Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail solo non-stop around the World, completes the 30,123 mile voyage in 313 days on April 22, 1969.
Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail solo non-stop around the World, completes the 30,123 mile voyage in 313 days on April 22, 1969.
Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail solo non-stop around the World, completes the 30,123 mile voyage in 313 days on April 22, 1969. (Photo: Bill Rowntree/PPL)

Another Voyage for Madmen (And, This Time, One Woman)

The first Golden Globe Race, a solo, nonstop, around-the-world sailing event held in 1968, was a mixture of triumph, tragedy, and madness—all chronicled in a classic bestselling book and recent BBC movie. Fifty years later, 17 sailors are once again setting out for the most ambitious—and loneliest—regatta on the planet.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

On July 1, 17 skippers in 17 boats left the French port town of Les Sables d’Olonne and sailed west into the Bay of Biscay. Their destination? Les Sables d’Olonne, but from the other direction, a journey of about nine months and 30,000 miles. The boats are unremarkable. The sailors are a mixed bag: hotshot pro racers, ambitious yachties, ultracompetent old salts, young upstarts, dedicated adventurers, a hopeless dreamer or two—16 men and one woman representing 12 countries, all with a common intention. They’re racing around the world without stopping, without benefit of modern technology, and alone.

This is the second-ever Golden Globe Race. The original, which has been immortalized in several books, including Peter Nichols’ classic account, A Voyage for Madmen, as well as the documentary Deep Water and the recent Colin Firth film The Mercy, began in the summer of 1968 and, by its end, turned into an epic blend of historic triumph, human tragedy, and utter shitshow. Nine sailors started and one finished. One killed himself. This race marks the 50th anniversary of that event, and besides some allowances for safety, the rules limit the racers to technology available in 1968. Sextants, not GPS. Radio, not sat phones. Film cameras and Super 8s, not DSLRs and GoPros. No digital anything. No high-tech materials like Kevlar or carbon composite. No electric autopilot, desalinization, or refrigeration. No blog posts, no video chats, no selfies at sea.

Such restrictions might seem suspiciously like pedantic hipster nostalgia for all things analog, but the throwback nature of the race is an earnest attempt to reclaim radical simplicity in a world addicted to interconnectedness. Just think—no email, no texts, no news alerts for the better part of a year. But no family or friends, either. No human touch. Just one person, one boat, one planet. This is a race about intangibles. The skippers will sail a very long way to see pretty much only a disc of water and a dome of sky, their progress marked by changing angles in the sextant mirrors, lines drawn on charts. Whoever wins won’t even win money—more on that later—but will be symbolically awarded a perpetual trophy.

Not all will finish. If half the fleet succeeds, everyone will be pleasantly surprised. Following the fastest route, as the skippers are obliged to do, means sailing down the Atlantic, turning east around the bottom of Africa, passing below Australia and New Zealand, rounding Cape Horn, and crossing back up the Atlantic. This, in turn, means spending something like four or five months in isolated latitudes known as the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, in the ring of water around Antarctica that sailors speak of, with caution and respect, as the Southern Ocean. Strong and reliable westerly winds, unimpeded by land, make for fast sailing but also build into severe gales and massive seas that will break anything on a boat that can be broken and wear on the physical and mental fortitude of any sailor. Boats will fail. Injuries will happen. People will decide they’ve had enough. It’s a war of attrition.

The obvious question is why. Why choose to sail alone in a small boat through the world’s most furious seas, far from comfort or help, guided by the stars? Why attempt such a journey knowing full well that at times you will be horribly lonely, at others frustrated beyond measure, sometimes bored, sometimes afraid, that death by drowning out in the middle of big blue will be a constant possibility?

If you have to ask, you’ll never really understand the answer. In a way, there is no answer.

Les Sables d’Olonne has a broad, curving beach edged by a well-strolled, almost supernaturally shadeless embankment and presided over by a long row of blocky apartment buildings interspersed with elegant Belle Époque villas. It’s a sailing town with a steady breeze, best known as the start and finish of the Vendée Globe, an extravagantly high-tech singlehanded circumnavigation race that happens every four years. Faded posters from the 2016 iteration still hang in windows.

