Rich Wilson #62

Vendée Globe Sailor in Fall 2016

Around The World

Rounding Cape Horn you’re in a very dramatic place that's historic and you think about the sailors that have been there.


Interview by Heidi Legg

The Vendée Globe is a round-the-word single-handed yacht race, sailed non-stop and without assistance. When the rest of us are being bombarded with Presidential election advertising and mud slinging, Rich Wilson will once again attempt to sail solo around the world for the second time as one of 30 Vendée Globe competitors in the fall of 2016. He will officially be a senior citizen and likely the oldest competitor in the race, the oldest that has ever started, and the only American.

In 2008, Wilson finished the Vendée Globe in 121 days and is one of only 50 sailors who have sailed solo around the world. Next fall, in the Vendée Globe 2016, held every four years, he hopes to cut off 14 days from his race. A major motivation for his sail is his non-profit sitesAlive. Funded by some of his Harvard Business School classmates who are also approaching the realm of senior citizenship, their sitesAlive program involves a school curriculum he has created for each race and shared with teachers and newspapers across the US and around the world. In 2008, he had 250,000 students around the world following he and his single hull 18-meter boat along the race.

I sat down with Wilson to understand what compelled him to take on this courageous (or extreme) act of self-reliance on the great seas, to learn why the number one sporting race in France is barely known in the US, and ask him about the loneliness, what natural beauty he may see, how he musters up the necessary tenacity and hear about the exuberance at the docks. We have included a video of his rounding of Cape Horn, which I think is pretty cool.

You say this is France’s largest sporting event in terms of marketing impact with more exposures than the Tour de France. And you noted that the French love sailing. How do you think they see it differently than Americans?

In France, there are many sailing clubs, schools and sailing associations and access to boats is easier through marinas. In quite a bit of the US, at least on the East Coast, access to boats is through mooring which means you really have to have a yacht club here, but I also think that there's much more of a maritime culture there.

There used to be a maritime culture in the US but a lot of that's been lost. People don't think about the oceans or about going to sea as much. It's a challenge for any smaller port to get noticed by the general media when you have 'the big four': football, baseball, hockey and basketball.  

How do you keep sane on the sea when you're alone so long?

One builds up to the Vendée Globe. The Vendée Globe is the pinnacle. I've sailed my whole life but in 2016, I'll be 66 years of age and I'll likely be the oldest skipper in the race and likely the oldest that's ever started.

You have to build up mileage at sea and that's how you end up having experiences of bad storms, or mechanical failures. You learn how to try to solve those problems on the water so that when you prepare the boat for the next time, you solve that problem in anticipation of that problem occurring again.  

How does fear come into play?

There are certain specific things that invoke fear. I was always afraid of having to go up the mast alone in the South and eventually it did happen on a trip. I didn't have to go to the top of the mast but I had to go two-thirds of the way up the mast and it was traumatic but I was able to pull it off. There have been some stories of sailors in the Vendée Globe that have had to go up the mast and things have gone wrong with the boat that put them in a worse situation than actually being up the mast.

Are the boats pretty technical?

Yes, they are very technical.

They have an autopilot that will steer the boat but you can't really go around the world that way. You have to keep making adjustments all the time to the boat. 

Are you always tethered to the boat?

Most of the time. Some say the French don't pay too much attention to it. Some of them do and some of them don't. There are certain times when it's more dangerous to be tethered to the boat such as if you're on the foredeck and you're trying to make a sail change in the middle of the night: Sails are swinging around and there's water coming aboard. The main thing you want to do, to use the basketball phrase, is that, ‘you want to go hard to the hoop.’ You want to go fast. You want to do it accurately. Your brain is full on. Your body is 100% full on and you want to get that task done and sometimes the tether can get hooked on things and confuse the issue. In those cases, it's better to untether and go hard and finish the task. 

Do you like high-pressure situations? 

That's what makes it interesting. If you go off on a boat with twenty-six other guys on these huge 100 feet long boats that are being built today, and race for three or four days, people think that’s like a big deal. But there are twenty-five other guys on the boat! It’s like, 'here's your winch, learn to love it' because that's all you going to get to do. You're not going to navigate. You're not going to steer. You're not going to cook. With solo sailing, in particular with a boat that's as big as the open sixties, you have to do everything.

