Sights on the Globe

Rich Wilson is a sucker for punishment. One solo round-the-world race isn’t enough for the New England sailor, who at the tender age of 62 has set his sights on the 2016-17 Vendee Globe—arguably the world’s toughest sailing event.
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Rich Wilson is a sucker for punishment. One solo round-the-world race isn’t enough for the New England sailor, who at the tender age of 62 has set his sights on the 2016-17 Vendee Globe—arguably the world’s toughest sailing event.

Wilson, who will be 65 when the 28,000-mile race starts in November 2016, has purchased the powerful Open 60 monohull formerly known as Mirabaud, a tough and competitive boat that finished 7th in the 2012-13 Vendee Globe.

An afternoon sail on Wilson's open 60

Now named Great American IV, the boat will be based in Maine while Wilson trains for the super-tough race—France to France, leaving Antarctica to starboard, three months-plus alone at sea. Only two Americans have ever finished the race—Bruce Schwab in 2004/5, and Wilson in the 2008/9 event.

Wilson, of course, is no stranger to superhuman sailing feats. On board various Great American multihulls, he set a number of long-distance sailing records in the 1990s. On one voyage, his trimaran capsized off Cape Horn and then flipped right way up again an hour later—now there’s a sailing record no one will try to break.

Lately, Rich’s sailing exploits have served to publicize his Sites Alive Foundation, which helps promote and publicize expeditions via the internet as a K-12 learning tool.

The latest Great American is a serious weapon, 60 feet of carbon fiber displacing just 8.5 tons, packing a 100-foot-tall rig that carries 3,500 square feet of upwind sail area, with a 14ft-deep keel that cants to windward to allow maximum use to be made of that massive sailplan.

Along with some other Marblehead, Massachusetts, sailors, I stepped aboard Great American IV on a sunny Sunday morning for a quick outing intended to let sailmaker Dave Curtis get the measure of the beast before the next sail wardrobe is designed.

I’ve been on Open 60s before, and each time I’ve been humbled by the thought that so much boat can be handled by just one person—and one not in the first flush of youth. Rich is no muscle-bound foredeck gorilla—he’s thin as a rail, with a professorial air, not surprising since he has been in education for most of his life. Then again, a number of women have sailed these boats around the world, so I suspect that brains and technique are more important than brute force.

Still, the latter sure comes in handy for sweating up that big mainsail, where several guests take turns on the Harken coffeegrinder pedestal to slowly winch up that vast expanse of heavy laminate. I begin to see why Rich invited us… Great American’s cockpit is a trench bordered by winches and rows of rope clutches. Rope—multicolored miles of it—is coiled and stashed in big bins running along each side of the cockpit. I try twice to count the number of lines coming back to the cockpit and am distracted each time, but the tally is north of 40. That’s a lot of spaghetti to stay on top of. When you’re not working the coffeegrinder, you’re coiling lines.

Rich bought the boat in France, sailed her to the Azores with a crew, and then brought her back to Marblehead singlehanded. “You must know the boat pretty well by now,” I venture. He looks at me and shakes his head. “No, not at all.” Designed by British firm Owen Clarke, the boat is, says Rich, probably 20 percent more powerful than his previous Open 60. It has hit speeds of 35 knots. This is preying on my mind as I grip the tiller—what would it feel like, to be on board such a monster, careering down Southern Ocean swells at such breakneck speed?

Great American IV feels fairly docile, close reaching at 12 knots, and at the helm I’m thinking, hey, this isn’t so hard, picturing myself as a bronzed solo sailing hero. Then a big puff hits, the boat heels and noses up to weather, and in an instant, the purring pussycat becomes an awakening tiger; the acceleration is noticeable as the boat powers up and I get the feeling that if things were to go wrong on this boat, they could go wrong very quickly and in a very big way—and this is with a reefed mainsail and just the staysail out. Had we been racing, there would have been substantially more canvas aloft. Just thinking over what would be involved in tacking such a monstrous sailplan leaves me feeling exhausted. As for a gybe? No way! 

It is amazing to think that these solo racing machines are among the fastest boats on the water. In the most recent Vendee, winner Francois Gabart set a 24-hour record of 545 miles, averaging 22.3 knots; compare that to the 596 miles that is the fully crewed record, set by a Volvo 70. Almost makes the Volvo guys look like wimps. I said almost.

Rich, who has been the very picture of relaxation throughout, tenses up noticeably as we return to Marblehead harbor under power. “The coast is no place for one of these boats,” he says. I get the feeling it’s no place for Rich Wilson either.

* Rich Wilson’s book about his 2008 Vendee Globe campaign, Race France To France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard, is well worth reading. It’s available through Amazon.com

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