Sailing World - - Starting Line - BY JONATHAN WATER­MAN

Adefin­ing por­trayal of America’s great­est liv­ing blue­wa­ter ad­ven­turer can be found in a self­made video in which Rich Wil­son — framed like a news­caster — braces for a storm south of Aus­tralia. He’d been at sea for 49 days in the Vendée Globe Race. One eye be­hind his over­size Poin­dex­ter- style glasses droops with ex­haus­tion. Judg­ing by the speed at which he un­abashedly wolfs down his freeze-dried din­ner on cam­era, he is ei­ther starv­ing or vy­ing to catch up to his 6,000-calo­rie-per-day min­i­mum. It’s Christ­mas Eve, so he wishes happy hol­i­days to more than half a mil­lion stu­dents in 50 dif­fer­ent coun­tries who are fol­low­ing his progress at sea — but you can scarcely hear him.

Wil­son’s nar­ra­tion on this four- minute satel­lite- trans­mit­ted footage is mostly drowned out by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Over­ture boom­ing from the ship’s stereo. At the cli­mac­tic en­trance of the horns, Wil­son looks up from his bowl, stops eat­ing and be­gins sway­ing his head in time to the mu­sic — lost in rap­ture, ob­vi­ously happy to be alone at sea.

To un­der­stand his mo­ti­va­tions for a life­time of pun­ish­ing voy­ages, his raw at-sea videos speak vol­umes. So do his logs: “We just got clob­bered through the night, with 30 knots of wind, up­wind, into the big build­ing seas,” Wil­son writes a month later, “and crash­ing and crash­ing and crash­ing.”

Em­ploy­ing the sin­gle­handed sailor’s “we” for the boat and him­self, his Jan­uary 25, 2017, en­try about the race con­tin­ued: “We’re hard on the wind. You just have to be hold­ing on at all times, with all four limbs.”

This was Wil­son’s se­cond Vendée, 28,000 miles around the blue planet, with­out re­sup­ply or out­side sup­port, and on a gray af­ter­noon on Fe­bru­ary 21, 2017, 48 min­utes into his 107th day into the race, the 66-year-old skip­per fin­ished off Les Sables d’olonne. His finish po­si­tion, 13th, the re­sult of 27,480 miles at an av­er­age speed of 10.7 knots. His plain white-hulled boat,

Great America IV, ob­servers noted, was in fine shape, a tes­ta­ment to sea­man­ship gleaned over thou­sands upon thou­sands of miles.

Wil­son never felt hand­i­capped as the old­est man in the world’s most gru­el­ing ocean race.

He fig­ured the other rac­ers had to suf­fer just like him through gales, lone­li­ness and re­pairs per­formed on the go.

Re­flect­ing on the race, he re­marks that his years aren’t a detri­ment: “The younger sailors have no bet­ter cop­ing tools to with­stand this sort of stress.” Ob­jec­tively speak­ing, be­ing older than one’s com­peti­tors and sur­viv­ing more epics at sea should also con­fer an ex­pe­ri­en­tial edge to a short­handed racer — but even if Wil­son sub­scribes to such a the­ory, his mod­esty pre­vents him from ad­mit­ting it.

There in the South At­lantic, he cinched the seat belt tight at the chart ta­ble be­fore press­ing the record but­ton, in ef­fort to not re­peat past mis­takes. In the be­gin­ning of the 2008 Vendée, a rogue wave caused him to go air­borne, throw­ing him 6 feet across the cabin and against a grab bar, breaking his ribs. The in­jury made sail changes and winch­ing an ex­cru­ci­at­ing ex­is­tence. Once se­cured at the ta­ble, Wil­son be­gins an­swer­ing satel­lite- trans­mit­ted emails. Not just a sailor, Wil­son sees be­ing an ed­u­ca­tor an im­por­tant part of his mis­sion. One stu­dent wanted to know about wave height: “Up to 20 feet”; an­other stu­dent asked about the last time he’d seen land: “Only once while round­ing Cape Horn.” He spends two hours a day an­swer­ing ques­tions, writ­ing an es­say, shoot­ing videos or talk­ing on the sat phone with a stu­dent — as if his hands weren’t al­ready full pre­vent­ing bod­ily in­jury, keep­ing the boat on course, and read­just­ing his tem­per­a­men­tal au­topi­lot.

