Racing the Clock

On April 26, Sir Peter Johnson stepped down as chair of the World Speed Sailing Record Council, succeeded by Claude Breton of France. The change of guard is worth acknowledging because Johnson and his low-key organization have been playing a central role in boosting the stock of offshore record sailing. The prestige and media potential of an all-out Jules Verne (nonstop, round-the-world) record attempt now ranks with a Volvo Ocean Race or Vendée Globe program, even perhaps an America’s Cup campaign. On the other hand, the WSSRC recognizes a lengthy list of sailing records, and some are still realistic targets for privately funded efforts. Recent years have brought a growing number of extreme-performance super-maxis and megayachts, conceived to challenge monohull performance records, including course records in major ocean races. Some of these are sponsored, but the majority have been built by wealthy individuals in the long-established tradition of personal yachts.

For those with somewhat smaller budgets, the WSSRC also lists records for monohulls, single-handing and female sailors — categories that, in many cases, are more accessible and affordable than the major outright records. In addition, the WSSRC has launched a Performance Certificate initiative aimed at establishing official benchmarks for new routes or other worthy categories not previously recognized by the council. Rules and verification standards are the same as for WSSRC record attempts, and sailors are required to register in advance, so rigorous ratification procedures can be applied. The WSSRC rules booklet is available without charge to sailors and clubs worldwide.

Record-setting in the high-tech age

Thanks largely to advanced engineering and carbon-composite construction, the power-to-weight ratios of today’s large racing machines are like nothing ever seen before. At the same time, parallel developments in big-boat rigging, sails and deck gear have made it feasible to equip a no-compromise race boat of 100+ feet, using proven techniques and mainly off-the-shelf equipment. In principle, something roughly comparable to the current generation of G-class multihulls (mostly launched for The Race of 2000) could have been built using the leading-edge aerospace technology of the 1980s. However, the R&D alone would have required an aerospace budget — very likely in the 10-figure range. And even if these remarkable sailing machines had been built during the ’80s, they would have been hamstrung without today’s weather-data-gathering and forecasting capabilities. Indeed, many contemporary record attempts depend heavily on routing advice supplied by shoreside experts. Under WSSRC rules, this practice is not regarded as outside assistance, although it would be for most other types of sailboat racing.

Space-age technology plays a particularly critical role in measuring and verifying 24-hour records. WSSRC rules permit GPS data to be used for establishing the distance between two course points that are passed by a vessel during a time period not over 24 hours. This must be established using a sealed onboard beacon that transmits positional data automatically, so there’s no possibility that the crew could alter the data.

The cost of a major record campaign with a G-class cat is in line with the sums that many big corporations routinely spend on advertising and brand placement. And when a few million dollars can secure a high-profile world record (or better yet, a whole series of records), it’s potentially a very sound business investment.

Record diversity

The origins of the WSSRC can be traced to a largely British fascination with speed sailing trials, and council commissioners (observers) continue to time 500-meter (1,600-foot) inshore speed record attempts when called upon to do so. On the other hand, managing offshore records has become the council’s principal stock in trade. The WSSRC’s annual record list has lately been supplanted by an official website at — a helpful development, considering the sheer rapidity with which sailing marks are now being established, challenged and broken.

Heading up the list, in terms of prestige, are the nonstop, round-the-world records (crewed and single-handed) and 24-hour distance records. Not far behind are several of the trans-Atlantic records due to their historical importance for shipping, as well as for yachting. There are 39 records listed under offshore passages and 75 recognized course records for major ocean races.

British racer Emma Richards on her Open 60 Pindar. Richards set the record for women for the fastest trans-Atlantic passage under sail by posting a time of just under 13 days.

Right now, the WSSRC list of performance certificates is considerably shorter at an even dozen. On the other hand, this list is certain to expand as venturesome sailors tackle ambitious voyages and strive to make the record books. When a performance certificate is awarded for a previously unrecognized route, an official benchmark time is automatically established. Thereafter, faster passages will qualify as world records, provided they, too, meet the rigorous WSSRC standards.

New circumnavigation benchmark

A recent voyage by Tony Gooch of Victoria, British Columbia (see Solo circumnavigator recounts lucky trip Issue 131, July/Aug. 2003), illustrates the magnitude of achievement represented by a WSSRC performance certificate. His unassisted, single-handed circumnavigation is the first out of a West Coast North American port to be ratified by the council.

Prior to setting out last autumn, the retired financial planner was already a round-the-world veteran, having voyaged most of the way in the company of his wife, Coryn Gooch, aboard Taonui, their 42-foot full-keel aluminum cutter. The Gooches had survived an open-ocean dismasting, and explored the high latitudes north and south. Together with another seasoned cruising couple, Ian and Maggy Stapes, they authored the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation guide Chile: Arica Desert to Tierra del Fuego. In recognition of Taonui’s 1996 voyage to Antarctica and a 1999 single-handed passage from South Africa to Tasmania, Tony Gooch has twice received Ocean Cruising Club medals.

To meet WSSRC standards, a circumnavigation must start and finish at the same point, based on an orthodromic route with a minimum length of 21,600 miles that crosses the equator and all lines of longitude at least once. The route cannot, however, cross every line of longitude twice &mdash a restriction that precludes a double-rounding of Antarctica. The course distance is also based on the assumption that a vessel will circle Antarctica at latitude 64� S, but weather and ice usually preclude heading that far south. Those starting a circumnavigation in the Southern Hemisphere need to round at least one fixed landmark in the Northern Hemisphere to satisfy these requirements.

