Sailing solo and non-stop around the world requires a fit body, a sharp mind and incredible discipline. Stanley Paris, who has swum the English Channel three times, believes he has what it takes. By the way, he’ll be 76.
Kiwi Spirit, a 63-foot bluewater yacht, wallows in the moderate swell. Huffing and puffing on the coffee grinder in the cockpit, it seems to take an eternity to crank the mainsail up the carbon fiber mast until the halyard lock finally clicks, 82 feet above deck.
Handling the 1,200-square-foot main is sporty for two but soon will have to be done by one, under much tougher conditions. It will be one of the many tasks for Stanley Paris, the owner of this yacht, who will set off this fall for a solo non-stop circumnavigation from his hometown of St. Augustine, Fla.
Born in New Zealand, he has lived in the United States since 1966. The experienced ocean sailor likes to call his boats Dreadnought, but this one he named Kiwi Spirit, in honor of his ancestry. She is brand new and custom-built by Lyman-Morse in Maine, so there’s a lot to learn, such as reeving the spinnaker sheets while under way, a job that requires traversing the deck forward of the hard dodger.
Paris wears a gray baseball cap to shield his eyes against the glare of the Caribbean sun, but the bill restricts upward visibility. He misjudges the boom height by half an inch, perhaps. His head collides with the carbon fiber, and like a boxer who has absorbed a stiff jab, Paris goes down. Ouch! For someone who wants to sail around the world solo and without stopping in only 120 days, that’s a painful moment, and not just physically. Paris set this time limit for himself, which would be roughly a month faster than Dodge Morgan, who in 1986 became the first American to circumnavigate solo and non-stop via the three great capes. He completed the loop in 150 days, which was the absolute record then, and it lasted until 1990.
Last spring, Guo Chuan, a single-hander from China, finished a solo non-stop trip in 137 days. Considering that Paris will be 76 at the start of his trip, flirting with a rather arbitrary record of 120 days — the current monohull record is 78 — sounds frivolous when finishing would be enough to make him the oldest person ever to complete such a voyage.
There’s no official recognition for age-related sailing speed records, but that doesn’t keep ambitious oldies from wagging their tongues at the geriatric ward. There’s Laser Great Grand Masters champion Peter Seidenberg, born in 1937 just like Paris (search “Peter Seidenberg” at SoundingsOnline.com), and the Swede Sven Yrvind, 73, who plans to drift around the globe in the Roaring Forties in a home-built 10-foot “yacht.” And the Japanese hero Minoru Saito, at 79 the Methuselah of this group. Saito-san circumnavigated the world eight times by himself. He finished his only non-stop trip in 2005 at age 71. The latest to join this list is Jeanne Socrates, at 70 the oldest woman to pull off a solo trip around the world with no stops.
Meeting the man, Paris’ vitality, mental sharpness and physical fitness are nothing short of astounding. He attributes them to genetics and to obsessive discipline with an athletic exercise regimen and healthy eating habits. Paris is perhaps the only one who has swum the English Channel multiple times and finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. He does it all en passant — when he’s not traveling, giving talks, writing papers or managing his business interests.
“If there’s a guarantee to be like Stanley at this age, please sign me up,” laughs Frédéric Boursier, a professional ocean racer and yacht captain who coached Paris.
As a physical therapist who is trained in neuroanatomy and biomechanics and also has an M.B.A., Paris is something like the walking saint of his profession. He served on the faculties of Boston University and Emory University in Atlanta but later founded his own educational program to upgrade the professional practices of physical therapists. In 1996, with the necessary accreditations in hand, Paris founded the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, a private institution with campuses in San Marcos, Calif., and Austin, Texas.
What drives a man with so many talents and achievements to put himself through the rigors of a solo non-stop voyage around the planet in such a hurry? The answer turns into a feature-length discourse about adventure, ambition, psychology and childhood trauma. Over dinner, Paris shows his penchant for showmanship. He selects the wine, he picks up the tab, and he tells the jokes that get the loudest laughs. Later, in Kiwi Spirit’s commodious cockpit, over a glass of Laphroaig, a Scotch he cherishes for its peaty aroma, he takes cover behind boilerplate statements initially, proclaiming to love a good challenge or reminding his guests that more people have traveled into space than sailed around the world solo without stops. Yet the true motives lie in his past and in his character: Calculated risk always has been to Paris what oxygen is to regular folks. “I follow in the tracks of my heroes,” he declares, “trying to improve on their achievements.”
He talks about role models such as Morgan, who found success as a businessman and as a sailor, and his father, who returned to New Zealand as a wounded veteran of World War I and was retrained as a physical therapist. “It used to be a woman’s job,” Paris says with a chuckle, or a gig for invalids who didn’t qualify for any other type of work. “Back then, PTs were told by doctors what to do, but not my dad. He thought of physical therapy as something bigger and more important.” Ambition, he learned from his father, is as necessary to succeed as talent.
“Producing desired results by competing against himself describes Stanley quite well,” says his third wife, Catherine, who holds executive positions at the university. She has been married to him for 28 years.
The source of his ambition, Paris surmises, could be a perceived emotional abandonment by his parents. They tended to his elder sister, who was ill with polio. “I was shipped off to my aunties and felt neglected, so I did crazy things that got attention,” he says, adding that he often was elected class president, perhaps because others saw him as different. “I always had a lot of leash, but I wasn’t spoiled. If I wanted a bike I had to come up with the money.”
