Rich Wilson: The Great American

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Rich Wilson sits in his home in Marblehead, Mass., a head filled with memories and a body filled with aches and pains. Wilson, who turned 59 in April, is only the second American to complete the Vendée Globe, the grueling “Everest of sailing.”

He finished ninth, in 121 days, 41 minutes, 19 seconds, and clocked 28,197.2 nautical miles on his fiberglass Open 60, Great American III.

Wilson is only the second American to complete the Vendee Globe.

The race is a single-handed, non-stop 26,000-mile marathon run around the globe held every four years. This year’s edition had a 30-boat fleet that left Nov. 9, 2008, from Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Only 11 crossed the finish line this year, and fewer than 60 sailors have completed the race since its inception in 1989.

By the time a massive end-of-November storm was finished, 11 competitors had been forced to drop out of the race. That storm had Rich Wilson sick for days. Worse yet, a few days later he was thrown violently 5 or 6 feet across the cabin. His back hit a grab bar, and he wound up with a cracked rib.

“Every time I would grind the pedestal winch or pull a rope, or the boat lurched and you’re holding on somewhere — it hurt a lot,” says Wilson. “It takes it out of you, having that pain all the time.”

Wilson described the entire race as “beyond physical.” It took about a month for his rib to heal completely, while trying to catch some sleep as everything from his navigation instruments to the weather seemed set against him. He was forced to take refuge on the cushions of the bench near the table in his cabin because it was too difficult for him to pull himself into the bunk. Two of the cushions on the bench were set up as a reclining chair to give back support, and combined to form a 45-degree angle. This jury-rigged bunk allowed him to lie down reasonably well, but not entirely comfortably.

The non-stop 26,000-mile Vendee Globe is one of the most grueling single-handed races out there.

“It gets cold, and when you can’t get into the sleeping bag you can’t be warm the way you need to be to completely relax,” says Wilson. “Getting to sleep seriously … is very hard.”

Wilson’s rib eventually healed, but Dec. 27 brought another injury, this time in the Southern Ocean. He was asleep in his bunk on the windward side of the vessel when Great American III Iurched and threw Wilson out of the bunk. He landed on his head.

“I fell on it with full body weight,” says Wilson. “It opened up this big gash over my left eye and there was blood everywhere.”

His wound was proof, says Wilson, that sailing is not for the faint of heart.

The American wasn’t the only entrant to sustain injuries during the race. French sailor Yann Elies was forced to retire Dec. 19 when he broke his femur after a violent wave hit his Open 60, Generali.

Derek Hatfield, a fellow friend and competitor in the Vendée, can relate to Wilson’s lows and highs all too well. Hatfield, himself, is 57. The first competitor to sign up for this year’s Vendée, he sailed Algimouss Spirit of Canada, an Open 60 design by Owen-Clarke.

“The sea is such a great equalizer; no matter how well-prepared you are or well-funded, you’re still dealing with yourself,” says Hatfield, who lives just outside Toronto. “When you’re tired and miserable, it’s nice to talk to someone with a like mind, so Rich would call me or I would call him and I would know we were dealing with the same problems.”

Hatfield was forced to retire from the race Dec. 29 because of mast problems. Wilson was the first Vendée competitor to call Hatfield, providing a long-distance pat on the back.

“He was always thinking of other people, not so much himself,” says Hatfield. “He just kept encouraging me.”

Tough going

Other issues plagued Wilson during the trip. His wind instruments, two wands installed at the top of his mast designed to help navigate, began to experience problems. The primary failed off South Africa. When Wilson switched to the backup, it didn’t work at all.

“That was the time I began to have second thoughts about this race,” says Wilson.

The solitary nature of the race tests sailors' abilities to push through injuries and mechanical failure.

Wilson had to set his autopilot to his compass instead, which meant he could only sleep for 15 to 20 minutes at a time before going back to the cockpit to check where the wind index was pointing. The goal was to ensure the vessel could continue heading into the wind, to avoid uncontrolled jibing. The primary wind instrument came back to life for a brief two weeks while he was sailing through the Indian Ocean, went out for a week off New Zealand, and then came back for a couple of weeks until it died altogether sailing the last leg of the Pacific just before reaching Cape Horn.

“The Atlantic was incredibly hard because it was upwind all the time and the fatigue from working this 60-foot boat for three months began to mount,” says Wilson.

