Meet the female skipper sailing Greta Thunberg to the UN climate summit in Madrid

Evening Standard Lifestyle 2 weeks ago

When Nikki Henderson referred to her family on her Facebook blog-post this week, she wasn’t speaking of her parents and three brothers at home. In fact, the British professional yachtswoman was referring to a different crew of five: her “motley family” on board a catamaran travelling 3,200 miles across the Atlantic — Australian YouTubers Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu, their 11-month-old son Lennon, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg and her father Svante. 

Henderson, 26, and her shipmates are eight days into a voyage that takes up to four weeks after offering to help sail the Thunbergs from America to the UN climate summit in Madrid. The campaigner, 16, was forced to put out an urgent appeal for a zero-carbon lift to the conference after protests meant the location was moved from Chile to Spain with only a few weeks to go.

In the end, vloggers Whitelum and Carausu, who’ve been sailing around the world for three years, came to Thunberg’s rescue, offering her a lift on their 48ft catamaran La Vagabonde. Henderson, who became the youngest skipper to complete a round-the-world race last year, got the call-up the next day to be skipper. They departed from Hampton, Virginia, five days later.   

“There was a lot of emotion and anticipation around the departure,” Henderson tells me over satellite phone as she tucks into breakfast somewhere north of Bermuda. Lenny sits next to her, strapped to the table in his baby seat. “The sound of a baby is a first for me at sea,” she laughs. “I wonder if he’ll remember anything.”  

Conditions are calm, but the journey up to now has been far from it — driving rain, snow, and 40-knot gusts have left Henderson and her shipmates feeling like they’re living in a “washing machine”. Three of the crew suffered seasickness. The respite has made way for more “family time”. Thunberg has taught her crewmates to play Yahtzee; her father Svante cooked a curry; and Henderson showed Thunberg and her father how to plot their position. 

There have been deeper conversations, too. The previous evening they discussed “the power of love versus fear in encouraging people to act”, and whether or not it’s too late to save the planet. 

Henderson, whose mother is the former Tory minister Anne Milton, wishes she’d had young female role models like Thunberg when she was growing up. “I am one to champion how powerful and strong young people are, but she has a huge responsibility on her shoulders,” says Henderson, who’s been sailing since the age of 11. “She is clearly driven by it and empowered by it, but still it must be heavy.” 

Henderson hopes to reach Madrid in the next three weeks and head to the UK for Christmas “in the most sustainable way” she can. “It might be a bit cold for cycling,” she adds.  

Will she stay in touch with Thunberg? “I very much hope to,” she says. “And of course, if I can, I’ll definitely put my hat in the ring if Greta needs another floating ride. She is changing the world. To be part of that is an honour.” 

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