WSSRC rules also necessitate rounding Cape Horn and Good Hope, as opposed to transiting the Panama and Suez canals. A prop-shaft seal is normally installed by a WSSRC commissioner and checked after finishing to ensure that the engine wasn’t used for propulsion. “Without assistance” means no physical assistance from others or resupplying during the voyage. Anchoring or beaching is allowed, but all repairs must be performed entirely by the solo skipper or onboard crew.

Tony Gooch’s circumnavigation began at a start/finish line directly in front of the Gooches’ home on the Victoria waterfront, recorded by the local WSSRC representative. Boat and skipper were extremely well prepared, and the long passage was largely trouble free. Coryn communicated regularly with Tony via email, using either a satcom or ham radio data link. She posted his daily progress reports on a website about the voyage at Coryn explained they originally launched the website simply to update family and friends, but as the voyage unfolded, it came to be followed by thousands worldwide.

Intending to return home around his 64th birthday, which would have meant 210 days at sea, Gooch instead made it home in just 178 days. As he pointed out when interviewed by Emily Bowers of the Victoria Times Colonist, he trimmed a month from his initial ETA, first by diving farther south than anticipated in the southern ocean, and later by achieving a nearly straight track homeward across the Pacific from New Zealand via Hawaii to the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait. A broken boom &mdash victim of a squall on the final leg from Hawaii &mdash was the most significant gear failure during a nonstop voyage lasting half a year.

Joining the honor roll

WSSRC Performance Certificates are a relatively new innovation, and there are many opportunities to establish new routes or add new categories. For example, it was only last September that benchmark times were officially established for single-handed monohulls on the best-known of all trans-Atlantic routes &mdash Ambrose Light, New York, to Lizard Point, Cornwall, England.

With the first leg of a revised Around Alone following this famous route, WSSRC performance certificates were awarded to Open 60 competitors Bernard Stamm and Emma Richards, who established benchmark times of 10 days 11 hours (open), and just under 13 days (women). As a point of interest, Stamm currently holds the crewed monohull record on the same route &mdash a blistering eight-day, 21-hour passage achieved in early 2001 at an average of 13.73 knots.

Historic passages, many from the heyday of the 19th-century clipper ships, are another intriguing target for would-be record breakers and something of a specialty for Rich Wilson of Rockport, Mass. In 1993, Wilson and Bill Biewenga trimmed the San Francisco to Boston record set by the clipper Northern Light, sailing the 53-foot trimaran Great American II. Then in 2001, the pair sliced just over a day from another historic record established by the clipper Mandarin from New York to Melbourne, Australia, during the height of the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s. Incidentally, these passages were not recognized as record routes at the time Wilson and Biewenga made their voyages, so they do not appear on the WSSRC website.

On March 29 of this year, Rich Wilson and Rich du Moulin left Hong Kong, chasing a particularly brilliant record set in 1849 by Capt. Robert “Bully” Waterman and the clipper Sea Witch on the fabled tea route to New York. At press time, Great American II was about two days in front of Sea Witch’s pace, although the doldrums still lay ahead. From the first, this has been a curious, seesaw race between the 7-ton trimaran (a 1990 Nigel Irens design, built in France) and the ghost of the 900-ton windjammer. Wilson &mdash a pioneer in combining ocean sailing adventures with online education &mdash offers a by-subscription website at

Record opportunities

A desire to make history is integral to human nature, and the expanded range of sailing endeavors encouraged by the WSSRC is obviously striking a chord with ambitious sailors. Critics may argue that the increasing number of official sailing records will threaten the prestige of the high-profile ones. But so far, it doesn’t appear to be a problem, perhaps because recent advances in open-ocean speed sailing have been so dramatic. At the same time, it’s becoming apparent that further improvements in the major records will not come easily. The nonstop circumnavigation marks, in particular, will require exceptionally fortuitous weather patterns for weeks on end. Boat speed alone, even accompanied by perfect reliability, is not enough.

Some key records have stood for many years &mdash most-notably the single-handed trans-Atlantic from Ambrose to Lizard of seven days, two hours, 34 minutes set by Laurent Bourgnon and the 60-foot trimaran Primagaz in 1994. Equally impressive was the single-handed 24-hour record of 540 miles set on the same passage. Prior to the advent of the G-class cats, it had held up as the outright 24-hour mark, despite the fact it was set single-handed!

These are two of the records that Ellen MacArthur plans to pursue with a 75-foot Nigel Irens trimaran configured specifically for single-handed record attempts. The world’s most bankable pro sailor has bounced back from a Jules Verne attempt that ended badly when her megacat, Kingfisher, was dismasted. The new boat, be called B&Q (a Kingfisher affiliate) aims to be a good deal tougher and more solo-friendly than the twitchy 60-foot tris that experienced so many problems in the recent Route du Rhum.

As Ellen half-jokingly commented while unveiling her latest record-breaking attempt, “I think Everest is growing, Every time we achieve one challenge, there’s another Everest out there. And no question, the world has a powerful appetite for such challenges.

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson is a former sailmaker who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator