How solo sailing has changed in 20 years

August 2005

By Dodge Morgan

I have been often asked what differences I see in the solo sail of Bruce Schwab from that of mine 20 years ago. Both of us have accomplished a solo, nonstop circumnavigation under sail. It is interesting that the answer is a lot, yet not much.

Here are some comparisons for Schwab and Morgan. In 2004, in the Vendée Globe Race, Schwab sailed around in 109 days, and in 1985-86, Morgan circled in 150 days. Schwab was the first American to complete this solo race, the second American to sail solo nonstop, and around about the 20th sailor to complete a solo nonstop. Morgan was the first American to sail around alone, nonstop, and, depending on whose records you use, either the sixth or 13th sailor to do it. Schwab became the fastest American solo circumnavigator, finishing ninth in the race, and Morgan set the solo circumnavigation record for nonstop (was 292 days) and with stops (was 159 days) among a total of 13 solo records (point to point and day’s and weeks runs, and the like).

Schwab’s boat, Ocean Planet, weighs 19,000 pounds, and Morgan’s boat, American Promise, weighed 77,000 pounds. Schwab was 44 years old, and Morgan had his 56th birthday during his voyage. Schwab funded his voyage through small donations, by selling Ocean Planet shirts and gear, and with equipment donations, volunteer help and personal debt. Morgan wrote personal checks from his adequate personal account.

The “not much” answer to the differences question is simply that doing it is significant no matter the boat, the gear and the aids to preparation and execution. I have kept some track of the solo around-the-world races that have been held, with both stops and nonstop, since the 1983 five-stop BOC Challenge and the first nonstop Vendée Globe in 1988. The record shows that slightly fewer than half the starters do finish. Schwab’s recent race had 21 starters and 12 finishers. I believe it is the idea of a race itself that can be blamed for much of the boat fallout, and for two reasons. One is that the competent entries push their boat designs and their sailing styles to the edge of the envelopes in the name of competition. Two is that the idea of a fleet of sailors tends to encourage some barely competent entries on the basis of “there’s safety in numbers.” Reason One leads to a high incidence of broken gear, and Reason Two leads to skippers pulling out when reality hits, usually in the first ocean crossed.

The 20-year differences in Schwab’s and Morgan’s voyages, other than the fact one was set during a race, starts with the facts of history. Schwab was on a highly competitive trail. He had already won the solo transpacific race and had completed the Around Alone five-stop solo circumnavigation in Ocean Planet. Morgan (why don’t I say “I”?) had solo experience only in sailing an old, wood-planked, gaff-headed schooner from Maine to the Bahamas, West Indies, Hawaii, South Pacific Society Islands and Alaska in the ’60s, maybe to avoid the hippie lifestyle.

But the practical differences: American Promise was an extremely strong vessel, and Schwab’s Ocean Planet is a fragile one. I could sail right through a cyclone with a cup of coffee in my hand, and did (making 176 nautical miles in 24 hours without any sail on), while Schwab had to carefully avoid very heavy weather and icebergs (as he did by trending north in the South Pacific). Schwab had an amazing communications system on board, talking in real time to friends and especially to school kids with his educational mission. I had sideband radio and ham radios, neither of which worked for two months of the voyage.

I certainly experienced solitude more than Schwab. Schwab had GPS, and I did not. I did have an Argos satellite transmitter on board, which told people ashore where I was but told me nothing. My wife said later that of all our time together, my voyage was the only time she actually knew where I was all the time. Schwab’s sail-handling systems were more efficient and faster to implement. Schwab cut some one-third from my time, but he traded durability and safety for speed in doing so. I looked carefully at the radical Ocean Planet design and decided I did not want to sail her through the Southern Ocean, age aside.

My personal heroes for sailing around the globe solo and nonstop are two: Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston, the first to do it, did it in a 32-foot, gaff-headed ketch, taking 313 days, and American Bruce Schwab, who did it fast with a fragile machine, very personally outfitted and on an incredibly short budget. Bruce gave the French professionals a look at a man with a huge heart, an intense competitive spirit, and a quest accomplished without big money behind it.

Dodge Morgan broke all kinds of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ‘86.