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.
Author:
Publish date:

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.

RichWilson-top

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.

 Nav station and bunk combined: here's where Rich will spend all his time belowdecks on the Vendee Globe

Nav station and bunk combined: here's where Rich will spend all his time belowdecks on the Vendee Globe

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

Related

albintoilet

Gear: Albin Pump Marine Toilet

Head Start Is there room for a new marine toilet? Albin Pump Marine thinks so, having just introduced its line of Swedish-built heads—ranging from compact to full-size models—to the American market. The toilets feature vitreous porcelain bowls and either wooden or thermoplastic ...read more

07n_45R2699

Multihull Sailor: Classic Cats

If you’re looking for a decent sub-40ft cruising cat, you have few choices when it comes to new-boat offerings. It is a well-known fact that the multihull market has taken off in a way very few could have predicted. Despite Hurricane Irma’s recent destruction of a large part of ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com Thanks a bunch  This scene is very calm and seamanlike. No frantic rope throwing or shouting. As he passes the line to the gent on the dock, the crew on the boat says, quietly and clearly, “Would you ...read more

mcarthy-and-mouse

Experience: McCarthy and the Mouse

Sitting at the helm in a light breeze, my arms crusted with a fine rime of salt, my skin so dry I’d lost my fingerprints, I heard a clatter and a curse from below. There were only three of us a thousand miles from shore and only one on watch at a time. Usually, the off watch lay ...read more

2018-giftGuide

2018 Holiday Gift Guide

Brass Yacht Lamp Does someone on your gift list spend the whole winter missing the warm days on the water? Let them bring a little bit of nautical atmosphere home with this new lamp from Weems & Plath. The glass enclosure means the flame cannot be blown out even by ...read more

image001

Opinion: On Not Giving Up Sailing

E.B. White was 64 when he wrote his now-famous essay “The Sea and the Wind That Blows,” which begins as a romantic paean to sailing and then drifts, as if spun around by a pessimistic eddy of thought, into a reflection on selling his boat. Does an aging sailor quit while he’s ...read more

1812-JeanneaueNewsVideo

Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410

Designed by Marc Lombard, the Sun Odyssey 410 shares much in common with her older siblings including of course, the walk-around deck. Other features that set the 410 apart from other models being introduced this year include the 410’s “negative bow” shape allowing for a longer ...read more