Chris Stanmore-Major’s girlfriend is explaining how the round-the-world solo sailor broke the news of his next, most ambitious series of adventures. “We’d been living in Sai Kung for four months, just settled, when Chris burst into our room in the middle of the night, saying: ‘Abbi, we’re going sailing,’” says the yoga instructor from North Carolina, in the United States. “Suddenly, our whole lives are going back into containers.”
The couple will soon swap the 5,000 books they inherited from Stanmore-Major’s late uncle for Kindles, their onlyjust- assembled furniture is destined for storage and their new pet cats need a home.
Such is life when you cohabit with one of the world’s most ambitious and accomplished sailors. Stanmore-Major, 35, has twice circumnavigated the globe, once as the skipper of Qingdao, the Chinese entry in the 2009-10 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, and then solo in the Velux 5 Oceans 2010-11 on Robin Knox-Johnston’s Spartan vessel. He was the 182nd person to sail solo around the world – and to put that in perspective, 2,500 people have scaled Mount Everest and 530 have been into space. And now, after more than 12 months living on dry land, he’s preparing to sail the Transat Jacques Vabre (which follows the “coffee route”, from South America to Europe), beginning in November, followed by the Barcelona World Race 2014 (“the longest and most difficult shorthanded [accompanied by a small crew] sailing race in the world”) and ultimately the Vendeé Globe 2016, the only non-stop, single-handed round-the-world race, which is regarded by many as the ultimate challenge in ocean racing.
For her part, Abbi Heilig – who used to work as a hospitality crew member on luxury pleasure yachts and met Stanmore-Major on the sailing circuit – will accompany her partner to the starting points, travel to the ports at which he stops and be on call for support.
“It’s that aim to do everything non-stop that I’m drawn by,” says Stanmore-Major, the son of a mechanic father and psychologist mother from Dorset, Britain. “I love the self-reliance, being on a 60-foot boat by myself. The true way to test that is to take one man, one boat and the open sea. If I finish [the Vendeé Globe], I’ve won.”
He claims he’d like to retire from ocean racing at 40, but that seems implausible.
Stanmore-Major wasn’t always this driven, though. In fact, there was a time when the former serviceman found guys like himself a bit ridiculous.
“In the [Royal] Navy we had a really low opinion of the races. It was just people getting wet in little boats,” he says. “What were they doing it for? All this hassle to go round and round.”
But, aged 31, the plucky yachtsman was persuaded to give the sport a go. By then living in the SAR, he was asked by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club – which was entering a big regatta in Britain – to skipper the operation.
One race and he was hooked. He may have surprised himself at the time but perhaps it was inevitable that Stanmore-Major would end up sailing solo. Since the age of 18, the Briton has based his life around boats, refining his nautical experience over the years to become more and more of a lone traveller.
Initially, he deferred a place to read law at Cambridge University to spend a gap year with the Outward Bound school in Hong Kong. The 150-foot “Pirates of the Caribbean-style” tour ship on which he was posted, with its 100-foot-high mast and assembly of youngsters aged between 16 and 25 who had strayed from the straight and narrow, was a culture shock. As was Hong Kong.
“I was 18, super-green and fresh out of Dorset,” he says. “One day I rode the bus from Sai Kung to Nathan Road, caught the Star Ferry and then got the tram to the race course. It opened my eyes to the rest of the world.”
On the boat, Stanmore-Major learned to speak “nautical Cantonese”, and helped youngsters reduce their prison sentences thanks to their work on board. He also learned the basics of every part of the boat itself.
“That year completely deflected the course of my life,” he says.
On returning to Cambridge, he switched courses to sociology, only to take a second gap year 12 months later, this time to volunteer on another ship-based outreach project, in Australia, where he worked with former drug addicts and prostitutes.
“On a boat you have to face your demons and reveal who you are,” he says. “The change it had on these people was phenomenal.”
After graduating, he joined Britain’s Royal Navy Reserve for a few years, which was “great for learning about navigation”, but “the military thing wasn’t for me”.
“I’d see things wrong with the boat and the officer would say, ‘We’ve got someone to fix that.’” Stanmore-Major, naturally, wanted to do “the ropes stuff” himself.
Stints teaching English in Thailand and Korea followed but in the end it was Johnny Depp’s roguish seafarer Captain Jack Sparrow who brought him focus.
“I saw Pirates of the Caribbean and thought, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher anymore, I want to be a pirate.’” And with that, he found his way back to Hong Kong and became head of the Outward Bound’s sailing department, before spending a few “bad years” earning big bucks on superyachts (he declines to say whose) in Fort Lauderdale, in the US.
