Rich Wilson experienced much on his journey in the Open 60, Great American III, but he didn’t do it for the adventure — he did it to benefit young minds.
“I consider myself an educator first, and a sailor second,” says Wilson, the 59-year-old who is only the second American to complete the Vendée Globe, the harsh non-stop race around the world.
Wilson, who holds degrees from Harvard Business School and MIT as well as being a former math teacher, is the creator of Sites Alive Foundation, a non-profit platform started in 1990 and designed to inspire the minds of schoolchildren through expeditions and adventures.
His first trip around the treacherous Cape Horn in 1990 had 200,000 people following his voyage through newsletters and radio-telephone updates. Wilson and fellow sailor Steve Pettengill set off aboard the 60-foot trimaran Great American to tackle the clipper-ship record set by Northern Light in 1853 during the gold rush from San Francisco to Boston by way of Cape Horn. After three days of heavy weather and 55-foot seas, the trimaran capsized on Thanksgiving Day and was then thrown upright by another rolling wave. Wilson and Pettengill were rescued by the container ship New Zealand Pacific, whose chief mate at the time was Murray Lister. Coincidentally, he would later become part of Wilson’s team of experts for the Vendée Globe.
“It was quite the dramatic episode,” says Wilson. “Some of the best sailing I’ve ever done was those three days keeping that boat upright.”
Wilson had known about the Vendée Globe since its inception in 1989, but was always very wary of it.
“I thought about that Cape Horn episode and if I had been in a monohull, it just would’ve rolled over and over and over again,” says Wilson. “I never had any interest whatsoever in trying to do [the Vendée] — too hard, too long, too dangerous, too risky, too expensive … too everything!”
But when Wilson thought about doing it in the context of education, he began to change his mind.
“The World Newspaper in Education Conference two years ago was held in Washington, D.C., and I attended,” says Wilson. “There were newspapers from 74 countries in attendance and I personally spoke to newspapers from 34 countries, and they were very interested in the idea. They’d never seen anything like it.”
About 50 U.S. newspapers ended up following Wilson’s voyage online, which included the ship’s log, ship’s position, a daily podcast, and a daily weather map.
Teachers and students could then follow that information digitally and incorporate the events of the trip into their curriculums — for instance, using where Wilson was going as a geography lesson, or how the boat was operating with the elements as a science lesson. Though pleased with the response, Wilson was disappointed more international parties didn’t pick up on the idea.
“It was useful for the U.S. because I believe schools are lagging behind on Internet usage,” says Wilson.
Though the Vendée Globe chapter of the site is over, there are other continuing online educational programs covering everything from bluegrass music to American history. For information on programs available, visit www.sitesalive.com.
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This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the July 2009 issue.