Joe Harris had rounded Cape Horn aboard his 40-foot monohull Gryphon Solo 2 when it happened. He was on the homebound leg of his attempt at a solo circumnavigation after four grueling months at sea when weather conditions in the South Atlantic went from bad to worse.
After two days of battering winds and pounding waves, Gryphon Solo 2 sustained hull damage in the starboard bow and seawater was “squirting” inside. At this point, he was north of the Falkland Islands but days from a safe port.
“It was pretty scary,” Harris, 57, of South Hamilton, Mass., said in a phone interview. “I was 700 miles offshore, so I tried to temporarily fix it and brace it, and then I knew I had to go in and get it repaired.”
After a stopover in Piriapolis, Uruguay, Harris continued his solo voyage to circumnavigate the globe. He completed the feat on May 5, joining about 125 people who have solo sailed around the world, leaving the five great capes to port. All told, he was at sea for 152 days, 23 hours, 10 minutes and 24 seconds.
Harris, who is married with three children and works in commercial real estate, left Newport, R.I., on Nov. 15, 2015, with hopes of setting a new solo circumnavigation record for 40-foot monohulls. He abandoned the goal in late December when the converters in his boat’s hydrogenerators failed off South Africa.
As luck would have it, a high school friend working near Cape Town took Harris in while the boat was repaired. Still, the stopover all but ended his goal of setting a new record.
“The record attempt was only one aspect of this trip and I wasn’t that disturbed that it was gone,” he said. “It was too bad, but didn’t feel like I lost purpose. I still felt like wanted to do it.”
After heading south from Agulhas Bank off South Africa, Harris’ route took him from east toward Australia and New Zealand and then toward Cape Horn. This passage through the Southern Ocean was one of the most desolate and challenging parts of the trip.
“The Southern Ocean is an inhospitable place. It’s just a never-ending series of low-pressure systems rolling over you and it’s always blowing 20 but often blowing 40,” he said. “The seas get really big, really quickly, and in a 40-foot boat that’s light with a big sail plan, it tends to get thrown around and that can be scary.”
Harris fought off loneliness by keeping in touch daily with his wife and children by email. Friends also sent him funny stories and other notes along the way. Frequent visits from schools of dolphins kept him in a good mood. Scores of seabirds and flying fish were other common sights.
Harris has a long list of sailing accomplishments, including a second-place finish in the 2004 Transat, a first-place finish in the 2007 Bermuda 1-2, and the 2014 winner of the Atlantic Cup. He also placed first in his division in the 2005 Transat Jacques Vabre from Le Havre, France, to Salvador, Brazil.
The solo circumnavigation has been Harris’ dream since he was 20 years old. He has planned for the voyage several times in the past, but the birth of a child, issues with the boat and other challenges forced him to stay home. This time was different.
“It was the kind of thing where a lot of people let go of their dream, but I hung onto it doggedly and made it happen,” he said.
“It wasn’t easy. It was a challenge financially and with the time away from my family, but I am glad I did it,” Harris continued. “I can check it off the bucket list and go on with the remaining business of my life without this hanging over me.”