These adventurers must navigate around the world non-stop without GPS or modern instruments. Like explorers through the ages, they will rely solely on the provisions and equipment on board their small sailboats as they spend around 300 days – and 30,000 miles – continuously at sea.
“Ask most people what it would be like to be locked in a jail on your own for nine or ten months with hard labor. Because that’s what this is about,” says Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the winner of the original race in 1969.
2018 race entrant Susie Goodall hasn’t been around the world yet. With the support of DHL, her sponsor for the challenge, she is aiming to achieve this feat. The 27-year-old has been sailing since the age of three, however. So she understands the treacherous nature of the sea well enough to appreciate the challenge.
“You do have these moments where you just think: I’m the luckiest person out there, I get to experience this. And then, five minutes later, you think: why on earth am I here?”
So how do explorers like Sir Robin and Susie keep going? When waves as tall as 12-story buildings crash across your decks? When the spindrift’s so violent you can’t open your eyes? When you lose all your fresh water two and a half months in to a 300-day voyage?
“You just press on,” says Sir Robin. “Every day is another step, every day is another 100 miles … getting on … making progress … just keep going.”
It helps to be driven by a childhood dream. Sir Robin grew up in an age of adventure, with people prepared to take risks while journeying into the unknown.
“People would say, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ Don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve no idea whether this boat can get me round the world. What I do know is I think I’m as prepared as I can personally be for this and I’ve got a very solid boat so why don’t I go and find out?”
Susie had always wanted to go round the world but seeing Ellen MacArthur’s solo voyage in 2005 made it seem possible.
“I was reading the books, and it was all these salty sea dogs doing it. And then you’ve got this little woman going round. I wanna do that too.” This spirit captured the imagination of DHL who has been with her on this journey, providing logistical and practical support.
One of those salty sea dogs believes the most important preparation for the Golden Globe Race is to spend time getting to know your boat. Building Suhaili in India and sailing her back to Britain gave Sir Robin the opportunity to find out all her strengths, weaknesses and nuances before the race. Susie’s been sailing the Atlantic for thousands of miles to become familiar with her as yet, unnamed Rustler 36. They’ve grown close.
“You know every sound,” says Susie. “You can be sailing and it’s just this tiny little sound that’s not normal and it’s like something is wrong. You know exactly how she should feel when she’s set up properly.”
Such a relationship is essential. “If the boat survives, you survive,” says Sir Robin.
“Personal safety comes secondary. I’ve got to keep the boat in one piece. If I lose this boat I can’t swim two thousand miles.”
That’s why boat maintenance is as important as sailing and navigating. As Susie puts it, “There’s always a job on a boat.”
To make repairs, you need equipment. On her Atlantic trips, Susie learned that she needed spares of every item on board, down to the tiniest screw.
Sir Robin was so prepared he took a spare aluminum mast. On a voyage like the Golden Globe, a sailor has to anticipate problems. Sir Robin blocked all the openings on Suhaili that could possibly let in water and flood the boat. Including the toilet. He used a bucket instead. Luxury cruising is not an option on this kind of voyage.
Amid such privations, sometimes the only thing to look forward to is food.
“It’s such a morale booster,” says Susie. “On a miserable, grey, rainy day, the best way to cheer yourself up is a fresh loaf of bread. Just the smell fills the cabin.”
As she can’t restock at any point during the race, Susie will have to take enough food for over 300 days. Freeze-dried food reduces bulk and weight. In Sir Robin’s day, he had to use tins. But:
“You can’t just put a tin in a boat, it’ll rust. So what you have to do is mark them with a code, tear the label off and varnish them. So you have to do that with all the tins you’re taking. 1400 tins.”
Methodical preparation and continuous work can keep you on an even keel. You can’t plan for everything, however. Suhaili was knocked on her side early in the voyage, ruining the drinking water. From then on, Sir Robin had to collect as much rainwater as possible (augmented by 120 cans of beer donated by a brewery). There were other unexpected events. A lack of solder meant having to melt the bottom of light bulbs. He forgot razors so grew a beard. The radio broke down. Although he only found 18 months later, his appendix had burst.
“So every day is a bonus, every day is a bonus.”
These are the sorts of challenges that can push people to their limit. For Susie, this is why the Golden Globe Race appeals.
“You don’t know what your max is or your limits are until you’re kind of shown them ... that probably is something in my personality that wants to see what that limit is. I don’t think that’s normal.”
More than anything, the Golden Globe Race is a mental challenge. Nothing can prepare you for the intense solitude and hardship of sailing solo for almost a year.
Prepare to be afraid, says Sir Robin.
“The person who says they’re not frightened is a liar or inhuman. You do get frightened. First time, they get into the Southern Ocean … when you see the size of those waves down there …they’re gonna be frightened. It’s human.”
The Southern Ocean is notorious among sailors. With no land to stop them, powerful winds stir huge swells in the waters surrounding Antarctica. Sir Robin learned how to deal with them the hard way. As waves smashed against Suhaili’s hull like a hammer on an anvil, he saw an 80-foot monster approach. He climbed up the rigging to avoid being swept overboard and watched the wave consume the boat. Unfortunately, he forgot to close the hatch. The next four hours were spent bailing water out of the cabin.
“Best bailer, frightened man with a bucket, works every time. But you know these things happen and you just keep saying to yourself, if this was easy someone else would have done it.”
More people have been into space than have sailed alone round the world through the Southern Ocean. Susie anticipates storms she’s never experienced before. But knowing that helps:
“If you’re ready for it … and it’s not taking you by surprise, then you’re sort of halfway there to dealing with these sorts of conditions … so sort of just go and hope for the best.”
It’s a confident, positive attitude that Sir Robin concurs with.
“One of the greatest things you’ve got to have to do this is self-reliance and self-confidence. Not over-confidence.”
In 2018, 30 competitors from 13 countries will attempt to sail solo, non-stop around the world.