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American sailor sets US record

May 3, 2017
When Rich Wilson finished the Vendee Globe Race, he became the fastest solo American around the globe.

When Rich Wilson finished the Vendee Globe Race, he became the fastest solo American around the globe.

Olivier Blanchet/DPPI/Vendee Globe

American sailor Rich Wilson finished 13th in the Vendee Globe, the solo round-the-world race that lived up to its grueling reputation. He also became the fastest U.S. solo circumnavigator.

Wilson, 66, of Marblehead, Mass., steered his IMOCA 60-class yacht Great American IV into Les Sables d’Olonne, France, on Feb. 21. Wilson completed the estimated 27,440-mile course in 107 days, 48 minutes and 18 seconds, roughly 33 days behind winner Armel Le Cleac’h.

Wilson shaved two weeks off his previous Vendee Globe finish in 2008-09 and also set a new U.S. mark for a solo nonstop round-the-world finish. Wilson took the crown from Bruce Schwab, who set the prior U.S. mark of 109 days and 19 hours in 2004-05. 

“I found all the calms that exist in the Atlantic. It was never-ending in the Atlantic,” he said after crossing the finish. “Eight years ago, I said never again. But now it’s too difficult. This is the perfect race course. The most stimulating event that exists.”

Twenty-nine sailors left Les Sables d’Olonne on Nov. 6, 2016, for the eighth Vendee Globe, which occurs every four years. The race follows a west-to-east course past the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn, then returns to Les Sables. Eleven sailors retired, six of whom had struck unidentified floating objects.

Wilson kept a detailed log of his voyage, capturing physical and mental challenges, often-unfavorable sea conditions and occasional problems with his vessel, particularly with the autopilot system and hydrogenerator system for producing electricity. Wilson communicated regularly with other racers as well as thousands of students around the world through the SitesAlive online education initiative.

Wilson hit the doldrums on Nov. 17 and crossed the equator two days later. Great American IV reached the Indian Ocean on Dec. 6, and on Christmas Day Wilson described an unusual bout of loneliness.

“We are a long way from home and have a long way to go. Usually in my voyages, I haven’t gotten too lonely. But today I did. I’m sure it was exacerbated by the big depression that is forecast to develop ahead of us,” he said, according to race organizers. 

New Year’s Day brought 35- to 40-knot winds that eventually gave way to nicer weather on Jan. 5, which Wilson described as “the nicest day of sailing that we’ve had in one might say months.”

Great American IV passed Cape Horn on Jan. 17, which was followed by more rough weather. 

“A very bad night last night,” Wilson said on Jan. 22 while traversing the southern Indian Ocean. “We had 35 knots of north, steady, up to 38, which created a big wave situation, with cresting seas 12 to 15 feet high. This went on most of the afternoon. And then suddenly, nothing. The physicality of this boat is beyond description, and I am exhausted and, frankly, demoralized.”

Conditions were no better three days later. “We just got clobbered through the night, with 30 knots of wind, upwind, into the big building seas, and crashing and crashing and crashing. There is really nothing you can do on the boat, because you just have to be holding on at all times.”

Wilson crossed into the Northern Hemisphere on Feb. 5 and into the northeasterly trade winds two days later. He reached the Azores on Feb. 16 and five days later he reached the finish line on France’s west coast.

“What is fantastic about this race is the support of the public with all the people here,” he said after reaching Les Sables. “I remember the first time, someone said, if you finish the race, you’re a winner. I think that is correct.”

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