US SAILING Communications Manager
In wake of the world’s most extreme ocean racing odyssey known as the Vendée Globe, sailing enthusiasts have had a chance to learn about the solo, non-stop, around the world race. But how much can spectators really know about this great nautical adventure? And what can we learn from someone who has braved the most dangerous elements known to man, and made major sacrifices to do so? Maybe it is time we discover and learn through the eyes of only the second American to ever finish the famed Vendée Globe. After covering 28,590 miles in just over 121 days, US SAILING had the opportunity to interview Rich Wilson, the race’s senior skipper at 58 years-of-age, to get his detailed and often opinionated take on many topics surrounding this race and the sport of sailing in general. Wilson speaks his mind on the Vendée Globe experience, the perception of the sport both here in the U.S. and abroad, growing the sport, the media, alternative education methods, his future sailing endeavors, and more. Read part two of this four-week Q&A series with Rich Wilson, brought to you exclusively by the
Part Two of a Four Part Series
US SAILING: Why is there not more U.S. participation in this race?
RICH WILSON: The U.S. has had some great singlehanders (Phil Weld, Phil Steggall, Walter Greene, Bruce Schwab, etc.), but they’ve either scraped together a minimal budget to do a race, or had some resources to start with. Maybe we need a great American singlehander hero to transcend the media.
It’s pretty clear from our success in our K12 programs that the media is missing a great story. We had 50 newspapers publishing our 15 part weekly series in the US, and 25 of those papers were in Missouri! About as far from salt water as you can get! So if the teachers and kids are into the Vendee Globe in Missouri, why can’t the sportswriters of America, get into it? The kids and teachers in Missouri have imagination and curiosity, that’s the difference between them and the media.
US SAILING: What can you attribute to corporate Americas lack of interest in sponsoring your expedition? Do you think there would be more interest if they were more informed about it?
RICH WILSON: Undoubtedly, they would be more interested if they knew more about it, but the general media doesn’t cover these events, and they should. The mystery is that the singlehanded races are congruent to the great American mythology, of the lone adventurer/cowboy, sleeping under the stars, overcoming obstacles night and day, pushing into new frontiers, and exploring…. And the Vendee Globe is exactly that.
I see an appealing difference between France and the U.S. The French have a heightened curiosity and humanity. They care about the sailors. They’ve thought about what is about to be undertaken by this group, and they want to know about you, about what you think, about your fears, your mother’s fears, your sister’s fears, it is all so human there it just stops you in your tracks. It’s very appealing.
There were 300,000 people lining the harbor channel at the start, and for the 3 weeks before the start, 30,000 people per day came to walk the pontoon and see the boats and talk to the skippers. Some people here in the U.S. say, oh well, the French just like sailing, and I don’t think it’s that at all. I didn’t have one technical conversation in four months with anyone about whether our mainsail was Kevlar or vectran or what, they don’t really care about the technical part, they care about the people, and the gigantic undertaking that is about to happen, and they appreciate that.
I heard from people that the French have a “Curiosity Curriculum” in their schools, lots of field trips, etc., to make the kids think of things far from their norm to give them a greater curiosity, and maybe that has had an effect on the country nationally. We could learn something from that.
US SAILING: What ideas do you have that would improve the overall notoriety for ocean sailboat racing in the mainstream media? Sports media? Have any major networks contacted you for an interview?
RICH WILSON: The last question first - no major U.S. networks have contacted me. I did do an hour long TV show in the Vendee region in French with a translator. I was the only guest for an hour. That hasn’t happened here [U.S.]. After I finished [Vendee Globe], I stayed a week before heading home. People there said, you were the oldest skipper, the only American this time, only the second American to finish in Vendee Globe history. The phone will be ringing off the hook! And I said, no it won’t!
France to France, leave Antarctica to starboard, solo, non-stop, 28,000 miles, 60’ sailboats, 3-4 months, at times thousands of miles from nearest land - you’d think that might pique the curiosity of a reporter!
US SAILING: Why do the French do so well in this race?
RICH WILSON: The French have had several sailing heroes, Bernard Moitessier, Eric Tabarly, and now Michel Desjoyeaux. The public was drawn in to their human efforts at sea, and thus sponsors paid attention to this popularity. There is some money for the boats and races, and there are enough races so that the best sailors will rise to the top. Typically, the winner of the Figaro Race is the one to get the next big sponsorship.
The French have lots of sailing schools, fewer exclusive access yacht clubs, so there is a bigger base of sailors, and again, the cream rises to the top. It’s almost as if they have minor leagues, like our AA or AAA baseball, and if you do well, and work your way up, then you can join the big boys on the Open 60 circuit.
Part One of a Four Part Series
US SAILING: The race is so grueling; would you have prepared differently knowing what you know now?
