Heroes from the world of Solo Sailing

Published on August 25th, 2022

The inaugural Global Solo Challenge 2023-24 seeks to be a budget-friendly solo, non-stop race around the world. For boats from 32 to 55 feet with an IRC rating below 1.370, a pursuit start over 11 weeks begins in A Coruña, Spain, with the first boat to return deemed the winner.

In this report by Dave Proctor, he looks back at some of the heroes from the world of solo sailing:

For anyone who has an interest in solo ocean sailing, particularly circumnavigation, they will have their heroes, people who have inspired them in their sailing, and indeed their lives.

Intrepid, clever, determined people who have achieved remarkable feats in quite remarkable circumstances.

Now my colleague, Helena, has already written about the women sailors who made the history of solo sailing, so I thought I would write a series of articles on sailing heroes starting from my own personal Hall of Fame.

In later articles, we will pose the same questions to the organizers of the Global Solo Challenge and some famous sailors of our time. We’ve asked each person to select just five and it is not an easy task (my list has 6).

Each person has many sailors they look up to or that inspired them, so these are simply my personal favorites (at least one woman would have made my top, but as I said, Helena has already covered these sailors).

Joshua Slocum
It was way back in 1898 that Slocum became the first man to circumnavigate the Globe, single-handedly, returning to his home port in America, after having had over three years at sea and having covered over 74,000 km (though he did stop a number of times).

In his 36-foot sloop, the Spray, Slocum had developed a system where he could sail his boat by lashing the helm and then balancing this by reefing the sails, so he hardly had to touch the helm, whilst sailing, during this epic voyage.

His book about the voyage ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ became an international best seller. Indeed the author Arthur Ransome declared: “Boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once.”

Sir Francis Chichester
As a child, back in 1967, I still recall the mass hysteria that greeted the return of this man, after he had solo-circumnavigated the Globe on board his yacht, Gypsy-Moth IV. He had only stopped once (in Australia for repairs) and had set the bar for others.

I saw his boat, when it was on display at the Greenwich Meridian in London, shortly afterward, and recall remarking on how small it was (actually, she is a 53-foot ketch, so not that small).

By the way, if you want to see a picture of this yacht, it is printed on the inside of all the most recent British passports.

What many people do not realize about this man is that he was firstly an aviation pioneer, then as a sailor, he had co-developed the concept of the Observer Solo Trans-Atlantic Races (OSTAR) and indeed had won the first-ever OSTAR back in 1960.

But behind the bookish exterior, this man was an extraordinary wit. I leave this section with one of his quotes: “Any damn fool can navigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.”

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston
After Chichester’s return, in 1968 The Sunday Times Newspaper put up their Golden Globe challenge for the first man to solo navigate the world non-stop via the five great capes. This was also a race and there was an additional prize for the fastest person.

Nine sailors entered this challenge, but only one, Knox-Johnston, completed the course and so he became the first man to sail around the world solo and non-stop.

In this extraordinary challenge, one man, Donald Crowhurst committed suicide after apparently cheating by never leaving the Atlantic and then falsifying his log, then another competitor, Bernard Moitessier, who was close to winning the race, declared that he was against the commercialization of sailing and he failed to return to the finish. Instead, he traveled on to Tahiti where he lived for a number of years.

If one looks at the equipment and how Knox-Johnston survived this epic adventure, his story takes on a different light. The food was mainly in tins, so you can imagine the weight! Any dried foods required re-hydrating and the only means Knox-Johnston had of acquiring water was by collecting rainwater. He navigated using charts, sexton, and compass and his small boat (34 feet) required him to actually have to helm her for between 15 and 17 hours per day.

François Gabart
In recent years, French sailors have tended to dominate the solo circumnavigational race scene, but to choose one, Gabart must rate as one of the best, ever.

At just 14 years old he was French Optimist Champion, then year after year he has notched up more and more wins. Amongst them, Tornado Junior World Champion, Winner of Transat B to B, Doublehanded winner of the Fastnet, then in 2012-13 he won the Vendée Globe in 78 days 2 hours 16 minutes, which was then a new world record for a monohull.

In 2017 Gabart went sailing again, this time on a tri-maran, called MACIF. He solo circumnavigated the globe in an amazing 42d 16h 40′ 35″. This time meant that he had averaged 27.2 knots (31.3 mph) over 27,859.7 nautical miles.

Think about that speed for a moment, for six weeks solid, day and night, this sailor had averaged over 30mph. I could not imagine the noise, the vibration, and how exhausting maintaining such a speed would have been.

Jon Sanders
There are now almost 200 people who have sailed solo, non-stop around the world. Most of whom have achieved this feat once, maybe twice, but Australian Sanders has achieved this feat an incredible eleven times.

He has also achieved some amazing records: The first man to double circumnavigate the world, the first man to do the same three times, the longest period alone at sea, the oldest circumnavigator, he was 81 when he finished his last voyage. He has apparently 12 world records to his name.

All of these trips have been aboard his S&S 34, Perie Banou II, the same design of boat that will be used by Daffyd Hughes in the upcoming Global Solo Challenge and was successfully raced by former UK Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Sanders is a passionate environmentalist and during his last voyage (which took a lot longer than planned because of COVID 19 lockdowns), he took water samples as he sailed so that scientists could analyse micro-plastic pollution of our seas.

Sanders at 81 years old has pointed out that he is not planning any further voyages, but….never say never.
So that is my leaderboard of my heroes, but as I will be following and reporting on the 2023 Global Solo Challenge, I have a suspicion that my leaderboard may change.

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