For the second half of June, the Golden Globe boats were tied up at a floating dock, les pontons, in Les Sables d’Olonne’s densely occupied marina for final preparations and inspections. Flags flapped in their rigging. A steady stream of well-wishers, gawkers, and autograph seekers walked up and down the row of boats, chatting in French to the skippers, even those who spoke no French. The French are big sailing fans, and many clustered around the boat of Jean-Luc van den Heede, the oldest racer, a 73-year-old French sailing hero with five solo circumnavigations already under his belt, including two Vendée Globes. Nearby was Susie Goodall’s red-hulled sloop of the same design, a Rustler 36 called Starlight. Goodall, at 28, is the youngest skipper and the only woman. Kevin Farebrother, a firefighter from Perth, Australia, christened his boat Sagarmantha, the Nepalese name for Mount Everest, which he has summited three times.

Don McIntyre, Australian adventurer and founder of the 2018 Golden Globe Yacht Race.
Don McIntyre, Australian adventurer and founder of the 2018 Golden Globe Yacht Race. (PPL Photo Agency)

Mark Slats, a strapping Dutchman, had two gigantic oars on the deck of his boat, which he planned on using to row through calms. (Dread of calms and a strong preference for storms was universal among the sailors. Calms are boring and leave you too much time to think.) Slats thought he could row for about ten hours a day, getting maybe 2.5 knots. This past December, he rowed solo across the Atlantic in 30 days, 7 hours, and 49 minutes, smashing the world record.

Aside from the sponsor logos on hulls and sails, the boats were decidedly basic—cruisers you’d see in any marina. Race rules required them to be single-hulled, mass-produced, designed before 1988, and between 32 and 36 feet in overall length. Farther down the dock, their masts towering over the rest, were a handful of IMOCA 60s, the boats used in the Vendée Globe. Recent designs resemble 60-foot-long squared-off Star Trek insignias and are capable of levitating above the water on retractable foils, reaching speeds over 30 knots. If they are the monohull equivalent of Formula One race cars, then the Golden Globe boats are modestly tricked-out camper vans. Get six knots out of one and you feel pretty good. The Vendée Globe record is 74 days. Golden Globe sailors are planning for 300, even if the speediest hope to shave more than a month off that. But modesty is part of the point.

“All the other races are incredibly expensive,” said Golden Globe race director Don McIntyre. “They’re great to watch, but it’s now got exclusive, very exclusive, and it’s going more so that way.” A competitive Vendée Globe campaign costs millions of dollars, but the Golden Globe requires only a fraction of that. According to McIntyre, $100,000 would be enough to get in the race, and at the end you’d still own your boat, which, he pointed out, you could live in. Some might have to. While a minority of the sailors were comfortably covered by sponsors or personal wealth, five sold or mortgaged their houses to fund their circumnavigations. Others, lacking houses to sell, have had to hustle hard.

Boats will fail. Injuries will happen. People will decide they’ve had enough. It’s a war of attrition.

“I had no money and no boat,” said 31-year-old Irishman Gregor McGuckin. “I did an overseas in the Caribbean to help get a bit of capital to buy a boat, or at least help trick banks into thinking I had a steady income so they’d give me a loan to buy a boat.” Just a month out from the start, McGuckin was still relying mostly on blind faith and dogged determination when, after much pavement pounding, he secured a sponsorship. But costs still loom for when he is away—payments on the boat loan, for example, even if the repo man wouldn’t have an easy time tracking him down. Taking advantage of a technological recourse unavailable to the 1968 skippers, he has set up a GoFundMe.

As of the start, the race itself was also short on funds. The original plan was for a purse of 75,000 euros (around $87,000), to be split among the four fastest circumnavigators, but without a major sponsor, pride and a sense of accomplishment would have to suffice. (Banners on each of the boats, beneath the sailors’ names, had a blue place-holding rectangle that read simply “Sponsor?”) According to McIntyre, only 35,000 euros in sponsorship funds had come through, and while the local government of Les Sables d’Olonne had contributed the cost of the race village and each entrant had put in a start fee of just over $10,000, he said he’d personally invested nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

