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A grim but uplifting show by those blessed (or cursed) with the adventure gene

2019 February 1

One of the 18 people who paid the $10,000 entry fee, documented meeting the requirement of having sailed 8,000 ocean miles and signed up for the 50th anniversary Golden Globe Race had climbed Mount Everest to its summit three times. On his last ascent, Kevin Farebrother, a 50-year-old firefighter from Perth, Australia, carried along a copy of Robin Knox-Johnston’s book about the first Golden Globe Race, “A World of My Own.” Before crossing the starting line on July 1, 2018, Farebrother said, “The story of winning the first Golden Globe Race in 1969 was far more scary than anything I’ve experienced climbing Everest.”

Summiting Everest and sailing singlehanded around the world in a small boat make for an apt comparison. The slopes of the latter challenge, meaning the mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean, have been treacherous beyond imagination in this retro Golden Globe being sailed in old, heavy, slow boats. 

As I write, only six boats are still in the race. Watching the rolling disaster, which has included capsizes, dismastings, injuries, near-death experiences and amazing rescues, I thought of Harry Mitchell.

On a steamy, sunlit morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in September 1994, I spent an enjoyable time aboard a solid-looking 40-foot cutter named Henry Hornblower being entertained by its owner, a 70-year-old Brit named Harry Mitchell.

The boat was docked near those of an assemblage of around-the-world sailing warriors, the likes of the French superstar Christophe Auguin and his formidable countryman Jean-Luc van den Heede and American pros Steve Pettingill and David Scully. Mitchell was there, as unlikely as it seemed, for the same reason they were—to start the Around Alone race, the BOC Challenge.

In my chat with the spry, wiry and quite amusing Mitchell, I learned that he was a retired rental car manager who took to sailing late in life and nurtured an apparently unquenchable desire to earn a Cape Horner’s earring by rounding the fearsome cape in a singlehanded sailboat race.

He invested his life’s savings in the quest. The 1994-95 race was his third attempt. The others had not gone well. In the first, boat breakdowns kept him from getting to the start. The second ended when he ran aground in New Zealand. Before the third, he joked he had to keep trying because “if I don’t sail around the horn before I’m 100, then it will be too late.” He was perhaps more skilled as a raconteur than a sailor.

I wished the brave dreamer well that morning, and in the following months learned that he had managed to finish the first two legs of the race, albeit at the bottom of the fleet. On the third leg, 1,500 miles from his Cape Horn goal, Mitchell’s boat disappeared. The wind at his last known position was recorded at more than 70 knots. In his last radio transmission he described the seas as “diabolically awful.” A EPIRB signal from his boat had been detected, but no other trace of Harry Mitchell was ever found.

The current Golden Globe Race brought him to mind not because he was lost at sea (such tragedies are, perhaps surprisingly, rare in singlehanded racing), but because his type of sailor has been evident in this race—amateurs so in the thrall of adventure that they are willing to sail alone through Earth’s most dangerous waters to find it. 

The retro Golden Globe appealed directly to the type. “This race,” its website announced “has created something that the average sailing person worldwide (with commitment) can compete in.” Call it Everest for the casual climber.

The race attracted a mixed bag of competitors. Some, like the aforementioned van den Heede, have stellar singlehanded sailing credentials. Back in the fray at 73, the world renown circumnavigator has led this race from the start. Others, though none was quite as unlikely a participant as Mitchell, are closer to that “average sailing person.”

Limiting the race to old-school production boats 32 to 36 feet long designed before 1988 with full keels and attached rudders helped make it accessible. Otherwise, the restrictions did no favors for the competitors. As ferocious weather systems marched across the course, the boats, too slow to sail out of the path of storms seen advancing for days, were sitting ducks. Maybe I should say sitting geese. Some were further slowed by gross infestations of large goose barnacles on their hulls.

Serial dramas played out on the internet like proverbial train wrecks—painful to see but impossible not to look at: An Indian sailor all but paralyzed by a back injury after being rolled and dismasted in his replica of Knox-Johnson’s Suali; an Irish sailor facing months adrift in a boat too damaged to sail; a French sailor slowly sinking in his holed boat; Susie Goodall, the youngest competitor and only woman in the race, knocked unconscious when her boat was pitchpoled and left too wrecked to continue the race. All were rescued thanks to splendid work by coast guard and commercial mariners.

Goodall was doing well in the race and had a legion of fans worldwide. After her rescue, Don McIntyre, founder of the Golden Globe, felt the need to defend the race and its stodgy boats. “There is nothing wrong with slower well-found yachts,” he said.

Alluding to critics who said “the race is unsafe because these GGR skippers are not competing in fast-foiling 60-foot yachts and multihulls,” he pointed out that “modern design and the latest composite construction” do not prevent these boats “breaking up, being dismasted or being rescued.”

True enough to a certain extent, but if we’ve learned anything from 21st century around-the-world racing, it’s that lightweight planing and foiling sailboats can be built strong enough to endure the worst of the sea’s fury while moving at speeds once unimaginable in sailboats, to be fast enough to dodge weather systems and buoyant enough to avoid rollovers like those experienced by the wallowing, heavily ballasted GGR boats.

That debate, of course, is purely academic. Adventure sailing is a free-will exercise, and in the end it doesn’t matter what kind of boats it’s performed in. You could limit a race to sloop-rigged bathtubs, and sailors would line up to take part, a few Harry Mitchell types among them. It’s in the DNR of some who are attracted to sailing. Not all of us have it, but we should all be uplifted by the bold expression of the irrepressible human spirit by those who do.