Mixed-doublehanded distance racing was supposed to be the next great Olympic discipline. Sailing’s equivalent of the marathon, the International Olympic Committee recently nixed it. This, of course, was bad news for fledgling teams with dreams of Paris 2024. One such squad was that of American sailor Jesse Fielding and Francesca Clapcich, the 33-year-old two-time Olympian and Volvo Ocean Race veteran from Trieste, Italy. In the summer of 2020, Clapcich and Fielding had kick-started a campaign with the backing of a private donor and State Street Bank. Their two-boat Beneteau Figaro 3 training was going full-speed when the Olympic rug got yanked, as did most of their funding. Now what?
Their backers were still keen to support a mixed-gender offshore team, so off to France they went with one last handful of dough to the University of Shorthanded Sailing and a Vendée Globe Ph.D. Over the spring and summer of 2021, with a mixture of doublehanded and singled races on State Street-branded Figaro Beneteau 3s (Fearless for Clapcich, Opportunity for Fielding), they cut their teeth as both teammates and quasi rivals, earning the attention of the elites and future elites of shorthanded sailing.
In two humbling years, Fielding says, they’ve jelled to be a formidable team, intent on changing the perception in sailing that only testosterone-fueled egomaniacs can win races. It’s not about Jesse or Francesca, he says, nor egos and skillsets. It’s now about the common cause of showing what diversity in sailing can be.
Fielding considers their first race together, off the coast of Rhode Island, as a defining marker on their timeline. “We left the dock well-prepared, after only three days of sailing together,” he says. “Francesca was on the helm, and I was supposed to be the head-out-of-the-boat local guy dealing with the sails. At the start, Clapcich checked a few teams head-to-wind and won the pin. We set the kite and were a mile ahead at the first mark, ripping downwind at 18 knots.”
When it came time for Fielding to douse the spinnaker, it wasn’t pretty. Neither was his second attempt. “I tried to do over-the-boom letterboxes, and it didn’t work,” Fielding says. “And I just refused during the race to change my preconceived notions of how I was supposed to do it.”
That was a good ego check, he says, and they both learned from it. “That race focused us on how to get better and to not be disappointed in each other,” Fielding says. “I made my share of mistakes in that race, and we both agree we live and die by the mistakes of the team. After that race, I knew Francesca was someone I wanted to continue on with. We had a good time on a course that most people did not.”
Welcome to sailing’s equivalent of speed dating. Clapcich, with a far better sailing resume than her male counterpart, was also satisfied with how the first date went. Before the race, and before she answered an out-of-the-blue call from the State Street Marathon Sailing Team, she was holed up in Utah with her wife, Sally Barkow, coaching occasionally but pretty much paying the bills and stuck waiting for the next big thing.
“Sally knew Jesse, and she said I should go for it because he’s a super sailor and a very nice guy. It’s what I really wanted to do, to sail offshore. She saw the spark in my eyes, and she knows it’s not easy for women in sailing to find year-round professional sailing opportunities.”
An attraction to the program was definitely the Olympics, she says, but when news came that Paris was off the table, they pivoted to the Figaro scene, the epicenter of singlehanded racing, to race against the best, and next, the Vendée Globe.
Clapcich is driven by goals, she says. It’s all she knows.
“Her sailing resume speaks for itself, but it’s just a piece of paper,” Fielding says. “But from moment number one, we’ve had a great interpersonal connection. She’s an outstanding talent. On the water, on the boat, pulling sheets, driving the boat—I’ve never sailed with anyone with her drive and attitude. We knew early on that it was going to work.”
The French shorthanded racing scene, Fielding adds, is where they’re now showing the dynamic they possess. So far, so good.
“Going into a weather mark the other day,” he says, describing one particular doublehanded race this summer, “with Francesca driving and me on the foredeck, we roll into a jib set and nail it. That’s not something you ever see in Figaro sailing. Afterward, people were actually complimenting us.”
One slick maneuver is impressive, but it’s early days on the trek to Mount Vendée. And while they’re now a pair, at some point, if they get there, only one of them goes. To that end, Fielding accepts Clapcich is the better sailor, and someday he’ll probably be her jumper.
“My number-one goal is to bring no ego to the table,” Fielding says, which does sound strange coming from a big, barrel-chested guy who’s made a living as a sailmaker and professional sailor. “Francesca has become a phenomenal navigator, with strategy, routing, performance analysis, polar building, the electronics and networking—there’s so much that goes into it, and she is light-years ahead of me because she’s put the work into it.”
Her dream, she says, is to push herself hard around the world, “not just go for a ride.” But she’s realistic that Vendée campaigns are big money, and there are a lot of other teams out there asking for it. “Our skills are on the table,” she says. “I believe in working hard, and your skills are the best welcome card. You can sell a dream, but in the end, it’s about showing how hard you work and what you can bring.”
In August, they will face the ultimate test for each of them: La Solitaire du Figaro, a grueling monthlong, multileg singlehanded race around France. It’s the equivalent of doing a 700-mile offshore race every weekend for a month. There will be 34 skippers, 12 of them “rookies,” including Clapcich and Fielding, who says no American team has ever done the event with two US-flagged boats. “In the history books, this will go down as the first of something—and that has value to it,” he says.
Two working as one. That is the point.