For the past eight months I’ve been compulsively following what feels like a reality TV show in which every few weeks someone is forced off the set. It’s not a show, though, and the drama has remained mostly hidden from sight, taking place across several oceans. On September 4, 2022, sixteen solo sailors left France to race one another around the world. Now, having sailed east around the great capes of Africa, Australia, and South America, five of the skippers are back in the Atlantic and nearing France again, but only three remain in the main competition. The rest, including two who continue to sail in a subordinate class, have fallen by the wayside for all kinds of reasons—mechanical, meteorological, navigational, emotional.
A solo nonstop circumnavigation is never easy—only around 220 people have ever completed one—and the Golden Globe Race (known as the GGR) is a particular challenge because it’s old-fashioned. The sailors can’t rely on modern technology like GPS; they have to navigate by the sun and stars, using only a sextant and paper charts. Weather information is limited to barometer readings and to whatever the sailors can pick up via radio-based fax transmissions. Computers are not allowed, and satellite phones can be used only in emergencies or to communicate at set times with race headquarters.
The sailors can talk to whomever they can hail—passing ships or one another—by long-range high-frequency radio. The boats, shorter than thirty-six feet, must have been designed prior to 1988, a year chosen to ensure they remain “retro” but still structurally safe; they are slower and smaller than ultramodern racing boats, which can complete a nonstop circumnavigation in eighty days rather than the nine months it might take a sailor in the GGR. Despite the lengthy time at sea, entertainment is strictly analog: only paper books are allowed (no one ever seems to bring enough books), along with cassette tapes for music. “Sailing Like It’s 1968,” as the slogan of the race proclaims.
This refers to the year of the original Golden Globe Race, which was sponsored by Britain’s Sunday Times in a bid to boost circulation. The paper wanted to capitalize on the excitement generated by the record-breaking trip of Francis Chichester, who in 1967 completed a solo circumnavigation via the great capes with only one stop, a feat that got him knighted by Queen Elizabeth with the sword of the sixteenth-century circumnavigator Sir Francis Drake. The Times wanted to watch someone be the first to sail alone around the world without stopping at all.
No qualifications were needed to sail in that original race. Of the nine, mostly British, entrants, whose sailing experience ranged from none to quite a bit, one sank, five left the race along the way after damaging their boats, and one, a businessman and weekend sailor named Donald Crowhurst, is believed to have jumped overboard, committing suicide. (His logbooks, found on the abandoned boat, revealed that he’d been falsifying his position for months to make it seem like he’d sped around the globe, when in fact he spent the whole race drifting in the South Atlantic.) The only sailor to complete the race, in a thirty-two-foot ketch after 312 days, was Robin Knox-Johnston, a Brit, who now holds the honor of being the first ever nonstop solo circumnavigator. A seat-gripping 2006 documentary about that race, Deep Water, tells the full story of these sailors, tragic in the case of Crowhurst and intriguing in the case of a French sailor named Bernard Moitessier, who was in the lead but chose to drop out and just keep sailing “to save my soul,” unwilling to rejoin society. He ended up going around the world nonstop almost twice.
The 1968 race was, in other words, beset with problems and peril. Why revive it with a jaunty tagline half a century later? The first “anniversary edition” of the race was convened in 2018 by the Australian sailor Don McIntyre, a man awarded a gold medal in 2012 by the Australian Geographic Society “for a life spent encouraging adventure.” Encouraging adventure was a central motivation, but he also wanted to bring racing back to the “little guy.” Elite sailboat racing—the Vendée Globe, for instance, a nonstop solo circumnavigation that runs at four-year intervals—has become a battle as much of money and sailboat design as of human skill. Taking part in the Vendée Globe can cost an entrant or sponsor as much as €2.5 million. By contrast, the youngest entrant in the current GGR, the twenty-seven-year-old American Elliott Smith, had almost no money when he started. He planned to raise the $85,000 he needed to buy a boat and refit it from friends, GoFundMe donations, and sponsors.
The revived Golden Globe Race may be a scrappier, more DIY affair than its current peers, but safety is more of a concern than it was in the original 1968 race: entrants must have at least eight thousand miles of ocean-sailing experience and another four thousand miles solo sailing (it’s about three thousand nautical miles from New York to London). In the inaugural 2018 race, eighteen sailors from thirteen countries, ranging in age from twenty-eight to seventy-three, signed up. Despite their experience, only five of them completed it. Four had to be rescued at sea by passing ships after being dismasted in storms. The winner was the oldest competitor, seventy-three-year-old Frenchman Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, who broke the age record for racing around the world solo.
