Octogenerian to make 3rd attempt at Solo Non-Stop Circumnavigation
This is about my efforts to become the oldest person to ever sail non-stop and solo around the globe. More than a hundred individuals have managed this feat with the oldest being 71 years and I will be 80 when I start later this year on Saturday, November 14, 2017.
Despite two failed attempts, both ending in South Africa, the first time due to failings of the deck fittings and the second to a complete tear of the mainsail, I have decided to try again. A new boat has been commissioned and launched in April 2017.
I have had a very successful and active life. I have done well professionally as a physical therapist, academically in founding four nationwide campus’ focusing on health sciences, in business principally in real estate and have used those assets to take on a number of athletic challenges.
In 1960 I drove a VW beetle from London to India and back. In 1985 I completed the World Championship Kona Ironman Triathlon and the following year swam the English Channel twice. Sailing has been there with me for the longest time. My wife and I lived on a sailboat in Boston Harbor for two years before sailing to England and back. During the years from 1998 to 2004, I circumnavigated by way of the Panama Canal with family and friends visiting Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean before home to St. Augustine, Florida.
It was not until 2002 when my oldest son Alan decided to sail solo in the Around Alone event sponsored by Sir Robin Knox-Johnson that the bug of solo sailing hit me. I was impressed with their youth and vitality, their planning and self-reliance and above all their cooperativeness when they were in port (it was a planned four stop event).
I love sailing and I enjoy the great companionship of a crew, but solo sailing appeals to me for it requires a great deal of forethought. First the sailor has to have the experience and skill to sail solo. Next the boat must be capable to be sailed solo. What I also enjoy is the extensive planning from deciding on provisioning, what spare parts and repair materials to carry, staying current with electronics, etc. Stopping along the way for repairs is of course a disqualifying event. Strangely, some people just don’t get that solo means solo i.e., sailing alone. No time in port, no one to help. You can’t even receive a newspaper or a spare part. You can anchor to do repairs but cannot have human contact or assistance.
Being at sea is scary enough to some people. I have seen the novice go from excitement to fear and depression as we slip over the horizon and lose sight of land. Then when night falls and clouds obscure even the stars we are sailing into a vast black hole, equilibrium is challenged. When the weather turns foul, the inexperienced wishes for nothing but a safe port. Sailing is a challenge and solo sailing is for me the ultimate challenge.
In 2011 while in semi-retirement, I began to plan in earnest. I hired an architect and had built a 64 foot boat named Kiwi Spirit. The boat was launched in November 2013 leaving me with a year to train before the start.
I have made many mistakes in these past few years and I take full responsibility for them. I blame no one but myself for what went wrong for I chose the architect, builder and equipment including sails and fittings and if I did not choose them, then I allowed someone else to do it for me. Unfortunately, I allowed an entirely unsuitable boat to be built for me. It was too physical, large and complicated. I have had six large boats (over 44 feet) and this boat was the first that if you visited and asked to go sailing the next day, I might have declined as it took so much work to get ready. If you can’t go for a day sail on short notice then that sounds like a misfit. It was 64 feet in length and with a bow sprit that slid out for another six feet, possibly the largest boat that anyone has attempted to solo around the world. It even came with all manual winches. Even the young sailors who joined me found grinding up the mainsail too much work. There were the reaching struts designed to hold out the genoa. These were unruly and dangerous to use, difficult to fit and were abandoned early in the program.
Lead Up Events
Finally I was ready to race and match myself and boat against other sailors. I entered the boat in three international off shore races. The Bermuda One – Two (solo sail down to Bermuda from Newport, Rhode Island and two handed back). I gained line honors (crossed the finish line first) on both legs despite a handicap that made me the last to start. The solo leg was the most challenging. Twenty-four boats started and only eighteen finished with one sinking and one sailor requiring a rescue. On the two handed leg back to Newport I was joined by my son Alan and we won by some eight hours for the 900 mile course.
Third I entered in the Marblehead, Massachusetts to Halifax, Nova Scotia race. Seventy-two boats took part. They would not allow me to go solo so I brought a non-sailing friend along. We got 14th with the next double hander coming in 28th.
So for all the boats short comings I could sail it and it was unquestionably fast. Thus I decided to stick with the boat and got ready to sail non-stop around the globe. After all I had spent a great deal of money and with advancing years I had to get started.
First Attempt 2014
On my first attempt beginning November 2014 about 50 days into it, off the coast of South America, the fittings that hold the mast and sails to the boat proved inadequate and began to fail. Breakages occurred and repairs can be made while at sea but safety cannot be compromised beyond the already inherent risks of solo sailing. The fitting were just “not up to it.” The small screw held the end cap plates but the screws fell out or broke as seen below. On the advice of the boats designer, I turned on the engine and made my way to Cape Town, South Africa.
Second Attempt 2015
In 2015 tried again. We had strengthened the fittings and they worked well. Everything was working better and I was quite content even after 50 days alone. We were I thought bullet proof when suddenly and without warning the huge mainsail tore completely in half as shown below.
I looked up and could not believe my eyes. It could not be true. But I looked again and it was true. This sail could not be repaired at sea and any repair I could make would not weather the seas ahead. I was finished. Once again I made it to Cape Town through some rather heavy weather, 30 knots with gusts to 50.
Would I Try Again?
After two failures, just a year apart I needed to lick my wounds. Was this really what I wanted to do? Retired was it not time to take it easy and enjoy life, family, friends and more sedate living. I had failed before and moved on so why not now? The truth is that after a failure I usually tried again until I succeeded, such as in my first two efforts to swim the English Channel. Could I live with this failure and move on or did I in advancing years have to try again? Was I in good enough mental, emotional and physical health? I thought so much has been endured and learned and it would seem a pity as long as I have good health and family support not to try again. So my wife and I agreed that I should try again. Thank you to my wife Catherine.
Of course spiritually or is it emotionally, I needed a new boat for a fresh start. So we donated the original Kiwi Spirit to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy where it will be well used and appreciated.
Kiwi Spirit II
In a sailing magazines I saw a drawing of a fast short-handed cruiser being built in Kiel, Germany and designed by celebrated French naval architects Finot-Conq. In January 2016, I visited Germany and met with the Architects and Builders and could see that with some minor alteration encompassing my needs as a solo sailor this boat could be right for me. I came home, reflected and decided to try again in a new Kiwi Spirit II.
As I write this piece at the end of 2016 it is important to know that I have full confidence in the Architect and Builder but just in case I have this time put together a team consisting of my son Alan and long time sailor Steve Pettengill as the project manager. Steve is full time in yachting and yacht repairs and has sailed several thousand miles with me. He knows well how to make the boat what we call “Stanley Centric."