Senior sailors risk life and limb in Vendee Globe round-the-world race

At 66, Rich Wilson is among the older competitors ready to risk injury, exhaustion and gales on the gruelling solo trip

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 8:05pm

The Vendee Globe solo round-the-world yacht race is not for the faint-hearted, but at 66 Rich Wilson is ready to risk injury, exhaustion and hurricane winds again.

Wilson, one of four over-60s in the gruelling race that starts today, endured broken ribs, crushed vertebrae and a deep cut in his face when he competed in 2009.

Masts that break in a gale and the threat of being swept overboard overshadows all 29 entries in this edition of the race held every four years. Wilson said he is very aware of the fate that befell top Chinese navigator Guo Chuan who went missing in the Pacific last week while attempting to get from a San Francisco to Shanghai in less than 20 days.

“If such things can happen to him one can envisage the same things happening to less accomplished navigators,” the skipper of Great American IV said.

The Massachussets Institute of Technology educated professor has vowed to tell every bump and scrape to an audience of hundreds of thousands of school children from Taiwan to Tennessee.

He has a website which aims to use adventure to encourage children to learn. Thousands of schools have signed up to follow his programme. He will be chronicling his journey on his blog. “I am an asthma sufferer on top of all the other challenges in this, so I will tell it all.”

Wilson will have to eat 5,000-6,000 calories a day, instead of the usual 2,000, to keep up with the energy-sapping schedule. Last time he lost weight despite the extra food and most competitors lose muscle bulk because of the limited space. The sleep deprivation – four or five hours each day for about 100 days – is an additional trap. Last time, Wilson’s autopilot broke down for the final month so he had to check the winds every 20 minutes to keep on course. “It is absolutely exhausting as well as stressful for many,” he said.

As in 2009, Wilson will again be the oldest competitor, but not the only senior. Enda O’Coineen, 61, is the first Irishman to take part in the race now in its eighth edition. He also runs an educational trust and is president of the International Federation of Irish Pubs.

“I was asked was I concerned about the younger sailors in the race, so I said I thought they’d be okay,” O’Coineen joked.

Dutch businessman Pieter Heerema, 65, is one of nine rookies in the race. Nandor Fa, 63, took part in the second Vendee Globe in 1992 and was fifth. In 1996 he had to give up after a collision.

“There are eight or nine skippers in with a chance of winning, for the rest of us the aim is to finish this personal adventure in the best conditions,” said Wilson.

The others agreed.

“I have a long way to go and I’m no spring chicken,” said Heerema. “My challenge is to complete the voyage. Make it all the way around the world alone.”