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New England solo sailor makes history

Maine’s Kip Stone shaves 18 hours off record trans-At run in winning his class in the Route du Rhum

Maine’s Kip Stone shaves 18 hours off record trans-At run in winning his class in the Route du Rhum

In the same way that many Americans love foreign athletes like Red Sox baseball star David “Big Papi” Ortiz or soccer star David Beckham, sailor Kip Stone of Freeport, Maine, is now a household name and hero in the country of France.

On Nov. 16, Stone became the only American ever to finish first in his class in the famed 3,500-nautical-mile Route du Rhum from St. Malo, France, to Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Aboard his Open 50, Artforms, Stone completed the race in 17 days, 22 hours, 36 minutes and 28 seconds besting the existing record held by 18 hours.

“Until you have witnessed first-hand the French public’s passion for these sailing events it is difficult to imagine the scene I stumbled into after the finish,” Stone says. “These things go by in a blind, but I was proud to find myself standing on the same stage as many of the top solo sailors of this generation and inspired by those who came before us.”

Stone, 46, is one of only four American sailors to compete in the Route du Rhum, held every four years since 1978. Route du Rhum participants include the famed solo sailor Phil Weld of Gloucester, Mass., the late Eric Taberlay, who is a solo-sailing legend in France, and Robin Knox-Johnston of England. Stone is also the 2004 winner in his class of the Transat from Plymouth, England, to Boston and finished second in this year’s Transat Jacques Vabre.

“The Route du Rhum has so much history tied to it and I have been reading about it all my life,” Stone says. “Just before the start, while in St. Malo, thousands of people came to see the boats and all of the skippers were gathered in a staging area. We were paraded past this table to sign a book — the same book signed by every single skipper who has ever competed in the Route du Rhum. I am now a little piece of this big history.”

To even enter the race Stone had to complete a solo-qualifier. So he set out from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to St. Malo shortly before the race began. “The preparation just to get to the starting line can be exhausting,” he says.

Stone has had difficult moments in sailing before, but he admits that the Route du Rhum race tested his abilities and endurance to the maximum. “These epic races are all about setbacks and recovery and the Route du Rhum was that for me,” Stone says. Although he maintained a lead over second place finisher Servane Escoffier of France the entire race and finished 24 hours ahead of him, Stone says the time does not reflect how close the race was throughout.

“It is a tough course and this one caught me by surprise,” Stone says. “The famed trade winds never appeared so I had to sail far to the south and the light conditions over 15 days meant that I had to steer most of the time, getting very little sleep. I think the solo-qualifier had worn me down, too, so I was struggling.”

Stone was about seven days away from the finish when he faced his greatest challenge.

“I was six or seven days to the finish line when I got caught flat-footed. The big breeze came up and caught me off guard.I had not gotten the Solent [his largest sail which sits behind the jib] secured and reefed and that is when the trouble began.”

With the wind blowing about 35 knots the Solent suddenly shredded into pieces.For 30 hours, the torn sail flapped through the building storm front and it caused the boat to knock violently and shake as the boat continued to tear through the ocean like a freight train.Stone knew he would have to shimmy up the mast to cut the Solent free. While he waited to go aloft, he planned to hoist another sail to compensate for the torn Solent. As he was hoisting, a reef hook got jammed on the rig and tore the sail loose. It went flying overboard. Stone turned around to retrieve the sail and once he got it back on board, the winds had subsided enough to go up the mast in 15-foot seas and tear the Solent sail free.

“In the last week of the race, I had nearly lost two sails, I was 100 miles off course and I was fatigued. My lead over the second place boat was minimal and I was really down,” Stone says. “After coming down from the mast, I collapsed on the bunk and slept for hours. When I awoke I had a great e-mail message from my shore team. The e-mail said, ‘These races are all about setbacks and recovering from setbacks.’ I knew it was time to put it behind me and get going. Over the remaining days and hours I was able to keep the boat moving and stayed between my opponent and the mark to win it.”

For Stone, the significance of the win and the historic importance of his participation did not sink in until the following day when he was greeted by thousands of local people on the docks.

“The finish is always funny because you are often just happy to be done. It was from the start a very close race,” he says.

With this monumental race behind him, Stone is planning to sell his Open 50 in hopes of purchasing a bigger boat — one that could ultimately bring him to the starting line of a race like the Vendee Globe or the Global Challenge in 2008.

“For me, it is about finding the financial support and the sponsors,” Stone says. “I have sailed or raced 50,000 miles since launching Artforms in 2003. I feel like I have learned how to play this game. I have learned a lot about what it’s like to be out there alone on the open sea and it is always a huge honor to race in events like the Route du Rhum. I have learned so much and now I would like to take it to the next level.”