A voyage for 21st Century madmen? What drives the Golden Globe skippers

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Helen Fretter went to the start of the Golden Globe Race to find out why 17 men and one woman have eschewed modern technology to race solo around the world for 300 days

A voyage for madmen, so was the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race deemed. When the first non-stop race around the world began in 1968 few thought a man could sail around the world alone. The common opinion was that the limits of human endurance would be reached long before 30,000 miles around the planet could be completed.

In some respects those early critics were tragically correct. Donald Crowhurst was famously driven beyond the edge of reason during the race, falsifying position reports before his presumed suicide. Bernard Moitessier felt the siren call of the sea so strongly he continued on alone, unable to return to western life or even his family. Six others failed, one – Nigel Tetley – after his yacht sank beneath him.

But one man and one yacht proved them wrong. Robin Knox-Johnston and Suhaili showed it could be done when he completed his solo circumnavigation in 312 days. 

Since then more than 200 people have sailed around the world alone, non-stop (for context, some 530 have gone into space, and 306 have summited K2).

From BOC Challenge and Vendée Globe competitors to record-breakers and record-seekers, pioneers of different ages and nationalities, sailing the wrong way round, or from start ports as various as Qingdao and Mumbai, solo sailors have pushed the limits of what a non-stop circumnavigation can be. No longer is there any question that it can be done: the current record time stands at a breathtaking 42 days, set by François Gabart in the 100ft trimaran Macif last winter.

Yachts have never been faster, communication equipment never more advanced, weather forecasting and routeing tools never more accurate. So why on earth would 18 souls bid to sail around the world with the same privations those nine original Golden Globe entrants had to endure? They will not be the first nor the fastest, so why voluntarily cut contact for months on end, place their faith in small, traditionally equipped yachts, and let their fates be determined by the wind, the waves, and their own mental fortitude?

The reasons are as varied as each of the 18 entrants. The premise of the 2018 Golden Globe race is a little extraordinary, and it has attracted a collection of unique and extraordinary characters.

© Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR. The 2018 Golden Globe Race from Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Uku Randmaa (EST) Rustler 36 One and All leads Antoine Cousot (FRA) Biscay 36 MŽtier IntŽrim

The race was born out of a personal passion. Australian adventurer Don McIntyre finished 2nd in the 1990-91 BOC Challenge solo round the world race, but harked to sail around again in Knox-Johnston’s wake. As the 50th anniversary of Knox-Johnston’s return approached McIntyre started to plan how it could be done. Others showed an interest in joining him, and what started as a personal pilgrimage rapidly evolved into a full-blown race. McIntyre initially planned to take part, but the organisation required escalated until he sold his boat (to entrant Kevin Farebrother) and became race chairman instead.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was never any shortage of people willing to take part. At one stage the entry list was overflowing with 30 declarations of interest and another 15 on the waiting list. In the end, 18 became official entrants, 17 took the startline – the financial, practical and qualification demands of the race having seen all but the most determined away.

Among those 18 were numerous professional sailors, whose CVs include the Jester Challenge, OSTAR, Vendée Globe, BOC Challenge, superyacht events, the Whitbread Round the World Race, and many more.

But there was also a former firefighter, Kevin Farebrother, who admits that he ‘barely’ had the qualifying mileage under his belt; Palestinian currency trader Nabil Amra; 28-year-old Susie Goodall, taking part in her first ever solo race, and amateur yachtsmen for whom the event is a fantasy made reality.

© Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR Abhilash Tomy (IND) Suhaili replica Thuriya is cheered by 35,000 people lining the river entrance

For Jean-Luc Van Den Heede the race is a chance to recreate a formative moment in his own life. “I followed [the 1966 Golden Globe] at the time – I was 23. I dreamt about this race.”

From watching those early pioneers, Van Den Heede went on to carve out a sailing career few could dream of. He has five circumnavigations to his name, four of them podium finishes (2nd and 3rd places) in both the Vendée Globe and BOC/Around Alone Race. Aged 73, he has absolutely nothing to prove and is gleefully doing this for the sheer fun of it.

“I didn’t want to sail again around the world, for me that was finished. Even if Matmut [his sponsor] gave me €10million I wouldn’t do the Vendée Globe again. I’ve done it twice, and now it’s a technological race, and less of an adventure,” he tells me.

Eager entrant

Yet when a friend mailed Heede details of the Golden Globe Race proposal in 2015, he was signed up within the week. Having raced at the leading edge of competition, will he not find it frustrating to be sailing round the world so slowly? “No,” he says, “it is because it is different that I want to do this.” 

