Disappointed, yes, but in no way defeated

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It was Dec. 26, 2013, Boxing Day, and the position was 32 degrees, 55 minutes south and 80 degrees, 17 minutes east. That’s a nowhere spot in the Southern Indian Ocean, far from anything or anyone. Australia was 1,800 miles astern, South Africa 2,800 miles farther west. A cyclone had moved out of the area, and seas were getting calmer, yet it was then and there that Glenn Wakefield’s dream came unraveled, strand by cruel strand.

Heading west: Glenn Wakefield in the Strait of Juan de Fuca after the start of his solo, non-stiop circumnavigation in Victoria, British Columbia.

He was 116 days into a circumnavigation that had gone very well since its start in Victoria, British Columbia, Sept. 2. Inspired by the likes of Robin Knox Johnston, Chay Blyth and Francis Chichester, Wakefield was sailing around the Big Blue Pumpkin alone, non-stop and westabout, against prevailing winds and currents. It does not get any harder than this. Or crazier.

Wakefield, 64, sailed West Wind II, a 42-foot 1970 Chris-Craft Comanche, a Sparkman & Stephens design. He bought her in Mystic, Conn., in 2010 and meticulously refitted her for the trip. He left nothing to chance on his second attempt, after the first one, in 2007-08, ended in a storm near the Falkland Islands that cost him his boat and easily could have cost him his life.

If he succeeded now, he’d join Frenchman Jean-Luc van den Heede, who owns the westabout non-stop record at 122 days; Dee Caffari, of the U.K., the first woman to accomplish it, in 2005; the German Wilfried Erdmann, Wakefield’s hero, who did it in 2001 on a modest 35-foot boat; and his buddy Tony Gooch, the first to complete such a trip with start and finish on the Canadian west coast. But fate had other plans.

“I noticed that one of the wire strands had separated from the swaging, commonly known as rigging failure,” he blogged after he’d taken the protective tape off the turnbuckles for a routine inspection. “I was very taken aback and quickly removed the rest of the tape and inspected the remaining five shrouds. To my horror, I found one more wire strand had broken loose, this time on the port forward shroud.”

A former logger, Wakefield knew wire trouble when he saw it. “As soon as the first strand broke on the choker, everybody knew that was the end,” he says. “I sized it up quickly: I needed new shrouds.”

Merry friggin’ Christmas, Glenn.

It was a low blow to someone who crosses oceans the way you and I cross the street. In 1997, he single-handed Sannu II, a 26-foot pocket cruiser, 5,000 miles from Victoria to the Marquesas, where he picked up his wife, MaryLou, and their two daughters to continue to New Zealand as if he were going for a cruise in the Gulf Islands back home.

A tough choice

To secure West Wind’s rig, he scaled the mast, slung a pair of old sheets over the spreaders with a trucker’s hitch, and tied them off to both sides. Now the mainsail could only be hoisted partway, but so what? He was sailing. If he continued to South Africa he could pull into Cape Town or Durban to make repairs — to hell with the non-stop claim. He’d risk tangling with cyclones and the Agulhas Current, but he’d have a fighting chance to round Cape Horn before the autumn storms. However, heading back to Australia, which was closer and downwind, was the prudent choice. It would also be the death knell for this trip and everything that could have been.

The Horn loomed large in his mind. It was the hump he could not get over last time. Wakefield had survived a heart attack in 2003 that forced him to take medication, which had gone AWOL in a mishap. His physician ordered him to detour to the Falklands for a refill, which ironically put him in harm’s way. About 300 miles northeast of the islands, he and Kim Chow, a 41-foot Rhodes design, rolled in a howling southwest storm. He sustained a concussion and a bleeding head wound as the boat came up. Gone were the life raft, dodger, solar panels and one deck hatch. Game over.

“One of the things that crossed my mind [was that] I was rescued last time,” Wakefield says. “There were planes flying out from Argentina and big ships. Nobody criticized me for that, but there’s an unwritten law that you look after yourself if you go out there, and I always lived by that.”

In light of that history, he concluded that his next waypoint had to be Fremantle, Western Australia. “As the days go by, I will see how it feels to let go of something I have worked hard towards for 10 years,” he wrote in a stiff-upper-lip kind of tone. The fat lady had sung, and his pain was felt around the world.

“Glenn is a longtime friend, and I don’t want to comment on the choices he had to make,” wrote Gooch, who advised him and saw him off at the start.

