Survival of the fittest … and smallest
Posted on 29 April 2009
Written by Dieter Loibner
The goal is to stay alive, rather than finish first, when the world’s tiniest boats race for glory
In a time that juxtaposes a nasty recession with three simultaneously run and heavily hyped ’round-the-world races, it’s easy to overlook the poor man’s Vendée Globe/Volvo Ocean Race.
Known as Around in Ten, it was dreamed up as a low- or no-budget contest for 10-foot boats to race around the planet and break a 22-year-old record. The start was scheduled for Jan. 10 in the Bahamas, but nobody showed. About a half-dozen participants — all amateurs who profess to love long trips on small boats — had fallen by the wayside. Therefore, the AiT will go down in history as a race that never was.
The most professional-looking design, Azzurro, fielded by 70-year-old Dutch cyclist Han van Ardenne, never got off the drawing board because of lack of funds. Other entrants withdrew for other reasons such as fatherhood, family feuds or lack of confidence.
The last guys left standing in this farewell symphony were two Americans: Steve Rinker, a carpenter from Bangor, Maine, and Paul Boucher, a retired nurse and oyster fisherman from Eastport, Fla. With their self-designed, home-built concoctions Floating Bear, Rinker’s kite-powered double-ender with leeboard, and Flying Frog, Boucher’s miniature Chinese junk, they wanted to prove what a few dollars and some old-fashioned ingenuity could do. The way things turned out, we will have to wait a little longer to see an organized race around the world on miniature sailboats.
A Different race
The idea for the AiT was recycled from the Captain Humphries Project, which established an Internet forum to look for sailors who wanted to break the record for the smallest boat to sail around the world. The man to beat is Australian Serge Testa, who accomplished the feat in 1987 on an 11-foot, 10-inch boat. By default, the moderation of the forum fell to Nick Dwyer, a management consultant who has a soft spot for small boats and big voyages.
“When I was about 14, I dreamed of sailing my dinghy around Ireland. I regret that I never did,” he says. “When I stumbled across micro and dinghy cruising on the Internet, I was amazed that there were lots of other people doing what I dreamed of doing.” Dwyer agreed to bring his 38-foot steel ketch across the Atlantic and “sail with the racers as far as it is possible [or] practicable and provide them with any reasonable support.”
Unlike more established bluewater races, the potential AiT participants discussed and established the rules among themselves. Says Dwyer about the conspicuous absence of mandatory safety gear: “The racers have decided that there are no specific safety requirements imposed, [and] that each racer will determine what is appropriate for their design and circumstances.”
This individualism is emblematic of people who do impossible voyages in improbable boats. At its core, this game has always challenged individuals with big dreams and small budgets who will endure pain, thirst, hunger and discomfort to go the distance in vessels that “fit inside a closet and barely pass a drifting turd,” as one observer puts it. It’s not about who’s first or fastest; it’s about who can go smaller. If you beat the odds, you become a hero and write a book. If not, removal from the gene pool is likely. Strange? Stupid? Yeah, but …
Tragedies and triumphs
Not all small-boat journeys are about breaking ephemeral records. The epic ones are about survival — for example, Capt. William Bligh’s 3,600-mile trip in a 23-foot boat after the mutiny on the Bounty, or Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing passage to South Georgia island in the 22-foot, 6-inch James Caird in 1916 to get help for his stranded expedition.
In the 1870s, the solo aspect crept in with Nathaniel H. Bishop, who transited North American waterways in a canoe and later in a duck punt, chronicling his experiences. Around the same time, Capt. William Albert Andrews became obsessed with crossing the Pond. His first attempt came in 1878 with Nautilus, a lateen-rigged 19-footer that he and his brother successfully sailed from Boston to England. As Andrews got older, his boats got smaller. In 1888, he was rescued in the middle of the Atlantic during an ill-fated solo mission. However, in 1892, sponsored by a company that made cleansers, he made it across to the Azores on his 14-footer Sapolio.
Andrews, a gifted writer, vividly described the experience: “No one would think of the latent power that forces the Gulf Stream along until they get there in a small boat and hear and feel the cachunk, swash, ripple-ripple, cachunk, cachunk for hours and sometimes for days.”
Twice more he tried, failed and was rescued. On his last attempt, in 1901, fate finally caught up to him and his boat, Flying Dutchman. Andrews was lost at sea with his new bride, who had accompanied him.
Fast forward to the 1960s when Atlantic crossing in small boats turned into a game of inches. In 1965 it took Robert Manry 78 days to sail 13-foot, 6-inch Tinkerbelle from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England. In 1966 Bill Verity took the 12-footer Nonoalca from Florida to Ireland in 65 days. Two years later, Hugo Vihlen drifted across from Morocco to Miami in April Fool, all of 5 feet, 11 inches.