McIntyre, an Australian, has made a colorful career for himself seeking out and facilitating adventure. In the 1980s, he started marine equipment importing and yacht-building businesses to fund his own participation in the BOC Challenge, a solo circumnavigation race with stops. McIntyre was second in his class in 1990. After that, he started running and guiding tourist trips to Antarctica; currently, he and his partner have a long-term lease on an island in Tonga, where they run whale swimming trips. McIntyre’s initial concept for the Golden Globe reboot, which first occurred to him in 1995, had been simpler: He would sail around himself for the 30th anniversary. At the time, he was spending a year in an 8×12-foot hut on Antarctica with his then wife. “I was sitting there in the box in the middle of winter thinking, what’s next, what’s next?” McIntyre said. He made plans and designed a boat, but life got in the way. He missed the 40th anniversary as well when he chose instead to recreate Captain Bligh’s 3,600-mile Pacific journey in a 24-foot open boat. These things happen.

“Finally,” McIntyre said, “we were in Tonga, treasure hunting—this is in 2014, long story—and I thought, jeepers, four years to the anniversary.” The timing had come right. Then he thought, Why not make it a race?

In 1968, no one had ever sailed around the world alone and without stopping. This may not seem like a problem, but to rivalrous sailors from France and the UK, it was. People had sailed around the world singlehanded, but they’d always come ashore at some point for repairs or supplies or to have a good meal and a chat. The first solo circumnavigator was Joshua Slocum, a former clipper captain from Nova Scotia who, rendered professionally obsolete by the rise of the steam engine, set off eastward from Boston in 1895 in a 37-foot oyster sloop and returned three years later. He made many stops, navigating with spooky accuracy despite relying on a rudimentary combination of lunar sights, dead reckoning, and an old tin clock instead of a proper chronometer.

Eighteen others had followed suit by 1967, when an Englishman named Francis Chichester became first to sail around with only one stop. What was left to do but cut out the stop?

The Sunday Times, a weekly newspaper in the UK, hit on the idea of offering a trophy, the Golden Globe, to the first sailor to complete the feat and a cash prize of £5,000 for the fastest circumnavigation. No official entry was required, nor was any kind of qualifying experience. Skippers could sail whatever kind of boat they wanted, no matter how unsuitable. The only nod to safety was the paper’s stipulation that, to be eligible, sailors had to leave between June 1 and October 31, 1968. Departing earlier or later would mean near-suicidal conditions in the Southern Ocean. In the end, the field was made up of six Brits, two Frenchmen, and one Italian.

Susie Goodall (left), the sole female entrant in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, and French skipper Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.
Susie Goodall (left), the sole female entrant in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, and French skipper Jean-Luc Van Den Heede. (Maverick Sport/GGR/PPL; Christophe Favreau/Matmut/PPL)

In early February, four were left. Carozzo, the Italian, had made it only as far as Portugal before stomach ulcers forced him to retire. Others dropped out due to boat damage or the realization that life would be much more pleasant elsewhere. Who was left? In the lead, 29-year-old Robin Knox-Johnston, a straitlaced merchant marine officer who considered hegemony over the sea a British birthright, was on the homestretch, crossing back up the Atlantic in his 32-foot teak ketch, Suhaili. He had left earlier than anyone else remaining, in mid-June, and was likely to be the first back but very unlikely to be the fastest. The only sailor with a chance at overtaking him was the famous French sailor and nautical memoirist Bernard Moitessier, who was sailing very fast in 39-foot steel ketch named Joshua (for Slocum). Moitessier had just rounded Cape Horn. British naval lieutenant Nigel Tetley was in third, having just passed New Zealand in his increasingly beat-up 40-foot trimaran named Victress. Tetley would not catch Knox-Johnston, but if he continued as he had been, he would be faster.

Then there was Donald Crowhurst, the dark horse, whose exact whereabouts were unknown.

In Les Sables this June, skippers and support teams came and went to their boats like bees to a favorite flower. They hauled out and put away sail bags and boxes of hardware and giant plastic bins of canned and dehydrated food, hung off sterns to tinker with the self-steering gear, politely signed autographs when visitors couldn’t be dodged, went up masts, drilled and cranked and coiled and generally enacted sustained, miscellaneous marine busyness.