Why is self-reliance so important to you?

I think it's one of the great things about sailing. For young kids who are learning how to sail and going out in these tiny little box boats with square bows, called Optimists, it’s the ultimate.

I don't know how many there are in the world but there are tens-of-thousands if not hundreds-of-thousands of them being sailed today by kids. What other sport does a kid once they leave the dock get to be on their own? They're responsible for themselves. They're responsible for the boat. They're responsible for all their decision-making: Tending to the boom and tipping the boat over. They don't have those chances in other sports. With field sports, the sideline's right there and there's somebody to help. Mom and dad are standing there and the coach is there and the doctor's there if anything goes wrong. That doesn't happen in sailing. That's why it's such a magnificent sport for young people because of that self-reliance.  

Was the last round the world Vendée Globe a spiritual experience for you?

No. I'm always a little leery of 'spiritual.' I'm not religious. I believe in King Neptune but when you round Cape Horn, I will say, that’s something. It's not often that you have a chance to muse about that sort of thing. But rounding Cape Horn you’re in a very dramatic place that's historic and you think about the sailors that have been there. We're in the Drake Passage where Sir Francis Drake passed or the Straits of Magellan are just up the continent a little bit, the Beagle Channel where Charles Darwin studied is right there and Captain Bligh couldn't get around Cape Horn going East to West and so there we are and we're in the same place. How many clipper ships were lost going one way or the other going around there? That’s something.

Why do you say 'we'?

All the solo sailors do and it's 'we' – 'we at sea' is the boat and me – that's us.

Do you see other sailors as you go around the world on the Vendée?

I saw one boat when we passed the equator going south. After the first afternoon, you don't see anybody. You probably won't see anybody all the way around the world and you might not see land. I fully anticipated not seeing any land all the way around the world.

How's technology changing your boat for the voyage now compared to 2008?

Last time we had a 2000-generation boat and we knew we were going to be off the pace, but that's okay. It's the Vendée Globe and the French are quite explicit about it that if you finish this race, you're a winner. They don't care where you finish in the race.

The French public expect three things of you as a sailor in the Vendée Globe: ‘We want you to sail your best, we want you to tell us from sea what it's like at sea because we're stuck here on land, and we want you to come home.’ 

No one in American sailing, unless they've seen the Vendée Globe, has ever seen anything like what happens at the start of the Vendée Globes. I've never seen any other sport event in the United States that can compare with the action, the humanity, and the emotion at the start of the Vendée Globe. It’s incredible when 300,000 people come down to cheer the fleet off as it is towed single file out to the start of the race.

How many sailors?

There are thirty sailors.

How many boats do you predict will there be in 2016?


They cap it at thirty?

They actually cap it at twenty-seven boats but thirty were ready to go so they allowed the extra three.

Is there much media?

When I speak to an American journalist, they eventually get around to the question of, 'well, are you going to win?' and of course if they'd done fifteen minutes worth of homework, they'd realize that of course I am not going to win! I have a third generation boat. I'm the oldest skipper. I'm American.

You never get that from the French. The cynic might say, 'that's because they knew you weren't going to win' but that's not it at all. They just say, 'we're glad you're here.' A ten-year-old boy came up to me on the madhouse that is the dock of the Vendée Globe and said to me in French, 'the important thing is to participate.' And that's exactly right.

You go to participate. You do your best and you tell people on shore what it's like at sea and then you try to come home. And that’s not an offhand comment. There have been three sailors – two within the last race – who ran into trouble.

What kind of trouble?

When American Mike Plant sailed across the Atlantic delivering Coyote from New York Harbor to Les Sables-D’Olonne for the starting line of the '92 race – his keel broke off. The boat turned upside down. They never found him. There are obvious risks involved in this. In the race, there was a young French skipper who was a fabulous sailor who was very severely injured in the Vendée Globe with a broken femur, pelvis and back in an accident on the boat. The Vendée Globe is very different from what most people envision as the nice, sweet sport of afternoon day sailing with sunshine and a rum and tonic. 

