Completing The Vendée Globe

By Rich Armstrong

Neither age nor health issues kept 66-year-old American sailor Rich Wilson from completing this extreme solo around-the-globe race.

Rich Wilson post race press conferenceAmerican sailor Rich Wilson gives a triumphant thumbs up after completing the Vendée Globe solo, nonstop, unassisted circumnavigation sail race. (Photo: Oliver Blanchet/DPPI/Vendée Globe)

Rich Wilson, a 66-year-old former high school math teacher who has struggled his entire life with severe asthma, became on February 21 the oldest person to ever complete the Vendée Globe, a 24,000 mile solo sail around the globe with no allowance for stopping or assistance. The race started way back on November 6.

In this grueling race, considered a test of extreme individual endurance and the ultimate ocean race, a major accomplishment is just to complete the course, let alone win. Wilson finished in 13th place — but he finished. Every day requires constant vigilance and effort, allowing sleep in only naps typically less than an hour. Wilson posted the following on his log after a tough night of sailing in January:

"When I awoke to a different motion of the boat, I knew I had to get up, but I just wanted to cry and to stay where I was ... in the sleeping bag, a stocking cap over my eyes. ... I was so, so tired after the 12 sail changes yesterday, including going from 3rd to 2nd and then 2nd to 1st reefs, and then 1st to full main, the first two essentially without stopping. But I got up. ... When the boat needs your attention, you must go, now."

Wilson knows he can't match the strength and stamina of the other 28 younger skippers — most in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, with the youngest being 24-year-old Swiss soloist Alan Roura — but he spent more than a year with a trainer, building up his muscle endurance and honing his ability to remain balanced and on his feet.

"Sometimes at sea whether it is fatigue, or frustration, when I was going around in circles and I was ready to tear my hair out or worse. The frustration leads to anger. You think the gods are against you. King Neptune is against you. Sometimes I tried to cry just to release the tension, but it would not come. I could not," he said after the race.

Living with chronic asthma also played a role in his accomplishment.

"When you're a kid, if you can't go outside and run around with your friends, one of the things that comes from that is a determination and a perseverance to continue," he said, referring to his childhood asthma. "Your pain threshold for being out of breath goes up."

Wilson raced an Open 60 high-performance monohull designed for singlehanding. The yachts are lightweight carbon fiber with large sailplans and minimal comforts.

"Perhaps it is not necessarily about my age but my generation, because we grew up sailing heavy wooden boats," he says. "We won the Bermuda Race in 1980 and our average speed was 7.3 knots. So to have boats going more than 20 knots is in some ways incomprehensible."

The lifelong sailor from Marblehead, Massachusetts, also created a teacher's guide and 15-week curriculum focused on science, math, geography, and history, so more than 250,000 students could follow his three-month voyage, which included daily dispatches to the middle-school students. He kept a daily log, incorporated lessons, and fielded questions from student through his siteALIVE! website.

"Lauren Zike, who is the web program manager, sent out a photo from a school in India of a class holding up their certificates for completing the program, and then I cried, I cried my eyes out at the chart table. That was exactly why I was doing this," he says. 

— Published: March 2017

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