Ursula Stroh is dressed in elegant black, working the room. It’s days before her 50th birthday, but that’s not the only reason for the gathering. This is also a going away party/ fundraiser. Candles flicker through the hall, perfectly poised in metal ship candle holders, a detail that hints at the adventure she is about to embark on.
Ursula is taking a one-year leave of absence from work, trading her salary and all the perks that go with it for a spot as a crew member in the Clipper Race, a 12-month yacht race around the world.
Do away with whatever images of luxury your mind conjures up when you hear the word yacht.
For most of the year she’ll be confined in a small space with 20 people she’s never met in the middle of the ocean. With that long at sea, there will surely be storms and unpredictable weather…but Ursula has other concerns.
Twenty sweaty shipmates, all sharing a single toilet, with infrequent showers and no laundry facilities while they’re at sea. Baby wipes and panty-liners will have to suffice.
The price-tag for the adventure is $75,000ish. She’s sold her car, maxed her credit cards, rented out her house, contacted potential sponsors and organised this fundraiser. She plans to give 10 percent of the proceeds to a charity that provides assistance to people with disabilities; in the end the event raises 3013.11 and Ursula donates all of it. Weeks before the start date she’s still $11,000 short and yet to pay the last installment.
“I just hope they don't throw me off the last leg of the race, which is what they are threatening since there is a waiting list…. ” She’s got that mix of stressed-but-I’m-sure-something-will-work-out tone that all relentless optimists seem to share.
The ship is being captained by an experienced professional, and last month Ursula participated in a one month training course run by the Clipper organisation. Apart from that, her prior sailing experience consisted of a weekend course, a five day yacht charter in the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Queensland and a basic training course in Sydney harbour.
Ursula oozes enthusiasm for every activity she participates in, whether that’s riding her mountain bike in a local event, hosting a dinner party with traditional South African fare …or sailing in a round the world race.
She and her husband relocated to Australia from South Africa 12 years ago. Their dollar was worthless, so they started from scratch rebuilding their lives in a small community just south of Sydney. Ursula went on to complete a PhD in change communications and then balance a high pressure gig as brand manager for IBM with university lecturing and volunteer-work mentoring at-risk teenagers—along with everything else.
But regardless of how together she appears, she doesn’t always feel that way. Last year Ursula and her husband of a dozen years separated—she was devastated.
“I grew up in a certain environment with a certain idea of what my life would look like one day… I always wanted to have this busy family, especially children, I always thought I would be a mother one day and it just didn’t work out that way…” she muses.
Ursula had married young and endured seven IVF treatments over three years—and all the physical, emotional and financial stress that went with it. Ultimately the IVF was not successful, and that marriage ended, in part, she thinks, because he really wanted children too.
“I was single for a long time. Then I met my second husband and he had two kids from previous relationships and I thought I could walk into a family and make it mine,” she says of her decision to commit and remarry. “But as life goes it just doesn’t work out so simply.”
When Ursula and her husband moved to Australia, the step children remained in South Africa. Most of the time the kids weren’t with them, and when they were, it was often stressful. She thought seriously about adopting, but her husband wasn’t interested.
When they separated, she was left wondering, ‘what’s next?’
“I just thought I want to do something remarkable with my life,” Ursula says. “Someone once said, you have to love, live and leave a legacy, and I thought I can do two of those but what legacy am I leaving?”
“I was looking for something that would challenge me and help create a big story in my life that I could tell and use somewhere in the future.”
Then she heard about The Clipper Race.
It was an opportunity to get out of her normal environment, do something not a lot of people are either willing to or able to experience, and challenge herself.
“I knew that I was going to have to work in a team which I enjoy, and I think it’s good to put yourself in a situation where you have to really consider other people and work with other people on something… and I would like to develop my management and leadership and team building and mentoring skills,” she explains.
With any situation there are two questions to ask: what is the positive in it and what can I do with it, she says. “I think that’s what I’m doing with my life now, I’m looking at what is the positive in the fact that I don’t have children and my marriage didn’t work out the way that I thought it would…What can I do with this situation?”
“Not a lot of people have that freedom to just go, ‘you know what, I can go and work anywhere, I can do anything, I don’t have to even have an income because I don’t have to look after anybody and I’m not responsible for anybody…” she pauses for a moment.
“There’s a lot of freedom in that, which to me is not something I ever wanted, and it’s something that ironically I found really hard, but I’m going to use it to my benefit now.”
Ursula and the Clipper crew set off on 1 Sept. You can follow her adventures here: http://www.soletraveller.com.au.