What's the mariner’s code in the Vendée Globe race?

The code goes beyond the Vendée Globe. It's the tradition on the sea to go to the aid of a mariner in distress without discussion, without debate. If somebody's in trouble, you go and you do whatever you can do to help. 

That came to the fore in the 2008 Vendée Globe when Yann Elies was hurt so severely, the race office called the Australian navy. Yann was 800 miles south of Australia. They immediately deployed a frigate to go get him. It was going to take forty-eight hours to get there and they also told the next two closest boats in the race that Yann was in trouble. Mark Guillemot was about sixty/seventy miles ahead but he stopped his boat, turned around, and went back upwind to Yann. Meanwhile, Samantha Davies, a young British skipper, was 100 miles away and she stopped racing and went in to fast mode to get to where he was so that she'd have some extra rest along the way and the brief by the race doctor to both those skippers was to lend emotional support, not to try to get off their boats and actually help because then the other skipper might get injured as well. They instantly stopped racing and headed towards Yann’s position and then his keel broke off just before Cape Horn, about 200 miles west of Cape Horn and his boat turned upside down immediately.  

The next boat to get there was Vincent and he started circling the boat, hoping that Yann would come out from under the upside down boat. Eventually he did in a survival suit. In between Mark arrived as well and they were taking turns circling because sailing these boats is a big challenge and if you have to go back in one position, that's just an enormous physical effort and when Yann came out, Vincent sailed by and threw him a line and tried to get it to him. The idea was for Yann to tie it around himself and jump in the water and then Vincent would winch him across to his boat. He missed the first time and had to sail around in a circle that included two sail maneuvers.

He can't swim to him to help?

No. Risky. Then he's 200 miles off Cape Horn swimming in a survival suit. Better to try to make a solid contact. He comes back the second time, throws again, misses again, and then the third time and misses again, and then the fourth time, getting desperate, he goes desperately close to make sure he gets the line to Yann. He ties it around and jumps in the water, Vincent winches him across, drags him on board and puts him in the cockpit. Then they notice he'd gone so close that one of the outriggers that holds up the mast had hit the fin of the overturned boat and cracked the carbon tube and the next day, Vincent's own mast broke and came down. So, Vincent, the defending champion from the 2004 race, sacrificed his race to save his friend and it was an incredible story. So now he’s out of the race and had been in third place, easily able to make time to first.

Wow. Did you have any intense experiences like that in the race?

Mine was less dramatic but it’s another example of the mariner’s code. When we entered the Indian Ocean there was a group of about five boats. They were all older boats and there were about a hundred miles between each of us spread out over 500 miles. One by one across the Indian Ocean we hit a series of seven gales. All of the other boats except me dropped out of the group and I went past New Zealand heading into the Pacific where there are no islands. There's nothing out there in the Deep South. It's 5,000 miles and takes me about three weeks to cross. It's a long stretch and there's nothing there. Heading into it, I knew that there was only one ship along that route about every eight-to-ten days too. I had a lot of trepidation heading out because if the injury to Yann had happened to me in the middle of the Pacific, it wouldn't be two days before a ship could get there… It would be seven.

Now there was a big gap between the next boats and me in the race – about 900 miles ahead and 1,000 behind – and so I was nervous. About two days into this, I get an email from Samantha Davies who was way up ahead of me and she said, 'hi, Rich. I see you lost your last running mate from your group. It won't be much fun to sail the Pacific alone. So, I'll be your virtual running mate and I'll check in with you every couple of days.' That meant a lot to me and she did keep checking and it was an astute observation by a young skipper whom, best of all, acted on her observation and reached out to help. 

How do you organize food and water since you can't dock?

You take the food with you. The target is 6,000 calories a day, which is triple the normal intake. That alone defines the caloric expenditure of actually sailing in an open 60 alone. For water, we and we have a desalinator on board. I make fresh water from seawater.

What kind of food do you bring?

