A defining portrayal of America’s greatest living bluewater adventurer can be found in a self-made video in which Rich Wilson — framed like a newscaster — braces for a storm south of Australia. He’d been at sea for 49 days in the Vendée Globe Race. One eye behind his oversize Poindexter-style glasses droops with exhaustion. Judging by the speed at which he unabashedly wolfs down his freeze-dried dinner on camera, he is either starving or vying to catch up to his 6,000-calorie-per-day minimum. It’s Christmas Eve, so he wishes happy holidays to more than half a million students in 50 different countries who are following his progress at sea — but you can scarcely hear him.
Wilson’s narration on this four-minute satellite-transmitted footage is mostly drowned out by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture booming from the ship’s stereo. At the climactic entrance of the horns, Wilson looks up from his bowl, stops eating and begins swaying his head in time to the music — lost in rapture, obviously happy to be alone at sea.
To understand his motivations for a lifetime of punishing voyages, his raw at-sea videos speak volumes. So do his logs: “We just got clobbered through the night, with 30 knots of wind, upwind, into the big building seas,” Wilson writes a month later, “and crashing and crashing and crashing.”
Employing the singlehanded sailor’s “we” for the boat and himself, his January 25, 2017, entry about the race continued: “We’re hard on the wind. You just have to be holding on at all times, with all four limbs.”
This was Wilson’s second Vendée, 28,000 miles around the blue planet, without resupply or outside support, and on a gray afternoon on February 21, 2017, 48 minutes into his 107th day into the race, the 66-year-old skipper finished off Les Sables d’Olonne. His finish position, 13th, the result of 27,480 miles at an average speed of 10.7 knots. His plain white-hulled boat, Great America IV, observers noted, was in fine shape, a testament to seamanship gleaned over thousands upon thousands of miles.
Wilson never felt handicapped as the oldest man in the world’s most grueling ocean race. He figured the other racers had to suffer just like him through gales, loneliness and repairs performed on the go.
Reflecting on the race, he remarks that his years aren’t a detriment: “The younger sailors have no better coping tools to withstand this sort of stress.” Objectively speaking, being older than one’s competitors and surviving more epics at sea should also confer an experiential edge to a shorthanded racer — but even if Wilson subscribes to such a theory, his modesty prevents him from admitting it.
There in the South Atlantic, he cinched the seat belt tight at the chart table before pressing the record button, in effort to not repeat past mistakes. In the beginning of the 2008 Vendée, a rogue wave caused him to go airborne, throwing him 6 feet across the cabin and against a grab bar, breaking his ribs. The injury made sail changes and winching an excruciating existence.
Once secured at the table, Wilson begins answering satellite-transmitted emails. Not just a sailor, Wilson sees being an educator an important part of his mission. One student wanted to know about wave height: “Up to 20 feet”; another student asked about the last time he’d seen land: “Only once while rounding Cape Horn.” He spends two hours a day answering questions, writing an essay, shooting videos or talking on the sat phone with a student — as if his hands weren’t already full preventing bodily injury, keeping the boat on course, and readjusting his temperamental autopilot.
SAILING – VENDEE GLOBE 2017 – MISCS ARRIVALS
Wilson’s girlfriend calls Great American IV “the Monster.” She was horrified by the radical canting keel, the noise belowdecks and the dizzying speed during a Massachusetts day sail. Wilson says the name has nothing to do with him or his politics. Despite the fact that thousands of French Vendée fans have nicknamed Rich Wilson the “brain” for his time at Harvard, MIT and as a Pentagon analyst, and do consider him a great American by virtue of having the sangfroid to compete alongside their own heroes.
Still, Wilson is virtually unknown, except in his Marblehead, Massachusetts, home waters.
He baptized his sleek machine the Great American— along with his three previous boats — after similarly named clipper ships. Pressing huge sheets of canvas into the sky, 19th-century behemoths like Great Republic, Flying Cloud and Young America set transoceanic speed records that Wilson and friends systematically crushed (still, with characteristic humility, he doesn’t mention beating any clipper-ship records on the video) while piloting his 60-foot trimarans Great American I and II in the 1990s.
The first Great American performed a “double somersault,” he said, 400 miles west of Chile in 65-foot seas while trying to beat Flying Cloud‘s time from San Francisco to Boston. The only record Wilson mentions on camera is that after being submerged upside down, Great America remains the only ship in maritime history to right itself in an even bigger wave after the first somersault. Without his improbable tanker rescue in high seas, along with the Great American’s bombproof hull, he reckons he’d be dead.
