As the owner/operator of a boatyard, I developed a myriad of skills. Most of the time I felt like a professional jugglerconstantly dealing with different engineering and construction challenges, while at the same time managing several projects and trying to deal with all the other aspects of owning a business. After nine years, it was time for a change.
My fascination with singlehanded ocean sailing started when I was a teenager and read Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World. It was 1966, a year after I was born, that Chichester departed on his epic 226-day solo circumnavigation.
Shortly after I sold the boatyard, I was fortunate enough to gain employment as a member of the shore crew for Gartmore Investment Management. Gartmore was a new Finot-designed, open class 60, skippered by Brit Josh Hall and built in France for the 1998/’99 Around Alone Race. The Around Alone, formerly known as the BOC, is a single-handed yacht race around the world that starts and finishes in Charleston, S.C., and has stopovers in Cape Town, South Africa; Auckland, N.Z.; and Punta Del Este, Uruguay.
This breed of open 60s with their saucer-like hull shapes, constructed of pre-preg carbon and Nomex sandwich, with up to four tons of water ballast, have enormous horsepower and performance. At only 7.5 tons, Gartmore was the lightest of the five Finot-designed open 60s in the 1998/’99 race. These machines have twin rudders that are angled to ensure that the leeward foil operates vertically when the yacht is heeled over. This makes for light and responsive steering even at speeds in the 30-knot range. With a LOA and LWL of 60 feet, a beam of 18 feet, and a draft of 14.85 feet, the power-to-weight ratio of a singlehanded open 60 is roughly 30% greater than a fully crewed Whitbread/Volvo 60. The skippers of these yachts know when to put the pedal down and when to throttle back.
The work of the shore crews is sun-soaked, hectic, full of endless work lists and late-night parties. But you work the long hours because you are inspired by the skipper and the camaraderie that develops between the shore crews. It requires a jack-of-all-trades approach. One day I was installing a diesel heater, the next repairing a fracture in the carbon boom that occurred when a preventer block exploded during a crash gybe.
It felt like we were preparing the boat and skipper for battle. I was always aware of the dangers involved if something went wrong, especially in the Southern Ocean. Try visualizing a never-ending series of six-story buildings moving toward you at 40 mph with the top one or two stories collapsing on top of you. The power of a wave breaking on your boat isn’t much different from being hit with a pile of concrete. Add the isolation and the noisethe boom and roar of the wavesand the picture should become clearer.
The days spent on the water tuning the boat up for the next leg were the most rewarding for meblast-reaching along, off the beaches of Cape Town in steady 35-knot breezes with stunning Table Mountain as a backdrop. We’d have the windward water ballast tanks full, a single reef in the main with a working jib up. Our speed holding perfectly steady at 22 knots under autopilot, we would be amidships discussing how to adjust the PBO check stays and runners to allow for just a little more prebend in the mast.
Huge crowds gathered along the waterfront for each restart. Each boat was towed from its berth with skipper and shore crew aboard as national anthems blasted over the loudspeakers. The raw emotion, nervous tension, and apprehension was apparent in all of us. We helped Josh get the sails set and the boat geared up. A few uncomfortable jokes, a long pull off a bottle of whiskey, some very big hugs, and then we were plucked off the boat by Zodiac, 15 minutes before the starting gun.
Minutes after the start, the boats were over the horizon. I wondered about all the work I did, and the insane conditions both boat and skipper would be exposed to. I hoped everything stayed together, so that in six weeks time I would meet up again at the next stop-over port.
I could feel the tension of the past weeks quickly drain away as I packed up shipping crates and dealt with final logistics and arrangements for the next port. The shore crews gathered for one last party before everyone departed in different directions.
I couldn’t help but feel as if I was part of something much bigger than just a sailing race. I was caught up in the dreams of these solo-sailorsin their years of hard work, sacrifice, and scraping by to get to the starting lines. The racers were people whose visions and destinies were different from ours. They were ready to risk their lives in order to fulfill their dreams, willing to test themselves way beyond their limits, knowing full well that their dreams could be snatched away from them in a fleeting second. They were at the same time both human and hero. In a world lacking heroes, I felt truly lucky to have been among so many of them.