The Big Interview: Conrad Humphreys

Yachtsman Conrad Humphreys who featured in Channel 4’s Mutiny discusses his personal relationship with and commitment to sailing.

On board the 23-foot wooden vessel, three-quarters of a mile off the coast of Plymouth Hoe, Conrad Humphreys points to a patch of calm water on the starboard side. It looks like a rectangle of smooth glass blown into the ruffled surface of the sea.

“Imagine the opposite scenario where there is no wind,” he says. “The whole ocean looks smooth but you can see these little rough patches around you. That is where the wind is; there is always something to aim for, you just have to move towards it.”

From his earliest days at the Exe Sailing Club, competing in cadet class dinghies, Conrad has been moving towards new frontiers and challenges. Three times around the world he’s gone, the most decorated yachtsman ever to come out of the University of Plymouth, competing in some of the world’s most celebrated open ocean races and discovering the limits of his endurance.

<p>Conrad Humphreys</p>
<p>Conrad Humphreys on Bounty's End</p>
<p>Conrad Humphreys</p>

But it was his most recent venture, a gruelling 4,000-mile voyage from Tonga to Timor in the tiny open-keeled boat in which we’re sitting, that has Conrad reflecting upon the need to take destiny into your own hands. An historic recreation of the journey of Captain William Bligh, filmed for the Channel 4 programme Mutiny, it pushed the crew well beyond the point of corporate health and safety, particularly when they were marooned in the Pacific Ocean doldrums for 72 hours, morale and energy ebbing away by the minute.

“It was pretty frustrating - we were less than 200 miles from Timor and becalmed,” he recalls. “It was predictable that we would eventually run out of water because we were stuck in that high pressure. We needed to be proactive to get out of it. Rowing was an option, but the guys were very weak and dehydrated. I would have dealt with things differently in that situation. On a couple of nights I rowed on my own to show it could be done.”

Conrad was the professional skipper for the 60-day voyage, under the captaincy of Special Forces veteran Ant Middleton, and ultimately responsible for the safe navigation of his eight crew members. Surviving on a basic diet of 400 calories per day and a small amount of rum – replicating the near-starvation conditions that confronted Bligh and his men in the 18th century – the team had nothing but traditional instruments and equipment to see them through the voyage, which included one extremely perilous threading of the Great Barrier Reef. It was a scenario that required Conrad to draw upon every ounce of experience he’d accrued from some of his epic voyages in the past, such as the Vendée Globe and the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race.

“It was in many respects an audacious and reckless trip,” he muses.

“Bligh’s men were left for dead and no-one expected them to survive. Most of his crew died within weeks of arriving in Timor. But on the other hand, the beauty of being on the ocean is that your world revolves around things directly in your control and your influence. Your routine is about structure and discipline and keeping on top of repairs and looking after yourself. It’s rare that you feel out of control. In day-to-day life there are so many external circumstances that can create uncertainty. I think when you become one with a boat you know instinctively what to do. With this particular boat, there is so little to go wrong. We have oars, we have sails, we can drop an anchor, catch fish; we can survive out here with very little.”

Hewn and carved from oak and chestnut, and now etched with memories, the vessel was bought by Conrad once filming had finished, and has been accompanying him on a number of public speaking events, including the Marine Institute’s annual spring public lecture at the University, and the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall. And the lessons learned, and the historical perspective gained, have become a key part of his corporate consultancy, such as the recent work he’s doing with Airbus, helping them move towards a matrix style of working, where trust and shared leadership are key.

“A lot has been made of Shackleton and his leadership, but Bligh less so,” Conrad says. “One of the opportunities for getting involved with Mutiny was to be able to re-create and re-tell the story from a fresh perspective. For a corporate audience, the story is amazing and Bligh showed some remarkable qualities as a leader. It’s fascinating to have lived his story and to be able to share it with business.”

But let’s leave Bligh’s story for now. Born in Exeter in 1973, Conrad Humphreys grew up in Exmouth just yards from the sea, and divided his time according to the seasons: autumn and winter on the rugby pitch; spring and summer on the water. Despite there being no sailing background in his family, Conrad joined the Exe Sailing Club around the age of nine, and was soon racing four days per week.

“I found my own space,” he recalls. “My mum had her hands full with my two older brothers, who were often in and out of trouble with the police, so I was left to my own devices. And then she saw that I had some talent and did everything she could to support me, driving me to some of the events in an old VW Beetle, given to her by a friend.

 

"For the first national championships I entered, we sent the boat up by Interlink (post) while we travelled on the train. Other parents called us the 'cadet gypsies' in an era when the norm was a fancy Volvo Estate. Halfway through the championship, we were leading which caused a stir.”

It was an era when the Exe Sailing Club had a veritable dynasty of national and world champions, and Conrad’s achievements winning the Junior Cadet World Championships in the Netherlands in 1989, and finishing 6th at the Cadet World Championships title the following year, brought him to the attention of some of the teams campaigning to reach the start line of the 1993-4 edition of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race (now called the Volvo Ocean Race). Conrad was invited to join what was destined to be the youngest team ever to enter, and he spent the next three years racing and fundraising with them, which included winning the Fastnet Race outright in 1991, in itself a remarkable achievement. But by the time Conrad made it to the start line, it was with a different team, a Ukrainian outfit in a Russian-built boat. 

“It was an amazing thing,” he remembers. “I was 19 when I flew out to Uruguay on a one-way ticket to join this Ukrainian team that had come out of the remnants of the former USSR. Imagine that time: Ukraine gets independence; its economy collapses; bread queues; the currency was worthless; and they had this half-finished boat that they managed to get to the start line and we didn’t even know if we would finish the race. It was a huge adventure, and that was the catalyst to an ocean-racing career and gave me the wherewithal to really want to explore the Southern Ocean.”

Conrad enrolled on the BSc (Hons) Navigation and Hydrography degree at Plymouth, transferring to BSc (Hons) Navigation and Ocean Science within two weeks of starting. And while the science aspect was by his own admission a struggle, university life was anything but.

“In the first lecture I realised pretty much everyone was a windsurfer,” he says. “We had both mature and young students; it was a real crazy bunch. By the third week in, we were all meeting up in places like Bigbury. It was an absolutely brilliant time, and some of my closest friends now were all on that degree.”

It comes as little surprise that Conrad took every opportunity to sail in the Ocean City, and he quickly set about putting a team together that was capable of competing at the highest level. It culminated in a campaign to reach the world championships of 1996, one in which they would ultimately finish a supremely creditable second place.

“It was at this time that I realised I had a skill at raising funds,” he remembers. “I managed to raise £14,000 from seven or eight different sponsors, which was everything we needed. At the end of the project, I went back and gave them each signed prints – I took a very commercial approach, even agreeing contracts. Some of those relationships I formed are still strong now.”

After graduating, Conrad went to work for the University of Alicante, running their water sports programme, but he has never lost his connection to Plymouth and its University. He worked with experts here to develop his strength, conditioning and nutrition during his racing career; he’s partnered on joint initiatives, such as the Blue Project (which incorporated the Blue Mile), and Sea Portraits; and for a short period of time he even guested as a lecturer in meteorology.

“It has always meant a great deal to me to be able to return to the University and talk about my latest project or programme,” he says.

<p>Conrad Humphreys</p>
<p>

Conrad Humphreys

<br></p>

Conrad’s second circumnavigation of the globe came in the 2000-2001 edition of the Sir Chay Blyth BT Global Challenge. Having applied for a place as a race skipper, he underwent a year-long selection programme that whittled down an initial 180 applicants to a shortlist of 19. A week at one of the UK’s top management training organisations followed, where they were trained and tested on their leadership, motivation and conflict management skills, and at the end, Conrad had earned his place as one of just 12 skippers in the race.

His squad of 30 crew volunteers ranged from an 18-year-old student to a 60-year-old company director, and Conrad had five weeks to train and select a team that could sail the 72-foot steel yacht – identical to that of all of the competitors – 30,000 miles around the globe, against the prevailing currents and winds. 

They dominated the race from start to finish, winning four out of seven legs with a further two podium finishes. At the age of just 28, Conrad had become the youngest skipper to win the race – and they set a new record from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope for good measure.

