At 58 years old when he started the race, academic Wilson majored in maths at Harvard, has graduate degrees from both Harvard Business School and MIT, was a maths teacher and lecturer, worked as an analyst for the Defense Department, helped as political speech writer and was a successful investor.
He is a vastly experienced sailor, the race coming as his personal peak after completing record breaking ocean voyages, including from Hong Kong to New York, San Francisco to Boston and New York to Melbourne.
Racing the Great American III, the Bernard Nivelt design built and sailed by Thierry Dubois for the 2000 race, the story of Wilson’s challenge engaged every day from departure to arrival. It was always evident that his was as much an intellectual challenge as a sporting and human one. Past co-skippers recount how he systematically works to reduce risk to the minimum, painstakingly methodical past the point of routine.
In the first big storm Wilson was thrown violently across the boat, cracking his ribs. For the next month he dozed at the chart table, it was too painful for him to get in and out of his bunk.
Returning after Cape Horn he was slammed by successive storms in the South Atlantic and then the North Atlantic dealt two successive high pressure systems which meant he was closer to his home in Boston than towards the finish.
But his sheer gritty, tenacity was visibly outstanding. Having had asthma since a very young age he said at the finish that there was never any chance of him quitting. His Sites Alive education programme which delivered not just stories of the voyage but educational programmes to hundreds of thousands of young people around the world, was a motivator, but most of all he says it was the simple belief of not wanting to let down his fellow skippers, to have failed to do his utmost in competition against them, was a big driver.
Rich Wilson did have aspiration for this edition, but circumstances and other goals precluded it. He will be in Les Sables for the start this time. But he is promising himself he will be back in 2016.
So looking back Rich, just review why it was you did the Vendée Globe:
There are two parts to that. From the sailing perspective it is the toughest race in the world. That is what I found interesting and challenging at every level. I think with the three clipper voyages we did, 50 foot trimaran, double handed each 10 weeks and about 15,000 miles, that gave me enough confidence that perhaps I could tackle the race. As I sailor I had followed the race since 1988 when it started but it was too big for me, the boats were too big, it was too dangerous, too far from land and help. That’s true. But what got me started was the school programme which we had been doing since 1993, making more than 70 semesters bringing adventures and expeditions into classrooms. When you bring real reality into the classroom it is so much more powerful than contrived reality. That was the trigger, this is what we do. I know I was not going to win the race. We also had a small asthma programme. The aspirations from a sailing point of view was to simply see how I could do.
But you never had a particular goal, a fixed target in mind?
With 20 new boats I did not know how I would do. Mich said at the time that my boat was 2000 generation and his new FONCIA (2008) had 30 per cent more righting moment than the PRB of the same generation as mine which he won the race. There is no way to compensate for that. So of the 20 new boats of the 30 which started, there looked to be no way to break into that 20 if they did not break. But there you have that amazing sailor Samantha Davies on the old PRB which now has two firsts and a fourth. So optimistically I started off thinking 21st, 22nd, 23rd. I imagined I could be not last because the kids would stop following the race! And, I have never said this before publically, but being the oldest skipper I had to make sure I did not give the organisers any cause to put an age limit on it.
You received great support and admiration throughout the sailing community and from the wider global audience.
I had this amazing e-mail exchange with Michel Desjoyeaux during the winter before the race. I would ask him the questions in French and he would answer them in English, all different questions mostly technical like calorie consumption in the south versus the tropics, sleep cycles, gybing the spinnaker at night. I wrote 10 detailed two paragraph questions in detail and 24 hours later I had ten detailed two paragraph answers. And this probably meant six clarification questions to which I got six replies 24 hours later, and overall this went through probably six cycles. So that was a 4000 word e-mail exchange with the guy I consider to be the greatest sailor in the world, was so generous with his time to help a foreign competitor.
But the race proved an endurance test for you from 48 hours in, pretty much. Did you ever, ever think of having to stop?I got tossed across the cabin and broke a couple of ribs. Usually that would be three weeks to mend, but trying to sail an Open 60 is hard enough without having cracked or fractured ribs. There was never a point I thought I would have to or wanted to stop. I spoke with our contact in Boston as well as the race doctor Dr Chauve and the only issue was whether I might have punctured a lung. I am a pretty good observer of lung function because of my asthma. And so that had not degraded, I could breathe in and out. I did not get into the bunk until the Indian Ocean, over a month sleeping at the chart table. But about three weeks into the recovery, there was this harmonic ripple which came thorough the boat and this thing happened and wrenched the ribs again and that regressed me about a week. I am really motivated by being in a race like that where you are trying to live up to the sailors in the race, and the sailors before. I met Yves Parlier and he came on board, it was amazing, you read about the mast repair. The legendary feats of the race, Pete Goss going back in his race to rescue Dinelli. I look at our Presidential Race just now and think about Pete and what he did. The designer and engineers were not sure that his boat would survive if he tried to go back. But he just said ‘you either live by your principles or you don’t, it was an easy decision to make’. You would certainly like at least one of our candidates in the Presidential race on the Republican side have some of that principle.
So, for a number of different reasons 2014 has proven impractical but what about 2016?
When we finished this time we left some potential on the table with an asthma drug company, we could not get enough from elsewhere for this time. So I would go back to them. There is interest from the Far East. And I have a pretty senior contact with a big ‘Seniors’ organisation which is gigantic, they in turn have introduced us to another healthcare company. The USA is so big, the health insurance company has a membership that is the same as the entire population of France. And the Seniors organisation has 40 million members. Last time we had some private help. Some of the people I was at school have been extremely successful financially. I think I’d be looking at around $2.5m including the reduction on the boat. So the four bullet points to do it again are a truly global schools programme, a truly global asthma programme, and a big seniors and access to a faster boat, just so that you get there faster with the same physical effort. The accumulated fatigue curve is exponential as you get towards the end. I would be up there in age, I would be 66. I am fit just now. Absolutely at the start of the last race I was fitter than I was at college, the fittest I have ever been. Jose De Ugarte sailed the race in 1992 and he was 64 and he sailed it in 131 days. You don’t want have the media saying ‘ he is going because he is the oldest’ then it becomes like a stunt. I don’t want to do it as a stunt.
Rich Wilson's book about his participation in the 2008-9 Vendee Globe, Race France to France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard , has just been published. See the website www.racefrancetofrance.com for purchase details