Then came that fateful race, back in Britain. And on his return to Hong Kong in 2009, an exhilarated Stanmore-Major applied to be a skipper in the 15-legged Clipper competition – a huge undertaking for a sailor with just one race under his belt.
The event had been founded in 1996 by a newfound hero and fellow Brit, the gruff and well-whiskered Knox-Johnston, who in 1969 had become the first person to sail around the world solo. Back then there was no GPS or support teams – when Knox-Johnston eventually sailed into Falmouth, in Cornwall, England, on his small boat, Suhaili, to complete his voyage, he had been presumed dead by the British press.
Four decades on and the Clipper race is decidedly more hi-tech. Ten boats race, each with a skipper who leads 22 beginners (who’ve paid up to £35,000 [HK$432,500] for the privilege). If the skipper has done his job well, by the finish line the crew should be running the boat. Stanmore- Major was picked as a skipper from 200 applicants and given Qingdao.
“It’s a massive responsibility and I was very young to do it; I had just 30,000 nautical miles compared to other guys with 200,000 nautical miles,” he says. “Things can go horribly wrong. Boats roll over and lose their masts, people get injured and it comes down to the skipper to fix it.”
Looking back, he says, he was underprepared and made mistakes. Known to his crew as the “stern man with the ginger beard”, the sailor – who bears a passing resemblance to a certain one-eared Dutch painter – ran a tight ship and admits that, at times, he could be aggressive as he navigated the boat from Hull, in northeast England, and back, via La Rochelle, in France, Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, the Horn of Africa, Australia, Singapore, Qingdao itself, in Shandong province, North America and the Caribbean, and Cork, Ireland. The team covered 40,000 nautical miles and battled hurricane winds of 70 knots – strong enough to raise the typhoon signal No 10.
But the hardest challenge, he says, was managing the personalities on board.
“You never know people’s reasoning for coming. Normally, they’re working something out, or they’re celebrating, maybe they’ve inherited some money. Other times mum and dad paid for the gap year.”
His crew were aged between 21 and 63, hailed from around the globe and were 60 per cent male (the women, he says, were the toughest mentally).
The race organisers try to select crews according to how they might gel psychologically, and there is a ban on couples. On one occasion, they did allow two lovebirds to sail together due to the husband’s diabetes (“His wife knew how to care for him,” says Stanmore-Major.) However, “about 4,000 nautical miles into the Atlantic the husband dropped a bombshell. He was leaving his wife for a Swedish masseuse on the crew who had been wearing her bikini perhaps a little too much. The other girl had nothing to do with it, but he was determined.” The skipper concocted a problem with the mast, sent the wife off in a team to fix it and then docked as soon as possible.
“Another time, a skipper took the sails down in the middle of the Atlantic because someone forgot to pack the sugar and the tea drinkers were flipping out,” Stanmore-Major chuckles.
But for those who manage to keep it together and complete the race, the world is, he believes, their oyster.
“When people get off the boat you know they are empowered. If they want to make a load of money, they’re doing it; if they want to make some kids, they’ll have some. And it’s kind of cool to be a part of that.”
Stanmore-Major’s crew came seventh out of 10 in the Clipper race, earning a respectable five podium positions over the 15 legs.
After 230 days away, his family and then girlfriend were looking forward to seeing him. But they were in for a surprise. On Stanmore-Major’s return, Knox-Johnston offered him the chance of a lifetime: to compete in the Velux 5 Oceans in the same boat the latter had sailed around the world two years previously. The catch? He’d have to leave in nine weeks and do the boat up “on the skinny”. Normally, a team has £250,000 and three years to prepare. Stanmore-Major said yes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his romantic relationship fell apart.
“It’s hard to say to someone, ‘Hey, I’ve been away for nine months and now I’m going to do it again.’ That doesn’t go down too well.”
To make matters worse, his father was battling brain cancer.
“Halfway around the Atlantic, I was like: ‘Who let me do this? It’s ridiculous.’ It really took its toll.
“People e-mail, but you haven’t been home for 18 months, you haven’t been to the pub, so you start to lose all those connections. You’re disconnecting further and further.”
Stanmore-Major could have gone to a dark place. A punishing course, the Velux 5 Oceans takes sailors round the treacherous Cape Horn (at the southern tip of Chile), where boats must contend with strong winds, large waves and icebergs, and to Point Nemo, 2,000 kilometres from land – to get any further from another human, you’d have to be in space.
“I’m totally on my own there, no doctor can help me.”
Indeed, Russian sailor Viktor Yazykov was forced to operate on his own elbow via e-mail instructions during the race in 1998.
Furthermore, while each sailor in the Velux 5 Oceans receives €21,500 (HK$222,000) for accommodation and services at port stops (four in total, one every 40 days), unless the skipper wins the €500,000 prize, the adventure is a serious financial gamble.
