Emma Kettle is Team Director Canadian Ocean RacingOne Toronto-based organization that was established in 2022 as a home hub for global competitive offshore sailing. This year, its team begins competing in a double-handed race, and in 2028 its skipper Scott Shawyer will sail the world-famous Wendy’s Gold—a solo race that has been dubbed the Everest of the Seas. Here, Keitel tells us how her career in sports marketing has taken her from the UK to Abu Dhabi to Canada, and what she plans to do next.
I grew up in Exeter, UK and was fortunate to have had a strong education. I got a chance to try many things. For my last two years of high school, I went to an all-boys school. It was traditionally a single-sex school but they opened it up to become co-ed. There were 800 boys and 25 girls in it. And so I got the chance to play rugby and football, sports that were considered “for boys” at the time. This gave me the perspective from a young age that I could actually do whatever I wanted to.
But I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I was more interested in being outside than being in the classroom. It was a very academically focused school, and I was definitely in the bottom percentile in my subjects. I earned my place there when I was good at other things, like sports and Outward Bound-type activities.
One of my challenges was when all my friends were applying to top universities and I didn’t have a clear subject I was good at. I submitted my applications late, and I actually had to pick the night they were going to study for me. I chose agriculture at the University of Reading, which was essentially a business degree. Yes, you’re reading all about plants and animals and agronomy and renewable energy, but also how to run a modern farm, which is based on hard business skills.
After university, a friend of mine was recruiting in London and told me that Coca-Cola was recruiting for their worldwide sports marketing department. I said, “That sounds good, I’ll do that.” I started as an intern and spent three very happy years working on rugby, cricket and tennis sponsorships. I have to go Davis CupAnd it gave me my first taste of international travel.
When my boss at Coca-Cola moved to West London to become CEO of a football team, I joined him. Our offices were below the stadium and I did everything from season-ticket sales to media interviews to briefing players to marketing the big match-day experiences. The team manager wasn’t really interested in marketing or PR so I had to convince him of its value. I learned through that experience how to do people a favor by doing what you need them to do. In his case, it was all about timing – if a match had gone awry or he was nervous about the next match, perhaps this was not the time to ask him for a VIP meet-and-greet.
From there I did a few other jobs, and during that time I got married and had two kids. Then in 2008, my family and I moved to Abu Dhabi when my husband got a job there. At an event I met a guy named Jamie Cunningham who runs a big sports marketing agency, and I was telling him a little bit about my background and he said, “You need to work for me.” I started at a fairly junior position so he could see what I could do. Within a few months, I was running the entire Middle East division for him.
We manage many different sporting events in the Middle East, including some really extraordinary ones like camel marathons across the desert. And at that time the government of Abu Dhabi was considering joining the ocean race. It wanted to promote Abu Dhabi as a maritime nation and compete to take a boat around the world Volvo Ocean Race, I enlisted the help of a team of people to sponsor, and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was born. It was my first experience in professional sailing and I was hooked.
We spent six years in the Middle East and then went back to the UK, where I met Alex Thompson, a famous sailor who has done a solo, round-the-world wendy gold Ran the race five times and finished it twice. I went to see him fly for it in 2016. I have been to many sporting events but this was something I had never seen. Sailors spend more than 80 days at sea alone on these massive 60-foot boats. They leave on a cold, wet day in France and they descend a mile-long canal to get to the sea. And there are actually a million people on each side of that canal seeing off these people. It is like a gladiator going to the arena. When Alex came back I said, ‘I want to work with you.’ So I worked on a partnership for his 2020 race. After that last race, Alex decided that he wanted to work with other sailors to help them repeat what he had achieved. We joined forces with yachtsman Scott Shawyer to form Canada Ocean Racing because we saw great potential in Canada to compete in global racing like other countries. Not only does Canada have this vast coastline, but Canadians are adventurous and passionate.
In 2022 we got our boat and assembled a team of Canadians including boat crew, logistics managers and a naval architect. Finding Canadian offshore sailors was not easy because there weren’t many sailors. I think we had maybe five on our list that could do what we needed them to do, and we employed three of them. Now, we are working on getting the sailors up to speed and optimizing our new boat for performance. This year, we started to go into more serious training for the race, and the team completed our first double-handed race in January, sailing from the Canary Islands to Grenada. Our pair of skippers, Scott Shawyer and Britt Alan Roberts, covered 3,000 miles in just nine days, coming in second in their class.
There is such a wide range of roles on a sailing team: whether you want to be a stern, a designer, an overall builder, work in the PR department… there are many skill sets involved. We want to develop that kind of maritime business base across Canada. I really want to focus on making my industry more accessible. I’ve stood up at school career fairs with a cool picture of a boat telling people I work and go sailing. I think it’s really exciting but I’ve literally seen parents walk their kids away from my booth and encourage them to go into accounting. If we can lift the lid on this industry and show young people a variety of great careers, I think we’ll be able to include more people from all backgrounds. For example, the boat has a very advanced autopilot for the sailor to eat and sleep – it’s all coding and artificial intelligence. There are so many great careers that people can pursue in ocean racing.
Another thing I am working on is involving more women. I’ve worked in several different sports, and they always have separate men’s and women’s programs. Ocean racing is one of the very few sporting events where men and women compete equally. There is no harm in this as you just sail the boat according to your height and strength and it is your skill and experience and your fierce competitive nature that propels you forward. I want to replicate this through the rest of the team as well. We’ve got a lot of women interested in the marketing, finance, administration and PR side of things, but I’d like to be more involved in the technical side of things, like electronics, systems, data analysis and rigging – there are lots of opportunities.
Right now our big goal is to prepare our team to compete in the Vendee Gold Race in 2028. On a personal level, I aim to gradually hand over my work to the new team we’ve built here in Canada. They are what will make Canadian Ocean Racing a success in the long run. After Wendy, I will turn my efforts to building other teams and focusing on the youth development aspect and encouraging more women to get involved. It takes time. With rowing, you have to be very flexible. A lot of it depends on the weather. If we are getting our boat ready to go across the Atlantic, it may leave on Tuesday or it may have to wait until Friday. I’m a doer – I want to do things and I want to do them now. I guess some people on my team would say I’m impatient. But I’ve learned to be flexible and I’ve learned to slow down.