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Under Way

The new age of exploration

The new age of exploration

Our world will continue to shrink, the prognosticators say. We all are part of a global village, a global economy. The Age of Exploration ended centuries ago.

Well, not so fast. Knock around the waterfront long enough, and you’ll meet all manner of sailors, voyagers and adventurers — men and women with a faraway look in their eye and a dream to carry them beyond the visible horizon. Bold and brazen, they are the spiritual descendents of Cabot, Magellan and Cook. They push the margins of what is considered possible, often striving to be the first, the fastest, the youngest to cross an ocean, sail around the world, thread their way through the high latitudes. You fill in the dream, the challenge.

Some want to change the world. Some are driven to do what’s never been done before. Others are motivated by a record, a trophy, a bit of fame, sponsorship dollars, perhaps. For some, the exploration is as much about the distance made good internally as it is about speed records or the number of sea miles racked up.

About two years ago I met an enthusiastic New Zealander named Pete Bethune at the Miami International Boat Show. The wiry Kiwi was holding a scale model of a futuristic-looking wave-piercing trimaran that he hoped to drive around the world in record time burning biodiesel. At the time, Bethune had an engine sponsor (Cummins MerCruiser), but not much else. Yes, he needed people to believe in his goal of popularizing alternative fuels. But mostly he needed money. Lots of it.

We talked, shook hands, exchanged cards, and I honestly thought I’d never see him again. I suspected Bethune’s dream — and on this point I would have bet money — was fated to remain sealed within the glass case that held his odd-looking boat. But just when you think you can separate doers from dreamers, you find yourself pleasantly surprised. I met up with Bethune again this fall, this time on a dock in Fort Lauderdale, where his 78-foot Earthrace boat was berthed. He smiled broadly.

“It’s been a long, interesting journey,” says 41-year-old Bethune. He may be mortgaged to the proverbial hilt, but give him credit. Bethune launched his Kevlar and carbon fiber tri-hull in February in New Zealand, crossed the Pacific to Vancouver, British Columbia, this summer (it was the first time he’d been out of sight of land), and made his way down the West Coast and through the Panama Canal to Florida, where he began touring the East Coast trying to drum up sponsors to help pay the bills.

In March, he and his volunteer crew plan to embark on their circumnavigation, with the goal of breaking the existing powerboat speed record of 75 days, burning cleaner biodiesel all the way. We wish him well. (For more information, visit the Earthrace Web site at

It’s hard to imagine a time when there have been more adventurers roaming the seas. In just the last several months, we’ve covered a number of remarkable individuals who had either just completed noteworthy voyages or were about to set off. To wit:

Earlier this year, Frenchwoman Anne Quemere — the only person to have rowed the Atlantic in both directions — became the first person to sail a kite-driven boat across an ocean unassisted. “Every adventure is another step in my life,” says 40-year-old Quemere, who spent 55 days crossing the Atlantic in an 18-foot boat.

This past summer another French sailor, Raphaëla le Gouvello, became the first person to cross the Indian Ocean on a 25-foot sailboard, alone and unassisted. Remarkably, the 4,000-mile passage represents the third ocean she’s transited by sailboard; le Gouvello crossed the Atlantic in 2000 and the Pacific in 2003. “For me, sailing across three tropic oceans symbolizes an adventurer’s way of drawing attention to environmental issues, like preserving the oceans,” the 46-year-old veterinarian says.

In September Scott and Mary Flanders, a retired Florida couple, left Gibraltar aboard their Nordhavn 46 on a 20,000-mile, 16-month westward passage from the Med to New Zealand via Cape Horn. “Life is simply too short to sit in front of the boob tube watching nonsense and going to work Monday morning, regurgitating what you saw, not did,” says Scott, who is 61.

And consider 67-year-old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1968-’69 became the first person to sail solo around the world, non-stop. He’s currently single-handing around the world again, this time in the powerful Open 60 Grey Power in the Velux 5 Oceans race. “I just felt there was another race left in me,” says Knox-Johnston. “Just because we are over the bureaucratically agreed-on retirement age of 65 doesn’t mean our brains turn to porridge, we get a heart attack every time we climb the stairs, and we forget everything we ever learned. … I’ll probably do it again when I’m 77.”

And in a future issue, you’ll read about a 14-year-old British lad who hopes to become the youngest person to sail solo across the Atlantic.

Knock around the waterfront long enough and you soon discover that a new age of ocean exploration, discovery and adventure is upon us. The sea has lost none of its allure. There’s still a lot of adventure out there.