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No Small Feat

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Californian Randall Reeves decided to attempt the Figure 8 Voyage because it had never been done before.

Californian Randall Reeves decided to attempt the Figure 8 Voyage because it had never been done before.

Last October, Randall Reeves completed what he calls the “Figure 8 Voyage,” circumnavigating Antarctica and all of the Americas. He sailed five oceans around three continents, passed Cape Horn twice, and covered almost 40,000 miles. To put that in perspective, the Earth’s circumference is less than 25,000 miles.

Reeves wanted to do something that had never been done. Others had sailed the “Five Capes” and the Northwest Passage, but nobody had done both in the same trip. “I think it’s the first time anyone has done it,” Reeves says, “solo or with crew.”

The 57-year-old Reeves completed the trip in what he calls “one season.” He had to time his arrival in Antarctica for a southern summer circumnavigation, then make it up to the Arctic for the northern summer, and then get through the Northwest Passage before ice closed it up again.

Reeves caught the sailing bug in high school while living in California’s Central Valley. His first trip aboard the family sailboat was all it took. “It bit me hard,” he says.

Most of his early sailing was on the San Joaquin River. His father was a U.S. Merchant Marine captain, and when he went on trips, Reeves would “borrow” his boat. Reeves thought his father didn’t know, but his dad noticed winch handles and other items misplaced. On one trip, Reeves sailed out to the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco Bay seemed huge to him.

Eventually, Reeves got into bluewater sailing. In 2010, his wife, Joanna Bloor, agreed that he should make a solo Pacific cruise aboard their 31-foot Mariner Murre. The trip was supposed to be limited to Mexico and Hawaii, and was meant to take one year, but in La Paz, Mexico, Reeves heard about the Marquesas and other Polynesian Islands. When Bloor flew in to meet him, he plied her with a couple of margaritas, and the South Pacific and Alaska were added to his two-year itinerary.

“My wife is very understanding,” Reeves says. “She comes from a cruising family. It’s not her thing, but she gets the drive.”

Reeves started putting the Figure 8 Voyage together in 2013, but the prospect of navigating the Northwest Passage was giving him fits.

“I’m a bluewater sailor,” Reeves says. “It was hard for me to figure out the pilotage through the shallows and the pack ice.”

So, in 2014, he signed on as crew for a trip along the Northwest Passage aboard a 43-foot steel cutter. Thirty boats were trying to make it through that summer. “Only seven made it,” Reeves says. “All of them were either steel or aluminum.” His boat was one of them.

Passing an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean 

Passing an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean 

On that trip, he found his future boat: a 1989 45-foot aluminum expedition sloop with a Solent rig. Her owners were adamant that she was not for sale, but two years later they were ready to part with her. He renamed her Moli, the Hawaiian name for the Laysan albatross.

Reeves feels an affinity with pelagic birds, in particular albatrosses because they spend most of their lives at sea. “I really do love the long passages at sea in that alien environment,” he says, “and these birds live there like it’s nothing. When the weather is honking, they’re still out there flying.”

In 2016, he took Moli for a spin around the Pacific, and in September 2017, he left San Francisco for his first Figure 8 attempt. Five hundred miles from Cape Horn, Moli encountered a gale with 70-mph gusts that smashed the self-steering mechanism. Reeves had to hand-steer the 45-foot boat to Ushuaia, Argentina, fighting the tiller 12 to 15 hours per day.

After making repairs and getting back on the water, Reeves encountered another gale one-third of the way to Australia. Hard seas were breaking all around. Moli got knocked down, breaking a window over the nav station, filling the boat with water and taking out the entire electronics suite. A month and a half later, Reeves arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, for more repairs, but he had missed his window to get to the Arctic Ocean and through the Northwest Passage.

Reeves learned he’d been going too slow. “In the Southern Ocean, the wind pushes down on the seas, but as the wind lessens, the seas stand up,” he says. “I wasn’t sailing with enough sail. I wasn’t going fast enough, and I would stall at the bottom of the sea where my storm sail couldn’t catch the wind. When you slow down, you become victim to these heavy seas.”

On September 30, 2018, Reeves started over from San Francisco. This time, he didn’t use his storm sail in the Southern Ocean. Instead, he used his number two headsail to maintain speed, and didn’t have any problems.

Reeves after his return to California

Reeves after his return to California

“Speed is safety,” Reeves says. “Although it doesn’t feel safe when you’re doing it.”

For 237 days, Reeves slept 90 minutes at a crack, only saw land twice (Cape Horn before and after circling Antarctica) and heard a human voice just three times (his wife’s over the satellite phone). After 35,000 nonstop miles, he arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Arctic ice hadn’t melted yet, so he resupplied and caught up on sleep. Because of the polar high-pressure zone, he mostly motored through the Northwest Passage.

“There is nearly no wind, unless there’s a gale,” Reeves says. Using the internal fuel tanks and 70 jerry cans, he refueled five times, then sailed south, arriving in San Francisco on October 19, 2019. Many of the same friends and family who had seen him off 384 days earlier greeted him when he passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

This past January, to recognize his achievement, the Ocean Cruising Club presented Reeves with the Barton Cup, its premier award.

Today, Reeves is at home with his wife, and he is too busy with speaking engagements and housework to go on a serious adventure—although he is thinking about wintering in the north and the south.

“I have the right boat for it,” he says. “I found some excellent coves. It’d be about 10 months in each place.”

He’s also thinking of doing the Figure 8 again. But he’d want to do it slowly, so he can enjoy the sights along the way. “Say, in five years as opposed to one,” he says. “We’ll see how that flies.”

Asked how many margaritas it would take to persuade his wife to approve that trip, he hesitates, and then laughs. “It’ll be at least two margaritas.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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