At 73 years he considers that he might be “a little bit too old”, so says he’s taking part with an open mind. However, he is clearly not a competitor to be underestimated and after two weeks of racing was lying 3rd.

Australian Mark Sinclair is another sailor for whom a major draw is the sense of becoming part of maritime history. Sinclair’s diminutive orange Lello 34 Coconut carries a library that includes everything from Homer’s Odyssey to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Naomi James’ Alone Around the World, and of course, Knox-Johnston’s A World of My Own.

“I think it’s crazy to sail single-handed around the world without stopping – why would you do that? Why not stop at all those interesting places? But this is a re-enactment of Knox Johnston’s voyage: frame it like that with a sextant and a Walker trailing log and Nories tables, and it’s just so exciting.”

Sinclair sailed solo from Australia to New Zealand in his early 20s and dreamed of a circumnavigation, but a career and family life got in the way. “One of the problems of sailing around the world is you can put it off, and put it off…” he admits, “But this is the 50th anniversary of Knox-Johnston doing the first circumnavigation. It’s on a date – if you miss it, there’s not going to be another. So it’s a catalyst to action, and I just found it absolutely compelling.”

Others discovered the notion much more recently. Former firefighter and SAS soldier Kevin Farebrother only started sailing five years before he started the Golden Globe, and confirmed his entry after reading A World of My Own during an Everest expedition.

Dutchman Mark Slats is another adventurer for whom the Golden Globe is another personal challenge. Intensely driven and competitive, Slats interrupted his Golden Globe preparation to row the Atlantic, demolishing the solo world record time by five days and rowing relentlessly for 18 hours a day. 

He has set targets for the number of days he wants each ‘stage’ of the Golden Globe to take and says the thing he is most concerned about is losing motivation: “The hardest thing will be to not get lazy, every job can be
done tomorrow.”

Slats uses some bizarre psychological tricks to keep driven – even listening to music he hates for hours on end during his Atlantic row so he could ‘reward’ himself with something better at the end of a watch.

He has already completed two solo circumnavigations and has ambitions of one day doing a Vendée. “I want to be competitive in this, I’m going to be racing the whole way,” he says. He is one of the early stage leaders.

As individual as each competitor is the way they’ve approached the preparation and modification of their yachts. Philippe Péché, a Breton whose career has included twice winning the Jules Verne Trophy, is sailing one of six Rustler 36s in the race, but his is branded in the famous orange livery of PRB. His Rustler 36 has hanked-on headsails, lightweight Karver blocks and similar to make the cruising design as lightweight as possible.

Mark Slats is a world record breaking ocean rower

Mark Slats is sailing another Rustler 36. He too has focussed on reducing weight, packing as minimally as he can with no treats or luxuries. Uniquely, Slats also has two rowlocks fitted to his yacht The Ohpen Maverick with an over-length oar designed to be rowed standing. Slats plans to row for up to 12 or 15 hours a day if needed, giving extra impetus through 100 miles or so of the Doldrums.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede has modified his Rustler 36 by shortening his rig and increasing the roach on his mainsail. He believes being able to sail consistently, reducing the need to reef repeatedly, will pay off. He also wanted to reduce weight aloft for the Southern Ocean.

Traditional aids

Mark Sinclair has kept his Lello 34 as authentic as possible, refurbishing original winches and engine and fitting a 40-year-old Aries wind vane. 

Abhilash Tomy went one step further – his Thuriya is a new build near-replica of Suhaili. 

Tomy, who was the first Indian sailor ever to circumnavigate the globe, wanted to build a boat in India but, according the rules, the only new build permitted was an Eric 32 – the original design of Suhaili (all other yachts must be production models, with at least 20 built and designed prior to 1988).

When he approached Knox-Johnston for advice, Sir Robin pointed out that it would be the slowest boat in the fleet. Undaunted, Tomy bought the plans for $200. “She’s the oldest design, from 1923, but the youngest boat,” he says.

Thuriya is actually a thing of loveliness, more spacious below than many of the more modern designs with beautiful woodwork on the gunwales and bowsprit. While Knox-Johnston was not always complimentary about Suhaili’s sailing capabilities, Abhilash seems fond of Thuriya.

“Upwind I don’t need to touch the tiller, she sails on her own. At 25 knots she starts moving. She likes it; I don’t have to shorten sails too much.