In 1979, Gerry Spiess took the 10-foot Yankee Girl across the Atlantic in 54 days and later sailed her from California to Australia — and lived to tell the tale. In 1983, Eric Peters crossed the Atlantic with the 5-foot, 8-inch Toniky Nou. In 1992, Tom McNally sailed from Portugal to Puerto Rico in 134 days in Vera Hugh, which measured 5 feet, 4-1/2 inches. Back came Vihlen in 1993 to sail Father’s Day, which was a half-inch shorter, from Newfoundland to the United Kingdom.
However, McNally isn’t done. Now 65, he says on his MySpace blog that he plans to sail his latest vessel, the 3-foot, 10-inch Big C, from Newfoundland to the United Kingdom in May to regain the record and raise funds for cancer research. His previous adventures include several close encounters with Davey Jones, but he is undeterred. “Of course I’m afraid at times — only fools and liars are never afraid,” his blog says. “Dying is about the only absolute certainty in life; I’m just more afraid of not ‘living.’ ”
Last year Frenchman Franck Andreotta, 58, and his 5-foot, 7-inch Stern covered 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to St. Barts in 48 days at a speed of 2.43 knots.
Now to commemorate some of the microyachties who didn’t achieve their goals. In 1968, after two failed attempts, 77-year-old William Willis tried again with his 11-footer Little One. The boat turned up 400 miles east of Ireland but without the skipper, who was presumed lost at sea. In 1975 Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist, wanted to include an Atlantic crossing in a performance called “In Search of the Miraculous.” The attempt turned tragic when his empty boat, Ocean Wave, a Guppy 13, was found off Ireland 10 months later.
Wayne Dickinson had better luck. He was saved by a lighthouse keeper after he and his 8-foot, 11-inch God’s Tear washed up on the Irish coast in a gale. John Riding had crossed the Atlantic in 1973 with the 12-footer Sea Egg, but he was later lost in the Tasman Sea during an attempted circumnavigation. In 1982, American Bill Dunlop crossed the Atlantic in his 9-footer Wind’s Will. Two years later, during an attempted circumnavigation, he was lost between the Cook Islands and Australia. And how about Ashley Colston, the infamous Aussie who crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in his home-built 8-footer G’Day in 1988? He made it, but had to be rescued on the return trip. Eventually, he sailed back to Oz, but his second lease on life didn’t last very long. He’s locked up for life without parole after being convicted of triple murder in 1992.
“An outdoor freak”
Australia’s honor was rescued by current record-holder Testa, who sailed his own design, Acrohc Australis, around the world in four stages between 1984 and 1987. That’s 27,000 miles in an 11-foot, 10-inch aluminum box. “If I really wanted to go cruising, why did I need to have a big boat when I could fit everything necessary into a 12-foot boat?” Testa asks on his Web site (www.acrohc.com).
And that brings us back to the Around in Ten. Steve Rinker and Paul Boucher are cut from the same cloth as Testa, fiercely independent and capable of improvising. Both have sailing experience, a zeal for adventure, and hands that know how to build. And, like Testa, they refuse to be stopped by a lack of funds, as both explained in an interview with Soundings before the proposed AiT start.
“I’m looking forward to spending two years by myself,” says Rinker, who grew up in Ohio but learned to sail on Long Island Sound and Lake Champlain. “I’m an outdoor freak. I spent considerable time in extreme places like in the Sonora Desert and hanging from rock walls in Yosemite, so I’m used to it.”
Floating Bear — his boat that has neither mast, nor keel nor rudder — was inspired by sailing canoes in the Pacific islands and the work of designers like Phil Bolger and Harold Payson. It was conceived to be less than half the weight of the traditional micro keelboats and was to be powered and steered by kite. There’s no need for tacking and jibing because he designed Bear to go forward as fast as backward. Asked about the long upwind passages that might occur around the Cape of Good Hope, Rinker admits that it “wouldn’t be an adventure if everything would be figured out ahead of time.”
Boucher, meanwhile, went heavy. “Flying Frog is like a big bread basket, with enough interior volume to store provisions for a 3,000-mile passage,” he explains. “I use a lot of heavy wood and wires that will hold the boat together if it gets busted up.”
He also planned to use 30-gallon plastic drums that double as storage containers and for buoyancy. “EPIRB and GPS are on the wish list — that’s a sponsor thing,” Boucher says. Besides, it was supposed to be more of a group effort, where the contestants stay in the vicinity of Dwyer’s “mother ship” that was supposed to shepherd them around the globe. The challenge, Boucher says, is to stay alive, rather than to finish first. “Whoever survives is a winner.”
Editor’s note: After finishing and launching Floating Bear, Rinker said the vessel was unfit for a circumnavigation and that he planned to build a more conventional craft to challenge Testa’s record. Boucher was still working on Flying Frog, but a lack of funds had slowed his progress. He hoped to be part of another 10-foot challenge, one that lets participants start whenever and wherever they want.
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
This magazine originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.