When our editorial team first explored the idea of resurrecting our “Athlete of the Month” feature, I knew what I didn’t want it to be long before I had any idea of what I thought would make for a successful series. What I didn’t want was for it to be a simple profile based on an amalgamation of stats, accolades, and fantasy points. Throughout university, I worked for the athletic department as a communication coordinator. Among the responsibilities was writing up its “Athlete of the Week” feature. It was a straightforward piece that tended to cycle through the most prominent athletes in the market-driven sports (a football quarterback, a basketball point guard, a hockey goalie, then run it back). The most exciting part of the article was probably the $15 Subway gift card we’d give to each athlete we profiled (most of which went unclaimed, which is probably a comment against both the articles and the sandwiches). But to reimagine this series and to do so in January to start a new year, I wanted to feature an athlete – and a sport – that were anything but typical. Fortunately, thanks to a press invitation, I knew just where to turn. So, late last year, I hopped on a freezing offshore racing boat with finance-exec-turned-skipper Scott Shawyer for a glimpse into the greatest race in the world.

Scott Shawyer onboard his new IMOCA Open60 race yacht.
Scott Shawyer onboard his new IMOCA Open60 race yacht (courtesy of Canada Ocean Racing - IG: @canada_ocean_racing).

In 2028, Scott Shawyer will attempt the daunting feat of becoming the first Canadian to ever complete the Vendée Globe. If you’re not familiar with the Vendée Globe, I wouldn’t be shocked. For years, it’s been an enormously popular sailing competition throughout Europe but has yet to really make a splash in North America. The reasons for that might be twofold.

First, there simply hasn’t been enough of a narrative shared about the Vendée Globe to entice North Americans. It strikes me as a sport that’ll have a similar trajectory as Formula 1 racing; the emergence of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series allowed new viewers to connect to the storytelling that is so core to the sport. I spent approximately 20 hours binging Drive to Survive this year. In comparison, it took a one-hour boat ride with Scott Shawyer and his Canada Ocean Racing team to hook me in.

Second, there hasn’t been a Canadian able to find success in the Vendée Globe for fans to champion. I mentioned Shawyer is attempting to become the first Canadian to complete the race, yet he isn’t the first to enter it. Two others have attempted the solo, non-stop sailing race around the world. The most recent entrant was forced to forfeit after being air-rescued mid-race (the Vendée Globe has strict rules against assistance of any kind, regardless of how dire it might be). The first entrant was less fortunate and was lost at sea.

We tend to use a lot of hyperbolic language when it comes to the stakes of sporting events. But when it comes to sailing around the world alone in the most uncontrollable of conditions, there isn’t much room for exaggeration. As I hopped aboard Shawyer’s boat with the crew helping to prepare him for his voyage, I came to realize that every detail, every measurement, every movement can quickly become a life-or-death decision when you’re alone at sea. And yet speaking to Shawyer, it was also apparent that I was speaking to one of the few people on earth – let alone the country – who are equipped for such unpredictability.

Scott Shawyer and mentor Alex Thomson onboard the IMOCA Open60 race yacht.
Scott Shawyer and mentor Alex Thomson onboard the IMOCA Open60 race yacht (courtesy of Canada Ocean Racing - IG: @canada_ocean_racing).

Shawyer speaks with an unwavering calmness as he moves around the boat, answering my questions in detail while explaining how he first became interested in a sailing expedition around the globe.

“I was the Managing Partner of a private equities firm during the pandemic,” he explains. “I had a great opportunity to continue in that realm but, at that time, I just couldn’t do it. I needed a change, especially after being locked down for over a year. [….] I started to follow the Vendée Globe closely during the 2020-2021 circuit. It inspired me to want to get out and start truly living again. My spirits were low from seeing the stagnancy in the world around me and watching these athletes power through and exert true resilience was inspiring.”

It should also be noted that Scott Shawyer was not experiencing the typical burnout some tend to feel from merely checking the boxes and punching the clock year after year. This was an award-winning engineer, a former President of an astronomically-successful solutions company, and one of the highest-performing private equity partners in the country. This wasn’t a man simply looking for an escape. He was looking for the next frontier to conquer.

Canada Ocean Racing's IMOCA Open60 race yacht sails across Toronto's waterfront district.
Canada Ocean Racing's IMOCA Open60 race yacht sails across Toronto's waterfront district (courtesy of Canada Ocean Racing - IG: @canada_ocean_racing).

