Life aboard the 70-foot racing yacht Visit Seattle is a constant grind. Crew members sleep in stretches of two and a half to three hours. Walking a few feet below deck when the boat heels can be a massive feat. Simply getting dressed can take 20 minutes of hard labor. Day after day, crew members — strangers living in a space no bigger than a small room in a house — eat the same seven meals, such as lentil stews and tuna wraps, to the point where some can hardly choke them down.
Beginning last August, Visit Seattle has already sailed from the Atlantic Ocean from England down to South America, across the South Atlantic to the southern tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and around Australia, where it arrived last week in the city of Qingdao, China.
But its journey is far from over.
In just over one month, following its journey across the Pacific from China, Duffy Drum of Mattituck will join the crew of Visit Seattle, boarding the yacht in Seattle, Wash., for its penultimate leg — a trip down the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and up to New York. So how did a retired 63-year-old fitness director with no prior sailing experience find himself immersed in a 40,000-nautical-mile yacht race around the world, dubbed “one of the biggest challenges of the natural world”?
“I like entering contests and I got myself into one here,” Mr. Drum said in a recent interview in Mattituck as he preps for the upcoming adventure.
Did anyone think he was crazy?
“Pretty much everybody in my family,” he said with a laugh. “They know what my capabilities are, my background, my experience. It’s like zilch.”
His spot aboard Visit Seattle, one of 12 yachts sailing in the Clipper Round the World competition, dates back to 2016. He was skimming through newspapers one day at Mattituck-Laurel Library when a full-page advertisement in the New York Daily News caught his eye. It asked readers to describe, in 100 words or less, why they would like to participate in the 32-day race spanning 5,400 miles at sea. The Daily News was sponsoring one winner to participate, costs included.
He filled out the online entry and received an email back a few weeks later saying he was on the short list to be chosen. About a week after that, a Daily News representative conducted a 90-minute phone interview with Mr. Drum, who had retired after 35 years as a fitness director in Norfolk, Va., where he worked with active-duty members of the U.S. Navy.
Mr. Drum has never been one to shy away from adventures. In 2007, he swam from the Shinnecock Canal to Marratooka Point in Mattituck, a swim of approximately seven miles that took more than four hours. He also drove cross-country twice to trade cars with his son in Seattle.
As his interview with the Daily News ended, he offered one last plea: “Pick me! Pick me!”
Mr. Drum’s three adult children, Corey, Lauren and John, all live near Seattle, which he thinks may have helped sway the decision to choose him, since he would have family there to send him off. On Sept. 18, 2016, the Daily News published a story about Mr. Drum. He had just learned that week that he was the winner. “I still can’t believe they selected me,” Mr. Drum was quoted as saying in the story.
The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race was the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world. The organizers supply all 12 identical yachts. The 2017-18 competition, the 11th edition, helps support the children’s charity UNICEF and offers amateurs a chance to sail under the guidance of a professional skipper. The sailors range in age, nationality and experience. Some sail the entire course of the competition — known as “round-trippers” — while many others, like Mr. Drum, sail one of the eight legs.
There are multiple races within the overall competition. The yachts compete to win each of the legs, as well as shorter races that are designed within each leg. Visit Seattle won the leg that ended in China, its second victory, pulling off a “sensational leg after a dramatic twist in the tale of Race 8,” according to Clipper Round the World.
The total cost for Mr. Drum to compete was $22,000, he said, based on the tax forms he had to sign. He’s still required to pay the taxes on any winnings.
In order to be selected, Mr. Drum had to pass a physical and commit to four weeks of training. Last May, he traveled to England for the first two weeks of training and then returned again in July for the second half. They sailed the English Channel and the Solent, the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland England. During that time, he was required to learn everything about the yacht to be able to handle any duty.
“You were in the galley cooking, everybody cleans, engine checks,” he said. “They put you in watches, so you rotate for all the different jobs on the boat.”
They competed in a race across the English Channel to France with all 12 yachts during the training, he said.
He quickly picked up the sailing terminology: the winches, spinnaker sails, Yankee sails.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I was a novice going in. And I feel comfortable now.”
The skipper of Visit Seattle is 24-year-old Nikki Henderson of Britain, the youngest ever to captain a yacht in the competition. She’s sailed more than 38,000 nautical miles, according to her online bio.
“I want to create an extraordinary life-changing experience for every member of my team, to inspire them and to show them why ocean racing is the best thing in the world,” Ms. Henderson said in her bio.
After an event during which each sailor was assigned a ship, Mr. Drum found himself talking to a woman named Shannon Dean, who was also assigned to Visit Seattle. She asked where he was from and he said Long Island. She told him she was from Seattle and then inquired further about where Mr. Drum lived. Never thinking she’d be familiar with a town on Long Island, he said Mattituck.
“She goes, “No! You’re not! I grew up in Mattituck. I went to Mattituck High School,’ ” Mr. Drum said.
Sure enough, Ms. Dean, 54, a registered nurse, grew up in Mattituck before relocating to Seattle about 30 years ago. She has been sailing from the beginning of the competition as an around-the-world sailor.
“I was so shocked to find myself seated next to someone from Mattituck that I didn’t believe him,” Ms. Dean said via Facebook Messenger during the early morning hours in China last week. “I thought he was pulling my leg. I made him get his license out.”
She had flown from Seattle to London in July, completed her final training and prepared for the race launch on Aug. 20. She described the challenging conditions aboard the ship during a brief break before Visit Seattle set sail for Qingdao.
“We get battered. I’m always bruised head to toe,” she said. “We bicker, yet in the course of a day/week/month save each other’s lives, literally, as we dodge the dangers of the boat.”
The danger is real. One yacht, Grenings, ran aground in November near South Africa and could not continue, leaving 11 boats in the competition. No one was injured on board and the crew was evacuated by a rescue boat.
Visit Seattle is scheduled to arrive in Seattle between April 14 and 19. Mr. Drum is set to report April 22 and the next leg begins one week later. Between June 14 and 16, the yachts should arrive in New York Harbor before the final leg across the Atlantic back to England.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge — testing myself in such an extreme environment,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to working with all my shipmates that I’ve trained with so far and can’t wait to get at it.”
Top photo caption: Duffy Drum pictured in Mattituck as he prepares for his adventure that starts next month. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)