Jeanne Socrates, who at 71 became the oldest woman to complete an eastabout non-stop solo circumnavigation, tried three times and shipwrecked once before succeeding, so she was sympathetic. En route from Cape Town to Trinidad in April 2008, she talked to Wakefield via radio before he got into trouble near the Falklands. The two later met in Victoria. “Glenn helped me prepare Nereida for my last attempt, making sure she was watertight,” Socrates says. “He seemed to be very thorough, looking out for possible weaknesses [and] dealing with them. He was always cheerful and a great family man,” she adds, “very fond of his wife and daughters.”

Looking back and reflecting

Perhaps it was this act of kindness that prompted Greek mythology’s Aeolus, ruler of the winds, to gently jibe West Wind toward Australia as if to spare Wakefield while he tended to business below deck. When he discovered what happened, he felt relief. “Physically turning around and heading back would have been very difficult for me,” he says.

After a total of 135 days and roughly 15,000 miles, he reached Fremantle, where he was greeted by members of the local sailing community, some radio operators who knew him from his daily skeds and his daughter Claire, who came over from New Zealand. It also turned out he made the right choice. A friend who recycled the wires for a patio railing told him that he found broken strands on several shrouds. The second realization was harder: He had to sell West Wind, the boat that had taken such good care of him. Without sponsors, shipping her home was out of the question.

Returning home, he went back to work as a contractor and it allowed him to to gain distance and perspective as he sorted through his emotions. The reason for the rigging failure, he surmises, was an unholy combination of corrosion and wear and tear from slatting in confused seas when West Wind II was becalmed. That’s worse than sailing in a gale, he says, because the rig gets strained every time the stick whips from side to side. The wires weren’t new, but inspections satisfied him that the rigging was fit for the task, he says. Sure, with a deluxe budget he could have replaced it all, “but there was a limit to where I could go.”

His rigger, Brent Jacobi, makes a good point. “You can’t carry a whole new set of shrouds; [besides] it wouldn’t have mattered much. With another six months of upwind sailing, you wouldn’t trust the rest even if you replaced one or two.”

There’s no resignation or remorse in Wakefield’s voice, but reflective thoughts keep pouring out about going to sea alone, about the insignificance of human affairs relative to the power of nature, and the enormity of the oceans. Or about being exposed to the beauty, the brutality and the everlasting indifference of the elements. “It does not matter whether you have a million dollars or a billion dollars,” he says. “There’s no conscience whatsoever in the weather or in the ocean.”

A caring and capable first mate

MaryLou and Glenn Wakefield in the cabin of West Wind II, which is shown as a half model on the bulkhead behind them.

He also speaks about the sense of loneliness and isolation and bouts of anxiety that sometimes prevented him from napping or getting a good night’s sleep. Low on water and without a watermaker, he chased rain clouds to fill his tanks. But what weighed heavily on Wakefield was the violent end of his previous voyage. “A gale in the mind” is what he calls it. “You have to navigate your way out of that, but you’re on your own.”

Thank goodness, he adds, for his stash of single-malt scotch. Thank goodness also for MaryLou, his wife of 32 years, his rock and accomplice, his PR manager, supporter and enabler. “Other wives were angry because they would not have let their husbands go,” she said before his departure. “I could have bucked it and gotten mad and jealous, but I chose not to be a preventer.”

“It’s one of the things humans strive for, to be loved unconditionally,” says the sailor. “I feel extremely fortunate to have a partner who walked beside me, let me go and was there with open arms when I came back.”

Unlike 2008, when he got a hero’s welcome after cheating Davy Jones, there was no fanfare this time around. No triumph, no hype, no cigar. Wakefield bowed out because it was the right and safe thing to do, accepting that prudence and preparation are not enough if the fortune fairy forgets to smile. “You have no idea what’s in store for you,” he says. “That’s what you gain from that experience.”

In all his disappointment there is solace, though, because he inspired hundreds of fans from around the world to obey their dreams. His observant and introspective blog entries, impeccably managed by Mrs. Wakefield (glennwakefieldaroundtheworld.com), drew supportive comments such as this one, which included a popular saying: “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are small matters compared to what lies within us. I will be thinking about you. You are an amazing man who has overcome so much.”

What started out as a dream about a trip around the world the “wrong way” turned into Glenn Wakefield’s personal journey to the within. And that’s the ultimate solo voyage.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

May 2014 issue