Uneasy start

Wilson’s relationship with Great American III has not been an easy one. He bought her in 2006 and sailed her over from La Trinite sur Mer, France, that May to test her mettle. He got more than he bargained for. About halfway through the 13-day trip, he hit a submerged object that fractured the bow and sheared off the daggerboard.

“It also took off one of the rudders, but I had a spare,” says Wilson. “I exchanged the rudders, but it was a 14-hour non-stop effort. Despite everything, it ended up being an incredibly fast passage.”

Great American III had 51 lines that led aft to the cockpit to make for easier single-handing, and installed a pedestal winch that could drive three other winches on the vessel. A year and a half later, Wilson would sail Great American III single-handed from Brazil to France as the qualifying voyage for the Vendee Globe.

“A solo transatlantic voyage is something beyond anything a lot of people can imagine,” says Wilson.

For the Vendée race, it’s just a qualification.

“I can say I was not in favor of him doing this race on the boat he was on,” says Ed Sisk, a friend, and Newport, R.I.-based sailor. “I thought it was short-sighted but this race proved it doesn’t matter what kind of vessel you have; it’s about good seamanship.”

Sisk, 41, met Wilson in 1988 and considers the older man a mentor. While helping prepare the trimaran Great American II for Wilson’s 1992 San Francisco-to-Boston passage, he learned that Wilson can be a micromanager when it comes to his boat — a trait that proved an asset for the Vendée.

“I was in contact with him during the race and he cared more about the health of his boat than his own health,” says Sisk. “But I can tell you it was the best-looking boat that came into the harbor at the end of the race.”

The Great American

There is no place Wilson would rather be than on the water.

Wilson’s father, at 45, began sailing a 42-foot wooden ketch, Holger Danske, and Wilson started taking sailing lessons at the Pleon Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass. Years later, in 1980, Wilson won the Newport Bermuda Race sailing his father’s vessel.

Wilson enjoyed the enthusiasm and curiosity of the crowds.

Wilson, who lives with severe asthma, found an added advantage to being on the water: the air is cleaner. Thanks to the right medication, Wilson rarely has to use his inhaler these days; however he says he probably used it more during the Vendée than in the last 15 years of his life.

“Stress is a trigger for asthma and if there’s one thing this race is about, it’s constant stress,” says Wilson. “I am fit and I have run the Boston Marathon four times, and this whole thing was incredibly hard. From time to time, the exertion would prove to be a problem for my asthma and I did have to use the short-term bronchial dilator [inhaler].”

One of those intense moments of stress came during an extreme jibe in 55 knots of wind and big seas off the coast of Uruguay as Great American III was laying over about 75 degrees.

“Some friends asked my mother if she was worried about me, but she knows I’m not a risk taker,” says Wilson. “It’s about preparing well. … I’m conservative. I’m not a big macho guy.”

Wilson, who is a former math teacher, also has an educational Web site called Sites Alive that allows expeditions such as Vendee to also serve as learning programs for children (see sidebar, Page 2).

For Wilson, who says he knew from the start he would not win the race, a statement from a young French boy in Les Sables d’Olonne summed up the experience. “It is important to participate,” the child told him.

“We had no major sponsor for our race so that was part of my conservatism on not pushing the boat harder,” says Wilson. “There was no chance I was going to win. I don’t have the right boat, I’m not as good a sailor by far as some of these French guys, and that wasn’t the goal. But the boy is exactly right — it is important to be out there.”

Finishing first was French solo skipper Michel Desjoyeaux, who beat the Vendée Globe record by 3 days, 7 hours, 39 seconds on Feb. 1 aboard Foncia. This is his second win; the first being the 2000-2001 edition.

Wilson says he couldn’t do this race again without sponsorship money, and he has doubts about his physical ability to do it all again four years from now.

“I would be age 62 for the next one, and that’s pushing it,” says Wilson. “I’m one of the only people that can make that statement because I’ve done it and I know.”

Wilson still deals daily with pain in his neck, shoulders, elbows, forearms and fingers. At press time, he was planning to return to France to move Great American III to a different port and decide her future.

For information on Wilson’s trip, including archived podcasts, visit http://vg.sitesalive.com.

See related article:

"Adventure as an educational tool"

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the July 2009 issue.