Several days after his Vendée Globe clobbering in the South Atlantic, Wilson sat becalmed 900 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, frustrated and hammering Great American IV‘s deck anew—this time with his fists. A sensitive man, his eyes misty even during his newscasts at sea, Wilson wanted to somehow vent, but all he could do was continue thumping carbon fiber. Although he knew he couldn’t win the race, it bugged him that half of his competitors were hundreds of miles ahead, clocking 12 knots, and smelling the champagne while he spun 2-knot circles in the doldrums.
Wilson, a teetotaler at sea (who’ll drink on land only for certain celebrations), also abstained from cocoa, tea and coffee. Once in a while, he allowed himself a cup of soup. Otherwise, as a sparely built ectomorph, he had no choice but to snack continuously. His larder included 540 Fig Newtons, more freeze-dried food than any health-conscious AARP member should consider eating throughout their golden years (let alone in three months), and 96 boxes of raisins. Despite his 6,000-calories-per-day regimen, he would still lose 10 pounds.
Wilson was in the race to stretch his “mind, body and spirit combined” (as he concludes in his book Race France to France), and even more important, to engage schoolchildren about the wonders of the sea. While he has won a few races — including the overall title in the 1980 Bermuda Race, in his father’s wooden ketch, beating out 159 other boats, and set more than a few transoceanic records — he’s not interested in foils (only six of the 2016 Vendée entrants used the high-speed daggerboards) or running at 30 knots. He’s a bluewater salt, more Joshua Slocum than Dennis Conner, sentimentally adapted to the albatross and moved by porpoises in his bow wake. While he can be induced to chat on the phone about his online educational curriculum or his French connections, Wilson is a reserved loner, disinclined to talk about himself or his lifestyle (a Boston Globe reporter once described him as a monk).
SAILING/THE TRANSAT 2004/START
Three months after finishing the Vendée Globe in 107 days (he placed 13th of 18 racers, with 11 dropping out), I find him at the Atomic Café on a brick-cobbled street in downtown Marblehead. He’s focused on a copy of the Financial Times held over his tuna-fish sandwich. Given his penchant for classical music, he’s oddly unperturbed by rock music blaring out of the cafe’s speakers, but soft-spoken enough that lip reading comes in handy as he speaks wistfully about the Vendée.
His shoulders are still sore from winch grinding, so much so that it hurts to lift his arms above his head. Demure and pleasant, with gray hair and a gentlemanly moustache neatly coiffed, his striking black eyebrows frame his long face.
Brian Hancock, a seasoned bluewater local and author, likens Wilson to Mr. Rogers. Wilson shows up for Vendée Globe events in a suit and tie as if he’s the race bookkeeper, standing alongside his French competitors in sailing attire.
Today he’s dressed in docker pants, with an oxford shirt and a V-neck cashmere sweater beneath a puffy vest and a thick sailing jacket. Although he’s just survived another transit of the icy Southern Ocean, he is the only person seen this last day of May in Marblehead still dressed for winter.
After strolling to the nearby Boston YC — Wilson gasping as if we’re running uphill — we sit on an enclosed dock porch, bouncing in the harbor wake. Here, connected with the ocean, he gets excited, gesturing with his hands as he repeatedly describes the students and educational campaign he set up for the race.
Wilson financed Great American IV through his own resources, and sailed on a shoestring budget compared with his competitors. Money and winning are sore subjects. Wilson bemoans the America’s Cup as this country’s only mainstream sailing event. “It sucks up all the press coverage,” he says. “People are astounded that the [Vendée] race even exists because they’ve never heard of it.”
Armel Le Cléac’h (40, winner of this year’s Vendée) collected a purse of 160,000 euros ($182,000 USD) — with smaller awards parceled out to each finisher, showing the French philosophy that every entrant is a winner. Still, Wilson believes, “That’s ludicrous compared with baseball [players’ salaries].”
Wilson’s insight is that no one understands the French-dominated race because sports in this country — even the America’s Cup — are all about winning. As for the Vendée, “You do it for the experience and to share,” he says. The idea began with Bernard Moitessier in the first nonstop Golden Globe race in 1968. After rounding Cape Horn, disinterested in winning or in the commercialization of sailing, Moitessier famously slingshot a message onto a passing ship to notify race officials he was quitting “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” The French still embrace Moitessier’s spirit, hence today’s branding surrounding the race.