Wil­son’s girl­friend calls Great Amer­i­can IV “the Mon­ster.” She was hor­ri­fied by the rad­i­cal cant­ing keel, the noise be­lowdecks and the dizzy­ing speed dur­ing a Mas­sachusetts day sail. Wil­son says the name has noth­ing to do with him or his pol­i­tics. De­spite the fact that thou­sands of French Vendée fans have nick­named Rich Wil­son the “brain” for his time at Har­vard, MIT and as a Pen­tagon an­a­lyst, and do con­sider him a great Amer­i­can by virtue of hav­ing the sangfroid to com­pete along­side their own he­roes.

Still, Wil­son is vir­tu­ally un­known, ex­cept in his Mar­ble­head, Mas­sachusetts, home wa­ters.

He bap­tized his sleek ma­chine the Great Amer­i­can — along with his three pre­vi­ous boats — after sim­i­larly named clip­per ships. Press­ing huge sheets of can­vas into the sky, 19th-cen­tury be­he­moths like Great Repub­lic, Fly­ing Cloud and Young America set transoceanic speed records that Wil­son and friends sys­tem­at­i­cally crushed (still, with char­ac­ter­is­tic hu­mil­ity, he doesn’t men­tion beat­ing any clip­per-ship records on the video) while pi­lot- ing his 60-foot tri­marans Great Amer­i­can I and II in the 1990s.

The first Great Amer­i­can per­formed a “dou­ble som­er­sault,” he said, 400 miles west of Chile in 65-foot seas while try­ing to beat Fly­ing Cloud’s time from San Fran­cisco to Bos­ton. The only record Wil­son men­tions on cam­era is that after be­ing sub­merged up­side down, Great America re­mains the only ship in mar­itime his­tory to right it­self in an even big­ger wave after the first som­er­sault. With­out his im­prob­a­ble tanker res­cue in high seas, along with the

Great Amer­i­can’s bombproof hull, he reck­ons he’d be dead. Sev­eral days after his Vendée Globe clob-

bering in the South At­lantic, Wil­son sat be­calmed 900 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, frus­trated and ham­mer­ing

Great Amer­i­can IV’S deck anew— this time with his fists. A sen­si­tive man, his eyes misty even dur­ing his news­casts at sea, Wil­son wanted to some­how vent, but all he could do was con­tinue thump­ing car­bon fiber. Al­though he knew he couldn’t win the race, it bugged him that half of his com­peti­tors were hun­dreds of miles ahead, clock­ing 12 knots, and smelling the cham­pagne while he spun 2-knot cir­cles in the dol­drums.

Wil­son, a tee­to­taler at sea ( who’ll drink on land only for cer­tain cel­e­bra­tions), also ab­stained from co­coa, tea and cof­fee. Once in a while, he al­lowed him­self a cup of soup. Oth­er­wise, as a spar­ely built ec­to­morph, he had no choice but to snack con­tin­u­ously. His larder in­cluded 540 Fig New­tons, more freezedried food than any health- con­scious AARP



mem­ber should con­sider eat­ing through­out their golden years ( let alone in three months), and 96 boxes of raisins. De­spite his 6,000-calo­ries-per-day reg­i­men, he would still lose 10 pounds.

Wil­son was in the race to stretch his “mind, body and spirit com­bined” ( as he con­cludes in his book Race France to France), and even more im­por­tant, to en­gage school­child­ren about the won­ders of the sea. While he has won a few races — in­clud­ing the over­all ti­tle in the 1980 Ber­muda Race, in his fa­ther’s wooden ketch, beat­ing out 159 other boats, and set more than a few transoceanic records — he’s not in­ter­ested in foils ( only six of the 2016 Vendée en­trants used the high- speed dag­ger­boards) or run­ning at 30 knots. He’s a blue­wa­ter salt, more Joshua Slocum than Dennis Conner, sentimentally adapted to the albatross and moved by porpoises in his bow wake. While he can be in­duced to chat on the phone about his on­line ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum or his French con­nec­tions, Wil­son is a re­served loner, dis­in­clined to talk about him­self or his life­style ( a Bos­ton Globe re­porter once de­scribed him as a monk).

Three months after fin­ish­ing the Vendée Globe in 107 days (he placed 13th of 18 rac­ers, with 11 drop­ping out), I find him at the Atomic Café on a brick-cob­bled street in down­town Mar­ble­head. He’s fo­cused on a copy of the

Fi­nan­cial Times held over his tuna-fish sand-

wich. Given his pen­chant for clas­si­cal mu­sic, he’s oddly un­per­turbed by rock mu­sic blar­ing out of the cafe’s speak­ers, but soft-spo­ken enough that lip read­ing comes in handy as he speaks wist­fully about the Vendée.

His shoul­ders are still sore from winch grind­ing, so much so that it hurts to lift his arms above his head. De­mure and pleas­ant, with gray hair and a gen­tle­manly mous­tache neatly coiffed, his strik­ing black eye­brows frame his long face.