I would have four full meals a day, every six hours: granola for breakfast at 6 am and we found a line of Bumblebee foil-pack salmon steaks, freeze dried for dinner and always enough for two people and then I would have ramen noodles and oatmeal at midnight. The humorous part of it all was that that still didn't get to 6,000. You get sick of high energy foods pretty quickly because they're too sweet but I don't get sick of is Fig Newton’s. I would eat an entire sleeve of Fig Newton’s every single day.

There's your sponsor.

Yeah, 825 calories of Fig Newton’s a day for four months.

Do you know which boat you're sailing in 2016?

Yes, we have the boat. It's new for us but it's 2006 generation. It will still be ten years old when we sail. It's been in four around the world races and it’s finished two and made it halfway in two before there was a keel problem and a mast problem.

What's the boat's name?

The Great American Four. It’s a series. I sailed The Great American Three for Vendée Globe in 2008. When I finished that race, I thought, without being dramatic about it, there was some chance that I might never go sailing again. I was beat up physically, mentally and emotionally. I was done.

The French were actually the ones brought me back towards thinking about doing it again. Here to the US, a lot of my sailing friends would say, 'congratulations. You're not going to do that again, are you?' While the French have an entirely different attitude about life: If you're reasonably good at this and you were because you finished this race, and only eleven out of thirty boats finished, and you have a good objective (they knew about our school program.) Then you do this and the rest of it's a calculated risk. The French really feel that life is to be lived.

Will there be another American sailor in the race along with you in 2016?

It doesn’t look like it at the moment. I know that there are a couple of people who'd like to be able to go but I don't think so.



Even a non-sailor, gets hooked to a race like the Vendée Globe, they become absolutely mesmerized. We heard time and time again that people would be checking at least three times a day on how I was doing in 2008. They wanted to know where I was before they went to bed at night: ‘what's the weather forecast for the night? While I'm sleeping, he's out there still,' and again first thing in the morning and they would wonder, 'did he get through the night?'

There’s an incredible missed opportunity with both corporate America and with the general media in the US because this race is so compelling for people who get hooked on it. When we did the 2008 race, it wasn’t people in San Francisco or Boston or Newport, where sailing is a dominant sport, who were into this. Our main distribution channel for sitesAlive has been through newspaper and education programs across the world. We have fifty newspapers in the US who signed on to do this because they all get the point. Some of the most imaginative educators I've seen in the entire panoply of K12-education have been the education managers in newspapers. We had twenty-five newspapers in that landlocked state of Missouri all following the race. If twenty-five newspapers in the state of Missouri were following us last time, then corporate America can be absolutely assured that the general public will be completely psyched about this once they're exposed to it.

How were people following you in 2008?

Online, mostly. Through both the website and as well through the newspapers. It was a fifteen-part-weekly series with essays that I would write from sea on the topics of the week that we had designed in the teacher's curriculum guide. The whole reason for me to do these kinds of events is to create a live-interactive-education program. It is an exciting, real world context for science, geography, math, and history.

When people are following you, are you very mindful that you're trying to run curriculum?

Yes. Every day there's an audio report, ship's log data, skipper's journal and three times a week there'd be pictures, videos and I would do ten Q & A. Students could send questions in and they'd be relayed to me through the satellite system and I would answer them while at sea.

It was just an extraordinary thing to have fifteen highly accomplished professionals from a wide diversity of fields contributing to the school program. Students heard from a ship captain on board a ship in the South China Sea, from the head maritime administrator in Washington, from the emergency doctor who was on call for me, my asthma doctor, a climate specialist, a history specialist, a professor of aeronautical engineering at MIT, a tanker broker on Wall Street, and the head of the Museum of Science in Boston.

What interests me is to have teacher-led classroom discussions about weather systems, about fisheries depletion, about climate change, about marine transportation, and about nutrition, That is why we do this. If we have 100 million people who check to see if I'm going over 14 knots and that's all they care about, then that doesn't do it for me. I'm not interested.

Where will your team be based?

Based here in Marble Head north of Boston but the boat is up in Portland, Maine right now for a refit. We have an English team of experts who come over in the fall and spring. I've known the designer of this boat for about twenty-five years.

This is a professional sport. This is like stepping into NASCAR in offshore sailboat racing. It's exactly the same kind of thing. It's highly sponsored in France and in England. It's the biggest sports event in France – bigger than the Tour de France by 50% in marketing terms in France.

