To the editor: Last year, we aborted our Pacific crossing, just two days in. We were no longer able to get weather forecasts on our SSB radio and we didn’t have the skills or confidence to continue for three weeks at sea without them.
I think it’s fair to say that many of us, myself included, would not be sailing if it weren’t for modern weather forecasting technology. The radical change in technology has made it a whole lot easier and safer to predict weather, and is in part responsible for the vast number of ocean cruisers exploring the world by boat today. In our case, we returned to Puerto Vallarta, bought an Iridium GO, and set out on a successful Pacific crossing just one week later.
Given my recent experience in the Pacific, I was fascinated to learn that on July 1, 18 sailors (at the time of writing) started a race around the world solo, without any modern technology, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe Race. They set sail from Les Sables-d’Olonne in boats designed prior to 1988, using only technology available at the time of the first Golden Globe Race in 1968. This means no GPS, AIS, computers or iPads, and from a weather perspective, no gribs, satellite phones, Pactor modems, weatherfaxes, modern instrumentation or weather routing.
The original Golden Globe ran in 1968. Of the nine entrants that set out, Robin Knox-Johnston became not only the first person to complete a solo nonstop circumnavigation, but he was also the only one to finish the race. Another memorable competitor was Bernard Moitessier, who upon the edge of victory, decided to forfeit the race and continue sailing around the world for a near complete second lap. There was also Donald Crowhurst, who falsified his position reports while bobbing in the Atlantic and committed suicide when discovery of his deception was imminent. The extreme environment, enormity of the feat and the fascinating characters all make this a race that has captured the imagination of sailors around the world.
A racer in the Golden Globe
At the same time that Robin Knox-Johnston was racing around the world, a 10-year-old Australian boy named Mark Sinclair was heading out on the water for the first time. Sinclair didn’t know then that he would enter the next Golden Globe, 50 years later. Not one to waste time, Sinclair spent 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy, where he commanded three ships and navigated four others at a time when the sextant was still the primary means of navigation. He retired in 1997 and went on to become a hydrographic surveyor, conducting surveys in remote places like the Alaska Peninsula, Svalbard (Spitsbergen), the Outer Hebrides and off Macquarie Island. Today, Sinclair is the Director of Hydrography for the Asia-Pacific region at Fugro Marine Australia.
In addition to a career afloat, Sinclair has spent much of his personal time sailing. In 1984 he completed a double solo crossing of the Tasman sea, earning Yachtmaster Offshore and Yachtmaster Ocean certificates. He had plans to compete in the single-handed Trans-Tasman Yacht Race when on June 10, 2016, he read a newsletter from his local yacht club that included a story on the Golden Globe 2018 race. Within a few days he’d sent in his application and purchased Coconut, a 1980 Lello 34 cutter.
Sinclair taking a sun sight.
Aside from having spent much of his life at sea, Sinclair’s passion for math and all things analog will prove a great advantage in this race. Far from being put off by the rigors of a race unassisted by technology, he seems to relish the challenge, describing things like spherical trigonometry (a method in celestial navigation), as “a lot of fun.”
“There’s a whole load of quirky stuff you can do,” he told me. “High-altitude sights, sightings of Venus during the day, moon shots, lunars, a whole raft of techniques … so you can do that for a bit of amusement on the way round. I actually enjoy that stuff, strangely enough.”
Weather technology in 1968
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest challenges Mark and all the competitors will face in this race is the lack of weather data. Weather forecasting for Sinclair will look much as it did in 1968. “Really it’s observational,” Sinclair said. “You’ve got your barometer, wind sea, swell and cloud. Red sky at night, sailors delight, that type of stuff.”
In the long list of prohibited items, weatherfaxes are not allowed. Sinclair will be equipped with an HF radio for listening to coastal stations and picking up high seas forecasts put out by Marine Safety and the weather bureau. He’s also allowed to ask passing ships for weather information or solicit information from a coastal station, but any weather routing is strictly prohibited. “So you can listen for information, you can solicit information, but you’re not allowed to have information that is tailored to your requirements,” Sinclair said. “Because that is something that didn’t exist and would be an unfair advantage.”
One advantage the 1968 competitors had over the 2018 set was a network of HF radio stations. “Most of that has been removed,” Sinclair said. “Because satellites have taken over. So what it means is that we’re using [weather] technology that’s not supported.”
Sinclair described his weather strategy to me in two parts: “There’s the climate data and that’s all about seasons and macro type stuff, and then there’s weather, which is superimposed on top of that. It’s the weather part that you’re trying to manage.”
To address the former, Sinclair has been poring over oceanographic and climatological data with help from oceanographers and meteorologists. “You can have whatever help and information you like now: satellite photos, temperatures. But the day you cast off, you’re on your own.”
Coconut out of the water for refits.
As result of this research, Sinclair has formulated strategies — especially for the more challenging stretches, like Cape Horn. “An inshore passage 10 to 20 miles off the coast of Africa is probably more prudent than a couple hundred miles off, especially in September, which is pretty early in the season. I’m intending on staying at latitude 35 and then following it down to 40 and 45 as summer comes on. I think going south too early is a problem. Minimizing your exposure to fast latitudes is a good way to survive. It’s not going to be that 18 people are going to finish. I think there’s a fair bit of attrition. It’s not about going fast … it’s about surviving. You’ve got to finish to win. Trying to minimize risk and keep yourself going, and not going too north as you might run into easterlies and run out of wind but not going too far south either.”
Once he casts off, his focus will turn to taking observations and managing weather. “In certain seasons you’re more worried about cyclones and hurricanes; other than that, the trade winds are pretty reliable,” he told me. “When you’re in the Southern Ocean, you’re interested in cold fronts and low pressure systems.”
Sinclair plans to routinely log weather observations and forecasts. “Time passes quickly,” he said, “and it’s very easy to get confused, ‘Was that yesterday or the day before?’ I’ll be recording temperature, wind strength, sea state, swell and clouds every four hours or so, and the barometric pressure as often as I can do it.” When he is able to pick up a weather forecast on the radio, he’ll write it down and then put the important information into the log. “I’ll plot the latitude and longitude of highs and lows, sketching it down on the chart.”
Retro sailing skills
With the advent of races like the Golden Globe, many sailors are interested in rediscovering retro sailing skills. I asked Sinclair what he’d suggest to anyone looking to develop their weather observational skills. “Have a plasticized copy of the Beaufort wind scale,” he said. “And have it there on the boat.” Sinclair suggested that the Beaufort wind scale is a more consistent and useful approach than using an anemometer. “People write down what their anemometer says and it becomes meaningless. The beauty with the Beaufort scale is that … the more I use it, the more intelligence I find embedded into it.” He also suggested picking up a good Marine Observer’s Handbook for cloud identification. “It’s sort of like having a handbook for identifying marine life. You see marine life, you go to the handbook to try and identify what it is. You’re interacting with your environment and getting to know it a bit better.”
For many of us, these retro weather skills may be rusty or even nonexistent, but they’re an important part of why races like the Golden Globe matter. A revival of seamanship is not only a matter of safety, but it also keeps our rich nautical heritage alive. So, I encourage you next time you’re out on the water this year, look out at the sea instead of down at your anemometer display and think of Mark Sinclair and the other racers, immersed in their environments, off in a world of their own.
—Fiona McGlynn is an award-winning freelance writer, who after two and a half years of cruising from Canada to Australia, relocated to the Great White North and now lives in Atlin, B.C. This summer, she’ll be joining the fun in France, reporting on the 2018 Golden Globe Race start. Fiona also runs www.WaterborneMag.com (previously Young & Salty), a site dedicated to millennial sailing culture.