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Rich Wilson Onboard Great American IV in Preparation for the Vendée Globe

American sailor Rich Wilson goes through the paces onboard Great American IV in preparation for the Vendée Globe

American sailor Rich Wilson goes through the paces onboard Great American IV in preparation for the Vendée Globe. Photo by Peter Nielsen

I’d heard through the grapevine about what happened with Rich Wilson and the lightning. Shortly after he acquired his first IMOCA Open 60, Great American III (ex-Solidaires), back in 2006, he had parked her on his mooring at the outer harbor of Marblehead, Massachusetts, where, unfortunately, she took a strike that wiped out all her electronics. The fortunate part was that this was before he took her in for a total refit in preparation for his 2008-09 Vendée Globe campaign.

Flash forward to the summer of 2014 and we find Rich with another new-to-him Open 60, Great American IV (ex-Mirabaud), that he plans to run in the next Vendée Globe this coming November. She gets another full-on refit—including new electronics and an all-new electrical system—and Rich parks her on the very same mooring in Marblehead.
Where she gets hit by lightning. All the new electrics and electronics—totally fried.

And now here I am sailing with Rich in the summer of 2015 aboard GA IV, newly refitted a second time, on a short shakedown/delivery run from Portland, Maine, to Marblehead and the unlucky mooring. And of course I have to ask about this.
Rich is pretty matter-of-fact about the whole business. He tries to downplay the terrible coincidence, noting: “The first one wasn’t a direct hit. It was a proximity strike.”

“But doesn’t it make you think,” I insist, “that maybe someone up there is trying to send you a message?”
Rich sees zero humor in this. He just frowns, and says, “No, of course not!”

One thing’s for sure: Rich Wilson is no fatalist. He never could afford to be. As someone who has suffered from severe asthma since childhood, and has to follow a strict diet and medication regimen to maintain just 70 percent of normal lung capacity, he always knew he’d have to take control of his own fate in order to live a life that was meaningful to him.

Rich Wilson looks forward to competing in another race around the world

Rich Wilson looks forward to competing in another race around the world. Photo by Peter Nielsen

Watching him work his new boat I can plainly see how much determination this takes. There are actually three of us onboard, counting me and Jonathan Green, a young friend of Rich’s who is helping prep the boat, but Rich waves us off whenever he wants to practice doing a chore alone. And the chores are prodigious. Just raising the mainsail, over 400 pounds of it, takes many minutes of winch grinding and leaves him gasping for breath. He takes it in stride, though, pacing himself as he keeps on grinding. At one point he pauses and recites to me vital statistics from his last Globe campaign: exactly how many hundreds of revolutions it took him the raise the main and headsails on the old boat.

In preparation for that first campaign, Rich embarked on a rigorous fitness regimen, because he knew how hard it would be sailing one of these monsters alone nonstop 24/7 for more than 100 days. As he told his trainer at the time: “I’ll never be the strongest or have the most aerobic capacity. But I want you to be able to say when we’re finished that nobody ever worked harder.” Sometimes he worked so hard he vomited. And he’s kept on working out ever since, because he knew he wanted to do this again.

Rich has sailed all his life, ever since his dad took up the sport when he was a boy growing up in Boston, and all through his life his achievements as a sailor have come in an ever-rising crescendo. He was only in his 20’s when he skippered his dad’s heavy Danish ketch, Holger Danske, on a transatlantic passage, then later sailed her, despite the fact she was the second slowest boat in the fleet on paper, to a remarkable overall victory in the 1980 Newport-Bermuda Race. One of the keys to that success was meticulous preparation, as Rich spent months beforehand studying up-to-date Gulf Stream charts and effectively pioneered their use in the race.

From there he moved on to solo ocean-racing and scored an impressive success sailing Curtana, a 35ft plywood trimaran, to a class victory in the 1988 Carlsberg Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. Then through the 1990s and early 2000s came a series of record-breaking doublehanded voyages on trans-oceanic clipper ship routes aboard two large trimarans, Great American I and Great American II, along with another solo transatlantic run. In the very first of these voyages, Rich and his shipmate Steve Pettengill endured an amazing double capsize off Cape Horn, flipping upside down, then right side up again, before being rescued by a freighter.

Finally, in 2005 Rich started preparing for what he felt was the ultimate challenge, Vendée Globe. Despite the fact he was operating on a shoestring budget, and in spite of his advancing years (he was by now in his late 50s), he managed to qualify for the event and made the start line in Les Sables d’Olonne on France’s notoriously nasty Bay of Biscay in November 2008.

From the very beginning of the race, when he broke some ribs after being thrown across GA III’s cabin during a fierce Biscay gale, to the end, when he had to sail the last 8,000 miles from Cape Horn back to France with no wind instruments to feed data to his autopilot, so that he suffered severe sleep deprivation monitoring the incessant wind shifts, his 121-day passage was nothing less than an ordeal.

But from Rich’s perspective, it was also nothing less than a smashing success. No, he never expected to get anywhere near the podium, but he did finish, only the second American to do so, in a year when only 11 of 30 boats in the fleet managed to complete the course. Even better, he finished 9th, ahead of two other boats.

