Thomas Watson had never set foot aboard a boat before he purchased his first sailboat three years ago. Now, the 35-year-old from San Francisco is planning to circumnavigate the globe.
In what he has dubbed the Pink Boat Project, Watson plans to sail around the world non-stop in his 1960 Pearson Triton Hull to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. He will be the first to circumnavigate the world starting from San Francisco and making his way east.
Watson and his Triton will be challenging the around the world, non-stop, single-handed, unassisted speed record aboard a boat under 40 feet. The current record is held by Alain Maignan with a time of 185 days, 22 hours and 2 minutes aboard his 34.78-foot monohull.
Affectionately named Darwind after Watson’s son, Darwin, the Triton boasts a bright pink color as a symbol of its cause.
“Painting your boat pink is very identifiable. Everyone knows what you’re doing right away,” says Watson. Though Watson has not had a loved one lose the battle against breast cancer, the cause is close to his heart and he hopes this recognition will pique others’ interest and inspire their support.
Watson plans to leave on October 1, 2013 for what he predicts to be a ten-month trip, so he is deep in preparation, refurbishing his boat and charting his course. Because he’ll be sailing alone, Watson must prioritize safety over speed when souping up Darwind, a project he has already funneled $80,000 into.
“I wanted a boat that would take serious abuse,” Watson affirms. “So I’ve rebuilt the boat basically from the ground up.”
During the rebuild, Watson replaced the running and standing rigging and installed devices for both wind and solar generation. When he realized the weight of fuel would be more of a burden than an asset, he removed the engine and opted to use the extra space for food and a battery bank instead. A solid door hatch will replace the hatch boards to create a watertight enclosure. While Watson is concerned about the dangers ahead, he feels confident in the measures he has taken.
"The real safety is in the preparation,” Watson says. “Basically every decision I’ve made is based on the question, ‘Will this survive the Southern Ocean?’” The trip is very daunting, particularly without a support vessel. Watson will sail southeast from San Francisco Bay down the coast of South America, round Cape Horn, and then cruise through the Southern Ocean along the edge of Antarctica. Once he reaches New Zealand he will sail north again, pass Hawaii, and then return to San Francisco. Fans can follow Watson’s progress on his Pink Boat blog (www.thepinkboat.org) where he will track his location and post stories and photos along the way.
Watson was not always a capable, daring sailor. His grandparents, who owned a boat, introduced him to sailing at a young age, but he did not understand the appeal.
“I always thought sailboats were silly,” he recalls. “Why would I want to go slow? It never made sense to me.”
Things changed in his twenties and he suddenly became enamored with the idea of sailing. After moving onto a houseboat, he befriended numerous sailors in the San Francisco area who eventually convinced him to purchase his own boat and learn how to use it. Soon after, Watson bought his first boat on Craigslist, a Catalina 22.
Over the next few months Watson absorbed all of the information he could about sailing, and he picked it up quickly. He began crewing on race boats, and eventually participated in several ocean races, including the 2011 Great Pacific Longitudinal Race and the 2011 Offshore Yacht Racing Association in the Shorthanded Division.
“After my first ocean race, I was really hooked,” Watson says. He wanted to put his skills to the test and sail around the world. But despite the enthusiasm for his newly discovered dream, something was missing.
“[Sailing] is a great thing to do, but I felt like it was a little selfish,” Watson says. “I wasn’t being a very productive person and I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life.”
His father first proposed the idea of using a sailing trip to raise money for breast cancer.
“I’m pretty sure I said, ‘There’s no way that’s going to happen. That’s crazy! I’m not doing that.’”
But the more he mulled it over, the more he took to the idea. While Watson has not been directly affected by breast cancer, he believes that he does not need such an experience for his trip to make a difference.
“Unfortunately, since this has started, I’ve found entirely too many reasons for this trip,” Watson says. “[Breast cancer] is one of those things where it’s there, but you don’t really know about it until you start talking about it a lot and it’s just amazing how much this affects everyone.”
Because of that, he needed a counterpart with a lot of reach to make the Pink Boat Project a reality. He wanted to partner with an organization with outstanding commitment to the cause that could have the largest impact, and decided upon the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The foundation puts 90.6 percent of donations toward research grants and awareness programs, something Watson found admirable. The goal of the Pink Boat Project is to raise $1 million for this research.
“The $1 million is just the first goal. The long-range goal is to cure breast cancer, one step at a time. I’m hoping we get to $10 million. I hope we reach that and we go to $100 million.”
Watson has also taken a very active approach to raising money by putting together Pink Boat Regattas, the first of which was hosted in San Francisco. Participants don their pinkest gear for this fixed-time race, and sail around buoys to gain points. Sailors wanting more of an edge may purchase points before or after the race, but don’t have to get the most points in order to win something. Awards are also given out for most buoys rounded, least buoys rounded, most buoys rounded by a female skipper, and, the pinkest boat, the most coveted regatta award.
Afterwards, everyone returns to shore to celebrate with food, drinks and good company.
“I was really happy to see everybody there and see all of this come together,” Watson says. “It was a great sense of personal accomplishment and it was so fantastic to see everyone having so much fun.”
Three more regattas are scheduled for this year in Seattle, Washington; La Salle, Michigan; and San Francisco. If you’re interested in hosting a regatta in your town, visit www.thepinkboat.org/regatta.
“There’s a lot of people who make this happen,” Watson says. “It’s not just about me sailing my boat. If it wasn’t for my family and friends and sponsors, none of it would have happened.”
His journey may be months from now, but Watson is already thinking of his projects beyond Pink Boat. The sailor plans to continue competitively sailing after his trip and create a Pink Boat racing team to compete and raise breast cancer awareness. He dreams of taking his mission to an international level and is entertaining the idea of putting together a race similar to that of the Velux 5 Oceans, where he can spread the word about his project to multiple ports across the world.
When asked what he does when he is not sailing or focusing on Pink Boat, Watson laughs, saying he wishes he had that kind of time. Because for now, sailing is his job, his hobby, his life.
“I love sailing so much. It’s the only thing I can do. There is no other choice for me.”
Photos courtesy of Thomas Watson/The Pink Boat