The busiest boat was Italian Francesco Cappelletti’s, because it was nowhere near ready to sail. While the other skippers had all raced to Les Sables by sea from Falmouth in the UK, Cappelletti, running far behind schedule, had been forced to ship his yellow ketch overland from the south of France. At Les Sables, he’d put it in the water and stepped the masts, but with days to go, countless tasks remained undone, including major ones like wiring and installing pumps and radio. Before he could leave, he’d need to pass an involved safety inspection and spend three days at sea doing 300 additional qualifying miles, and things were not looking good for Cappelletti. His one bittersweet ray of hope was that racers who didn’t make the July 1 start were permitted to start as late as July 7. In fact, in the 1968 race, the only Italian competitor, Alex Carozzo, faced with a similar situation, had repaired to a mooring after the start deadline passed for another week of preparation before setting out.

Russian Igor Zaretskiy’s ketch, Esmerelda, was another hive of activity, due not to desperation but an abundance of helpers: a large and unsmiling crew of men in Yacht Russia T-shirts and shin-length denim shorts who, when Igor went out for a test sail, followed unsmilingly behind in a rigid-inflatable boat, flying the Russian flag. Among Zaretskiy’s supplies were 600 packs of cigarettes—a disincentive against quitting the race, because if he put into port abroad, he’d have to pay duty on them.

Other boats were oases of tranquility. Sailors knew to casually swing by Lazy Otter around lunchtime, when Turkish-born British skipper Ertan Beskardes and his wife, Arzu, purveyors of military regalia in their onshore lives, would inevitably insist they stay for lunch. Abhilash Tomy, a pilot in the Indian navy who’d completed a previous solo nonstop circumnavigation in 2013, sometimes slept the morning away, rolling in midafternoon to do some languid boat tinkering. “It’s just a circumnavigation,” Tomy said. “I don’t know why everyone’s making such a big deal out of it.”

As far as anyone back in Britain knew, in February 1969, Donald Crowhurst was more than a thousand miles east of Cape Town, in the southern Indian Ocean, sailing at incredible speed. They thought this because he had been radioing home false daily mileages and deliberately vague positions, and his overzealous, highly credulous publicist had been spreading and embellishing his story. In actuality, Crowhurst was dawdling off the coast of South America. An inexperienced sailor and struggling electronics entrepreneur with an unfortunate knack for convincing others to believe in his self-delusions, Crowhurst had finagled the sponsorship to build a 41-foot trimaran, Teignmouth Electron, in exchange for a contractual promise that if he didn’t finish the race, he would repay the cost. In effect, Crowhurst would be ruined, and he had a wife and four children to support.

At the time of the first Golden Globe race, multihulls were in their infancy. They were known to be fast, but many doubted their capacity to endure heavy seas. One major problem was that when a multihull capsizes, its submerged mast and sails become a keel, and it does not right itself. Teignmouth Electron, even setting aside its questionable basic design, especially had no business going anywhere near the Southern Ocean. It was leaky and rattletrap. Its decks were sealed only with paint, not fiberglass, and the great invention Crowhurst had talked up to sell his voyage—an automatically triggered self-righting buoyancy bag at the top of the mast—existed only as bunches of wire running through the trimaran’s cabin, attached to nothing.

Within a few weeks of leaving port, his boat already falling apart with alarming speed, Crowhurst understood that proceeding with his planned journey would mean almost certain death. In December, ensnared by pride and shame, he had begun keeping a second logbook, documenting a false journey. He calculated navigational sights for positions thousands of miles from where he actually was (not an easy bit of math) and cobbled together guesses at distant weather from radio reports. In January, feigning radio trouble, he had cut himself off from the outside world. Crowhurst planned to loiter in the South Atlantic until the other homebound racers passed him, at which point he could fall in line behind them and finish respectably. Hopefully no one would look too closely at the logbook of the third- or fourth-place sailor.