“New Zealand was a poor country then — maybe he didn’t get enough toys in the bathtub as a kid,” Catherine laughs as she tries to explain his demand for validation and attention.
Master of making do
After graduating from the New Zealand School of Physiotherapy in Dunedin in 1958, Paris moved to Europe to continue his education and do those crazy things that got him attention. His outgoing nature, his business acumen and his sanguine disposition netted him endorsements and a sponsored car, a Volkswagen Beetle on steroids, to try for a new overland speed record from Calcutta to London in 1960. On the way to India, he says, he swam every river that was deep enough for swimming. On the way back, he was on pace to beat the record, but a broken axle in Bulgaria and uncooperative communist bureaucrats thwarted him. He also continued to build his clinical skills, which is why he was invited to work with the Kiwi swim team as a physical therapist at the Olympic Games in 1960 and 1968.
His trip around the planet is about challenge and adventure, but it also should promote the importance of exercise and healthy nutrition at an older age. Paris hopes his exploits will motivate others to get up from the couch and participate in sports, rather than watch them. He also plans to raise a million bucks for long-term studies that show the benefits of physical therapy over implanting prosthetic joints that often require invasive procedures. “Medicine and surgery may save lives, but no profession speaks to the quality of those lives better than physical therapy,” he says.
A key influence for Paris was Bernard Freyberg, a highly decorated war hero and former governor general of New Zealand. Paris met him at a school talk and was most impressed not by tales of bravery but by Freyberg’s courage in talking about his failed attempts at swimming the English Channel.
Paris, himself an avid swimmer — “It’s a boring sport, but unfortunately I’m really good at it” — tried the Channel crossing twice before he finally completed it in 1986, posting a time of 12 hours and 59 minutes. At 49, he also was among the oldest swimmers to make it. He’d abandoned a previous attempt in 1983 and was disqualified on his next try three years later for standing up on a sand bank 400 yards from the beach in Calais, where his pilot boat had run aground. A lifeguard mistakenly told him that he had completed the swim and that he had to get out for safety reasons. He was in the hospital being treated for jellyfish stings when he heard about the decision. “I could have appealed,” he says, “but I decided to do it again three weeks later.
“Walking up that beach unassisted on the French side was a personal triumph,” he adds, “perhaps one of the best moments in my life.”
That he might add another one of these epic instants is almost a given for son Alan Paris, who finished the multistage Around Alone sailboat race in 2002-03. “There’s nothing lacking in his motivation. His energy is boundless,” says Alan, who was introduced to the sport by his father.
The important decisions that precipitate glory or disaster, the younger Paris opines, already were made. Failure is always a possibility, but that’s the lure of adventure. “My father is a master in making do with what he’s got,” he says. “The record is his challenge, his carrot. He’d be devastated if he can’t make it in 150 [days], but nobody who knows him doubts him. His mental endurance is strong. Now he needs to sail himself into shape.”
Mistakes and successes
Bruce Farr, whose firm designed Kiwi Spirit, diagnoses his client with fitness, cleverness, and good planning and management skills. “He has a lot of energy and a certain lack of fear, combined with toughness that might serve him well on this lonely and unquestionably difficult voyage,” says Farr.
The Bermuda One-Two Race in June was an important milestone to gauge the fitness of boat and skipper, and it went well for Paris, with line honors on each leg. But racing Kiwi Spirit in the One-Two against smaller and slower competition was like bringing a knife to a fistfight. Afterward, Boursier called to check in. He and Paris had parted ways amicably in the spring because of philosophical differences. Although Paris is an eternal optimist and a big-picture guy, Boursier, a professional ocean racer and yacht captain, is a meticulous analyst who needs to be 110 percent sure to be comfortable.
“I used the word ‘victory,’ ” Paris said in his blog, “and [Fred] was quick to tell me that it is not a victory. ‘You may have come in first, but on corrected time you did not win.’ ”
Paris was undeterred and reiterated his goal: “To be the oldest, fastest and first-ever green to complete a solo non-stop, non-assisted circumnavigation,” he says. “I am still far away from accomplishing that goal, and in truth, the odds are against my overall success, but that’s what it is all about — taking on the challenge. More importantly, win, lose or draw I am having fun. The glass is 85 percent full, not 15 percent empty.”
He works on fitness and consults with an expert to alter his sleep pattern, which is important for solo sailors, who suffer sleep deprivation and are forced to regenerate during catnaps. He also will have 24/7 access to a team of doctors ashore, in case he gets seriously injured and needs medical assistance. “A male born in New Zealand in 1937 had a life expectancy of 62 years, so I’m on borrowed time, anyway,” he jokes.
Adds son Alan: “If he has to go, he should go big, not wasting away in a hospital bed with Alzheimer’s or cancer,” echoing his father’s sentiment about a dignified conclusion of time on Earth.
Although Stanley Paris, who defines luck as “preparation meeting opportunity,” is never shy about highlighting his wins, he’s also honest about mistakes he has made along the way. “I tried to learn and grow from setbacks, so maybe I owe my later successes to earlier failures.”
Does Paris underestimate the magnitude of the challenge? Watching him hit the deck after bumping his head suggested that the learning curve might be steeper than he likes to admit, but it also was a moment to take the measure of this man, who scrambles right back to his feet after a knockdown. “That’ll be a headache, but not from wine,” he laughs it off, remembering not to make this mistake twice. Better a bump on the noggin in practice than crashing at Cape Horn later. There, one can suspect, he’ll be wearing a helmet.
Photos by Jen Edney
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September 2013 issue