“You’re lucky if you break even in this sport,” says Stanmore-Major, recalling that two of his competitors went bankrupt after the race.
What makes a man put himself in that position? What tickles that desire to confront one’s rawest, most vulnerable self? Stanmore-Major seems unable to arrive at an explanation; for him, it’s a natural process, a way to establish the parameters of his own survival.
“I had a relationship falling apart, I was worried about my father. But you have to let that go. You fall apart but you pick yourself up and pull yourself back together again. It’s everyday life. Your mind is like a harbour – you’ve got to learn to direct the bad things straight back out.”
Everyday life on a solo sailing voyage is, of course, a little different to the daily grind of Hong Kong. For starters, he could sleep only in 20- minute bursts.
“If there is a big ship coming over the horizon directly towards you, 20 minutes is about how long it will take to get to you.”
There are alarms built into the boat that sound at 130 decibels when it’s time to wake up. But, as he puts it, “the best alarm clock in the world is thinking you’re going to die”. The boat is plastered with notes-to-self because “when you wake up from a power nap your body is super-confused and liable to make bad judgment calls”.
Listening to Nina Simone CDs and reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness were his entertainment, along with an Xbox 360. He could also call his support crew and, with limited (and expensive) e-mail access, keep up with correspondence or write blog posts. On calm evenings he would stick on some music and “dance at the end of the boat as the sun set”.
Stanmore-Major loaded frozen food onto the boat at every port. He gave himself a selection of 10 meals, including kung pao noodles, Thai green curry, spaghetti bolognaise and chilli con carne. He ate four meals a day, including 2,000 calories of Haribo sweets (and on one occasion, after a culinary mix-up, a meal of Nutella and diesel), and smoked a surprising number of cigarettes.
But once all those calories have been consumed, there is the matter of waste disposal. Stanmore-Major claims, with a totally straight face, that taking a “number one” is one of the most dangerous things a sailor must do.
“Something like 60 per cent of guys the US Coast Guard drags out of the sea have their flies undone,” he says, “because they go to the back of the boat and fall off.” Stanmore-Major is “conservative” about urinating on the boat because “statistically, the more times you do it the more likely you are to make a mistake”. He uses a strong bucket – some crack in the cold, or buckle under the weight – and keeps a satnav device at hand in case he’s on it for a while.
The difficulties of trying to eat, pee and sleep on a voyage such as the Velux 5 Oceans are hard for the uninitiated to imagine. Spartan, a carbon boat that weighed 8,000kg with a 90-foot mast and 6,000 sq ft of downward sail area, was often at 40 degrees as it rode the huge waves of the southern hemisphere, says Stanmore-Major.
“It’s aggressive, like a roller coaster. The waves are 20 to 30 feet high, we call them 100-year-old waves, and if it’s breaking, that’s it. You’ve got to be in complete control.”
Although there were days on which he “considered cutting the mast down”, he made it through the Velux 5 Oceans and handed Knox-Johnston his boat back, having joined that elite club of sailors who have circumnavigated the world in solitude.
He returned to Hong Kong and rented a house on Lamma. But he wouldn’t stay on the island for long. Last July, his mother called from Britain with news that his father’s brain cancer had progressed, and Stanmore-Major returned home to nurse him in his final days.
One senses that of all the voyages he’s been on, this was the hardest.
“Ocean racing has shown me adversity, but it also taught me the importance of family and friends. I’ve ended up being a lot more connected since the last trip. Now, if I’m on a boat sailing and about to put out a blog post about some close shave, I’ll call every aunt and uncle first to prepare them.”
Stanmore-Major is now ready to accompany Derek Hatfield (“the Knox- Johnston of Canada”) in the Transat Jacques Vabre – which will be Hatfield’s final challenge before retirement – on the latter’s Open 60 Spirit of Canada yacht. The pair are on a fundraising mission (they need £60,000), offering supporters the chance to get their name on the hull, have a champagne brunch on the start line and sail on the boat itself.
Stanmore-Major says he is writing his life story and you get the feeling he wants to leave a legacy. After all, Knox-Johnston completed his second solo circumnavigation at 68; Stanmore-Major will be under 40 when he attempts the Vendeé Globe challenge, which he hopes to complete in 100 days (the fastest do it in about 70).
“I’m a tenacious, passionate and self-reliant person,” he says. “That’s how I want to be remembered.”
A dogged “pirate” who sailed the world, had a disco every evening and e-mailed home to tell everyone about life as an island; it’s a story that should keep the grandchildren enthralled.
To learn more about Chris Stanmore-Major’s upcoming voyage, or to sponsor the trip, visit www.csmoffshore.com.