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Recreating Knox-Johnston’s Historic Circumnavigation

 Racing sleds need not apply: the Golden Globe 2018 is all about strudy designs from the past   

 Racing sleds need not apply: the Golden Globe 2018 is all about strudy designs from the past   

One of the most exciting events on this year’s sailing calendar starts July 1 from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. The Golden Globe Race 2018 is neither fast nor glamorous. Instead, it’s a throwback to a simpler time when adventure was man-against-the-sea, and the sea usually won. It is a re-creation of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, an event that took place 50 years ago and remains one of the true watershed moments in offshore racing.

The original Golden Globe was the very first around-the-world yacht race, a singlehanded, nonstop lap of the planet at a time when in the minds of many the very idea that you could sail around the planet without stopping was nothing less than preposterous. However, British naval reserve officer Robin Knox-Johnston (now “Sir” Robin Knox-Johnston) proved the naysayers wrong when he arrived back in Falmouth, a small seaside town on the south coast of England, 313 days after he set off, claiming he had done it “for Queen and Country.”

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Five decades later, 18 men and one woman from all walks of life will embark on a similar voyage, a solo, nonstop circumnavigation. Not only that, but they will do so in a way that seems caught in a time warp since they will carry out their voyage in similar boats to the ones used back in 1968. As the race rules state: if it wasn’t available then you can’t use it now.

In terms of boat design, the competitors will have to sail aboard vessels that are between 32ft and 36ft in length overall; they must have a full-length keel with the rudder attached to the trailing edge, and the hulls must be made out of fiberglass. No electronics allowed. In other words, no GPS, no satphone, no autopilot, no fancy instruments and definitely no iPad loaded with books and the latest blockbuster movies. Books are allowed: the old print and paper variety. Freeze-dried food is allowed, but in an oddly ironic way, since you may take as much of the stuff as you like, but you are not allowed a watermaker. There will, therefore, be some hard number crunching to be done to decide if taking the water to rehydrate your dinner weighs less than food in cans.

And that’s only the first of the many tough decision competitors will have to make, since there will also be no weather information piped to them via satellite or even by fax. Instead, they will have to use a barometer and watch as the glass rises or falls to predict what the wind will be.

As you may have noticed, I love the idea of this race. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t going to be even harder for these competitors than it was for the sailors doing it 50 years ago. The simple reason for this is that these modern-day sailors know better, and that’s going to make it a more difficult challenge, both mentally and emotionally.

They know, for example, about GPS and satellite weather. They also know about autopilots that can steer a boat far better than most people, even as they will have to continually tweak and adjust their wind vanes to stay on the best course they can.

When Robin Knox-Johnston pulled the sun down to the horizon with his sextant, he was likely amazed and probably content that a sextant was a pretty cool instrument for navigation, because he couldn’t foresee a day where a phone could also be used to not only navigate but watch movies. These modern-day adventurers, however, know all this, and I fear hanging off the back of their boats trying to find a glimmer of sun to navigate by is going to get pretty old pretty quickly.

Organizers of the Golden Globe 2018 had originally hoped to start and finish off Falmouth, England, the same as the original race. However, there was little interest on the part of local authorities to fund or help organize the event, so the decision was made to move it to France.

One event that will take place in Falmouth is a parade of sail. After that, the skippers will embark on a “friendly” race to the start at Les Sables-d’Olonne. Joining them will be Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, sailing aboard Suhaili, the same yacht on which he became the first person in history to solo circumnavigate without once setting foot on land.

Full keels and healthy bow overhangs are the order of the day for this solo race   

Full keels and healthy bow overhangs are the order of the day for this solo race   

It will be mid-summer when the race starts, planned that way so that most of the boats will sail the southern waters in the antipodean spring and summer. Once leaving Les Sables-d’Olonne, the fleet will sail south toward the equator and then down the length of the South Atlantic, under Africa and Australia before a mandatory stop in Tasmania.

The latter serves to commemorate the time Sir Robin pulled into Storm Bay, a small inlet on the approach to Hobart in the course of his own voyage. While there he exchanged film and letters and then continued racing. In the same spirit, the competitors in the 2018 race will make the same stop to hand over video footage and, presumably, any letters and film they may have.

While there they will also have to wait a minimum of 90 minutes, during which time race officials will check to see that their safety pack has not been opened. Competitors are all required to carry this bit of kit, which includes a portable GPS that may be used in an emergency. However, if the seal to said pack is found to be broken, the competitor will face a penalty. After its brief Hobart stopover, the fleet will sail a long Southern Ocean leg to Cape Horn before turning its bows north toward France and the finish.

The interest surrounding the Golden Globe has been steadily increasing due in part to the newly released movie, The Mercy. The film is about Donald Crowhurst, one of the other competitors who sailed in the original race in 1968. Crowhurst realized not long after he set off that his boat was unseaworthy and likely would not make it around the world intact. He, therefore, decided to fake his voyage by sending false position reports at the same time he kept two logbooks: one of his actual journey, one of his fictitious “circumnav.” After months of being alone at sea engulfed in a stressful lie, Crowhurst slowly began slipping into dementia. His logbook entries are those of a man rapidly losing touch with reality before finally ending it all by stepping off the back of his boat believing he could literally walk on water. His catamaran, Teignmouth Electron, was later found, and the two logbooks and fake voyage revealed.

When the Golden Globe 2018 was first announced two years ago, a waiting list quickly formed, as the total number of competitors has been capped at 30. Since then, as with many big sailing events, there has been some attrition. However, the remaining 19 sailors represent one of the most diverse groups ever assembled for a circumnavigation, with sailors from 13 different countries taking part: including two, Istvan Kopar and Palestinian-born Nabil Amra, from the United States.

All the competitors seem to be doing the race for similar reasons: a love of adventure and a longing for simpler times. And you can be sure that they will all find more than enough of both. There is no time limit, but the rules are strict: the voyage is to be done without stopping or outside assistance any kind, two ingredients that mark the very essence of a true sailing adventure. For the latest, visit goldengloberace.com

Photo courtesy of Golden Globe 2018/ PPL Photo agency

June 2018

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