Hats off to Mr. Wilson

Rich Wilson, 58, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, became the second American to have completed the Vende Globe, an unassisted, non-stop, around the world race that’s fought out in wildly powerful IMOCA 60 monohulls — when he crossed the finishing line in ninth place aboard his trusty stead, Great American III on March 9, 2009. While Wilson finished weeks behind the overall winner, Michel Desjoyeaux, he still earned a top-ten finish (his was the ninth boat to cross the finishing line).

But looking at Wilson’s performance through quantitative-only glasses would be missing the whole point of his race. Wilson was the race’s oldest competitor by several years; moreover, Wilson has been dogged by a severe case of asthma since he was a child, requiring him to take four different meds each day simply to breathe and operate normally. Then there’s the “simple” matter of sailing a massively powerful boat all around the world, solo, with all of the winching, stacking, working, and thinking falling onto his shoulders and his shoulders alone. Not an easy task, but when you layer on the fact that Wilson has been sailing with at least one broken rib since the race’s start, you begin to get the picture.

Perhaps most interesting about Wilson’s race was that he never looked to win. Rather, he looked to educate. For years, Wilson has been running an interactive, educational website called sitesALIVE. Here students can track his progress and learn about the world’s ocean’s and maritime ecosystems (as well as other topics such as rainforests, U.S. history, and bluegrass music, for example).

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that of the 29 boats that started the Vende Globe on November 9, 2008, 17 dropped out due to various injuries, dismastings, and other mechanical failures. Plus, there were two harrowing at-sea rescues, and one Open 60 (Bernard Stamm’s) ended up on the rocks. So, while Wilson may have spent 121 at sea, all American sailors should view his voyage as a great success. Wilson not only overcame age and asthma, but he also sailed a smart, conservative race; a strategy that ended up rewarding him nicely in the end.

Interestingly, the IMOCA class association released its new World Champion on March 17, a few days after the last Vende Globe finisher crossed the line. The Vende Globe is obviously the biggest event in the class’s world championships and therefore carries the most available points (followed by the Transat Race). While Wilson didn’t compete in the 2008 Transat, his ninth-place finish in the Vende Globe earned him tenth place overall in the class’s World Championship standings.

Congrats to Mr. Wilson, and welcome back to Terra Firma.

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