Brian Han­cock, a sea­soned blue­wa­ter lo­cal and au­thor, likens Wil­son to Mr. Rogers. Wil­son shows up for Vendée Globe events in a suit and tie as if he’s the race book­keeper, stand­ing along­side his French com­peti­tors in sail­ing at­tire.

To­day he’s dressed in docker pants, with an ox­ford shirt and a V-neck cash­mere sweater be­neath a puffy vest and a thick sail­ing jacket. Al­though he’s just sur­vived an­other tran­sit of the icy Southern Ocean, he is the only per­son seen this last day of May in Mar­ble­head still dressed for win­ter.

After strolling to the nearby Bos­ton YC — Wil­son gasp­ing as if we’re run­ning up­hill — we sit on an en­closed dock porch, bounc­ing in the har­bor wake. Here, con­nected with the ocean, he gets ex­cited, ges­tur­ing with his hands as he re­peat­edly de­scribes the stu­dents and ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign he set up for the race.

Wil­son financed Great Amer­i­can IV through his own re­sources, and sailed on a shoestring bud­get com­pared with his com­peti­tors. Money and win­ning are sore sub­jects. Wil­son be­moans the America’s Cup as this coun­try’s only main­stream sail­ing event. “It sucks up all the press cov­er­age,” he says. “Peo­ple are as­tounded that the [Vendée] race even ex­ists be­cause they’ve never heard of it.”

Armel Le Cléac’h (40, win­ner of this year’s Vendée) col­lected a purse of 160,000 eu­ros ($ 182,000 USD) — with smaller awards parceled out to each fin­isher, show­ing the French phi­los­o­phy that ev­ery en­trant is a win­ner. Still, Wil­son be­lieves, “That’s lu­di­crous com­pared with base­ball [play­ers’ salaries].”

Wil­son’s in­sight is that no one un­der­stands the French-dom­i­nated race be­cause sports in this coun­try — even the America’s Cup — are all about win­ning. As for the Vendée, “You do it for the ex­pe­ri­ence and to share,” he says. The idea be­gan with Bernard Moitessier in the first non­stop Golden Globe race in 1968. After round­ing Cape Horn, dis­in­ter­ested in win­ning or in the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of sail­ing, Moitessier fa­mously sling­shot a mes­sage onto a pass­ing ship to no­tify race of­fi­cials he was quit­ting “be­cause I am happy at sea and per­haps to save my soul.” The French still


em­brace Moitessier’s spirit, hence to­day’s brand­ing sur­round­ing the race.

As a Fran­cophile, al­beit a life­long New Eng­lan­der lack­ing a Bos­ton ac­cent, Wil­son re­mains unas­sum­ing. He has no trace of the pedi­gree that pri­vate schools and yacht clubs would’ve given to sailors who hadn’t suf­fered half as much. It’s hard, in fact, to re­mem­ber that this cor­rectly dressed, shy aca­demic has spent at least sev­eral years of his life at sea — of­ten alone, some­times in a sur­vival suit and usu­ally far from terra firma — as he avoids speak­ing of his own ac­com­plish­ments so he can praise his men­tors or speak about how im­por­tant sail­ing is for kids.

“Once you leave the dock, you’re on your own,” he says. “You have to make de­ci­sions, fix things, and you’re sud­denly in po­si­tions you’ve never been in be­fore.”

Since he’s talk­ing about his own be­gin­nings, I ask if he al­ways wheezes. But he waves away the ques­tion — pre­sum­ably it’s an­other hand­i­cap he re­fuses to be lim­ited by.

Sev­eral months be­fore the last edi­tion of the race, his next-door neigh­bor, sailor Amy Drinker, ob­served him lift­ing weights at the gym, wheez­ing dis­con­cert­ingly. “I thought he was going to have a heart at­tack,” Drinker says. His trainer whis­pered to Drinker: “He’s fine. When he breathes hard, it doesn’t sound like you and me.” Then trainer turned to trainee — known to work out so hard that he’d run into the bath­room to puke — and ex­horted, “C’mon, one more set!”

Re­call­ing those work­outs, he says, “You can’t train your­self out of be­ing 66.”

Wil­son is re­fer­ring to how en­durance ath­letes of his age have 15 per­cent less lung ca­pac­ity of mid­dle- aged ath­letes — and in ad­di­tion, se­vere asthma gives him 75 per­cent of the lung ca­pac­ity of nor­mal sailors. Any grinder who has ex­pe­ri­enced anaer­o­bic break­down in ser­vice to the winch can only imag­ine the strain of off­shore short­hand­ing, with a 60 per­cent lung ca­pac­ity, av­er­ag­ing 1,200 turns a day for more than three months.

