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Jury-rigging, mentors and the call of the sea

Editor’s note: In 2008-09, Rich Wilson became only the second American to finish the Vendée Globe, the non-stop single-handed sailboat race around the world that has been called the “most grueling and dangerous prolonged competition on the planet.” Wilson, 58 at the time and a severe asthmatic, came in ninth among 11 finishers (out of 30 starters), sailing 29,000 miles over 121 days in his Open 60 Great American III. He endured broken ribs, a facial gash, a climb up the mast on his run to Cape Horn, sleep deprivation and fear. He recounts his adventure in his just published “Race France to France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard,” available in paperback and e-book formats. The next edition of the Vendée starts Nov. 10.

In 2009, Rich Wilson became only the second American to finish the Vendee Globe.

A wonderful aspect of our sport of sailing is that there are so many options for enjoying it. You can cruise or race; do it in little boats or big boats, multihulls or monohulls; on oceans or rivers or lakes; short-handed or with crew; daysailing or on ocean passages.

Of course, the most challenging of our sailing options is long-distance, single-handed ocean racing. When you sail short-handed (single- or double-handed), the challenge is that you must learn every system on the boat yourself. Fully crewed boats sail on a division of labor, with each crewmember tasked to know a subset of the total. Thus, short-handed sailing will present the most intellectually, physically and emotionally demanding challenges, and the approaches seen there apply elsewhere, too.

Although the word “seamanship” is used most often in the context of long ocean passages, enjoying any of these corners of the sport requires the same thoughtful preparation and approach. I offer some thoughts and anecdotes on seamanship, many reflecting attitude from the French and our Vendée Globe project. And although this is from an ocean racer’s perspective, weekend warriors and powerboaters may find that much of it is applicable to them, as well.

The learning curve

My approach to seamanship is rooted in a personal wariness about going to sea: I simply don’t know whether I am smart enough, strong enough or brave enough to handle what I might encounter out there. That wariness requires me to work my way up various learning curves slowly and deliberately, with no steps so big as to be illogical or arrogantly conceived. At the beginning, there was no grand plan; each “next” followed as a result of getting somewhat comfortable at whatever plateau I was on.

Overnight races on Midget Ocean Racing Club boats in Marblehead, Mass., led to Southern Ocean Racing Conference circuits in Florida, which led to a full-crew cruising trans-Atlantic passage, which overlapped with five Bermuda Races (including a win in 1980), which led to the solo Trans-Atlantic Race in 1988 in a small trimaran. That was to be my adventure of a lifetime.

Yet that experience then permitted undertaking three clipper-route-record voyages, double-handed and on a bigger trimaran. These were longer, at 15,000 miles and 10 weeks each. The first record attempt ended prematurely in a double-somersaulting capsize at Cape Horn in seas officially logged at 20 meters (65.6 feet) and rescue by the container ship New Zealand Pacific. The subsequent three voyages were successful, with records set from San Francisco to Boston in 1993, New York to Melbourne in 2001, and Hong Kong to New York in 2003.

These longer voyages were conceived when our idea for the K-12 school program sitesALIVE! came along. Yet even then I didn’t consider the Vendée Globe — solo, non-stop, around the world, in Open 60s — until the chance for a global sitesALIVE! compelled me to race. One must have a good goal in going to sea.

Learn from the best

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Since the French have most of the short-handed races (Vendée Globe, Route du Rhum, Transat Jacques Vabre, Route du Chocolat, Le Solitaire du Figaro and Mini-Transat among them) and most of the great short-handed sailors, preparing a boat in France for the Vendée was an opportunity to see the best in action. That was especially true because we picked Port la Foret — hometown to Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou and Jean Le Cam, the two winners and one runner-up from the previous two Vendée Globes — and kept our boat at CDK shipyard with Michel’s brother Hubert. We were at Open 60 de facto world headquarters.

Seek your mentors

Along the path of continual learning, one needs extraordinary mentors. I’ve had four: Phil Steggall, Walter Greene, Mike Birch and Brian Harris. Interestingly, all of them have sailed and worked extensively in France, the first three racing multihulls, the fourth preparing Open 60 monohulls. With these mentors, my approach is to ask the questions, be quiet, and listen to and absorb their answers.