In mid-April, Crowhurst reestablished radio contact, claimed to be approaching Cape Horn, and asked for news of the other racers. Knox-Johnston was nearly home, he learned, and Tetley was in the Atlantic, about two weeks ahead of Crowhurst. Bernard Moitessier, always something of a mystic and concerned about the corrupting effects of competition and fame, had decided to abandon the race and continue on toward Tahiti in pure communion with the sea. In a message he slingshotted onto the deck of a passing tanker near Cape Town, Moitessier informed the Sunday Times, “I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

On April 22, Knox-Johnston arrived back in Falmouth, an immediate hero and celebrity. On May 20, only a thousand miles from home, Nigel Tetley’s trimaran, badly weakened by months at sea, finally fell apart and sank. When he was informed by cable of the sinking (and Tetley’s subsequent rescue), Crowhurst understood, inescapably, that if he continued on, he would be laying claim to the fastest time around and subjecting his account of the journey to impossible scrutiny. There was no way his deception would not be exposed.

His progress slowed. His track became aimless. Early in June, his radio failed, and Crowhurst spent two weeks working obsessively to repair it while the Teignmouth Electron drifted through the doldrums. Once the radio was repaired, Crowhurst tapped out a flurry of messages to his wife and publicist. After that, becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, he opened his logbook and spent eight days writing down incoherent, exclamation point–studded ramblings about Einstein and mathematics and intelligence and morality, working himself up to the less-than-realistic conclusion that “[m]athematicians and engineers used to the techniques of system analysis will skim through my complete work in less than an hour. At the end of that time problems that have beset humanity for thousands of years will have been solved for them.”

On July 1, reaching the end of the logbook, he stopped mid-sentence and wrote no more. Nine days later, Teignmouth Electron was found adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. Crowhurst was gone, and so was the ship’s chronometer. Presumably he’d jumped overboard, leaving behind a confession in the form of the two logbooks.

A few nights before the start of the 2018 Golden Globe, in the tented bar in the Les Sables race village, Jean-Luc van den Heede’s band was playing. Couples waltzed around whatever floor space they could find while the septuagenarian sailor happily crooned away, pausing occasionally to banter in French. Late in his first set, van den Heede invited up a special guest. Robin Knox-Johnston climbed onstage, bearing two beers. He is now 79, Sir Robin, elder statesman of singlehanded sailing with three more circumnavigations under his belt, including another solo voyage in 2007. In 2016, he finished restoring Suhaili its original low-key, slightly tubby glory, and he’d sailed it across from Falmouth with the Golden Globe fleet. Knox-Johnson downed his beer and gave the other to van den Heede. The two men launched into a baritone duet of “Molly Malone.” “Cockles and mussels,” they sang. “Alive, alive, oh.” The crowd went wild.

Bernard Moitessier died in 1994, but Joshua, also restored, was in Les Sables, docked beside Suhaili. (Victress, of course, was at the bottom of the Atlantic, and in a sad and puzzling epilogue, Nigel Tetley had been found hanging from a tree in 1972.) Francis Chichester’s yacht Gypsy Moth IV was also at les pontons. Alex Carozzo, the Italian who’d been undone by ulcers, put in an appearance. Jesse Martin and Jessica Watson were around, both Australians who’d completed solo nonstops as teenagers (Watson with significant assistance from Don McIntyre), and there was a prevailing atmosphere of fellowship among the circumnavigators, both veteran and hopeful, a sense of being at a rare gathering of usually solitary creatures.

Antoine Cousot sailing aboard his Biscay 36 ketch rigged yacht.
Antoine Cousot sailing aboard his Biscay 36 ketch rigged yacht. (Antoine Cousot/GGR/PPL)

“The thing about singlehanded sailors,” said Mark Sinclair, a 59-year-old Australian skipper known to all as Captain Coconut, after his orange Lello 34, Coconut, “is by nature they don’t conform. They don’t obey rules. They do their own thing. So having an event for singlehanded sailors is like an oxymoron. It’s impossible.”

Or certainly not easy. The competitors complained about all the rules. (The notice of race—the official regulations—was more than 60 pages long and involved the purchase of many expensive bits of safety equipment, including satellite phones they weren’t allowed to use to call anyone except race officials for required check-ins.) The race organizers complained about the competitors complaining. There was some whispering about whether anyone might smuggle aboard a GPS. Not everyone was comfortable with the sextant yet. The rules—those rules again!—mandated that the racers pass a specific mark in the Canary Islands, but not everyone was confident about finding it.

