The how is easy, but why do they do it?
“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” George Mallory, the English climber, was asked by a reporter in New York, before his third, fatal, attempt in 1924. “Because it’s there,” he said with the height of brevity.
With less than a month to go before the start of the Vendée Globe, it is a sentiment with which the twenty skippers preparing for the ultimate solo sailing race will sympathise.
They have just watched Felix Baumgartner, the supersonic Austrian, plunge 128,000 ft to earth at a speed of 1342 kilometres an hour, or Mach 1.24, making him the first human to break the sound barrier propelled only by gravity.
Among the complex and different reasons that propel people to attempt these things seems to be one common core; the desire for an extreme challenge. That is what sets them apart from those only seeking money or fame.
But there are many ways to experience that challenge and a variety of feelings at the summit. "When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data," Baumgartner said after Sunday's jump. "The only thing you want is to come back alive. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are."
Contrast that with Philippe Petit, the Man On Wire, who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1974. His wonderfully insouciant answer to the question why? from a television reporter was: "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk." And his smile as he walked back forth across the wire to the frustration of the waiting police are proof he was not putting on a brave face.
The Vendée Globe is different because it is a race not only a challenge. But every skipper will have times during their 25,000 nautical mile journey through the mountainous icy seas of the Southern Ocean or rounding Cape Horn, that are about survival more than competition, about wanting to come back alive more than winning. In the previous six editions of the race two sailors have been lost and there have many epic rescues, with rivals turning to rescuers.
But like any of these modern challenges, no one is forced to go on the Vendée Globe. "I'm not brave, I just choose to do things that push me very hard, Dame Ellen MacArthur, who finished second in the 2001-02 edition, said, pondering her sailing feats. “That's not bravery, that's a choice.”
The French and English reasons for exploration of time and space are often caricatured at opposite end of the spectrum; the French poetic, the English prosaic. Doubtless sometimes, as with most clichés, this is true, but Mallory was more expansive on the why? than is often remembered.
"If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go,” he said. “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for."
That is closer to the poetry of Petit or Bernard Moitessier. If Eric Tabarly is the father of French sailing, then maybe Moitessier is its soul. Moitessier reluctantly competed in the 1968 Golden Globe race, but as the race wore on and messages of impending riches and rapturous receptions reached him, he became even less enchanted with the commercialism of the modern world.
After seven months and in a good position to beat eventual winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, and certainly – having started later - to set the record for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation, Moitessier did not continue north up the Atlantic to the finish in Plymouth. What did he care for Plymouth? There was no why? there for him. Instead he continued on and passed the Cape of Good Hope for a second time, shooting a message in a can onto the deck of British Petroleum tanker, British Argosy, near the shore of Cape Town. It read:
“My intention is to continue the voyage, still nonstop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe. Please do not think I am trying to break a record. 'Record' is a very stupid word at sea. I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.”
He almost completed a second circumnavigation, not stopping until he had reached Tahiti – more Gaugin than Golden Globe - covering 37,455 nautical miles in 10 months.
It is fairly certain that none of the skippers in this race will do that and each have their personal reasons from putting themselves through what is about to come. It is not something everyone can or is interested in understanding – witness the comments that Baumgartner ‘made a giant leap for a man but a small step for mankind.’
For Moitessier it was about the voyage not the arrival. The interpretation may be different for others seeking to explore the world or themselves, but perhaps the why? “Because it’s there,” is the same.