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Sailing ‘Round the World in Her Seventh Decade

San Antonio native Linda McDavitt, the oldest woman to participate in all of the legs of the 2015 Clipper Round the World race, talks about living her lifelong dream to sail around the globe.

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Linda McDavitt celebrated her sixty-ninth birthday aboard a sailboat as she circumnavigated the globe.

Last year, San Antonio native Linda McDavitt celebrated her sixty-ninth birthday at sea while fulfilling a lifelong dream to sail around the world. She was one of approximately 700 people on 12 teams competing in the 2015 Clipper Round the World race. The competition, which helps raise money for UNICEF, takes a full year and is open to anyone regardless of sailing experience. Participants can choose from eight legs ranging from 3,932 miles to 7,117 miles, or make the complete journey, which covers six continents and a grueling 40,000 miles at sea.

McDavitt, a retired band director and president of the Genevieve and Ward Orsinger Foundation, which supports lifelong learning, fine arts, and healthy lifestyles in Central Texas and Bexar County, was the oldest woman to participate in the full round-the-world race last year. A seasoned sailor with a fearless streak, she relished her time on the seventy-foot yacht with a global crew of 12 to 21 people shimmying up masts, riding big waves, and continuing to prove just how tough Texans can be.

I started sailing in high school. I had been in Girl Scouts since I was a Brownie, and the mariner troop had these really cool blue sailor uniforms—I didn’t want to wear the yucky green and white ones—so I joined and we started sailing.

My first time to sail, we got about 100 yards offshore in this little boat, and the girl I was with looked at me and said, “What do we do next?” I just looked at her and said, “I’ve never been in one of these things, I don’t know—I thought you knew?” She said, “Well, I’m not real sure, but if we go overboard, you pull that center board there.” (The center board is the part that sticks into the water and keeps the boat upright. Pulling it out is the wrong thing to do, but we didn’t know that then.) And so we floated around the lake and laughed and had a great time for four or five hours. Finally the other girls came and said, “We gotta get you in!” Then there was this funny wind, and we went over. And because I quickly pulled the board out, we couldn’t get the boat back up because that’s what you use to right it. Still, we had so much fun.

As far as racing, a friend of mine in college was the coach for UT’s sailing team, and I crewed for him in this long distance race at the lake. The whole time it was, “Where’s the wind? Where are the other boats? What do you have to do to get in front?” And it just purges your mind of anything, of any issue that you might have. Since then, sailing has been a release, or an outlet for me to totally lose the real world.

I have competed in local, regional, national, and international events. Because Austin has good weather area most of the year, we race at the Austin Yacht Club year-round. There are some down times, but then you can hop in your boat and go out for a fun sail if the weather is nice.

I had wanted to sail around the world for about forty years. I was visiting London in 2013 and a Clipper Round the World ship was in Trafalgar Square, just sitting there, and I was like, “What’s this?” It was the perfect thing: You were with people, it was racing, and it just all came together. I also loved the philanthropic aspect of the race. With all the fundraising, UNICEF raised around £300,000 [around $365,000].

I helped my aunt, Mrs. Orsinger, start the Genevieve and Ward Orsinger Foundation in 1997, and I took over as president when she passed away in 2004. She wanted me to have something to do when I retired as a band director, and I’m grateful she did that. The band kids and the band parents are usually some of the best kids in the school, and all of a sudden I’m looking at the disadvantaged, at kids that are abused, that don’t have food. It was just a real eye-opener.

At the two previous board meetings I’d made the same comment: “We really have to hire someone for San Antonio.” And they said, “Okay, but can you back off?” Because I can be a little controlling. I went home and I checked in on the Clipper race. It was just finishing, and I read some of the skipper diaries, the crew diaries, and it said “Apply Here” and I just clicked the button. And the next day I sent the board an email saying “I think I’m out of your hair for a year!”

I signed up in July 2014 and the race was going to start at the end of August 2015. My sailing friend said she had gotten strong doing this pole-dancing stuff. So I said to myself well, I’ll try that. And it did help! On my application for Clipper Round the World, I put down that my biggest disadvantage was upper body strength, and to make it better I’m taking pole dancing classes. That got me a lot of attention!

I had three trips to London for training, and different people, as they progressed, would realize they couldn’t do it. We had this young German guy that was great, but when we did the week where we were offshore the whole time, he said he just had to touch land. Another dropped out because there’s no time for him to just sit and think. I was never afraid of being able to do it, and I was not afraid on the boat.

The first leg, down to Rio, was hot. There wasn’t a lot of wind, and we were just sitting there with nowhere to hide for shade. There were 21 people on the boat and no air coming in. Before the race I wondered if I could really deal with that many people on a 70-foot boat, but you don’t even notice they’re there except when you’re changing watches. With our first skipper, we had a “happy hour” at the 11:30 a.m. watch change where we’d bring the food up to the deck and play games.