RICH WILSON: This answer could go on for pages! I don’t think that you can know what you need to know for a Vendée Globe until you’ve done one. I said to many before the start, when they asked if I was ready, that at the finish I would be ready to start, and it turned out to be true.
I prepared physically with Marti Shea of Select Fitness in Marblehead [Mass.]. She was extraordinary, and I was probably in the best physical condition of my life, including back to my teenage and college years. I simply said to her that I would never be the strongest, or the best aerobically (my asthma), but that at the end of the training, I wanted her to be able to say that no one ever worked harder than me, and at the end, she said that was true. There was one day when in the middle of the workout, I excused myself briefly to go to the men’s room, threw up, and came back. Marti knew what happened and said, “I’m sorry I pushed you so hard,” and I replied, “No, it’s just right, and now we both know that I’m working at, and you’re pushing at, my limit, so this is perfect.” It was just like in high school!
I would have altered the food structure a bit with more freeze-dried dinners for the occasional lunch or midnight meal, fewer sweet Fig Newtons, and more in the foil packed Bumblee product line of chicken breasts, salmon steaks, etc. We had Nestle’s Nido whole milk powder, and Ensure powder as well. These two were critical as they kept the calories and hydration flowing in tandem. We used my mother’s lists from our earlier long voyages as a starting point. Our target was 6,000 calories per day. I likely reached 5,000 calories per day, and only ended up losing 4-5 pounds. I’d eat four meals per day, plus eat before and after big sail changes.
Rather than just fixing things as they were needed, I would have a maintenance checklist (likely monthly) for odd things, such as nuts and bolts in the steering system, windcharger mount, engine, all hose clamps on bilge and desalinator systems, etc. This would likely have saved the windcharger which gradually loosened from vibration. After 25,000 miles, its cushion slipped out between the mount and the bracket, and suddenly it was loose. Finally, a wave knocked it off and it hung by its three wires. It was too precarious to get at to re-mount it at sea.
I had two great preparateurs in France - Hugues Riousse of France, and Rick Williams of Marblehead. Although very experienced in boats, neither they nor I were experienced in Open 60s and I think it would have been useful to have had one of the great French preparateurs with us. We were good to go to sea, but didn’t really know how hard we could push the boat. It would have been good to have hired one of the great French solo sailors for a week to teach me how hard I needed to push.
A big problem we had was that critical pieces of equipment didn’t get delivered on time, or even close to being on time, per manufacturers promised delivery dates. Although we sailed a lot of miles in four transatlantic passages before the Vendée Globe, none of it was practice. Like when you go out and set a bunch of sails in the same conditions to find out how they go, or set sails at the top of their wind range to see when the boat will be overpowered. None of it was pushing the boat hard with a full crew. To learn the limits, so that if you had a big disaster in practice, there were people around to help bring it under control. Frankly, these delays in delivery, which eliminated our practice, both for 2007 and 2008 race seasons, had the direct effect of increasing the risk to me. And the delays were nearly all from American companies, and I don’t think any of them thought of the chain of ramifications of late delivery for their customer. There’s a big lesson there for American business I think.
US SAILING: Do you prefer being a jack-of-all-trades alone on your boat?
RICH WILSON: Unless you are a helmsman on a fully crewed boat, a lot of the time you may not be doing much. I like the challenge of short-handed sailing, where you have to know so many more things. On fully crewed boats, often it is - “this is your winch, learn to love it.” When you are alone, you have to steer, navigate, make the weather analysis, go to the top of the mast, go under the boat, set the spinnaker at midnight, repair the autopilot linkage, climb to the end of the boom and put on a mainsheet block safety, put in all the reefs, take out all the reefs, write all the stories, answer all the questions, take all the photos, edit the photos and videos, bail the forward lockers, fix the engine, service the winch at sea, etc. It is a handful, but it is more interesting and challenging and satisfying that way.
US SAILING: How close were you to pulling out of the competition when you broke your rib, just days into the race?
RICH WILSON: The thought never crossed my mind. This is the Vendée Globe, of course you keep going. That first storm was horrific with 50 knots on the nose at Bay of Biscay. Four boats were dismasted and four others returned to port for repairs. I was able to keep going.
I monitored it closely and was in daily contact with Dr. Brien Barnewolt, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who has helped us on previous voyages. We were concerned about any possible puncturing of the lung and impaired breathing (beyond my normal impaired breathing from asthma) but that hadn’t happened. It was agony to do anything on deck or below for about 2-3 weeks. Then it started to feel better, and after a month I forgot about it.
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The United States Sailing Association (US SAILING), the national governing body for sailing, provides leadership for the sport in the United States. Founded in 1897 and headquartered in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, US SAILING is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization. US SAILING offers training and education programs for instructors and race officials, supports a wide range of sailing organizations and communities, issues offshore rating certificates, and provides administration and oversight of competitive sailing across the country, including National Championships and the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics. For more information, please visit www.ussailing.org.