Ryan Finn

From The Dark Came A Vision

By Troy Gilbert

A Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis at 19 made Ryan Finn determined to make every moment count.

When he had to leave college and spend a year in hospitals undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, Ryan Finn made a pact with himself. He'd grown up sailing with his parents on the Gulf Coast, and to pass the time he read everything he could on sailing. Lying in a hospital bed alone at night, he became fascinated by extreme solo sailing, drawing parallels to his own predicament. "Spending days and nights on open water, with only myself and my boat to rely on, really appealed to me," he says.

As soon as he got a clean bill of health, he sat his parents down and said he wanted to solo-sail the family's Beneteau 23.5 from New Orleans to Savannah. They agreed. For the 1,200-mile journey, Finn only made one stop. "I realized that I was racing the whole time," he says. "I was doing spinnaker peels and moving ballast, everything that I'd read about from the racers I'd been following. I enjoyed the rhythm of sailing a boat offshore efficiently, and I knew then that I wanted to race singlehanded."

Sixteen years later, he's accrued over 20,000 solo offshore miles, including three transatlantic and three transpacific crossings, but he's now about to embark on his greatest challenge to date. He's partnered with Paul Bieker, a top naval architect and a member of the design team for Team Oracle USA, which won the America's Cup, and Russell Brown, who's sailed more miles on a Polynesian sailboat design known as a proa than any other non-Polynesian sailor. They're building a 32-foot proa sailboat for Finn to sail alone, nonstop, on the 19th-century old clipper-ship route around Cape Horn from New York to San Francisco. Proas, common in the South Pacific and Indonesia, have two different-sized but parallel hulls. "I wanted to do something that didn't involve a race committee," Finn says. "This is more of an American adventure." He discovered the 235-foot clipper ship Flying Cloud sailed the route in 89 days and 13 hours — a record for a sailing vessel that stood from 1853 until 1989. The record is currently held by the 110-foot French catamaran Gitana 13. In 2008, her crew did the 13,000-mile journey in 43 days and 38 minutes. There's no solo nonstop record. "I wanted a boat that can go upwind quicker than a monohull but with fewer structural load demands than a tri or a catamaran. As far as I know, this will be the longest nonstop passage ever sailed by proa. I've never really been afraid of anything offshore, but this is intimidating me!"

Mapping the route around Cape Horn

Putting together the project takes planning and money, and Finn spends his day hunting down corporate sponsors and working on a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign. He's also working on weather modeling and routing, and scheduling sea trials for fall.

Hazards will likely abound on the journey, but the proa's speed models are predicting a 60- to 70-day voyage at sea. "There are plenty of boats at the dock that I could do this on," he says. "I could try this aboard an Open 60, but one sail on that would cost more than the entire build of the 32-foot proa. It's really a proof of concept that I'm attempting here."

— Published: June/July 2015

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