Most importantly, his participation in the Vendée Globe caused interest in his sitesALIVE educational program ( to metastasize. This unique campaign, in which Wilson makes his ocean-sailing adventures the centerpiece of a dynamic multi-disciplinary school program distributed to kids in grades K through 12 both online and through newspapers, had previously operated mostly in the U.S., but now with the global reach of an event like the Globe, sitesALIVE itself had gone global, with organizations from more than 30 countries expressing interest in the program. Rich didn’t have the time to make all the connections he might have, but still he engaged over 7 million newspaper readers and 250,000 students during his voyage.

Ask him straight out why the hell he’d want to do this again and Rich will tell you straight out it’s all about sitesALIVE

Ask him straight out why the hell he’d want to do this again, at his age no less (now 66, he will be the oldest person ever to start a Vendée Globe), and Rich will tell you straight out it’s all about sitesALIVE. He has made it the raison d’être of all his ocean-sailing adventures since 1990. Born of his brief career as a high-school mathematics teacher, when he served in the trenches of the combat of court-imposed school desegregation in Boston and realized how much easier it was to teach kids using real-world examples and situations, sitesALIVE has been precisely what has made Rich’s life most meaningful to him. And now, in this upcoming campaign, Rich hopes to not only to take full advantage of all the sitesALIVE partnerships he had to leave on the table last time, but also to create similar education/awareness programs for asthma sufferers and senior citizens.

“This is the stuff that really excites me,” he explains to me during a lull in the incessant activity of managing and evaluating GA IV. “It creates a major sense of purpose and makes the sailboat race much more important than just a sailboat race.”

He pauses and inevitably feels he must qualify that statement: “Not that the Vendée Globe could ever be just a sailboat race.”
And therein lies the other reason, I am certain, that Rich really wants to do this again. Ask him about what most impressed him sailing the Vendée Globe in 2008-09, and he’ll tell you immediately it was the quality of the competition. Not just how good they are at sailing, but how humble and unassuming they are, and how willing they were to take him in as a companion and to help him run his race.

He still is outwardly amazed as he describes to me all the assistance he received from Michel Desjoyeaux, the only two-time winner of the Globe and arguably the most accomplished ocean-racing sailor in the history of the sport. Not only did Desjoyeaux put Rich in touch with his brother Hubert, an important boatyard manager, when he needed assistance with his boat in France, he also took the trouble to engage in a lengthy e-mail correspondence with Rich. Rich painstakingly drafted questions in French covering a broad range of technical topics he needed information on, and Desjoyeaux, just as painstakingly and always very promptly, drafted detailed responses in English.

“The men and women who sail this race truly are the best sailors in the world, but what is truly remarkable about them is they don’t have any attitude about that,” is how Rich explained it to me after we got off the boat in Marblehead. “They exhibit nothing but bravery, without any bravado.”

And I can tell as he says this that Rich Wilson feels both very proud and very privileged to count himself among their number. And that no way would he pass up a chance to sail with them again.

Great American III

Great American III

Old & New: Comparing Great American III and IV

Like many Vendée Globe competitors who cannot attract major sponsorship, Rich Wilson has had to sail older generation Open 60’s that can never be optimally competitive in the race. Great American IV, though nearly 10 years old, is considerably more sophisticated than her predecessor. She has a carbon hull, outboard ballast tanks, twin daggerboards and even a powerful hydraulic ram to shift her keel. She is considerably lighter than GA III with a stiffer hard-chined hull shape, and with the added advantage of those ballast tanks she has much more righting moment and can carry more sail in stronger conditions.

“This boat should be much faster,” says Rich matter-of-factly. “I should have no trouble beating my old time of 121 days around the world.”

When asked if this is an important goal, he just shrugs and adds with a smile: “Only because I don’t want to sail that long again!”
To prepare GA IV for her next circuit around the globe, Rich took her to Brian Harris at Maine Yacht Center in Portland, Maine, and ponied up for various modifications. These included a complete electrical refit, in which all new power storage and generating systems and all new wiring was installed (again, much of this work was done twice, due to the lightning strike). One of the more impressive items here (which fortunately did not need replacing after the strike) was a new super-efficient 300-amp water-cooled direct-drive engine alternator with a water-cooled regulator.

Great American IV (ex-Mirabaud). Photo by Thierry Martinez

Great American IV (ex-Mirabaud). Photo by Thierry Martinez

After the lightning strike, the boat also needed all new electronics. One interesting addition here was a set of wind instruments mounted on a short removable deck wand, so that Rich has back-up instruments in case he loses his masthead instruments like he did last time. The wand, when needed, can be set up on the windward transom corner and is shifted to the opposite corner when the boat is tacked.

To make the boat marginally more comfortable, a new navigation station and a new galley module were also installed. All the sailing foils (the canting keel, daggerboards and twin rudders) were serviced, plus several rig modifications were made. The running backstays were modified to make them easier to handle and more secure, sheet leads were relocated and fine-tuned, and various bits of deck hardware were relocated. Deck modifications included raised lifelines, new bow and aft pulpits, and new cabintop hand-holds.

There is Nothing like the Vendee Globe

SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails his Tanton 39 on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at

May 2016



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