In the broad spectrum of human sailing endeavors, few confuse the uninitiated more than the desire to sail around the world in a small boat. By “small” I mean really small—like less than 20ft small—and in some cases much tinier than that, like the 5ft 41/2in Vera Hugh, which the redoubtable Tom McNally built from a washing machine and a wardrobe to sail across the Atlantic in 134 days. His record (and possibly his heart) was broken the same year by Hugo Vihlen, who made the journey in 115 days in Father’s Day, just half an inch shorter than his rival’s craft.
Such tooth-and-nail competition is not unusual in the micro-world of micro-boats. It dates back to the mid-19th century when a heated transatlantic rivalry between Americans and Brits involving boats as small as 14ft went on for nearly half a century as sailors sought to outdo each other. The high casualty rate in those pre-EPIRB days was apparently no deterrent.
It’s not just non-sailors who fail to see the point in such masochistic practices—anyone who has made long ocean passages in sailing boats of whatever size has observed the metaphorical daily shrinkage of their habitat until, after a week or three, it sometimes becomes almost unbearably confining. If you can feel such cabin fever in a 50ft cruiser, imagine it in a boat a quarter that size.
This, of course, does not deter sailors of a certain mindset from pursuing their dreams in boats that many of us would not sail across a protected lake, let alone an ocean. Two such have been in the news lately; one for completing an impressive voyage, the other for embarking on one.
In May, Szymon Kuczynski sailed into England’s Plymouth Marina after completing a solo non-stop circumnavigation south of the great capes on his 22ft boat Atlantic Puffin. The young Pole’s achievement was noteworthy not just for setting a new record for the smallest boat to girdle the globe nonstop and unassisted, but because it was accomplished in a modified Maxus 22 trailer-sailer, hardly the weapon of choice for such a voyage—you would think. It was actually Kuczynski’s second time around in the boat. He made a solo circumnavigation, with stops, in 2014, and prior to that had sailed a double transatlantic on an even smaller boat.
As Kuczynski was draining the last drops of champagne, another experienced small-boat sailor was preparing for a big voyage. At the ripe young age of 79, Sven Yrvind—or, as he prefers to be called, just Yrvind—was prepping his self-built, 18ft 11in long Exlex for a solo odyssey from Dingle, Ireland, to Dunedin, New Zealand. This was no first voyage for the tough old Swede. Since his first offshore venture in 1962, he’s sailed smaller boats longer distances, and had originally planned to make this passage in a 14-footer. He became well known in the 1980s (before he changed his name from Lundin to Yrvind) for a series of ambitious voyages on various mini-boats called Bris. Among them was a midwinter rounding of Cape Horn, at that time the smallest boat ever to round the famous landmark.
The bright yellow Exlex, designed by Yrvind and built of foam sheathed in fiberglass, carries just four square meters of sail on her two stubby carbon-fiber masts, which are designed to survive a rollover in the turbulent seas of the Southern Ocean. She is self-righting but has no ballast keel, just leeboards and twin rudders. Yrvind can trim the sails and steer the boat without going on deck. He has designed a ventilation system that, he says, will admit no water in a capsize.
Yrvind will sustain himself mainly on canned sardines and muesli during his epic voyage, harvesting water by capturing the condensation that forms on the interior of his sailing “capsule.” In calms, he will propel the little boat with a sculling oar.
It will take him the best part of a year to complete the voyage; a prospect that holds no fears for this sailor-philosopher. “Only the true, eternal, endless, blue, wet, deep ocean can cure me from nostalgia, sehnsucht and saudade and bring me back to the spiritual state of my youth,” he wrote. “That’s why I long to be out sailing again… If all goes well the first day I will have the wide open spaces in front of me, three- four-hundred blissful days at sea.”