Each day we had a duty. The jobs were: Mother Duty (make meals, clean up, get drinks for everyone on watch); Navigation (logging wind speed, GPS locations, compass course, any unusual happenings in the last hour) and Heads (clean the heads/toilets); Engine (check engine, generator, and fuel levels) and Bilges (check for excess water, sponge it out and throw overboard); Deck Walk which included “Pants of Power” (being prepared in case of Man Overboard), checking all lines, blocks, cleats, etc. I didn’t mind any of the duties except Heads when “accidents” had happened and the culprit had not cleaned up their mess. My favorite was writing down all the information for Navigation so that I could see how we were doing.

We had an “initiation” for crossing the equator—when first timers like me went from being a “pollywog” to a “shellback.” We had to kiss a crew member’s tummy that was covered with marmite, or kiss a dead fish. Three of the guys also got mohawks, and since there were no mirrors on board, I got one too!

What I typically do is lake sailing, so it’s very limited space. Out on the ocean, we would go weeks without seeing another boat, or anything. Also, at the lake you’re just going back and forth, but on the clipper we could go the same direction for weeks.

One of my greatest fears on our boat was not the weather or anything, it was if I were in the navigation station and someone went overboard, I would have to turn on the engine. I hate motorboats, and if I didn’t have my glasses I wouldn’t be able to read the instructions. It would have been a disaster.

The first death in the race happened on the third or fourth day (on another boat, due to an accident when the main sail swung across the boat to change directions) and everyone was dumbfounded. Nobody ever thought that there would be a fatality. [Editor’s note: This was the first fatality in the race’s history.] Then the second fatality happened in Leg 6, with a young woman going overboard. They had to bury her at sea, so no one really knows if it was hypothermia, if she drowned, it she hit her head going in, or what.

During the start of the second leg (Rio to Cape Town), our skipper got sick. Plus, unexpected heavy winds hit us at the start and we had a couple of reef lines and battens in the mainsail break. She had never been sick on a voyage and it made her worry if she would be able to keep us safe in a dangerous situation, so she resigned and we got a skipper from the ‘13-‘14 race.

On the new skipper’s first leg (Leg 3, from Cape Town to Albany), he called us a bunch of cruisers. I mean, everyone wanted to win, but nobody was going to break their necks doing it. He loved tracking weather, and tried to lead us around a high-pressure system to pull ahead. But when we got up there, there was no wind. We just sat for a couple of days and finally he had to turn the motor on for 990 miles [Editor’s note: There is a motor on the boat though it is generally used for energy, not propulsion]. We had gone over 200 miles out of the way in the wrong direction.

But, I had my birthday during one of the best sailing days on Leg 3. The weather was crazy, the waves were crashing, the guys were surfing. For a while they didn’t want to let me come up, they said they didn’t want me to get hurt on my birthday. And I was like, “I’m not staying down there!”

The South China Seas leg (Leg 5) was just a disaster. All of the boats had major damage once we turned around and went down the west side of the Philippines due to big winds and rough seas. My father was a POW, and that’s where all the Hell Ships came up. It’s hard for me to even think of what it was like on those boats.

My least favorite leg was the Pacific Crossing because it was just cold, wet, and miserable. I was always the last person to take foul weather gear off and the first person to put it on—being from Texas, we don’t really get cold weather. I think the most I had on was three base layers, a mid layer, and then both pants and jacket, three layers of both, and then foul weather gear on top of that. I still got trench foot, which was pain beyond belief.

Unfortunately, on the last leg of the Clipper Race, about 35 miles from finishing, I slipped and dislocated my shoulder. It went back into place, but they were worried I might’ve really cracked something. I told our skipper, “If we were off in the middle of the Pacific, you couldn’t send me off to get my shoulder x-rayed. Come on!” But he said we were too close to shore and the fatalities made him extra cautious. So I was not happy, and my med-evac also cost us four places overall. I was off the boat by 2:30 p.m. and they finished the race at 2 a.m.

After my trip to the hospital, the media crew took me back to my boat, and as we passed the other boats, they were cheering. I thought they were cheering for media guys, because it’s the end of the race and they’d get on the film or something, but then some of them asked me later, “Did you hear us cheering for you? We were so excited to see you come back out!”

The Clipper race taught me that you don’t have to have a whole lot to be happy. You don’t have to have a lot of clothes, you don’t have to have a lot of things, you don’t have to have cable TV. Seeing what every day brings and being ready to meet whatever challenge Mother Nature gives you was exciting.

I haven’t finished my blog yet. I finally figured out, for me, writing the London entry is the end of the journey. I’m having a hard time getting there.

As told to Erin Russell in 2016.

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  • Debbi Snyder-Ellerman

    Congrats Ms. McDavitt! You are a joyous inspiration! When anyone lives her/his life to the fullest, that effort paves the way for the rest of us to know a “possibility” can become much, much more. We all need examples in our lives…like you!