A Sticky Subject or Can We Admit Our World Has Changed?

This is an opinion piece.

It is about the “need” for solo, non-stop around-the-world racing that puts sailors at risk levels we’ve never seen before. To get around the world the fastest by sailboat requires significant time in the lower latitudes below 40 degrees.

In the Southern Ocean.

For well-tested sailors with huge budgets and high performance sailboats connected to land-based support 24/7, this is an enormously complex and expensive endeavor. But the speeds these boats are capable of, especially now with foils, allow these sailors to outrun or dodge approaching weather systems. The excitement of watching Alex Thomson's Vendée Globe racer, Hugo Boss, was thrilling to say the least. His IMOCA Open 60 racing yacht is the ultimate blend of technology, unlimited budget, and professional sailing.

Alex Thompson hugo boss.jpg

Alex made it around the world in 74 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes at sea. (He also just broke his previous world record, traveling 537 miles in 24 hours.)

But compare that to what is going on now, the 50th anniversary running of the Golden Globe Race. In 1968-69, Robin Knox-Johnson won the race (and the only one to finish) in his 32-foot, double-ended Bermudian ketch, Suhaili. He made it around in 312 days.

suhaili.jpg

Some 30,000 miles, non-stop.

The current race has been promoted as a romantic, retro race to follow in the same footsteps as Knox-Johnston, using technology only available 50 years ago. No GPS, not even a digital camera is allowed. The boats must be similar to Suhaili, which means older boats and designs. Several competitors are sailing various vintages of Rustler 36 sailboats, a full keel sailboat that is normally quite capable at sea. You got a Westsail 32? You qualify. Got a Cabo Rico 34? Also qualify. Thirty-two feet to 36 feet. And designed prior to 1988.

 Gregor McGuckin was rescued in the Southern Ocean after his boat was rolled and damaged too far from land to continue on.

Gregor McGuckin was rescued in the Southern Ocean after his boat was rolled and damaged too far from land to continue on.

But now here’s the rub. There have already been three rescues of sailors in horrible conditions that rolled the boats and caused enormous damage to boats that had to be abandoned. International maritime and military forces combined their assets to rescue these men.

And one woman in the race, Susie Goodall from Great Britain, barely survived a few days in a horrific storm in the Southern Ocean. She was caught 250 south of Cape Leeuwin, Australia. By satellite phone, she spoke to race management of the storm.

Susie-Goodall-0418-1.jpg

“The storm really kicked in between 9pm and 9am. I had 70-knot winds and 13-meter (43-foot) seas. They were nasty, practically vertical with breaking crests. I don’t know how we got through it. My self-steering broke and I had to hand-steer for 7 hours. We suffered several knock-downs and I feared that we might get rolled at any time.”

No surprise that the rescue of sailors at sea is tremendously expensive. So how do you justify jeopardizing the lives of others who are obligated to come rescue you in such conditions because of the moral dilemma of letting you drown? Fishing boats out searching are not fishing their livelihood, and merchant ships fall off schedule. Is it fair that Australia’s search and rescue region covers 10 percent of the planet’s surface? And it spent $6 million to rescue two sailors competing in one of the Vendée Globe races. The risk of one person’s adventure can be costly to everyone else. Where should we draw the line?

For bluewater cruisers on modern boats, we use weather forecasting services that are more accurate than ever. While not perfect, these resources are accurate enough to help us out of harm’s way. But since we are cruising, we’re not looking to be in harm’s way in the first place…or trying to go around the world in the Southern Ocean.

Are races like the Golden Globe Race with older boats just stunts or valid sailing races in today’s world? Billing it as offshore racing for the common man? I think that is bullshit. To sail solo around the world is one thing…even non-stop. But what’s the point of spending months in horrible conditions at constant risk? To survive where others don’t? Is this the sport of sailboat racing?

But it is worse that that. Today’s weather is in a new phase and “climate change” is increasing the number of tremendous storms, whether it is mankind’s fault or simple a cycle of the Earth that existed before we came along. Remember, we have only been here for a very short time in the big picture of the Earth. As I started writing this, a Category 5 hurricane is aiming at Mexico for a direct hit tomorrow. This is becoming alarmingly the “new normal.” Florence and Michael were supposedly 100-year storms, but occurred within weeks of each other.

Why are the number of named storms increasing? Climate change is causing the world’s oceans to warm up at a rate that is alarming at best. Severe storms get their energy from the water deep below the surface, which is measured as Ocean Heat Content deep in the oceans. When this index rises extreme storms are more likely.

 A NASA map of Ocean Heat Content.

A NASA map of Ocean Heat Content.

And where on this planet have they measured the largest rise in Ocean Heat Content since first measured in 1970? The Southern Ocean. Warmer oceans also makes these storms intensify much quicker. One Hurricane Maria went from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours. These factors, according to scientists, cause storms to increase in strength much faster, and stay longer, than ever before.

I am not getting political here or pointing blame for climate change. But if you are paying attention, you can see that things are not the same as they were decades ago. Like in 1968.

With the help of satellites and other technologies, we also now know that rogue waves are way more common than once thought.

It just seems to me we are playing in a sandbox with more sharp rocks in it than we had before. I have been in my share of storms, yet they pale in comparison to what is out there today.

Promoting offshore “racing” in older, slow boats for months on end in today’s Southern Ocean is much less about celebrating a sailing race from 50 years ago than it is about endurance and survival. Even forgetting the expense of search and rescue (did you know it costs about AU$30,000 an hour to fly a P-3 Orion S&R aircraft?), or the potentially deadly situations rescue crews must put themselves to attempt a rescue at sea.

I don’t know, but it seems off balance to me, as a guy who loved single-handed sailing in my youth. To embrace the challenges of solo sailing, but going somewhere fun and exciting, and meeting new people in new places.

Not simply survive.