OAKLAND -- Knowing early on that life is short, Stephanie Evans quickly discovered that following her passion is the key to finding purpose.
Evans was only 18 when her dad, Tony, suddenly died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 55. An avid dinghy sailor who had also done some offshore racing, he had instilled in her a love of the sport.
"We were very close and very similar. He was the rock of the family," Evans said.
Evans, 29, of Oakland, will honor him by competing in the 10th leg of the Clipper Round the World yacht race from Qingdao, China, to San Francisco on March 16 aboard the 70-foot cutter sloop GREAT Britain. She received a free trip after being selected to crew during a competition last summer.
"Stephanie had such a positive attitude from the outset, and the will to carry on her dad's legacy was such a strong factor in her wanting to compete in the hardest leg. We could see she had the mindset and resolve," Race Director Justin Taylor said. The grueling journey is roughly 5,800 nautical miles, taking about 23 days to complete. The all-British crew will compete against 11 other boats at speeds up to 30 knots in the treacherous North Pacific, known for huge seas and hurricane-force winds.
"It's been a nice way to honor his memory. Getting to do this big ocean race is something that would really make him proud," Evans said.
The 16-leg race begins and ends in London. It was founded in 1995 by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1968 became the first man to sail solo nonstop around the world.
"I know her father was an acclaimed sailor, and the race will be very meaningful for her, so it is a pleasure for her to be part of our journey and become part of the team," Skipper Simon Talbot said.
Evans was born in South Africa and lived in England for four years before moving to Wisconsin. She moved to the Bay Area to become a teacher supervisor for a reading company in Novato, a job she was very passionate about, but lost the job in 2009, leaving her feeling adrift.
In 2010, she became a U.S. citizen and began working as an acquisitions editor at McGraw-Hill but still felt like she needed something more. A longtime dinghy sailor like her dad, Evans began sailing with the Cal Sailing Club in 2011 and became commodore in 2013.
"When I started sailing again, it gave me a new meaning, purpose and direction in life," Evans said.
A tall, solid woman with a big smile and gregarious personality, Evans exudes confidence and seems a natural for the role in a traditionally male-dominated sport.
"A lot of my confidence actually comes from my mom -- she's always been a go-getter," she said. "She's been so encouraging."
Evans knows it will be difficult being cold, wet and miserable for days and realizes she could injure herself performing such daunting tasks as foredeck sail changes in crashing seas.
"The reason I started to do it was to get out of my comfort zone and do something that would scare the heck out of me," Evans said. "It's constant humility. There's nothing else in this world I'd rather do than sail."
Last summer, Evans trained with the GREAT Britain crew of 20 out of the Gosport Marina, in southern England, for three weeks, and spent time sailing in the English Channel.
"You learn to love and rely on your crewmates. But it's not all sunshine and puppies. Of course you drive each other nuts," Evans laughs. "Living on a boat is a total pain in the butt. But it's all worth it when you're out there sailing."
The Clipper 70s are stripped down for weight and feature twin helms, twin rudders, a 6-foot bowsprit and a 95-foot mast. Evans was told she'll get a chance to helm the sleek racing machine.
"The boat is incredible. Getting to drive that thing was amazing," Evans said.
With a watch schedule of four hours on, four off, then six on and six off, sleep deprivation and fatigue is also a concern as crewmates work above.
"It sounds like there's an elephant parade on top of your head," Evans said. "It's hard to be patient with people and patient with yourself."
Evans was excited as she departed for China on Thursday; team GREAT Britain was in first place about four days out from Qingdao and fourth place in the overall standings. She's really looking forward to being on the open ocean, testing her limits as sea and sky blend endlessly for weeks.
"It's like being part of something much bigger than you are, and you feel both tiny and enormous at the same time," she said.