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Celebrating the start to a fresh year of challenges and triumphs

by David Schmidt 1 Jan 08:00 PST January 1, 2018
Celebration with flares during solo sailing circumnavigation record for Trimaran MACIF, skipper Francois Gabart © Yvan Zedda / ALeA / Macif

The changing of calendar years is often a time for quiet reflection and thought, especially for sailors living in the now-frigid and dark Northern Hemisphere, where the thoughts of spring, of fresh sails filling with warm breeze and of racecourse cannons are still months over the horizon. While there’s always the temptation to go skiing or to engage in snowball fights (OK, menacing fistfuls of rain if you live here in the Pacific Northwest, as I do), this is a great time of year to also consider where our sport has come from and where it’s headed.

In my sometimes-not-so-humble opinion, the biggest sailing achievement of 2017 belongs to François Gabart (34; FRA), who-on December 17-set a stunningly quick time for the fastest solo circumnavigation, completing his lap in just 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds, which represented an improvement of 6 days, 10 hours 23 minutes and 53 seconds over the previous record, set by Thomas Coville on December 25, 2016.

Gabart didn’t just improve on Coville’s time-he utterly shattered it, cleaving almost a week off of a time that many sailors, myself included, were celebrating just a mere year ago.

While there’s no question that Gabart’s bold achievement was a massive personal accomplishment, it also marks a proud achievement for the sport of sailing, begging a new and pressing question for 2018: Can Gabart’s record be broken? And, if so, questions such as ‘by whom and aboard what vessel’ quickly jump to mind.

Given that 2017 saw the launch of skipper Seb Josse’s Gitana 17 maxi trimaran (AKA “ Gitana Ultim”), there’s an excellent chance that Mr. Josse spent large parcels of the last month and a half closely following Mr. Gabart’s passage through the depths of the Southern Ocean.

2017 was also an America’s Cup year, however you are certainly excused if the recent Cup felt tiny in comparison to 34th America’s Cup, which took place in 2013 on the waters of San Francisco Bay and saw Oracle Team USA mount the biggest turn-around in sailing history to defend their prize. No such luck in 2017, however, as Emirates Team New Zealand swept the American-flagged team by 7-1 to reclaim the Auld Mug for the first time since 2003.

While plenty of sailors cheered for the Kiwis to win the Cup and restore it to its halcyon days of yore, the Kiwis seem to be decidedly off track with their preliminary designs for the new 75-foot foiling monohulls, which look to present a significant engineering (I’m being kind) and financing (ditto first parenthetical remark) challenge. While the 36th Defense isn’t slated to start until 2021, the simple reality is that time clocks have been quietly ticking for some time for teams that are interested in challenging, meaning that what seems distant to us spectators is actually (relatively) rapidly approaching the windshield for teams. Stay tuned, as this one will likely get weird before it gets cool.

Olympic sailors still have two and a half years to wait until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin, but this certainly doesn’t mean that these are idle days for these high-level athletes. Rather, teams and individual sailors are using this time to drill their skills, fitness and racecourse acumen, as they well understand that these are the training days that will help separate them from the pack come August of 2020.

Looking a bit closer to home, one of the stories that continues to crop up that should seriously bother any sailor are the now widespread reports of garbage and UFOs (unidentified floating objects) that now plague most offshore courses. Indeed, from the Transpac Race to the Volvo Ocean Race to other offshore challenges, sailors are consistently reporting difficulties with plastic and other man-made detritus ensnaring their foils, sucking their speed and oftentimes forcing them to perform (time) costly back-down maneuvers.

While the later clearly sucks for us racers, the simple fact remains that this much plastic in the oceans is terrible news for all humans, especially those who look to the sea as a major source of protein or income, not to mention for marine life. Given the prevalence of plastic in almost all commercial goods, it’s a fool’s quest to try and ban the stuff entirely, at least given our current levels of technology and (lack of) environmental enlightenment (ahem), but that certainly shouldn’t stop individuals from making smarter decisions in the New Year.

For example, lots of boats that I sail on now carry several large water jugs that are used as dromedaries for each sailor’s re-usable mug/cup, and plenty of sailors now carry canvas bags to the grocery store, so as to reduce their need for plastic shopping bags. While these are small steps, all sailors are encouraged to try and reduce the amount of single-use plastic that they accept into their lives and-vis-à-vis-accept responsibility for dumping into the oceans.

(Even if tree-huggers are your favorite onboard punching bag, do you honestly enjoy forced back-downs due to snagged garbage? Us, neither, nor do we like the notion of bioaccumulation or other unforeseen externalities.)

While the decline of the ocean’s health is serious and immediate concern, it’s important to take courage in the visionary work of thought leaders such as young Boyan Slat (23; NED), who is working hard to awaken terrestrial-based minds to the issues clogging-up our oceans while also working on technology that can hopefully help rid the oceans of the fine mess that the collective “we” have created. That said, if each sailor does their individual part in 2018 to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, we’ll be that much farther down the road towards environmental sanity than we were in 2017.

Small steps, agreed, but it’s these sorts of incremental advancements that (eventually) enabled Neil Armstrong to walk the moon and Francois Gabart to sail a circle around our beautifully crazy spinning stone in a mere 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds.

Call me an optimist, but I firmly believe that if the collective “we” can take such bold steps as a stroll on the surface of another planet or a mind-numbingly fast solo circumnavigation aboard a “boat” that looks more like a spaceship than a standard sloop, I know that we can tidy up our campsite enough to allow future generations of sailors and adventurers to knock their own 6 days, 10 hours 23 minutes and 53 seconds off of today’s proudest accomplishments.

On behalf of your friends at Sail-World.com, I wish you and your family and friends a happy, healthy, successful, peaceful and FAST 2018!

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor

Seattle, USA

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