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Mass. sailor wins Blue Water Medal

Rich Wilson, who has broken three records, received the Cruising Club of America honor Jan. 18

Rich Wilson, who has broken three records, received the Cruising Club of America honor Jan. 18

Rich Wilson traces his passion for the sea to his youth in Marblehead, Mass., where he learned to sail. Since then, the 56-year-old educator has logged tens of thousands of offshore miles, including a series of three record-breaking voyages between 1993 and 2003 in his 53-foot trimaran Great American II.

For his successful passages, which incorporated an internet educational component, Wilson was awarded the Cruising Club of America’s prestigious Blue Water Medal. Wilson, of Rockport, Mass., received the award during a Jan. 18 dinner in New York City.

Since 1923 the Cruising Club of America has annually given the honors to “reward meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea displayed by amateur sailors of all nationalities, that might otherwise go unrecognized.” Past medal winners have included Rod Stephens, Eric and Susan Hiscock, Sir Francis Chichester, Eric Tabarly, Pete Goss and Bernard Moitessier.

“Rich is remarkable,” says CCA’s Tom Hazelhurst. “He just loves to do this stuff.” Each one of Great American II’s voyages were recognized by either the Guinness Book of World Records or the World Speed Sailing Council.

“I love being at sea,” Wilson says. “It stretches you to new limits, both intellectually, emotionally and physically.”

Wilson beginning in 1990 combined his interest in education and sailing by producing a live, interactive school program, “Ocean Challenge.” He chose to re-create clipper routes, in hopes of equaling or bettering record passages. Along the way, he kept in contact with schoolchildren with related lessons in history, science and other subjects.

“It is a perfect teaching vehicle,” Wilson says. “You hook the kids with the excitement of the adventure, and then you can teach them science, math, geography, history, decision-making, perseverance and teamwork. Teaching kids from far at sea has been the best and highest use of me as a resource. And to have the CCA recognize my efforts is an ultimate honor, because CCA’s members have sailed so many, many bluewater miles, and they know and love the sea.”

A member of CCA since around 1979, Wilson says the organization is an amazing group. “They sail more bluewater ocean miles than any group on the planet,” says Wilson, who has logged nearly 90,000 miles in Great American II, and countless other offshore miles throughout the years.

Wilson in 1990 attempted to re-create the California Gold Rush route from San Francisco to Boston by Cape Horn. Northern Light in 1853 set the record of 76 days, 6 hours. With crew Steve Pettengill from Newport, R.I., Great American was on track for the record when it encountered a severe storm. The trimaran capsized, then righted, in a Force 12 storm with 65-foot seas. The sailors were picked up 400 miles from the Horn in a dramatic midnight rescue by the container ship New Zealand Pacific.

With Bill Biewenga in 1993, Wilson departed San Francisco in Great American II for a second attempt. The trimaran encountered dangerous 55-knot winds and steep seas, which broke the bow off the port pontoon. They returned to port to make repairs. They built a new bow in nine days, then set out again. They lost most of their communications equipment in a battering off the coast of Uruguay, but eventually shaved six days off the passage when they arrived in Boston.

The second challenge was in 2001 when Biewenga and Wilson again collaborated to beat the 69-day, 14-hour passage in 1855 of the clipper Mandarin from New York to Melbourne on the Australian Gold Rush route via Cape Hope and the Southern Ocean. They made the 15,400-mile voyage, shaving 28 hours of Mandarin’s passage.

The third challenge was to beat the passage record of 74 days, 14 hours for the China Tea Trade route from Hong Kong to New York set by the clipper Sea Witch I in 1849. With crew Rich du Moulin from Larchmont, N.Y., Wilson set out in March 2003, sailing to the South China Sea, then entered the Indian Ocean via Sunda Strait and headed westward for the Cape of Good Hope. At times they trailed behind Sea Witch’s voyage, but made a final sprint to New York in 41 hours less time.

A racer as a youngster, Wilson graduated to offshore sailing while delivering his father’s boat from the Mediterranean to the United States. In 1980 he won the Newport-Bermuda Race and the Carlsberg Singlehanded Transatlantic Race in 1988. In June 2004 he competed in the 2004 Transat solo trans-Atlantic race. He finished second in his division of the 2,800-mile race, arriving in Boston 23 hours behind the winner of the 50-foot multihull division, Frenchman Eric Bruneel aboard Trilogic.

Reached by phone, Wilson says he has sold Great American II to a Frenchman who plans to race the trimaran in trans-Atlantic races in the coming years. For now, Wilson will focus on his SitesAlive programs.

Wilson holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvard College, a master’s degree in interdisciplinary science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master of business administration from Harvard Business School. Wilson’s Ocean Challenges and its Web site,, offers a host of programs appropriate for elementary-school age to post graduates.

In related news, the Cruising Club of America awarded its coveted Rod Stephen’s Award for seamanship to captain and crew of research/training vessel Geronimo, owned by St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I. Geronimo’s crew was cited for the Jan. 30, 2004 rescue of a Polish seaman about 130 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla. The mariner had fallen overboard from the container ship Pilica and had been treading water for 21 hours. Geronimo, skippered by program director and captain Deb Hayes, was on its way to tag turtles in the Bahamas when the ship was advised by the Coast Guard to be on the alert for 49-year-old Ryszard Suchy. A Coast Guard C-140 spotted the mariner, who was recovered by Geronimo’s crew. He was coherent, calm and “wearing nothing but his wedding ring.” He had shed his clothes to help with buoyancy.

The Cruising Club of America is dedicated to offshore cruising and the “adventurous use of the sea.” The organization strives to improve seamanship, the design of seaworthy yachts, safe yachting procedures and environmental awareness. With around 1,200 members, the organization sponsors the biennial Newport to Bermuda race in conjunction with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, held in even years. It also sponsors several safety seminars including the “Suddenly Alone” seminars for cruising couples.