Like his com­peti­tors in the Vendée, Wil­son got lit­tle sleep, mostly grab­bing half-hour cat­naps. Un­like his com­peti­tors, he takes four dif­fer­ent asthma drugs, which adversely crank up his metabolism and limit the shut-eye.

Di­ag­nosed as a se­vere asth­matic while still a tod­dler, long be­fore al­buterol in­halers, his par­ents learned that their mid­dle child would not be des­tined for con­ven­tional sports. But one day in the mid-1950s, sail­ing on the fam­ily ketch out­side Mar­ble­head, Dorothy Wil­son ob­served a change in her son while rid­ing in the off­shore breeze: “Richie” was healthy, run­ning around the boat. When the wind turned and blew from the land, car­ry­ing in­vis­i­ble par­tic­u­late mat­ter and pol­lens, their son bowed over, crip­pled with wheez­ing.

Betsy Hoff­man- Hun­dahl, Wil­son’s girl­friend, is a di­rec­tor of the lo­cal art mu­seum. Wil­son’s asthma, she says, “is the pri­vate strug­gle of his life.” He doesn’t men­tion this de­bil­ity dur­ing his pub­lic lec­tures (events at which his sailor friends be­come frus­trated be­cause Wil­son’s hu­mil­ity un­der­plays the dif­fi­cul­ties of his voy­ages). “It’s a per­sonal goal,” Hoff­man-hun­dahl says, “prov­ing to him­self that he can do things like the Vendée with asthma.”

Clearly, Wil­son over­came this life­long land-borne hand­i­cap by going to sea. Sail­ing in Mar­ble­head ju­nior races as a po­lite 10-year-old, he won his first race, a quar­ter-mile out and then back around the cans. While fo­cused on trim­ming the sail and avoid­ing a “snake wake” that would slow his Sea Sprite’s hull speed, he pulled into the lead, won, and would re­mem­ber the de­tails of that day for the rest of his life. It was ob­vi­ously the mas­tery ver­sus the win­ning that spun Wil­son’s clock.

Child­hood friend Rob­bie Doyle — a Mar­ble­head sail­maker and Sail­ing Hall of Famer — also re­mem­bers those races and his frail com­peti­tor. “Out of the 10 kids we sailed with,” says Doyle, “Richie would’ve been the last who I would’ve picked for com­pet­ing in the Vendée Globe.”

Loathe to par­take in “pass the sand­wich and open the beer” cruises, Wil­son re­mains the blue­wa­ter ec­cen­tric among Mar­ble­head yacht­ing cir­cles. Still, he’s in­cred­i­bly re­spected. Con­se­quently, there’s con­sid­er­able chat­ter about whether he’ll take on the qua­dren­nial Vendée in his 70s.

“He’ll do it again,” says Han­cock. “He’s too pro­fi­cient not to.”

Hoff­man- Hun­dahl keeps prob­ing on this like­li­hood, and while she looks for­ward to his tak­ing time off, she can’t imag­ine him with­out a new pro­ject.

When put di­rectly to Wil­son, who gets asked this ques­tion rou­tinely, he an­swers, “I’m not going to do it again.” “Are you sure?” I ask. “Well,” he hes­i­tates, look­ing long­ingly out to sea, “pretty sure.” Q


Over­look­ing his na­tive Mar­ble­head Har­bor, Rich Wil­son en­joys his quiet no­to­ri­ety as one of Amer­i­can sail­ing’s most ac­com­plished yachts­men. PHOTO :

A life­long suf­ferer of se­vere asthma, Wil­son found it eas­ier to breathe at sea dur­ing fam­ily out­ings in New Eng­land as a child, and while he down­plays his phys­i­cal strug­gles, he in­stead uses it as source of mo­ti­va­tion. TOP : J A Q U E S VA P I L L O N...

Alone on the open ocean is where Wil­son has spent most of his sea time, be­low be­fore the Vendée Globe, and at right in 2004, on board the ORMA 50 Mul­ti­hull Great Amer­i­can II. He com­pleted the Transat, from Ply­mouth, Eng­land, to Bos­ton in 15 days. PHOTO...

Among vet­er­ans and the new breed of out­stand­ing French sailors, Wil­son is revered for his hu­mil­ity, his per­sis­tence, and his ef­forts to fur­ther the ad­ven­ture ap­peal of the race through his global class­room con­nec­tions. PHO­TOS ;


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.