She’s Hallucinated. She’s Crashed. But This Hoo Won’t Stop Until She Sails the Atlantic

May 22, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

When you’re alone at sea, even the most educated minds can be tricked.

Ambre Hasson, a 2015 University of Virginia alumna, was somewhere between France and England in March 2022 when the clouds began to speak. Hasson was a novice sailor then, courageously taking part in her first race, the Calvados Cup, which required two crossings of the English Channel.

Her partner in the adventure was sound asleep when conditions turned treacherous in the competition’s 12th hour, leaving a fatigued Hasson to navigate the choppy waters by herself. 

That’s when she heard a series of high-pitched sounds from above and looked up for confirmation.

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“I swear it was Jar Jar Binks from ‘Star Wars,’” she said.

From hallucinations to heartbreak, Hasson has had every reason to end her sailing career and return to her previous life, with a cushy tech job in New York City. Instead, she’s trying, for a second time, to sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean on a 21-foot boat.

“A little fear is healthy,” Hasson said. “Too much fear is detrimental. So, we’re finding the right spot. I enjoy a good challenge.”

From Desk to Sea 

Hasson’s transformation from traditional 9-to-5 employee to an office at sea has links to UVA.

Born in France, Hasson, an instinctual explorer, moved to Charlottesville when she was 10. 

Ambre Hasson at graduation in 2015

At UVA, Hasson, a 2015 alumna, enjoyed the freedom to take a variety of courses, including those outside her economics major. That explorative nature about her still shines today while she’s at sea. (Contributed photo)

While she majored in economics at Virginia, she took a variety of courses outside her required area of study, including art history, computer science and sociology. It’s what she appreciated most about her experience on Grounds – the way a UVA education “doesn’t teach you to stay boxed in your lane,” she said.

Hasson was never just a techie, even though her digital skills were paramount to the two jobs she held in New York for her first five years after graduation. She was also an accomplished athlete, having twice completed the city’s famed marathon and the 2018 New York Triathlon.

The daughter of a scuba diver and granddaughter of a sailor, Hasson seemingly had the genes to excel at an offshore activity. But she never seriously pursued it until she was 27.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Hasson’s active, inquisitive lifestyle couldn’t be satisfied while stuck in a studio apartment for months on end. So she pivoted to the Florida Keys, where she could live with a friend, work remotely, soak up vitamin D under the islands’ cloudless skies and even develop a new hobby.

In June 2020, “There was a chance to volunteer at this sailing school in the Florida Keys,” Hasson said. “I said, ‘Why not? It looks cool.’ Immediately, I fell in love with it. It was an organic feeling … something about it, it opened something inside of me.”

So she chased it. She quit her job in New York and became fully invested in sailing, learning everything from boat maintenance to navigation, until it wasn’t just a hobby anymore. She was so engulfed in its lifestyle that she spent her free time watching the sport. The year she learned how to sail was the year a Vendée Globe race took place, a nonstop solo sail around the world. 

“I had never seen anything like it,” Hasson said. “People would break their boats; it was insane. But it was another seed. I was like, ‘I want to go out as far as possible, away from land, to see what it’s really like out in the ocean.’”

The Crash 

A trade secret that Hasson learned along the way: In case of tough times, have a lucky charm on board.

Veteran sailor Steve Alexander, a mentor to Hasson after the two connected in Florida, has a saying: “There are no atheists in a storm at sea because you are going to ask for any help you can get. It’s the scariest thing on earth.”

The sailboat turns a hard right with the left side high in the air
Four years ago, Hasson knew little about sailing. Now, she’s training to sail the Atlantic Ocean solo. (Photo by Nora Havel)

Boosted by guidance from Alexander and countless others, Hasson set out to make the 2023 Mini Transat. Though not as daunting of a task as the Vendée Globe, the Mini Transat is no pleasure cruise. Competitors must sail – solo – some 4,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean in a small racing boat, beginning in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, stopping in the Canary Islands and ending in Guadeloupe, a Carribbean island southeast of Puerto Rico.

Hasson, over a year, raised the funds to buy her boat, move to France and begin her journey to qualify for the Mini Transat. She even secured her lucky charm – a worn baseball cap from Alexander that was reflective of their time working together in a boatyard.

“It was covered in bottom paint and torn at the front,” Alexander recalled. “But she never took it off.”

“Sometimes you can feel really alone at sea,” Hasson said. “There’s nothing, no ships, you can’t see land – you’re really by yourself. So, the hat, it feels like I have a friend with me out there.”

A portrait of Hasson with her lucky hat on the left and Hasson on her sailboat on the right
Whether she’s wearing it or keeping it by her side, Hasson never sets sail without her frayed, lucky hat. (Left photo contributed; right photo by Nora Havel)

Mini Transat sailors are not permitted to bring cell phones on board. It’s a rudimentary setup with small packs of dehydrated food, a bucket for a toilet and an egg timer for an alarm – “I’m sleeping 15 to 30 minutes at a time,” Hasson said.

Hasson had embraced the discomforts and was nearing completion of her Mini Transat qualifiers – a nine-day, 1,000-nautical-mile sail from France to England to Ireland and back to France – when she crashed.

A breaking wave caught her stern and pushed her out of the channel and into shallower water. Within minutes, the bottom forced her keel through the boat, forcing her to jump overboard. She dragged herself to shore; her wrecked vessel followed later via the Coast Guard.

“I was one turn away from being inside the port,” she said. “And in an instant – after doing nothing but focusing on qualifying for this race for a year – boom, my boat was on the rocks. I was devastated.”

 

 

Hasson walked away with only a torn ligament in her thumb. Her boat, however, was in much worse shape, as the collision had caused a significant hole in the hull. “On the inside, it looked like an aquarium,” she said. “I mean, there were fish swimming inside the boat.”

Washed to sea in the wreck were her clothes, food, tools and nautical charts. It’s what survived, though, that gave Hasson a glimmer of hope moving forward.

“The hat was somehow still in the boat,” she said. “I found it in the corner and I’m like, ‘That’s a sign. That’s a good thing.’”

‘She Won’t Quit’

It’s been less than a year since Hasson’s dreams literally crashed in on her, but you would hardly know it.

She’s back on the water with a new boat and the same goal: to qualify for the next Mini Transat. The biannual race is happening again in 2025. 

“One thing about Ambre,” said Emilie Gobbesso, a fellow sailor and member of Hasson’s race support team, “she’s always positive and confident about things, even when they look bleak. She won’t quit.”

Alexander, 65, said Hasson’s unwavering spirit “reminds me of myself when I was in my 20s. Just full of adventure and desire to get out there and do something crazy.”

 

 

Hasson is documenting her latest quest through her website and social media channels. Accompanying the sponsors tab on her site is a photo of a smiling Hasson. She’s in her element – seated on a boat, relaxed, and wearing a tattered baseball cap.

“Failure is part of success,” she writes. “What’s important is getting back up.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications