San Mateo man's first sailing race taking him around the world

Ralf Nielsen had always wanted to sail around the world, he just didn’t expect to do it as part of a race.

Yet when he came across the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race at a boat show in Oakland last year, the San Mateo resident decided it was time to stop making excuses and get to sailing.

The task is made much more daunting by the fact that the race began two days after Nielsen’s 70th birthday, or that he owns Copenhagen Bakery, a busy spot in Burlingame.

“I’ve sailed for a long time, since my 20s,” Nielsen told The San Francisco Examiner while making port in San Francisco for a few days before starting the next leg Saturday. “But I’ve never raced before, so racing was a new experience for me — the time pressure. Sometimes I thought, ‘can somebody come with a helicopter and get me off this boat?’ As time went on it got easier and you got more used to it and it’s been great.”

The race got off to a rocky start in London, when the boats were late arriving for the Sept. 1 start, and has taken Nielsen through six legs, including stops in France, Brazil and China already.

The crew encountered two hurricanes while sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia, in December. One of the storms sent Nielsen for a spill on the boat, and he feared that an injury to his back would take him out of the race.

The doctors cleared him, however, and this brief time at home with his wife, daughter and grandson has given him a boost to finish the last two legs, which will take him to Jamaica and New York before returning to Europe.

“It’s kind of strange to come home and then I’m going to leave again,” he said. “I was down at my business and I walked in and customers were cheering, and my employees, so it was great to see. It was wonderful.”

The race, which includes 12 teams that include a total of 670 crew members, is expected to finish in July after completing visits to 16 ports.

Nielsen said the nature of the race has meant he hasn’t been able to do as much sight-seeing as he would have liked The Swiss team he has been a part of currently sits in second place in the race — which awards points based on where teams finish each leg — so it would be difficult to ask them to slow down now.

The race kicks off again Saturday as teams set sail from the South Beach Yacht Club. They are expected to arrive in Jamaica around May 10.

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