Watching that race four years ago, I figured the attrition rate was an anomaly. A bad year for storms in the Southern Ocean, I thought. But although fewer storms affected the sailors this year, the 2022 race has been just as much of a challenge. Of the sixteen sailors who left France, one hit a rocky shore, one boat suddenly and mysteriously sank in calm weather, one was rolled and dismasted, one sailor broke his bowsprit, one didn’t make a midroute cutoff date (in place for safety reasons relating to weather), and two broke their mechanical self-steering devices and did not want to carry on in the lower “Chichester Class.” (In Chichester Class, one stop is allowed, but you’re no longer competing for the glory of the nonstop prize. If you stop twice, you’re entirely out of the GGR.) Two other sailors stopped for repairs and barnacle cleaning, respectively, which moved them into Chichester Class. Barnacle infestations on a keel can really slow down a boat: that’s what doomed another of the sailors, who dropped out in December.
As for the rest, they left the race for an eclectic variety of reasons: “It was a choice of, do I want to be sad, upset, and cry for the next five and a half months,” said the Turkish-born Brit Ertan Beskardes in his exit interview. “There is a very high price you pay mentally for this and I don’t want to return home different than I am…. I found the unknown.” The GGR site vaguely ascribes “personal reasons” to another who quit without elaborating why. A third decided he was going so slowly he wouldn’t make it to his son’s wedding.
Though I’ve been following the 2022 race closely, there isn’t a lot to see on a daily basis since the lives of the sailors go mostly undocumented. Even so, I feel I’m on a first-name basis with everyone involved. This includes Don, the race chairman, who gives a livestream analysis of the online “race tracker” every morning in his amusingly bumbling way, apologizing when things go wrong, as they often do, with the Internet (“Oh jeepers, everything’s happening at once”) or because someone in the office had to “go to the loo,” causing the comment section on YouTube to explode with frustrated teasing.
For the last two months the online tracker (which gives each boat’s position on a map, with an overlay of the current wind speed and direction) has shown two sailors battling it out for first place: Kirsten Neuschäfer, a forty-year-old South African skipper-for-hire and the only woman in this year’s GGR, and Abhilash Tomy, a forty-four-year-old former naval officer from India. (Michael Guggenberger, an Austrian, is much further behind in third place.) Though they might be able to figure it out if they’re in radio contact, the entrants are not told by the race’s organizers where they stand relative to one another. This means that Kirsten is not aware that she’s in the lead.
Apart from the tracker, the most regular access we have to the sailors is in their weekly satellite phone calls, which last around ten minutes, and in which Don (mostly) asks them how they’re doing. We also get to read their daily “safety check” texts. Abhilash puts some jokey topspin on most of his (“Think I am running out of sea water. Should have carried more!” or “Dreamt that my wife asked for a large hadron collider for her next birthday. How much does one cost”?); Kirsten’s are invariably the word “text” and nothing else.
Abhilash also raced in the 2018 GGR but was dismasted in a storm and actually broke his spine; he lay immobilized for seventy-two hours in the Southern Ocean until he was rescued. After surgery and a remarkable recovery, in which he had to learn to walk again, he decided, even more astoundingly, to try again in the 2022 GGR. (Before this race, he joked that he wanted to name his boat Unfinished Business.) In September, in the first leg of the race, he experienced what he called “demons”—reawakened trauma relating to his previous experience—a burden that didn’t completely lift until he got back into the Southern Ocean in December, past the latitude of his accident. In November he was becalmed for three days near Cape Town and had some strong words for Don: “It’s terrible compared to 2018, and I don’t think I’d recommend this race to anybody. It’s a waste of a complete year…. You can’t call it a race…. I’m going to go completely silent.” Later he regretted his outburst: “I want to apologize for my wonderfully rude behavior.”
All the sailors get depressed when they’re becalmed. The mood of Kirsten’s calls into headquarters has varied wildly, depending on whether she has wind. No stranger to adventure—she cycled alone from Europe to South Africa when she was twenty-two—she is the kind of person who, when not racing, likes to swim away from the boat “just to get that feeling of vastness, that sense of eternity, that if the boat did sail away, it would be, basically, eternity. And it is a scary thought…but it’s also kind of intriguing…to get that little bit of distance from yourself and the boat in the middle of the ocean.”
Throughout the race, she has swung between worrying about her position and simply existing in the moment. In the last few days she seemed to think she was heading for certain defeat, having been stuck in the Atlantic doldrums for almost a month: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel…. I guess I’d be more excited if I knew I had a chance of getting there first.” Assured that fans will be waiting to welcome her, she starts to sound a bit like Moitessier, the French sailor who declined to return to normal life back in 1969: “It would almost be better to disappear onto some mysterious piece of land and vanish, and, you know, not have to go through the whole…”—she trails off.
If Kirsten wins, as she’s certain to do, she’ll be breaking records. She’ll be the first woman to win a circumnavigation race via the three great capes, either solo or on fully crewed boats, and she’ll be the first South African to win a circumnavigation. I’m excited for her, and excited that this milestone for female sailors is about to be crossed. But my interest in the race has been fueled more by the vicarious sense of being out there at sea—and our distance from these isolated sailors oddly sharpens that feeling of direct access to their experience. Keeping up with the GGR one feels viscerally, to bring Moby-Dick into it, the “speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity.”