By Joe Cooper
Why do we sail? Or rather, why do we go sailing? Because we always have, we started with Dad, it is fun, we like to race, seen nice places, listen to the water lapping alongside at a quiet anchorage, tell and hear sea stories. The reasons are as many as there are boats. It is, nonetheless, my experience that in the U.S., the idea of “pushing my boundaries” is not one that comes up for discussion under the heading of “why”?
Sailing in the U.S. is a very communal activity. We sail with someone; even if actually alone on the boat, we cruise in company. Achieving things ‘alone’ seems to be a not very American thing. This seems to not have phased one Herbert George Hasler, DSO, OBE.
More widely recognized in the sailing community as “Blondie,” Hasler, a Brit, was the driving force in the creation of the great grandfather of all solo ocean races: the OSTAR (Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race). Apart from conceiving the novel idea of racing across 3,000 miles of ocean by yourself (a bit eccentric even by British standards), Hasler was amongst a number of post-World War II Brits who saw sailing as therapy. A Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, Hasler led a completely ‘out there’ raid on German shipping in 1942. The idea (presented by Hasler to his superiors) was to lead a commando team of twelve, two in each of six folding canvas kayaks, 60 miles up the Gironde River in France to carry out a limpet mine attack on German ships. Of ten men who actually got to Bordeaux, only two got home alive. After doing things like that for a day job, the idea of 48 days alone in a junk-rigged 26-foot Folkboat probably seemed a lot less demanding to Hasler.
Hasler founded the OSTAR, but the winner of the first race (Hasler finished second), Sir Francis Chichester, was, amongst other things, an instructor in Navigation for the Royal Air Force. He taught the pilots of single seat fighters how to navigate long distances over Germany with, in essence, a portable chart table on their lap. Chichester became much more widely known for his later solo sailing achievements, including the second solo circumnavigation of the globe, with one stop in Sydney, where as a kid your correspondent saw Chichester’s boat on the hard and wondered, “What would it be like to…(fill in the problem of choice)?”
That first OSTAR, with five guys (yup, all blokes), was the spark that lit up the field of solo ocean racing. This fire is currently raging off Cape Finisterre, at the northwest corner of Spain as I write. Eighty-seven sailors are racing 6.5-meter (21’ 4”) fire-breathing Minis from La Rochelle to the Canaries, then to Martinique. Some of the high-octane fuel being sprayed onto this particular race are the boats sailing with foils. Production boats, in some cases.
An interesting evolution in the Mini Transat is that it was started in 1976 (first race in 1977) with all production boats, and has passed through a huge development stage with custom boats (known as Protos in France) featuring components now considered normal: bowsprits, carbon masts, composite rigging, water ballast (1979 winner American Norton Smith) canting keels (1991 Michel Desjoyeaux), 1,000-square foot kites (bigger than a J/105’s), scow bows, and so on. The 24-hour speed record for a Mini, last time I looked, was a traffic light stop under 300 miles in 24 hours, also by a production boat. In the current race, roughly two thirds of the fleet are production boats. You get the drift.
The OSTAR begat every single- (and also now, double-handed) race on the planet, and there are many, even in the U.S. Long Island Sound, Newport, Maine, the Chesapeake, Great Lakes and the West Coast all have pretty solid fleets and races of boats sailing solo or two up. But back to the opening idea: Why?
OK, the crew issues are an obvious one, but even with one crew you still need to enter, start, sail the course, and finish. Probably a third of the current list of races has a solo component and I am most familiar with is the Bermuda 1-2, a biennial event based out of Newport, RI and held every odd-numbered year; the next is June, 2021. This is a singlehanded race from Newport to BDA, and then a DH return race as soon as the wounds from the moped crashes heal sufficiently. First run in 1977, it is the oldest singlehanded race in the U.S., only by a month or so over the Singlehanded Transpac run by the Singlehanded Sailing Society in San Francisco. With the rare exception, the competitors in these races are all normal guys and girls in normal boats. So why?
Many U.S. sailors ask why someone would willingly expose themselves to minimal sleep, having to do everything on the boat: cook (and clean up), navigate, trim and change sails, fix all the stuff that breaks, be alone at Oh-Dark Thirty in 45 knots of breeze and matching sea state, wet, cold, tired, hungry and scared, or at least anxious. Most of the people I know in the solo community would answer, “That is exactly the reason I do sail solo.”
Diverging from sailing for a moment, the world is getting to be a smaller and smaller place, with fewer and fewer options for really trying to find out just really what you are made of. Just exactly how close to that imagined desired, wished-for ‘me’ am I?
We can skydive, go hiking, climb Everest and doubtless many other activities, but none compare to the above scenario. The annals of solo offshore sailing are full of tales of the sailors overcoming a ridiculously wide range of hazards and incidents and living to tell about it. Google names like Isabelle Autissier, Steve Callahan, Loïck Peyron and Phillipe Poupon. In the first Vendée Globe, the latter had capsized, and the former towed his boat head to wind so it could be righted. Under sail. Finding safe harbor after sailing several hundred miles under jury rig after the rig’s fallen down is a pretty common evolution for solo sailors.
Likewise, sailing home after rudder failure is a version of another day at the office for the solo’ istas. More than one competitor has performed serious ER repairs on themselves, sewing a gashed tongue back together being one of the highlights. In this particular pretty small sliver of the sailing milieu, the French have made themselves the invincible masters across the board. And again, I wonder why this could be. And of course, I have a pet theory.
Sailing is an adventure. We put our human selves in a tiny boat, into the worst possible environment for humans, and head off in the direction of where we want to end up. We are truly masters and mistresses of our own universe. Whatever happens – or more to the point, our response to it – is totally up to us. I think that the French have a much more adventurous, possibly romantic spirit than almost anyone, at least with respect to the sea.
If you read the on-board blogs of French solo sailors while they are at sea, there is much more discussion of the beauty of the open ocean, the countless number of shades of greyness south of 45 degrees south, the magnificence of the waves, the albatrosses and other sea birds, the solitude in fact. Sailors of almost every other nationality are grizzling about how hard it’s blowing, how uncomfortable it is, and how wet and cold they are.
There is no doubt the idea of “an adventure” is a very subjective proposition, and there is certainly a 20-pound bag of risks to consider when sailing alone. But in our world today where, to quote a character from an episode of Newsroom who identifies the idiocy of a bath cap and its warning ‘Fits one head’ and wonders about the lawsuit that prompted that warning, sailing by yourself seems pretty tame.
The solo sailor might well have Kipling’s poem If pasted on the bulkhead, for it surely addresses the vast resources that solo sailors must bring to bear when at sea. Even if they do not depart with such resources within their soul, the adventure and the sea will breed them.
I must have mentioned previously that I grew up watching, and following, the adventures of Knox-Johnston, Chichester, Moitessier, Bill King, Alec Rose and the rest of the pantheon of early solo offshore sailors, and I still wonder today when I read of the adventures of the contemporary cohort of offshore solo sailors, how little has changed. Yes, the boats are faster, but the humans and their quest for knowing thyself, as Bouwe Bekking wrote for his quote from the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, have not changed:
“Regardless of what is happening you still need to put on your big boy pants when it hits the fan, if you are to know thyself.” Therein lies the draw, I suggest.
Bon Courage is, I have read, the signature signing off phrase used by French solo sailors when concluding a conversation with each other when at sea. Too bloody right.
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several,
mainly small, boats.