Perhaps the most famous example supporting the general proposition that solo sailors are nuts is the Donald Crowhurst story. Crowhurst was an entrant in the original Golden Globe Race, sailing a trimaran, Teignmouth Electron. The Wikipedia entry alone is a fascinating read. With the passage of time, the original verdict related to his proposed depression, and or any other mental state, but at any rate the falsifying of his logs and jumping off the boat to avoid embarrassment as and when his fraud was unearthed, is being challenged.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bernard Moitessier. Close to a legend in France, likely viewed as the godfather of the French solo scene, Moitessier abandoned that same Golden Globe Race and sailed on for Tahiti. His announcement of this retirement was famously transmitted via a note wrapped in a length of chain and fired to a nearby freighter via a slingshot. His Wikipedia page reports he suffered depression in his time at sea, but took up the practice of yoga to address this. These two sailors are I guess the opposite ends of the psychic spectrum of solo offshore sailing.

I think it’s fair to propose that we who sail, in particular, experience a wide spectrum of emotions when at sea, offshore, off soundings, at any rate. The spectacular sun and moon rises and sets, the clarity of the sky at night and the vastly improved view of the heavens. The Yee Ha factor steering the boat down waves at two times its normal speed, the comradery and silly sea stories sitting on the rail. That first Dark ‘n’ Stormy. All this and more contributes to the joy we get from sailing. And hey, if yer racing you might even place. A Bonus for sure.

The literature of offshore solo sailing is littered with accounts of sailors hearing voices. Ashore, this might be regarded as “gotta get away from this guy…” At sea, alone, it is pretty common. I have been a lifetime avid consumer of the literary works of solo offshore sailing and so, when I was doing my Mini thing, I was fully prepared to hear voices. I was fully expecting this eventuality, almost to the point of “about time” after I had been at sea about a week. There were two: My father and a dear shipmate of mine, Warwick “Commodore” Tompkins. What they were saying was not comprehensible, but The Voices were very clear. Tompkins and I have done a lot of miles together, not so much a venue for the apparent mental distractions of sailing solo, but full of the experiences noted above. And of he, more anon.

Many former military personnel have remarked on the fact that sailing is that activity most similar to being in the military while not actually in the military. One Warrior Sailing graduate commented in an interview when preparing for the Mac Race, that sailing was like being in the Army: tight quarters, smelly mates, crappy food and weird, tiring hours. The upside is villains are not shooting at you. The sense of mission, the goal, the camaraderie, the teamwork, the vast expanse of skills needed to make it all happen, are very similar to the military.

Speaking of which, in the “old” days when military members “lost the plot” * it was called shell shock or battle fatigue. Today it’s called PTSD. Regardless of the name, the mental strain of being in a hot war cannot be underestimated.


Currently competing in the Global Solo Challenge, Ronnie Simpson has his sights set on the Vendée Globe.  © Herb McCormick/


A few years ago, I wrote a piece on a guy named Anthony Villalobos. I met Tony when he sailed with us on Defender Warrior Sailing in the 2019 12 Metre Worlds. I didn’t know him when we met, but since I was a tailer and he was a grinder we got to know each other pretty well.

Turns out he had been medically discharged from the Army – the Airborne Rangers – after being blown up for the third time. Just those two ideas, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, let alone at night into terrain where people want to shoot you (or worse) and then finding IEDs and defusing them, is beyond my ken. I simply cannot imagine the mindset of approaching a paper bag on a roadside, not knowing if your next step will be your last. The gyrations one’s mind must be going through is probably enough to power a small village, though likely such people are trained as well as can be to regulate, or otherwise manage their thinking so as to not think of that but rather the task at hand.

At the instigation of, and in company with a mate of his, Tony did a basic training program with Warrior Sailing in Texas and loved it. He did all the rest of the programs, then signed on to a 75-footer with Warrior Sailing for a regatta in Charleston. He has remarked that sailing is the best thing that has happened to him (apart from his recent marriage).

Perhaps one of the most compelling characters in the pantheon of the characters in the solo sailing Universe is one Commander William King, RN. Bill King was a Brit and one of the original entrants in the Golden Globe Race, sailing a junk-rigged cat ketch designed by the then prominent, and subsequently lost at sea, English yacht designer Angus Primrose.

King’s book, Capsize, is a good read. The salient part for this essay is the relaxation he felt being a) on the surface of the water and b) being able to relax. These two sensations were colored by his career in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He had the distinction of being in command of a submarine at the outbreak of the war and still in command of a sub at its conclusion. It was his sixth sub.

He was preparing to make a solo circumnavigation voyage before the Golden Globe Race was announced. He had commissioned the boat and had it on display at the London Boat Show, as a fundraising exercise. He is reported to have said he “joined the race as a means of recovering psychologically from fifteen years of service in submarines.” This, he said, had left him “a nervous wreck”. *

The boat had a junk rig King had seen in China that was the same kind favored by Blondie Hasler, originator of the O.S.T.A.R and self-steering wind vanes, one of which King had. Hasler was a SAS Marine Commando who at age 28 had led a 12-man mission he conceived of to attack German shipping in France, using inflatable kayaks, The team had been launched from a submarine offshore and paddled up the Gironde River, attached limpet mines to German vessels, and beat feet over land to Spain. Hasler and his kayak/shipmate were the only members of the team to survive. Armed with this background, one can see how easy it might have been for him to think sailing across the Atlantic was not such a big deal.

We have all seen enough war movies with submarines (Das Boot is a favorite of mine) to be very broadly exposed to the conditions of such beasts under fire. I once took son Ned to visit the Nautilus, at Groton. She was a penthouse (or at least the after part, the only part open to visitors, the rest being given over to reactors and missiles, we were told) compared to the German diesel-powered WW2 sub at the Marine Museum in Fall River. What a horror-show to climb through with the boat flat, the hatches open and only three or five people aboard. Shell shocked indeed. It is a wonder the entire population of the world’s military forces were not committed to hospital after the war.

Curiously there are two competitors in the Global Solo Challenge (presently underway; Go, Cole!) who have connections to the mental health awareness arena and are using this sailing experience to highlight the issues of mental health to the world…or at least that tiny portion of the world watching this race.

Ronnie Simpson, sailing the 50-footer Shipyard Brewery, is in fact one of those Wounded Warriors. The paragraph on the race’s webpage for Ronnie reads, “As a combat-wounded and retired Marine Corps veteran whose life has been changed by sailing, I feel very strongly about the many benefits that sailing can provide our veterans. I am proud to be raising funds and awareness for the veterans’ sailing non-profit U.S. Patriot Sailing”. * (U.S. Patriot Sailing is the charity under which Peter Gibbons-Neff competed in the Mini Transat in October.)

Then there’s Welsh sailor Dafydd Hughes, who as of mid-December had withdrawn from the Global Solo Challenge with autopilot problems (Gee). Responding to a question about solo sailing and supporting social issues on the personal info page at Hughes indicated his mission is to “promote the link between nature and mental health.” * To this end he is involved with a group on Wales that protects forests and then uses them for working with folks with mental health conditions. Not quite the Southern Ocean, but you get the idea.

If one considers what the impacts of depression on us means, the fact that someone with such a condition can sail alone at all, let alone manage the building and managing of a team and harnessing the resources needed to in this case competing in such an adventure, suggests to me they are in full command of their faculties.

As in the case of Bill King, for solitude, once again the sea shows itself as a place of tranquility and peace. ■


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,, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.


* From the 2006 documentary Deep Water

*Lost the plot: Kiwi/AUS for gone a bit bonkers.


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