Essex resident Hannah Stodel is a four times Paralympic sailor, three times World Champion, who plans to enter the Vendee Globe in 2024. We found out more
When did you first take up sailing?
I was very lucky to be born in Brightlingsea and living there throughout my early years surrounded by the water. Both of my parents were accomplished sailors and members of Brightlingsea Sailing Club. Mum narrowly missed out on selection to the 1988 Olympic Games in Korea, and dad raced at world level, too. It all started with my parents really, I grew up with them racing so sailing was a family hobby. I started competing from a young age and at 13 I became the youngest ever winner of the BT YJA Young Sailor of the Year award for my achievements at the Mirror World Championships.Luckily, I went toRoyal Hospital School (royalhospitalschool.org) on the Essex/Suffolk border next to Alton Water. It was the dream school for me because sailing is part of the sporting offering there, I could do what I loved and go to school at the same time. Luckily, they were super understanding and supportive of my ambitions to race at a very high level and allowed me to incorporate taking time off for racing internationally with my studies.
Growing up around the Essex coast, what beaches did you enjoy most?
I love going back to Brightlingsea and dog walking around the beaches there. Bateman’s Tower and Point Clear are iconic spots there. Also, Mersea Island is absolutely great for an adventure – it’s not far from where I live in Colchester now so I often throw the dogs in the car and set off for long walks around there. Apart from when I attended Loughborough University in the Midlands, Colchester is the furthest I’ve lived away from the coast!
How did you first get a chance to compete at the Paralympics?
I have a momager who is very supportive and always on the lookout for various opportunities! At the age of 15 I was on the able-bodied racing circuit and I didn’t consider disability sport as an option. Then I got invited to train with Andy Cassell, the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Gold medallist in the Sonar class, for a weekend in Cowes, Isle of Wight. That changed everything and put me on the path to Paralympic sailing.
How would you sum up the experiences of competing at the Paralympics in 2004 and 2008?
I was very young at my first Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 (aged 18) and found it quite overwhelming, but an amazing experience. My nerves were not too bad – I think I didn’t fully take it all in that I was actually at the Olympic Games. I’d had a lot of experience at World Championships too that I took confidence from.
Tell us about the Vendée Globe…
It is an extraordinary race around the world, solo, non-stop and without assistance, so certainly quite a challenge! It’s a battle to get to the start line thanks to the pandemic and the times we’re living in at the moment. Getting sponsorship is challenging, but I’m not going to give up on my dream of becoming the first disabled sailor to compete in the Vendée Globe.I’m going to keep pushing forward and doing my best to make it happen in 2024.
How are preparations for that going?
I always do plenty of physical training, but being a solo race, mental strength is also key and is something which was instilled in me at the Royal Hospital School. The more solo sailing I do the more I realise how strong and resilient I am and, surprisingly, how much I enjoy my own company. This type of sailing suits my personality and I love it. There are still moments when I can hardly believe what I’m doing but I thrive off a challenge.
When you head off on the around the world trip, what will you miss most about home?
I love where I live and will miss the area and my friends and family, and my dogs. There is just something so comforting about Essex, there is so much of everything – the sea, the woods, I can get out on my bike and train in the countryside, it’s just such a comfortable place to live.
Have there been any outdoor spots that have been a godsend during the various lockdowns?
Absolutely, I’ve felt immensely grateful to have plenty of beautiful woodland and local beaches nearby. Fingrinhoe Wick nature reserve is a favourite, as well as Mersea Island’s Cudmore Grove country park.
Can you pick out three local haunts you can’t get enough of?
The Company Shed in West Mersea is an amazing seafood restaurant and firm favourite. One of my favourite local shops has to be Fenwick in Colchester’s high street. I have fond memories of feeling very fancy browsing in there as a youngster when it was called Williams & Griffin! The Peldon Rose is a lovely pub restaurant, and a great place to enjoy, particularly if you need to wait for the Strood to not be flooded at high tide when going to Mersea Island.
Do you have a local secret or any interesting stories about where you live that you are willing to reveal?
Some Colchester locals are surprised to learn that there’s a little ferry that takes you from Brightlingsea to Mersea Island. When you don’t have access to a private boat, it’s a lovely thing to do on a sunny day.