And if those you need to know are not in your circle, you must seek them out. I went to the Paris Boat Show to meet Bernard Nivelt to learn his philosophy in designing our boat. I went to La Rochelle for a week of study, one on one, with Jean-Yves Bernot, guru of the French weather-routers, who had raced around the world twice himself. Respectfully, in my best high school French, I asked Michel Desjoyeaux, Le Professeur, whether I could send him some questions about how to sail the Open 60; I was rewarded with a 4,000-word email exchange covering many topics.

Be humble

Short-handed sailing presents the most intellectually, physically and emotionally demanding challenges.

I find single-handers appealing in their humility and lack of bravado, as if they’ve been so scared so many times at sea that they know who is in charge — and it’s not them. It’s King Neptune. They don’t complain about the weather or forecasters. They don’t complain that a manufacturer’s gear failed; if something fails, then they, the skippers, must have selected the wrong equipment. And they don’t complain about bad luck.

In the solo Transat 2004, Yves Parlier sailed an innovative catamaran with stepped seaplane hulls and a wing mast on each hull. The design was incredibly wet and bumpy — so much so that he never had hot food because the kettle kept getting thrown off the one-burner stove. Yet, arriving in Boston, his first happy words were: “I just sailed a submarine across the Atlantic!”

I met Parlier after that race, and he never stopped looking at his feet in soft-spoken shyness. Yet he was the sailor who imagined deck spreaders for Open 60s, which permitted a wide staying base, in turn permitting a rotating wing mast. When his new idea broke in the Indian Ocean in the lead pack of 1996 Vendée Globe, he didn’t retire from the race; he retrieved the two pieces of the 87-foot mast, sailed under jury rig 1,000 miles to an island south of New Zealand, anchored, shortened the two sections, mated them with carbon and epoxy, recut the rigging, and restepped at anchor his new 56-foot mast — by himself. He then sailed the Pacific, rounded Cape Horn and ascended the Atlantic to finish the race officially. Perseverance, tenacity and problem-solving. When I asked about that repair, he replied simply, “Yes, that worked out quite well.”


On a lousy weather day in Brittany — cold, raining, blowing 35 knots — I saw Michel Desjoyeaux with his team, pushing his Open 60 on two simple dollies to the pit where the keel would be attached. He saw me and said, “Rich, it’s a good day for training.” On a day when it would be more comfortable to sit at the bar, he was serious. And it was a good day for training, because that is how you get better — by practicing and thus expanding your skills, experience, confidence and limits.

Grow your mileage

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American friends often would say, “You’ll do great; look at the experience you have from your three clipper route record voyages.” Yes, but half of the Vendée Globe fleet had sailed the race before. For two, it was their eighth race around the world, and one had sailed 46 trans-Atlantic passages, 26 of them single-handed. Now that is experience.

Learn from other races

Although boat requirements for the Bermuda, Sydney-Hobart and Fastnet are strict, they are even more so for the Vendée Globe: two days of hands-on survival training, three days of emergency medical training, a cardiac stress test for skippers over 40, a 90-degree righting moment test for the boat, and requirements that the boat have five watertight compartments and physical buoyancy equal to 130 percent of displacement (so it can’t sink). Then there’s the big one: You must officially finish a solo trans-Atlantic race in your boat to qualify.

Anticipate needs

When Loick Peyron’s mast broke while he led the Vendée in the Indian Ocean, did he activate his EPIRB and call for help? No. He cut away the shattered rig, fit a previously planned jury rig, put up his similarly preplanned square sail and sailed to Australia. No muss, no fuss.

When Roland Jourdain collided with a submerged object and the leverage on the 14.5-foot-deep keel cracked a bulkhead holding the keel on, did he retire to nearby Buenos Aires? No. He epoxied and through-bolted two pieces of carbon plate (brought expressly for a major repair) across the crack to stabilize it. Six thousand miles later, the keel broke off, forcing abandonment, but his repair had held.

Vendée Globe 2012

On Nov. 10, the next edition of the race will start with 19 boats. One might have favorites — yet how to choose? All of the skippers are personally appealing. And though the race will be very competitive, with likely half the fleet capable of winning, at its core the Vendée remains a human adventure first and a sports event second. That is what is so compelling, and it is why I’ll be watching thrice daily online, eager to learn what happens next.

See related articles:

- Ocean racing's A-Team is French

- Enlivening classrooms

November 2012 issue.