“The BT Global Challenge was the opportunity to put everything I had learned so far into building a winning team, and I came away from it having gained so much insight into people and the lengths that they would go to given a sense of self belief,” he says. “It was the most enjoyable race of my career.”

If that was his most enjoyable, his hardest came in 2004-2005, in the legendary, infamous Vendée Globe. Four years after Ellen MacArthur became a British icon with her second-placed finish, Conrad wrote himself his own special chapter in the event with one of the most remarkable comebacks in its history.

He’d been sitting in seventh place out of 20 when his vessel, HELLOMOTO hit a submerged object in the Southern Ocean, damaging the rudder. No one had ever successfully changed a rudder and gone on to finish, but when Conrad anchored off the coast of Cape Town, he set about changing that, repeatedly diving under the boat while the global sailing media looked on.

“The Vendée was really about testing my own personal resolve,” he says. “It’s difficult to describe just how emotionally hard it is. There is nothing else that compares to it, not just in getting to the start line, the fundraising and the personal sacrifice, but actually the danger, the challenge of being out there, the isolation. It’s the personal Everest.”

By the time he’d finished the repairs, Conrad was dead last, some 4,000 miles behind the leaders, and with the fearsome Southern Ocean ahead with its ‘roaring forties’. But it was Conrad who came out roaring, reeling in the tail-enders, and by Christmas he was back inside the top ten. Rounding Cape Horn in ninth place, Conrad had closed the distance to the leaders to just 2000 miles.

With fatigue and mishap taking its toll on the field, Conrad again suffered a setback when, with over 6,000 miles to go, the hydraulic rams that controlled HELLOMOTO’s three-tonne keel failed. Securing the keel as best he could, Conrad pressed on, sleeping with his emergency grab bag on account of the dangerous instability of the vessel. But after 104 days he crossed the line in a remarkable seventh place, just the fifth Brit in the history of the race to do so – and to a hero’s welcome.

“It took a long time to recover from the Vendée but it left me with a feeling of immense personal satisfaction at having completed it,” he smiles. “I felt very relaxed and calm, like I had put a lot of things to bed in many ways. The personal discovery was the realisation that there was nothing in a sport that I could not do.”

When the programme-makers first approached Conrad about the possibility of doing Mutiny, they asked him if it would be possible to re-capture that spirit of Captain Bligh and his 19 men. As anyone who tuned in to the five-part programme on Channel 4 in the spring will attest, they achieved it. In a replica boat, the team of amateurs (and Conrad) endured extreme exposure, dehydration and hunger in pursuit of the spectre of Captain William Bligh. Two of the crew had to be taken off the boat with injury and depression, and Conrad said that prolonged bouts of torrential rain and scorching heat left him genuinely fearful for the health of all of the participants. With the film makers’ mother ship monitoring progress from three miles away, they were in the most meaningful sense utterly alone, a speck on the horizon. 

“We were exposed to the elements for 60 days and that took its toll on everyone,” he says. “The combination of lack of food, water and exposure were the hardest elements. I'm pretty resilient, but after weeks of suffering we were all on the bones of our backsides by the end. What surprised me most was the distance that you can cover in such a small open boat. History is littered with survival stories of people spending long periods adrift at sea, but we sailed the equivalent distance from the UK to Brazil in a boat that the MCA coded for being no more than three miles from a safe haven and in daylight only! When we arrived in Timor, the relief for the guys was enormous and tears rolled down everyone’s cheeks. I remember looking back at this little wooden boat thinking ‘bloody hell – she’s only gone and got us here!’.”

As the interview draws to a close, a thick fog suddenly descends and envelops us in almost surreal fashion, and for a moment, just a moment, you can sense that Conrad has changed gears, heightening his senses to pinpoint our position. After an eerie few minutes, the breakwater darkens out of the grey and we’re heading towards safe harbour.

“The most remarkable thing about this boat is the fact that it could withstand pretty much all that nature could throw at it,” he finishes. “There are people in life that are nervous about venturing beyond the breakwater in boats that are much better equipped than this. It just goes to show that if we are prepared to throw off the lines and leave the safety of the harbour we can achieve so much.”