“The boat is in charge, she has a life of her own.”

Besides the restrictions to design, there are huge limitations on what each skipper may take. The banned list includes GPS, radar, AIS, chart plotters and electronic charts, electronic wind instruments, electric autopilots, electronic log, mobile phone, tablets, iPods, or any computer-based device, CD players, video cameras and digital cameras, satellite equipment of any kind, digital binoculars, pocket scientific calculators, electronic clocks or watches, watermakers, and materials including carbon fibre, Spectra, Kevlar, and rod rigging. 

For safety the boats may carry an AIS transponder that does not give access to GPS. For emergency use only, they also carry GPS units in sealed packages. If the seals are broken, or the skipper makes landfall to carry out repairs, then they are moved to the ‘Chichester’ division of the race.

Navigation is by sextant, and all celestial observations and calculations must be clearly recorded for verification.

Communication is limited to Ham radio, weekly satellite calls with the organisers, and very brief telegram-style messages – outgoing only. Weather bulletins are received by radio. 

Despite the drive for authenticity, curiously, engines are not sealed and competitors may carry up to 160 litres of fuel, buying them a few hundred miles of motoring through the lightest airs and at the compulsory film drops to handover their Super8 footage and stills photos.

© Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR Traditional navigation equipment to be used by skippers in the GGR: Wind-up chronometer, sextant, paper charts, parallel ruler, protractor and trailing log

Provisioning and stowage was a huge challenge for all. Every skipper I spoke to was carrying a spare mainsail, a massive item to carry on such small yachts. Spares included replacement headsails, spinnaker poles, and windvane gear. Endless tools and repair kits have to be carried – Mark Sinclair explained how he had planned to convert Coconut’s saloon table into a work bench if needed, with vices, clamps and timber packed.

Sinclair estimated he also had some 1,000 cans of food on board. Provisioning choices varied with a mix of canned and vacuum-packed meals. With no watermakers on board skippers will need to catch their own water, limiting the usefulness of freeze-dried food. Susie Goodall even opted to go plastic-free with her provisions, using dozens of glass Kilner jars.

A transformative experience

Few of the skippers who set out on 1st July had any real idea how they will contend with nine or ten months with virtually no contact from other people.

As the youngest skipper, Susie Goodall, born in 1990, will never have known life without the internet, email or text messages. It’s likely that music on cassette tapes is as alien to her as the Super 8 cine film supplied to each boat. 

Goodall seemed brittle with nerves before the start, but it was hard to judge if she was nervous about the upcoming voyage, or more likely struggling to contend with the hundreds of people wanting to talk to her about the event in the final few days.

Mark Slatts thrives on utter isolation. Two days into his cross-Atlantic row he cut the wires on this GPS because he found the ‘miles to go’ countdown so intrusive. 

Mark Sinclair, who has sailed thousands of miles solo, was also looking forward to it. “Moby Dick’s got 600 pages, if I read two pages a day I’ll just get through it,” he jokes. 

“I spend most of my time sitting up in the cockpit watching the water go by, I find it hypnotic. 

“Sometimes I have to make a radio sched and it’s so invasive, I feel like it’s invading my space.”

But not everyone can cope: within a week of starting, Ertan Beskardes withdrew from the race. He explained on Facebook: “Not talking to my family regularly to share the daily experiences has sadly taken the joy and happiness from this experience. These feelings gradually got worse until nothing else mattered except to talk to them. This wasn’t an experience I was prepared for.”

Before the start Kevin Farebrother admitted he was nervous about his lack of experience. “And to be honest, the solitude for nine months. It could be too much, I don’t know – if I only last two weeks we’ll know it’s a problem?” he said presciently. 

In fact he retired after exactly two weeks, unable to adapt to sleep below decks. “For me it is like getting into the back seat of a moving car to sleep when no-one is at the wheel,” he said, as he retired from the race. 

Abhilash Tomy is another looking forward to the isolation. For him the bigger challenge is rejoining the modern world.“It’s always the return, coming back that’s harder. It’s painful integrating back into society.

“I found it very amusing last time. You see people having conversations – they’re talking a lot but they’re not communicating what they want to say.”

Tomy believes the race will be transformative for all the skippers. “They all will be changed, but to what degree, to what extent and in what direction is something that will be decided by their expectations of this race, and what experiences they have.”

We will have to wait some 300 days to find out.

This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Yachting World magazine – visit https://goldengloberace.com for latest updates on race places and retirements