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A look at how 50 years utterly transformed offshore racing

by David Schmidt 18 Jun 2018 11:00 PDT June 18, 2018
CA Patron Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the first man to sail solo non-stop around the world 1968/69. © Bill Rowntree / PPL

Sometimes it's easy to lose track of just how far offshore sailing standards have come in such a short time, especially when today's cutting-edge sailors are accomplishing previously unimaginable feats such as employing foils offshore in events like the singlehanded Vendee Globe Race, or sailing lightning-fast catamarans and trimarans around Cape Horn. In fact, if you read enough stories of sailing's leading lights taking on the world's oceans at record-setting pace, it's easy to forget that a mere fifty years ago no-one was even sure if it was possible to solo circumnavigate, sans outside help and without stops, while racing. But, on June 14, 1968, at 1345 hours, a young Robin Knox-Johnston (RKJ) set sail aboard Suhaili, his 32-foot ketch, from the town of Falmouth, UK, determined to complete the 1968/1969 Golden Globe Race and to prove that long-distance and singlehanded racing could be done safely.

While Knox-Johnston was no doubt aided in his first place finish by Bernard Moitessier's decision to save his soul in the Southern Ocean, rather than turning Joshua's bows north once he rounded The Horn, there's no question that RKJ sailed an excellent race, demonstrated superb seamanship, and braved more than one harrowing night at sea en route to becoming the first person to race solo and unsupported around the world.

In 1969, when RKJ crossed the finishing line after 312 days at sea, this was considered a bar-setting benchmark time; today, skipper Francois Gabart, sailing aboard the maxi trimaran Macif, holds the current record of just 42 days.

My, how fifty years can utterly transform a sport.

Take, for example, the 2018/2019 Volvo Ocean Race, which is rapidly nearing its completion. In the past month, the fleet has seen two boats set VOR 24-hour distance records that have only been bested by a vessel considerably larger and more sophisticated (Comanche) than the mere 65-footers used to contest the VOR, while also facing some of the nastiest offshore conditions during their entire "lap".

Impressively, these boats have all been sailed by mixed-sex crews (another important evolution for our sport) that have managed to cross the finishing line within minutes (if not seconds, as was the case with the leg from Itajai, Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island) of each other, despite having raced across thousands of miles of brine.

Step this down a notch or two, and one arrives at bold Corinthian-level events such as the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club's Newport to Bermuda Race, which began last Friday (June 15) and saw 169 vessels aim their bows across 635 nautical miles of wide-open water, including the Gulf Stream. While this year's conditions weren't conducive to record-breaking runs, George David's Rambler 88 took line honors with an elapsed time of just fifty hours, 31 minutes and 51 seconds.

"It was a pretty benign race," said Rambler 88's tactician, Brad Butterworth. "There was no water on the deck — at least not back where we were. [Navigator] Stan Honey gave us the right direction to head, and we pushed it hard."

At the time of this writing, a total of five boats had finished racing, including Rambler 88, David Askew's Volvo Open 70 Wizard, George Sakellaris' 72' maxi Proteus, Steve and Stephen Murray's (Sr. and Jr.) Volvo Open 70 Warrior, and Jason Carroll's Gunboat 62, Elvis.

While all of these teams deserve congratulations for sailing great races, the Elvis team made history by becoming the first multihull to complete the Newport Bermuda Race, thus helping to quell the voices of those who have not traditionally seen a place for multihulls in this historically rich race.

Speaking of multihulls and big adventure, the Race to Alaska began last Thursday (June 14) with a qualifier leg that stretched from Port Townsend, Washington, to Victoria, British Columbia, followed by Sunday's start to the 710 nautical-mile push that will take boats to Ketchikan, Alaska, all under wind- or human-powered propulsion.

Unlike previous years that saw hard qualifying legs (read: a shakedown cruise), to date, this year's R2AK has featured light airs that have not yet tattered the fleet or seriously challenged team's decision-making skills. Stay tuned, as the odds of this notorious race letting the fleet off easy is about as likely an outcome as a entire VOR with nothing but 15 knots on the hip, smooth seas, warm temperatures, great food and superb wine, and plenty of time for sleeping.

So, while it might seem utterly normal for contemporary sailors to log onto the VOR or Vendee Globe (during race years, of course) websites and tick off the many hundreds of miles that their favorite protagonists have reeled off in the last 24 hours, it's important to remember where our sport has come from, and to celebrate the fact that 50 years ago today, a young and bold RKJ was sailing a cold and lonely North Atlantic aboard Suhaili, determined to prove that it could be done.

What was George Mallory's classic response, when queried as to why he was attempting to become the first person to climb Mount Everest?

"Because it's there," Mallory told the New York Times on March 18, 1923, prior to his ill-fated expedition.

Somehow, I strongly suspect that RJK, Gabart and sailing's other bold visionaries can relate to these simple-yet-powerful words.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, North American Editor

Department of Corrections Notification: In the June 11, 2018 issue of this newsletter, I erroneously referred to the Newport Bermuda Race as a New York Yacht Club-sponsored event. While this storied ocean contest starts in Newport, which is home to the NYYC's Harbour Court facility, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club have sponsored the event since 1926.

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