Boston sailor faces his biggest challenge - Soundings Online

Boston sailor faces his biggest challenge

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Boston-born sailor and educator Rich Wilson, 56, has set three long-distance world speed records in sailing and is preparing to enter one of the toughest ocean races: the Vendee Globe, a 25,000-nautical-mile, non-stop race around the world set to begin in France in 2008.

Boston-born sailor and educator Rich Wilson, 56, has set three long-distance world speed records in sailing. Last year the admitted “severe asthmatic” declared he was going to stay ashore for good. Instead, he is preparing to enter one of the toughest ocean races: the Vendee Globe, a 25,000-nautical-mile, non-stop race around the world set to begin in France in 2008.

Wilson has already logged 45,000 bluewater miles aboard his trimaran Great American II. While he completed the single-handed Trans-Atlantic race from Plymouth, England, to Boston in June 2004, he has not sailed solo very often throughout his career.

“The Vendee Globe is a huge physical challenge. It is a brute,” Wilson says. “If you even finish this race, you’ve won. That is how I look at it.”

Wilson says he wouldn’t have considered entering this non-stop race but for his participation in the Transat (formerly the OSTAR), which was slated to finish in Boston, for the first time in its long history.

“Being a sailor and being from Boston, I felt it was my civic duty to race in it and to finish in my hometown,” he says. “During the Transat, I became acquainted with this great international fraternity of solo sailors — including Kip Stone and Joe Harris.”

After the Transat, Wilson received an offer on his trimaran Great American II and planned to retire. Instead, he purchased an Open 60 — now moored in Marblehead, Mass — from 2001 Vendee Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux of France.

“Somehow being free of one boat planted the seed to start thinking about another in a completely different venue,” Wilson says.

While Stone and Harris compete in the Open 50 fleet, Wilson, who is 10 years older than Joe and Kip, has taken on the larger Open 60.

“I am not really a monohull sailor and much prefer the trimaran,” Wilson says. “The heeling factor alone is incredible. These boats are brutal.”

So why would an asthmatic sailor who is a member of AARP want to take on such a physically and mentally challenging race?

“I went to see the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre where Kip Stone and Joe Harris were competing amongst many of the world’s great solo sailors. I told them all, ‘I am thinking about doing the Vendee Globe. What do you think?’” Wilson says. “They were all very encouraging. They said, ‘You are not too old. You are not too asthmatic. You have the track record; you can do it.’”

Along with the Transat in 2004, Wilson’s track record includes a 2003 record from Hong Kong to New York by way of Sunda Strait in 72 days and 21 hours; in 2001 he set the world record from New York to Melbourne by way of the Cape of Good Hope in 68 days, 10 hours, and in 1993 he set the world record from San Francisco to Boston by way of Cape Horn in 69 days and 20 hours.

At heart, Wilson says he is an educator and uses an interactive Web site to develop curriculum for classrooms throughout his adventures. During his ocean voyages, Wilson reports each day to the classroom through newsletters, newspapers and radiotelephone. He plans to try and reach out to more students during the Vendee Globe.

By entering this epic race, Wilson will be among the elite of the extreme sport of solo circumnavigators. The cliffs and docks surrounding the starting line in France normally hold 300,000 spectators at the start. An estimated 30 million viewers on television and on the Internet will watch the race. For the French, nothing stirs their passions more than the Vendee.

“There is a lot of drama in this race and I feel that it will make an incredibly compelling school program,” Wilson says. “It is about technology, courage, geography, travel and sailing skills. It is my plan to have my curriculum translated into French, Spanish and even Chinese. I also have great admiration for the solo-sailors who have raced it before me, and their immense bravery and skill is inspiring to me.” www.vendeeglobe.fr/uk