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Membership is booming in the Old Men’s Circumnavigation Society

2013 February 1

If Ernest Hemingway hadn't claimed The Old Man and the Sea as a book title in 1951, a bunch of old sailors would be fighting over it now. Old men are going to sea like never before. Watch for a slew of books telling stories of septuagenarian sailing adventures.

Joshua Slocum was no Hemingway, though in his classic memoir Sailing Alone Around the World he penned what may be the most beautiful phrase in all of nautical literature: "I was born in the breezes." Slocum also died in the breezes. A man who could not abide life on land, he made his epic circumnavigation after forced retirement as a sea captain. After the voyage, life ashore as a celebrity sailor was no good either, and he yielded once more to the pull of the sea. He sailed away in his decrepit Spray and was never seen again.

Slocum was 65 when he was lost at sea, an age that was ancient in his era, but is barely considered mature today, and certainly not old enough for admittance into the new Old Men's Circumnavigation Society.

One of the more interesting fellows applying for membership in that group now is a Swede named Sven Yrvind. Defying the guideline for comfort at sea that holds that an aging sailor's boat should have a waterline length at least equal to his age, Yrvind, at age 73, is preparing to sail nonstop around the world in a boat with a waterline length of about 9 feet.

The vessel he designed and is building himself has an overall length of 10 feet and keel-to-cabintop measurement that appears to be close to that. It looks a bit like a rescue pod and is expected by Yrvind to act like one, rolling through storm seas, capsizing, pitchpoling, righting itself.

The vessel will be loaded with enough granola, sardines and books to sustain Yrvind for at least 18 months. If it completes the 30,000-mile voyage, the boat will be the smallest to have sailed around the world.

Speaking of interesting fellows, Webb Chiles is at again, this time at age 70. Chiles broke Francis Chichester's singlehanded nonstop circumnavigation record in an Ericson 37 when he was 34 and sailed around the world four times more after that.

This time around, he will be sailing a 30-plus-year-old Moore 24, an ultralight racer that, though larger than Yrvind's hot-tub-sized craft, will probably be less comfortable, not to mention less likely to come out of a capsize right side up. I doubt this worries Chiles. He started one of his circumnavigations in an open 18-foot Drascombe Lugger.

No bathtubs or mini-racing boats for Stanley Paris. At age 76, he'll set sail from Bermuda in November in a light, high-tech 64-foot cutter designed for him by Bruce Farr and built at the Lyman Morse yard in Maine. If he makes it back to Bermuda without putting into a port, he will be the oldest person to sail nonstop around the world alone.

The oldest person to sail alone around the world with stopovers is Minoru Saito, who accomplished the feat in 2011 at the age of 77. If Saito writes a book about the adventure, he should title it Job Sails Around the World, for his was a voyage worthy of the Biblical sufferer.

It took him 1,080 days to complete a start-and-stop circumnavigation that put him in the way of five monsoons, two tsunamis and an earthquake and included a Cape Horn rescue by the Chilean navy, the near crushing of his boat by fishing vessels in an ice-choked harbor in Chile and a number of other forced stops for repairs, including one in Hawaii during which he was run over by a car.

All in a day's work for Saito, who has sailed around the world eight times. He lives in his native Japan on the 56-foot boat on which he spent nearly three years completing his latest circumnavigation, no doubt planning the next one.

What drives these guys to flee the comfort and security folks their age typically crave?

I doubt that it's celebrity. These aren't kooks chasing fame with stunts akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, though I have to say Yrvind's boat bears some resemblance to that sort of vessel. And I suppose Webb Chiles might be considered just a tad kooky, having announced that the purpose of his next adventure is to make the number of his circumnavigations equal to the number of his marriages-six.

Sven Yrvind, ultrafit runner, biker and kayaker, is a boatbuilder and inventor of a miniature sextant who was inducted into the Museum of Yachting Hall of Fame for his singlehanded sailing exploits. He told the Wall Street Journal his purpose in sailing his profoundly slow boat around the world without contact with land or other vessels is to find "solitude and peacefulness."
Dr. Stanley Paris is definitely not seeking peacefulness. He intends to sail on the edge and very fast and has some records in mind to beat, but his circumnavigation looks to be mainly another chapter in a lifelong adventure story that he has no plans to finish any time soon.

Among other hobbies, Paris has sailed 60,000 miles, tried five times to swim across the English Channel and twice accomplished it and last year raced a 50cc motorcycle across America in less than 50 hours. Paris' expertise in the field of physical therapy probably came in handy after that event, which for good reason is called the Ironbutt race.
These old men give different reasons for going back to sea, but I think they're all motivated by the same imperative, which I will leave to the only slightly kooky Webb Chiles to reveal.

Quoting T. S. Eliot, he says, "Old men should be explorers."