Open 60 designers, skippers push envelopes

April 2009

By Dodge Morgan

The Vendée Globe solo, nonstop, around-the-world sailing race has just three boats still to finish on this March 1 date. The race is billed in superlatives as the major human endeavor and test known.

The first Vendée Globe was in 1989-90, established by the famed French solo sailor Phillippe Jeantot. Jeantot had earlier held the solo circumnavigation record as winner of the three-stop BOC race in a time of 159 days. The very first to sail around the world alone without stops was Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968-69, taking 313 days in his 32-foot, wooden, gaff-headed ketch Suhaili. He was the only finisher of the seven starters.

The record solo, nonstop of 292 days was held by Chay Blyth for some 15 years – until American Promise and I set the record for all solo circumnavigations, with and without stops, in 150 days in 1985-86. Depending on what record keeper one chooses to believe, I am the 12th, the sixth or the third to accomplish such a voyage; for well documented circumnavigations, it is the latter.

The current solo racing boats, Open 60s, are 60-feet overall, very light at about 20,000 pounds, and water-ballasted, while Promise was 60 feet long and heavy at 77,000 pounds. There is no doubting several conclusions, among them that, by virtue of his boat size and his time at sea and his independence from any rescue alternative, Knox-Johnston’s feat is by far the most impressive of all the noted solo circumnavigations (one must leave room for others who have done it without it being noted).

There have been six solo, nonstop Vendée Globe races. The average is that about half the starters are finishers. In the current race, there will be 11 finishers out of 30 starters. The winner of this race, French sailor Michel Desjoyeaux, turned in the remarkable time of 84 days with a speed average over the entire circumnavigation of 14 knots. This compares with my speed average of 7.1 knots. Speeds have increased in each of the races, 9.7 knots in ’89, 9.58 in ’92, 10.44 in ’96, 11.94 in ’00 and 12.73 in ’04.

It is very clear that the fact of the race is what drives the records of times and speeds. It is also clear to me that the fact of the race is what drives the very poor number of finishers to starters. The odds on finishing a Vendée Globe circumnavigation are much worse than the odds of winning at a Vegas crap table. These are not odds one would contemplate with acceptance if one were attempting a solo, nonstop voyage without the prepared availability that comes with a fleet and race organization devoted and ready to rescue boats and sailors who are disabled.

In the hallowed name of human competition, the designers of these Open 60s are pushing the technical envelopes – and then the sailors are pushing the boats to, and often beyond, reasonable limits. This is the universal race mentality. I stand extremely impressed with the evolution of speed and the number of those who now have achieved a solo, nonstop circumnavigation.

I have my favorite list of currently active American long distance solo sailors. It includes Bruce Schwab of Maine and Boston native Rich Wilson. Wilson, who is just 1,600 miles from the end-line in France as I write this column, will undoubtedly be one of the minority of finishers in the current race.

If I was to do the voyage again, I would not do it the context of a race, but would as a truly independent, solo experience, no matter the days or the speeds attained. As I have often pointed out, my records fell to American Promise as the boat, and all I did was add planning, preparation and persistence.

Record-setter Dodge Morgan sails out of Snow Island, Maine, when he’s not iced in.