He was a superb navigator and pioneering small-boat ocean sailor, a modest gentleman from another time, one of those solidly forged members of the Greatest Generation whose numbers, sadly, dwindle with each day.
British-born Michael Richey, who crossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times alone, died at the age of 92 just days before Christmas. A World War II veteran, Richey is inexorably linked with his 25-foot junk-rigged modified Folkboat, Jester, a simple, able craft that he bought from Blondie Hasler, co-founder of the trans-Atlantic OSTAR race. It was aboard this Jester that Richey made 10 trans-Atlantic passages and five voyages to the Azores and back.
"From the beginning, the boat seemed to me a work of genius, so effortless was sailing her in almost every condition," the sailor wrote. A spiritual man who once considered becoming a monk, Richey sailed alone but without loneliness, a friend observed. Richey was clearly comfortable with his own company, with daily ship-board duties and routines, and with the vagaries and uncertainties common to long ocean passages in a small, engineless boat. "A well-made voyage," he once suggested, "is no different from a well-made table or chair."
Together sailor and small craft withstood a 1981 attack by killer whales off the Grand Banks and five years later survived a powerful storm that knocked Jester down, rolled her over and dismasted her. The battered little boat finished that crossing on the deck of a banana carrier.
Click play to see a photo slideshow of Richey. Photos by Billy Black.
The 1988 OSTAR race was her last. Richey had to abandon Jester after a rogue wave stove-in a hatch; the skipper was picked up by a bulk carrier, but Jester was lost under tow.
"For me, it was an occasion of immeasurable sadness which I found great difficulty getting over," Richey wrote. "The boat had not been insured and I was in no position to replace her."
It was during that incident that he also surrendered his prize sextant to the sea. During the war Richey "liberated" a Plath-made sextant from a German U-boat, complete with a swastika on the index arm. "It was the finest instrument I have ever used and I used it for close on 45 years," he wrote in a story in Yachting Monthly. "The last time I saw it was amid the sodden debris of Jester's final knockdown. I thought of taking it with me but the case was broken and I knew the telescope had misted up. It seemed too like the end of a chapter."
Following the sinking, friends started a trust and built an exact replica of the lost Jester (the new one being cold-molded rather than planked), which Richey sailed in two more trans-Atlantic races. On his return to England following the 1996 event, Richey was presented a certificate by Guinness World Records for being the oldest man to sail the North Atlantic alone. He was 80 years and 31 days.
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