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“Some people just take up golf,” I joke as he steers the boat along Toronto’s windy waterfront.

But Shawyer’s mission isn’t limited to just completing the race. He wants to grow the culture and business of Canada Ocean Racing by embedding the sport into the very fabric of the country.

As for the daunting task of becoming the first Canadian to potentially complete the Vendée Globe and only the third to attempt it after Gerry Roufs and Derek Hatfield, Shawyer answers with the same understated confidence that I’ve come to expect during our conversation.

“I have an amazing team of people helping me and we’re focused on the details,” says Shawyer. His approach reflects that of a seasoned engineer. If he looks at the mission from too wide of a vantage point, it starts to appear insurmountable. Instead, he breaks things down into chunks. There are technical aspects to learn, navigational instincts to hone, a fitness regimen to maintain, and metrics to be calculated. Inch by inch, his team guides him towards the final result: a solo expedition around the world, racing against the best in the world.

“The entire Canadian Ocean Racing team is so integral in not only my race in 2028 but in paving the way for those who will take on the challenge after me,” says Shawyer. “Without Morgan [Watson], Daniel [Dagenais-Gaw], Ryan [Barkey], Henry [McCann], and of course, Alex [Thomson} – as well as the countless others that are such an important part of what we’re building – none of this would be possible.”

I’ve described Scott Shawyer as conveying “understated confidence.” There’s all-encompassing patience and calmness to everything he does that lends itself to such an intimidating undertaking. But with such a steep learning curve, a certain degree of brashness is also required. That’s where that final name Shawyer mentions – Alex Thomson – comes into play.

Again, for those who aren’t familiar with the Vendée Globe, that name might not mean much, but for fans of ocean racing, Thomson has become something of a legend in the sport. Thankfully, Thomson was present for our boat ride, so I was fortunate enough to experience the mentor-mentee dynamic between him and Shawyer firsthand.

In many ways, Shawyer and Thomson are mirror images of each other. Where Shawyer presents as a man of fewer words, Thomson’s seismic personality could be charted from across an ocean. Within minutes of meeting the team and climbing aboard the boat, I’m greeted with a YouTube video of Thomson diving off the mast of his boat wearing a Hugo Boss suit. Thomson, enlivening the entire crew with a booming British accent and infectious laughter, is shocked I haven’t seen the video before. To be fair, the video had over 5 million views when he first showed it to me, so I suppose I was nearing the minority. It’s the type of justified bravado that has made him one of the most renowned sailors in the sport and what makes him the perfect mentor for Shawyer.

Thomson is something of a living legend in the ocean racing community. His Clipper Race win in 1999 made him the youngest skipper ever to win a round-the-world yacht race, a record that remains intact to this day. He placed second and third in the Vendée Globe in 2012 and 2016 but officially retired in 2020 after rudder damage left both him and his ship “broken.” Today, he’s channelling his overflowing passion into guiding Shawyer towards not only completing his own expedition but creating a foundation for Canadian ocean racing for decades to come.

“I’m looking to build a successful business that thrives long after I’ve raced, so who better to get onboard than someone who has run a very professional organization in this field for over 20 years?” asks Shawyer. “I approached the Alex Thomson Racing team when I was first starting to seriously consider the Vendée Globe. They are what many would consider the most successful, long-running IMOCA team in the world, and Alex’s mentorship will create the foundation for Canada Ocean Racing.”

Where Thomson and Shawyer’s personalities may seem in opposition at first glance, their identities as uninhibited adventurers are the guiding force behind their partnership. At the same time, their differences are just as crucial to the operation. Where Shawyer’s steadiness allows him to learn quickly and work under pressure, Thomson’s boldness and unparalleled experience help flatten the learning curve, something that becomes necessary when preparing for a race that’s quickly approaching.

Whether Canada Ocean Racing will indeed share the same popular trajectory in North America as other European sports remains to be seen. After all, Shawyer’s journey doesn’t even depart for another six years. All I can say is that it deserves to and that adventures like Scott and Alex deserve to be celebrated. What makes Shawyer such an exceptional athlete isn’t determined by the reach of the Vendée Globe but rather by his penchant for adventure, his drive to conquer the next great challenge, and to bring his country along for the journey.

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