“The reality is,” said Don McIntyre, “the only way you will finish this is if you have a burning passion to finish it. It’s all in the brain. You can have the best boat and the best gear, but if you’re not there for the right reasons, you’ll find a reason to retire.”

But these reasons, the right reasons, resist definition. All the sailors seemed to have decided more or less instantaneously to enter the race as soon as they heard about it, as though the idea had broken a pane of glass inside them, releasing an implacable spirit. They described obsession, sleeplessness, a rush to lock down a spot in the lineup without knowing how they were possibly going to get the money together. But as far as why, they couldn’t do much better than offer platitudes about the challenge or say, well, this is just the kind of thing I do, this is who I am. Fundamentally, the desire to be in the race was just that, a desire, as instinctive and unpredictable and inarticulable as lust.

Minnesotan Nabil Amra, who is competing under the Palestinian flag and is one of the more novice sailors, was something of an exception. When he first heard of the event, he wasn’t initially seized by a personal mania. First he suggested to Mahfouz Kabariti, an activist and president of the Palestine Surfing and Sailing Federation, that a Palestinian enter. Kabariti told him Palestinians are prohibited from competing internationally. “Maybe it was my Midwestern sense of fair play, but that burned me up,” Amra said. “So I thought I would do it. I had an interest in cruising, not necessarily in sailing around the world without seeing anything. But sometimes we make a sacrifice for a greater good.”

He added, “Sometimes anger can be a powerful motivator if you harness it.”

“The reality is,” said Don McIntyre, “the only way you will finish this is if you have a burning passion to finish it. It’s all in the brain. You can have the best boat and the best gear, but if you’re not there for the right reasons, you’ll find a reason to retire.”

Will a lofty sense of the greater good be enough when you’ve been cold and wet for four months in the Southern Ocean? No one can predict what will happen out there. There’s a randomness to how environment and boat and human will chafe and collide, an unpredictability to internal and external breaking points. At any moment, anyone might hit a submerged shipping container and sink. And there is the uncertain capacity of the self to cope with existence as the solitary center of a disc of empty water. You can’t know how you’ll manage until you try. Some find they can’t get enough.

Abhilash Tomy couldn’t wait to leave Les Sables. He was sailing a newly built replica of Suhaili that had been constructed, like the original, in India. “I know what the mind is going to be like,” he said. “I know what the body’s going to feel. And you just go through it.” What does the mind feel like? “Empty. Blank. Happy. In control. Without emotions.” And the body? “Shit.”

On his previous circumnavigation, Tomy said, “I became very clairvoyant. I could see far into the future, far into the past.” What did he see? “Many, many things. I saw everything.”

Tomy said he would come back completely wiped clean, without memory or guilt or morality or cravings. “Completely deconstructed,” he said. For him, that was what was critical. A self so distilled it became a kind of nothingness. That was what he was looking for.

On July 5, four days after the start, Francesco Cappelletti officially withdrew from the race, acknowledging that he would not be able to meet the safety requirements in time for the July 7 deadline. He still planned to sail around the world, but, no longer bound by the race rules, he would be using GPS, not the stars.

Later the same day, Ertan Beskardes headed for port in northern Spain. In a Facebook post announcing his withdrawal from the race, Beskardes wrote, “After few days, not talking to my family regularly to share the daily experiences has sadly taken the joy and happiness from this experience. The feeling gradually felt worse until nothing else mattered except to talk to them.”

He had not been afraid of loneliness, but it got him anyway.

Before that, though, before the race was quite a reality, the morning of the start was hot and sunny with only a breath of breeze. One by one, the skippers steered out of the marina and through a channel to the open sea, where they raised their sails. A hundred or so boats had gathered to send them off. There were dozens of recreational yachts, a tall ship, a couple IMOCA 60s. There were race officials and support teams in rigid inflatable boats. A helicopter darted and hovered among the masts. “We love you!” Beskardes’ family shouted to him as they motored past. He blew a kiss.

At noon, the boats gathered behind an imaginary line in the sea between Suhaili and Joshua, both under sail. A cannon fired, and they passed between the two old yachts, racing toward the horizon at a sedate pace. Eventually, all the other boats turned back, and they were alone.

Read this next