. Making sure the boat is as good as we can get it, so we don’t have any technical issues, planning the food and water that we need for 20 days, fuel, batteries etc.

“At this stage, I’m just trying to think – not in a negative sense – of all the worst-case scenarios. What can break? If this breaks, is it absolutely detrimental? What can I do now to make sure these things aren’t going to break? If they do break, what can I have on board to try to fix them to continue the race, or to continue being safe?

“All of that kind of stuff. We also have really rigorous safety procedures on boats. We’ve got a really strict list of all the safety equipment that we have to have and has to be already regimented.”

Part of this role for Lee meant getting sponsorship, which she secured from Brittany Ferries and ferry operator DFDS. “That was a real ‘pinch-me’ moment,” says Lee. “There’s actually other people invested in it now. There’s definitely been that switch that I am trying to manage and compartmentalise in my head. It’s cool, it’s where you want to be, but then at some point you’re like, ‘Oh wow, God, I really need to make everything go well.’”

That has helped to ground her in the face of the magnitude of what she is undertaking. “There’s definitely that little voice in the back of your head [going] ‘what the f**k are you doing? Who do you think you are playing this game with your life? Who do I think I am telling sponsors to put money into a project?’ It’s a lot of money and that’s only one portion of it.”

On a purely sporting level, the race itself is a step up. “There’s also the impostor syndrome thing because I am racing in the same race with these French guys who are just ... the experience level is off the charts.”

In sailing, there are different classes of boat, and the range of experience within the class can vary greatly. Lee says there are “guys who are the equivalent of rock stars and I’m in the same race. The level of experience that they have compared to me ... obviously I’m not expecting to beat them, but you’re still kind of like, ‘what am I doing playing here?’”

Lee, though, is a professional and knows how to compartmentalise and break down big, seemingly unachievable goals into manageable chunks, which she credits to Lisa O’Carroll, a life coach who she’s been in contact with for the last while. “You’re not always thinking too big, so you don’t get overwhelmed,” notes Lee.

O’Carroll also reminds Lee to focus on the “why” of the big goal: opening up the sport to girls and women, no matter their level or age.

“What we’ve done with this project and what I really want to do more – the more budget I have and the more of a consolidated project I have – is really try to open it up for other young sailors, women who are interested in the sailing industry to be more involved in the project.”

Her technical team, her communications team, and the deliveries (bringing the boat back and forth) are opportunities she tries to give to women.

There’s also another angle. “When I started out in the offshore sailing industry, it was a very male-dominated, kind of macho place to be. You feel like you’re hitting that glass ceiling or there’s an under-expectation of what you can do, and a little bit of me is like, ‘Yeah, I’ll show you.’”

Essentially Lee and Ragueneau are lining up for their first Grand Prix. “Yeah, it’s really cool that I’m here, it’s amazing, but I’ve got a race to do. It’s trying to manage all the chaos around the outside and still switch into race mode. When the start goes, you’ve still got to be the one racing competitively. I think when I finish and I get to the other side and I’ve done a good job, then I’ll really be able to look back and go ‘okay, wow, I really achieved something there’.

“But right now I’m just, ‘I want to do the best that I can possibly do.’”

The Transat Jacques Vabre 2023 race departs on October 29th and you can follow their journey on @pamybefree on Instagram and the race tracker on https://www.transatjacquesvabre.org/actualites