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

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com No chafe, safe stay  If you’re leaving the boat unattended for a longish period, there’s a lot to be said for cow-hitching the shorelines, as this sailor did. They’ll never let go, and so long as the ...read more

belize600x

Charter Special: Belize

It would be hard to imagine a more secure spot than the Sunsail base on the outskirts of the beachside community of Placencia, Belize. The entire marina is protected by a robust seawall with a channel scarcely a few boatlengths across. It’s also located far enough up Placencia ...read more

DSC00247

DIY: a Top-to-Bottom Refit

I found my sailing “dream boat” in the spring of 1979 while racing on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Everyone had heard about the hot new boat in town, and we were anxiously awaiting the appearance of this new Pearson 40. She made it to the starting line just before the race ...read more

01-oysteryachts-regattas-loropiana2016_063

Light-air Sails and How to Handle Them

In the second of a two-part series on light-air sails, Rupert Holmes looks at how today’s furling gear has revolutionized sail handling off the wind. Read part 1 here. It’s easy to look at long-distance racing yachts of 60ft and above with multiple downwind sails set on roller ...read more

HanseCharles

Video Tour: Hanse 348

“It’s a smaller-size Hanse cruiser, but with some big-boat features,” says SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane. At last fall’s Annapolis Boat Show, Doane had a chance to take a close look at the new Hanse 348. Some of the boat’s highlights include under-deck galleries for ...read more

amalfitown

Charter Destination: Amalfi Coast

Prego! Weeks after returning from our Italian flotilla trip last summer, I was still feeling the relaxed atmosphere of the Amalfi Coast. It’s a Mediterranean paradise, with crystal-clear waters, charming hillside towns and cliffside villages, plenty of delicious food and wine, ...read more

image005

Inside or Outside When Sailing the ICW

Last April, my wife, Marjorie, and I decided to take our Tartan 4100, Meri, north to Maryland from her winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida. This, in turn, meant deciding whether to stay in the “Ditch” for the duration or go offshore part of the way. Although we had both been ...read more

MK1_30542

SailGP: There’s a New Sailing Series in Town

San Francisco was the venue of the biggest come-from-behind victory in the history of the America’s Cup when Oracle Team USA beat Emirates Team New Zealand in 2013, so it seems only fitting that the first American round of Larry Ellison’s new SailGP pro sailing series will be ...read more