A golden anniversary
The Golden Globe Race: 30,000 miles. 9 months. No technology. A great adventure.
On 1 July 2018, 17 sailors embarked from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, on a 30,000-mile race around the world. A non-stop circumnavigation via the five Great Capes which takes around 9 months to complete. And they're sailing solo – with no outside assistance.
Congratulations to Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, who became the first skipper to cross the finish line on 29 January 2019. He completed the race in 211 days.
A 50-year anniversary
These 17 sailors were following in the footsteps of a legend. Fifty years ago, on 14 June 1968, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston began the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in his 32ft ketch, Suhaili. Then, 312 days later, he claimed the Golden Globe trophy, becoming the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. The 2018/19 edition is a celebration of that race – and of Sir Robin’s achievement.
The aim of the Golden Globe Race is noble: it’s a race where adventure takes precedence over winning at all costs. And where sailors’ skills and seamanship are prized over modern technology and support crews. In this race, the achievement belongs solely to the skipper.
The golden age of sailing
In a world of elite ocean racing, the Golden Globe takes us back to the golden age of sailing.
This year’s competitors set sail in 32–36ft production boats, designed before 1988. These are heavily built, strong, sturdy yachts, similar to Sir Robin’s teak Suhaili. Sir Robin says: ‘When most modern racing boats are well out of the reach of ordinary sailors, it is good to see an event using well-tried and tested designs and builds within the financial reach of the majority of sailors.’
His yacht had no computer or GPS, no satellite phone or watermaker. Onboard he carried a wind-up chronometer and a barograph, and caught rainwater to survive. The 2018 entrants followed suit, sailing without modern technology. They've had to handwrite their logs and determine the weather for themselves.
Sir Robin notes: ‘Technology has changed the experience of sailing in the last 50 years, so I think it’s rather special to be taking the competitors back to a time when we didn’t depend on so much modern equipment and constant communications.’
‘It’s quite hard to argue with yourself’
While getting back to basics is a refreshing challenge for many sailors, sailing solo and living without modern technology for 9 months is undoubtedly difficult. Is this easier in 2018/19, or is it harder to be deprived of technology in a world of smartphones?
Sir Robin says: ‘In some ways, it’s easier because they know it's possible – they can use freeze-dried food and things we've developed in the last 50 years. But I think it's harder for them because they're not so used to doing without as I was. They'll feel more deprived because people are used to being permanently connected to others now via mobiles and apps. I think that's going to be tough for some of them.'
And what was the biggest challenge in 1968 for Sir Robin? He says: ‘I missed human contact, not being able to discuss things with someone. I just had to sit there and have conversations with myself – and I found it’s actually quite hard to argue with yourself.’
It wasn’t all tough going, though. Ultimately, the Golden Globe Race is an adventure, a chance to enjoy the true pleasure of sailing: ‘I found huge enjoyment by being out at sea, water surrounding me as far as you could see. It was my own world and I felt very privileged. I’m happiest at sea and I found it an incredible place to be – I still do.’
‘Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit scared’
But even for the boldest, most experienced sailors, the Golden Globe is a daunting challenge. The sea can be a terrifying place. In September 2018, racers were hit by a vicious Southern Ocean storm. Two months later, another storm saw Susie Goodall's boat flipped end-over-end, dismasted and swamped. Fortunately, she was rescued by cargo ship Tian Fu.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston says: ‘Anyone who says they're not scared at sea is a liar. When you're looking at the stern and you see an 80-foot wave breaking at the top, stretching from horizon to horizon, don't tell me you're not a little bit scared. You have to do something.’
Did this happen to Sir Robin? Of course it did: ‘As the wave was breaking, I knew it was going to sweep the boat – and I realised I could not get down below where I was safe. So I just climbed the rigging and the wave covered the boat. It was me and two masts and nothing else in sight for about 1,500 miles in any direction. Then she popped up. The hatch had been knocked open, so I spent the next 3 hours pumping out 3 tonnes of water.
‘I never seriously thought about quitting. You can’t let your mind think like that in those circumstances. Whenever it got tough and I started to doubt, I told myself that I couldn’t let down the "me" that had got there yesterday by quitting today. That got me through the tough days and I always found I felt better by the next day.’
Three sailors from the UK and Ireland started the Golden Globe Race (GGR): Susie Goodall, Ertan Beskardes and Gregor McGuckin. Ertan retired while Gregor and Susie pulled out after storms dismasted their boats.
‘When I was young, all holidays were spent sailing and my weekends were taken up racing Lasers until I started teaching sailing on the Isle of Wight. I spent a few years working in the superyacht industry before taking up sail training.'
‘I have always been self-employed and wanted to do something special like sail round the world. I first learned about the Golden Globe Race through Facebook in 2017. I quickly found a Rustler 36 in Sardinia and have been preparing her for the race ever since.’
‘When I started sailing, the main attraction was the freedom it gave me to explore. As I grew older and started sailing larger vessels, the scope of the areas I could explore became almost infinite. When I read about the GGR, I had already crossed the Atlantic a few times and the Indian Ocean. A circumnavigation was always the dream, along with ocean racing, so when his came up as an affordable way of achieving both, it was a no-brainer.’
Here’s Sir Robin’s advice for any sailors considering their own circumnavigating adventure: ‘Spend as much time training on the sea as you can. Sail locally first and then across an ocean before you consider it. And make sure you know your boat before you do try. The longer you spend getting to know your boat, the better.’
Get more sailing tips at RNLI.org/sailing.