Yesterday, via the magic of Facebook Live, I had the pleasure of watching Rich Wilson return from 107 days alone at sea, taking 13th place in the eighth edition of the Vendée Globe, in which competitors race solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world in 60 foot yachts. This event is frequently referred to as “the Everest of the Seas”, which has always seemed back to front to me, as many more people have climbed Everest, and with much less effort, than have done the Vendée Globe (and I say this with all due respect to my very accomplished mountaineering friends). No other sporting event entails participants competing 24/7 for three months or more.
Rich began his solo offshore racing career by taking part in the 1988 OSTAR (then called the CSTAR), winning his class on his 35 foot trimaran Curtana. So it is particularly inspiring for me to see where he has got to from the place I now stand. This was Rich’s second Vendée Globe race, and his second success, which is remarkable in itself, as most competitors who take part in multiple editions have at least one race in which they have failed to finish. There is a lot of unfinished business around the Vendée Globe, so Rich’s two-for-two record of success sets him apart.
In completing this edition he has also set a new record for the oldest person to finish the race at 66 years old. As if that isn’t impressive enough, Rich suffers from severe asthma which he must carefully manage with a cocktail of prescription medications. This must be challenging enough while living a typical land-based life with predictable day/night routines, but to do so at sea while not ever getting more than 90 minutes’ sleep at a time, and that fit in as and when circumstances allow, is a feat in itself, on top of an already massive feat of doing the race. So he stands as a rebuke to all those who say “I could never do that”, “I’m too old” or “I’m not fit enough” as a convincing example of the power of mind over body.
Rich now faces the difficult task of readjusting to life on land. There are no doubt many pleasures to be savoured: a solid night’s sleep on a still bed, a hot shower, a proper multiple course meal served on plates at a table, hugs from friends and loved ones, catching up on the news. I have experienced this transition in a smaller way on multiple occasions, and it is surprisingly difficult, despite the many joys. But again, Rich faces an additional challenge: as a progressive American he set off on November 6th full of hope that he would return to an America very different to the one he faces now. At one point he even joked that if Trump won he would simply stay at sea. It must be a shock for him as he catches up with all that has happened since the election. At least he has the option of binge watching all the “America first, [other country] second” videos to provide some comic relief.
As I watched Rich start his procession up the canal leading to the harbour at Les Sables-d’Olonne yesterday as the tide was ebbing, I couldn’t help but be amused at the symbolism of Great American IV briefly going aground as the result of being too far to the right in the channel. Once they reversed and then found sufficient depth to continue, I was moved to see Rich decline the offers of not just the usual hand flares, but also a large American flag. Likewise when he reached the pontoon, his opening of the champagne was more subdued than most. Rather than spray it over his team and fans he chose to have a few sips and then share it with others, notably his “brothers of the South” – the competitors of several countries with which he had formed a strong bond over the course of the race. He spoke in French to the crowd assembled to greet him on the pontoon, even in response to journalist Andi Robertson’s questions in English. Again, most people would have struggled to speak their first language after 107 days alone at sea, let alone a second language. And to top it all off, he was much more keen to talk about the impact that SitesAlive, his online educational programme, had on 700,000 students around the world over the course of his race than the race itself.
In short, at a time when there seem to be fewer and fewer reasons to be proud to be American, Rich Wilson provided a shining example of American citizenry at its best: full of humility, a dedication to service to others, openness, and friendship and collaboration across borders. Leafing through my copy of Race France to France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard, his memoir about his first Vendée Globe experience, I happened across the following passage and found it especially apt:
You can’t bluff, bluster or bully your way across the Southern Ocean. To survive, you must be honest in your appraisal of the sea, your ship, and yourself, and humble in the face of nature’s might. It’s easy for politicians to rage with no personal consequences at stake; perhaps they all should be sent to the south for seven solo weeks of harsh personal reality. Then we’d see progress, if they survived. More likely, they wouldn’t, so we’d replace them with those honest, humble, and brave enough who could.
Can I be the first to say: Rich Wilson for president? He may be too old to want to do the Vendée Globe again, but I’m sure he could make a huge difference in public office. In any case, I would like to thank Rich for reminding me that there is still much to celebrate about America and Americans. I’ll confess to having had my enthusiasm for the OSTAR, which is to a large degree motivated by the prospect of becoming the first American woman to have finished it, dented by the outcome of the election and subsequent developments. I have a renewed appreciation of the importance of setting an example, to both my fellow Americans and the world at large, of what it really means to be a Great American. Thank you Rich.
Watch the best moments of Rich Wilson’s arrival after 107 days of racing.