The Golden Globe Yacht Race
It was 50 years ago, in 1968, that an English newspaper decided to organise a race for yachts to circle the earth, nonstop and crewed by just one person. Single handers. Like the assault on Everest or the Four Minute Mile this was an obvious record waiting to be broken.
In 1968 sailing races and interest in sailing was on an upward spiral with races across the oceans and long distance voyages by hardy single handers gaining much publicity. It was inevitable that soon someone would sail around the world nonstop and several intrepid voyagers were planning such a venture.
So the Sunday Times announced the Golden Globe Race and put up a prize for the first solo, non-stop, circumnavigation. A motley bunch of adventurers and dreamers rallied to the call. They were mostly English but also included 2 French boats and an Italian. There was, in those days, intense rivalry between the French and the English over matters nautical. There was one Irish entrant, Commander Bill King, from Galway.
The sailors competing would leave an English port in the summer of 1968 and sail around the world non-stop. The race was notable in that, of the nine starters, only one succeeded and finished, the now well-known Sir Robin Knox Johnston. One famously faked his race attempt and then committed suicide - the unfortunate Donald Crowhurst. The Irish entrant, Bill King, capsized, was dismasted and had to retire from the race. Most of the entrants were in highly unsuitable vessels and retired because their boats were not up to the rigours of the Southern Ocean. A bestselling book about the race described it as a Voyage for Madmen.
Coming forward to this year, a commemorative race has been organised which is presently under way. It is also called the Golden Globe Race. While there have been vast improvements in the design, technology and safety of sailing boats since 1968 it was decided to try and confine the race to the technology and design of the original race era. Only smaller, heavy, long keel boats dating from the period would be allowed and modern forms of electronic navigation would be prohibited. Celestial navigation, using the sun and the stars, would be the rule. Contact with the outside world and social media would not be allowed or at least severely curtailed. Great efforts would be made to restrict the costs associated with sponsored yacht racing so that crusty old Barnacle Bills and dreamers would be able to compete.
18 sailors took up the challenge and set off this July to commemorate the race of 50 years ago. They are a very varied bunch, both in age and nationality. Four Frenchmen started and, surprisingly, only two from the United Kingdom of whom one is a female and the youngest in the race at age 27. The oldest is a 73 year old Frenchman. The rest are evenly spread over the nationalities of the world. From Ireland, Gregor Mc Guckin, a professional Yacht Master from Clontarf, put up his hand. He acquired a suitable boat, got considerable sponsorship and off he went. Should he succeed he would be the first Irishman to sail around the world nonstop.
Sir Robin Knox Johnston on board his boat, Suhaili, in which he had competed and won in 1968, fired the gun to start this commemorative race. The huge send-off fleet reflected the explosion of interest in sailing which has occurred over the last fifty years. Knox Johnston took over 300 days to complete his non-stop voyage. The record now for the singlehanded circumnavigation of the globe stands at an astonishing 42 days, a telling indication of the interest and progress which sailing has engendered over the last half century.
The commemorative race as it enfolds has had its share of drama. The less experienced skippers dropped out fairly early. It was not for them. Seasickness, lack of sailing knowledge and equipment failures took their toll. Then off the Cape of Good Hope, two of the leading contenders dropped out as a storm damaged their boats. On into the Indian ocean another storm dismasted two other boats including our Irishman Gregor McGuckin. His jury rigged boat was involved in a dramatic rescue attempt when another competitor was capsized and injured. The Australian Navy and the Indian Navy rushed to the rescue and Gregor was forced to abandon his stricken boat and record attempt.
A handful of competitors struggle on in the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean – destination - the infamous Cape Horn at the tip of South America, before they turn north for home. We will have to wait for another day before an Irishman sails around the world, singlehanded, nonstop. I am sure that, sooner or later, an Irish boat will do it.