Are you training?

I have a great trainer who was an all American distance runner and she trained at Boston University. She trained with (Joan Benoit Samuelson) who was the first marathon winner in the Olympics. She's become a cyclist and a world time trial champion cyclist. Her name is Marti Shea. She's right here in Marblehead, amazingly. There's a cycling race in Mount Washington and she's won it eleven times in a row. So, she's great.

What are some of the amazing things you see in nature when you sail around the world?

The albatross fly along with you across the South and you might see flying fish, which the kids always love. They actually come aboard in the tropics. In fact, I wore a helmet the whole way around the world with a Lexan visor because I got knocked in the head pretty hard going into the Indian Ocean in the first gale that we had and so I wore a helmet the rest of the way on deck all the way back to France but you also wear that in the tropics even though it's hot inside the helmet to protect your eyes from the flying fish.

What's it look like between Australia and America?

It is just big. If you take a globe in your hand and you center it on 15 degrees south latitude and 155 degrees west longitude, then all you will see for land is New Zealand down in one corner and the Aleutian Islands in the other corner. You won't see any other land. You'll see a little of Antarctica. That entire hemisphere is water. There are a bunch of islands in the Pacific Ocean but there's no solid land. It's just gigantic.

When I went past New Zealand, I saw an island for ten minutes in the distance, called Adams Island, and by accident I was close enough to see it for ten minutes but from there to Cape Horn is 5,000 miles and I didn't see anything: no ships, no fishing boats, nothing.

How many days is that?

That was about three weeks. The nearest people on Planet Earth are in the space station.

Do you get lonely?

I could call anybody at any time but you know that there is nobody around to help. There is nobody that can come and help if you get in trouble for some extensive period of time. Maybe there's a fishing boat fifty miles away but that fishing boat may also be 800 miles away. That's the hard part. You stay in touch with close friends and I'm always writing for the school program. I would spend two hours a day on the school program while I'm at sea, particularly writing those teaching essays because if you have the chance to write for seven million readers… you don't send them your first draft. You send them the ninth draft. You make it perfect and you work at it. The kids will help bring me home.

Is it harder physically or mentally?

I think equally and they bear on each other when you're that physically tired. It bears on your mental state. I think that the mental part of it, the emotional part, is toughest. When you're that tired but you know you have to do something with the boat or you should put up more sail, or you should take a reef in – particularly in the South where it's so cold. If it's 45 degrees in the cabin but the wind chill outside is ten degrees, you have to muster the effort to do it because you somehow internally know that you must but there's a reluctance to do it. You rely on support of your friends back home.

I remember when I was coming up the Atlantic and it was so bad and I had a very bad hallucination about the anchor, I called a couple of people. One was the guy up in Maine, who's the only guy in Maine who's worked on these sorts of boats in the US, named Brian Harris. I called Brian and I said, 'Brian, you've been through all this stuff before. Can I call anytime to talk?' He said, 'of course' and then I called the emergency doctor and said, 'you got me through the broken ribs on races. You got me through the big eye gash. You got me through the crunched neck when I fell on my head. Now you have to turn into a shrink and help get me home because I'm really having a hard time out here.' Friends once I got home would say, 'you were having a hard time those last few weeks. We could tell in your voice' and so it's a huge, huge effort that way but that's what makes it so compelling to attempt.

I always think of the American story we tell ourselves of frontiersman overcoming barriers… out there on the range alone, pressing ahead, and when things go wrong, Americans still keep pressing ahead. But what we do now is these big team sports where people aren't alone pressing ahead on their own. This race is absolutely the epitome of that ethos, of that sort of story we tell ourselves and that's what makes it so compelling.

We'll be watching.

(Wikipedia) The race was founded by Philippe Jeantot in 1989, and since 1992 has taken place every four years. The 2016–2017 edition is planned to start on Sunday, 6 November 2016. As the only single-handed non-stop round-the-world race (in contrast to the VELUX 5 Oceans Race, which is sailed in stages), the race is a serious test of individual endurance, and is regarded by many as the ultimate in ocean racing.