The St. Helena is the flagship of the Extreme E racing series. Continuing from Season 2, the the series’ ‘floating centerpiece’ acts as their mobile storage unit, accommodation and hub for the race weekends. Captain Nick Sunderland shares a little insight into how it’s all managed.
Nick Sunderland has travelled a lot of the world. Born in the primarily agricultural county of Lincolnshire, the man who would later become captain of the St. Helena, first took to the sea from an early age.
“I always loved sailing and spent a lot of time on the water, so it was something that happened naturally in my life,” Sunderland recalls, “I started sailing yachts when I was still very young. I was finishing up my degree and decided to go into the Merchant Navy’s cadet program.”
By the age of 29, Sunderland became Staff Captain on Cruise Ships and soon became a Captain at 31. In the years that followed, he traveled the globe: “I’ve been on the go for over 20 years, so I’ve seen most places at least once,” he explains.
A little more than two years ago, however, the cruise Captain was looking for a new challenge – and found it with Extreme E.
“When I heard about the St. Helena and what they were planning for the Extreme E racing series, I was hooked. Since my passion has always been motorsports and racing cars. For me, this was the next challenge in my life.”
Sunderland started this new adventure in October 2020, before the St. Helena was the ship she is today. The St. Helena transports all the materials, cars, scientific equipment and more to the races for Extreme E. It also acts as on-site accommodation for those involved.
But before that was possible, there was a lot of work that had to be done first. The ship was completely overhauled after many, many voyages at sea, having made its maiden voyage back in 1989.
“There were some rust spots to replace. There was a lot of new steel installed; it was essentially made as good as new,” Sunderland notes. The conversion wasn’t just cosmetic in nature, however.
Extreme E has taken up the cause of sustainability, and this ethos has been applied to the St. Helena as well. Nearly everything was changed, including the engines, and replaced with sustainable alternatives. The St. Helena now runs on “low sulfur marine diesel” – a fuel Sunderland calls “champagne”.
In the run-up to the races, Sunderland and his team plan the route in detail, to ensure as little fuel is used as possible. “We take the shortest, but also safest routes,” says Sunderland: “Sustainability for me also means leaving the area better than how we found it.” That’s where the scientific work as well as legacy programmes on the part of Extreme E also play a role.
To prepare the St. Helena for these challenges, a whole lot of adjustments were made. The result was a ship designed to meet all the demands made of it by Extreme E: “The St. Helena is something special. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sunderland says.
The captain describes the St. Helena as a “three-ship platform” – a vessel that bundles three different ships into one.
“When she has cargo on board – cars, containers and so on – she is a cargo ship. But she’s also a certified passenger ship,” Sunderland says, “Once the cargo has been unloaded, we’re a cruise ship. With up to 200 guests and events.” With fewer people, on the other hand, the St. Helena has more of a “superyacht feeling,” the captain explains.
For the crew, this means a lot of variety, but it also requires flexibility. The St. Helena usually arrives at the destination around 2 weeks before the race. Unloading must then be carried out as quickly as possible, which – given the special cargo – is no easy task. This includes the ODYSSEY 21 race car, along with everything else that the race needs to operate on the ground.
After unloading, the “hotel crew” gets to work immediately. They transform the cargo ship into a relaxing retreat for everyone involved.
“This is a very quick change for the hotel department. All the passenger cabins are prepared, the laundry is properly washed, the towels – everything is cleaned,” Sunderland says. “The engineers take care of the air-conditioning and the water systems. That’s a big challenge if you want to be sustainable – and this is what we have set out to do.”
The whole thing requires a “huge team effort,” Sunderland says, although they are not exactly a large team.
“We don’t have a 1,000-man crew; at the moment we’re more like 38. At most, we could have up to 49. But 44/45 is the norm, we do it all with that. Sometimes there are more, sometimes fewer.”
These people are the ones on the ground who make sure that everything runs smoothly. You only get a limited view of the exciting destinations. Shore leave is used to go shopping, or to get a haircut.
“It’s a very, very busy time,” Captain Sunderland explains: “The race is happening, we’re putting on events, taking care of the food. The events don’t end early, so it’s a very busy time for everyone. But we love it, that’s our job, that’s what we do.”
There are only a limited number of real breaks, if any, between races. But there’s work being done then, too.
“When we have downtime, it’s a good time to maintain the ship and keep it in shape,” explains Sunderland: “We do a lot of training and ensure standards are maintained. This way, we are always one step ahead on the race weekends. It’s a full-time job, and there’s never a dull day on the St. Helena.”
And Extreme E itself doesn’t get boring either. The doubleheader race in Sardinia will take place at the beginning of July. A look at the current racing action can be found here