As a Francophile, albeit a lifelong New Englander lacking a Boston accent, Wilson remains unassuming. He has no trace of the pedigree that private schools and yacht clubs would’ve given to sailors who hadn’t suffered half as much. It’s hard, in fact, to remember that this correctly dressed, shy academic has spent at least several years of his life at sea — often alone, sometimes in a survival suit and usually far from terra firma — as he avoids speaking of his own accomplishments so he can praise his mentors or speak about how important sailing is for kids.
SAILING/VENDEE GLOBE 2008/2009/GREAT AMERICAN III
“Once you leave the dock, you’re on your own,” he says. “You have to make decisions, fix things, and you’re suddenly in positions you’ve never been in before.”
Since he’s talking about his own beginnings, I ask if he always wheezes. But he waves away the question — presumably it’s another handicap he refuses to be limited by.
Several months before the last edition of the race, his next-door neighbor, sailor Amy Drinker, observed him lifting weights at the gym, wheezing disconcertingly. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Drinker says. His trainer whispered to Drinker: “He’s fine. When he breathes hard, it doesn’t sound like you and me.” Then trainer turned to trainee — known to work out so hard that he’d run into the bathroom to puke — and exhorted, “C’mon, one more set!” Recalling those workouts, he says, “You can’t train yourself out of being 66.”
Wilson is referring to how endurance athletes of his age have 15 percent less lung capacity of middle-aged athletes — and in addition, severe asthma gives him 75 percent of the lung capacity of normal sailors. Any grinder who has experienced anaerobic breakdown in service to the winch can only imagine the strain of offshore shorthanding, with a 60 percent lung capacity, averaging 1,200 turns a day for more than three months.
Like his competitors in the Vendée, Wilson got little sleep, mostly grabbing half-hour catnaps. Unlike his competitors, he takes four different asthma drugs, which adversely crank up his metabolism and limit the shut-eye.
Diagnosed as a severe asthmatic while still a toddler, long before albuterol inhalers, his parents learned that their middle child would not be destined for conventional sports. But one day in the mid-1950s, sailing on the family ketch outside Marblehead, Dorothy Wilson observed a change in her son while riding in the offshore breeze: “Richie” was healthy, running around the boat. When the wind turned and blew from the land, carrying invisible particulate matter and pollens, their son bowed over, crippled with wheezing.
Betsy Hoffman-Hundahl, Wilson’s girlfriend, is a director of the local art museum. Wilson’s asthma, she says, “is the private struggle of his life.” He doesn’t mention this debility during his public lectures (events at which his sailor friends become frustrated because Wilson’s humility underplays the difficulties of his voyages). “It’s a personal goal,” Hoffman-Hundahl says, “proving to himself that he can do things like the Vendée with asthma.”
Clearly, Wilson overcame this lifelong land-borne handicap by going to sea. Sailing in Marblehead junior races as a polite 10-year-old, he won his first race, a quarter-mile out and then back around the cans. While focused on trimming the sail and avoiding a “snake wake” that would slow his Sea Sprite’s hull speed, he pulled into the lead, won, and would remember the details of that day for the rest of his life. It was obviously the mastery versus the winning that spun Wilson’s clock.
Childhood friend Robbie Doyle — a Marblehead sailmaker and Sailing Hall of Famer — also remembers those races and his frail competitor. “Out of the 10 kids we sailed with,” says Doyle, “Richie would’ve been the last who I would’ve picked for competing in the Vendée Globe.”
Loathe to partake in “pass the sandwich and open the beer” cruises, Wilson remains the bluewater eccentric among Marblehead yachting circles. Still, he’s incredibly respected. Consequently, there’s considerable chatter about whether he’ll take on the quadrennial Vendée in his 70s.
“He’ll do it again,” says Hancock. “He’s too proficient not to.”
Hoffman-Hundahl keeps probing on this likelihood, and while she looks forward to his taking time off, she can’t imagine him without a new project.
When put directly to Wilson, who gets asked this question routinely, he answers, “I’m not going to do it again.” “Are you sure?” I ask.
“Well,” he hesitates, looking longingly out to sea, “pretty sure.”