Rich Wilson: Go Around Again

Published on November 12th, 2015

RICH WILSONby Vicki Staveacre
American Rich Wilson, one of Marblehead’s most well-known sailors, is now in the final stages of preparation to compete, for the second time, in the Vendee Globe non-stop singlehanded around the world race.

When Wilson – a Newport to Bermuda winner and holder of three sailing world records – first learned about the race, which is sailed in the 60-foot IMOCA class, his initial reaction was “it is too hard, too long and too dangerous.” But in 2009, he completed the race in 9th place out of eleven finishers and 30 initial contenders. He was the only American, the only asthmatic and, at 58, the oldest skipper in the fleet.

Sailing 28,790 miles in 121 days, Wilson endured broken ribs, a facial gash and compressed vertebrae. He encountered hurricane force gales, gear breakage, and had to climb up his 90-foot mast to make repairs. He crossed the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in his 60’ monohull Great American III.

Wilson’s motivation to participate in the 2008-9 race was to engage and educate K12 students around the world, with 250,000 students and schools in 15 foreign countries participating in his educational SitesALIVE program.

Now, seven years later, Wilson is preparing a new boat, Great American IV, to compete in the 2016-17 Vendee Globe race. The boat spent the summer in Marblehead, and then went up to Maine and set sail for the UK on October 21. With Wilson at the helm, it arrived in Southampton late on November 6 — exactly a year before the race will start from Sables de Olonne in France.

The transatlantic crossing was Wilson’s first serious sea trial in the new boat. “It was a really successful first voyage,” Wilson observed, “and I feel a lot more comfortable with the high speed and systems of the new boat.” Wilson crossed the Atlantic in a personal best time of 15 days, reaching speeds of over 20 knots.

Wilson was born in Boston and his early childhood was dominated by his struggle with asthma. “Those days, the only way to have friends was to go out and play with them, and run around,” he explained. With no asthma drugs available for home use, Wilson had to learn how to push through and cope with his asthma. Even today, taking four medications, Wilson’s lung function is only 70-75% of the norm.

Wilson learned to sail at the Pleon Yacht Club in Marblehead where his contemporaries included Robbie Doyle and Steve and Jon Wales. Wilson claims he was always middle of the fleet and so he had to find something he could excel at. In 1980 he became the youngest ever skipper to win the Newport to Bermuda race in his dad’s 42ft ketch, the Holger Danske. His crew of ten included Marblehead friends Twig Burke, Peter Warren, Sandy Tierney and Jim Drewry.

With degrees from Harvard, MIT and Harvard Business School, Wilson was a math teacher in the Boston Public Schools system when he realized that kids really paid attention when he confronted them with real world experiences. This was the motivation behind the creation of the educational foundation, SitesALIVE.

“Excite a kid with bats, bugs, and snakes in the rainforest, or with gales, flying fish, and dolphins at sea, and they will pay attention not knowing what will happen next,” noted Wilson. “Then the science, geography, and math flow freely.”

His first SitesALIVE project in 1990 was to challenge a clipper era record for the fastest passage from San Francisco to Boston via Cape Horn. Sailing in a 60-foot trimaran, Wilson and crew mate Steve Pettengill encountered 85 knot winds and 65-foot seas off Cape Horn which caused the catamaran to double somersault and capsize.

Shipwrecked, Wilson and Pettengill clung to the remains of the hull until they were rescued at midnight by the giant containership New Zealand Pacific. The ship’s captain, Murray Lister, is one of the 17 strong team of experts Wilson recruited for his first Vendee Globe attempt, including his trainer and his asthma doctor.

The Vendee Globe race was started in 1989, and is described by world class sailor and TV commentator Gary Jobson as a race almost beyond belief – 28,000 miles around the world non-stop and singlehanded. While Wilson is the first to admit that the race is “too scary, the boats are too big, and you are too far from land,” he also realized that it would provide the true theater of the mind that was his mission for SitesALIVE.

So, when he sailed out of the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne on November 9, 2008, his motivation was to inspire the 250,000 schoolkids and 25 participating newspapers that were following his exploits daily through the SitesALIVE  website.

A total of 30 sailors from around the world began the 2008 race, but on day two in the Bay of Biscay, they encountered a major storm which caused four participants to give up, and five sailors returned to port for repairs. Wilson was thrown across the cabin and broke two ribs, but after discussion with his medical advisor, Dr Brien Barnewolf at Tufts Medical Center, he continued, despite the discomfort of raising and lowering the sails and other physical chores.

“The physical toll of the race is extraordinary,” Wilson explained, as to hoist the mainsail from the boom takes 1500 revs on the pedestal winch, and the mainsail can weigh up to 450 lbs. “Your legs have to be really strong at the start, as while your upper body is working every day your leg muscles atrophy.”

While the calorie intake of a normal male is around 2,000 calories a day, Wilson’s race target is 6,000 calories a day, although most days he only consumed 5400 and had to make up the rest with a constant diet of fig Newtons. Sleep deprivation is the other major physical challenge, which for Wilson was compounded by his asthma drugs, in which the core component is caffeine. Hard to rest when your body can’t.

The previous owner of Wilson’s boat sailed it round the world four times and told Wilson that it had gone as fast as 35.7 knots – comparable to current America’s Cup speeds. This was information which he really did not want to know, “If I ever see a three in the 10 column on the knotmeter, I will hide under the chart table!”

The eighth Vendée Globe starts on November 6, 2016, with 27 skippers planning to be on the start line. For Wilson, he will again be the only American, the only asthmatic and, at 66, the oldest skipper in the fleet.

Vendee GlobeSitesALIVE

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