01 Sep 2009

Rich Wilson

Educator, Sailor
by Garry Emmons


After 121 days at sea, Rich Wilson (MBA 1982) sailed his 60-foot, single-hull sloop Great American III across the finish line in France last March, completing the 2008–09 Vendée Globe around-the-world yacht race. A single-handed, nonstop, unassisted marathon held every four years, the Vendée Globe is the most grueling and dangerous prolonged competition on the planet. This year, thirty boats started and only eleven finished; Wilson came in ninth.

At 58, the oldest skipper and the only American in this year’s race, Wilson is a veteran of decades of solo and two-person long-distance ocean sailing. A former Pentagon analyst, energy consultant, and high-school teacher with a master’s degree in interdisciplinary science from MIT, he has turned this and other extended ocean voyages into classroom curricula through his learning-through-adventures company sitesALIVE! (www.sitesalive.com).

Most people have never heard of the Vendée Globe race. Why is it special?

Some call it the Mt. Everest of the seas. But when I finished the race, I was told that while 2,700 different people have summited Everest, I was only the 46th person ever to sail alone around the world nonstop.

It’s a huge event in France, with daily radio, TV, and newspaper coverage. Some 300,000 spectators attended the start of the race; months after it was over, 120,000 people showed up for the awards ceremony, which featured fireworks, lasers, and rock-star treatment for the participants…even for me! I was the old guy with an older boat in a fleet of professional sailors with corporate-sponsored, state-of-the-art craft. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but that wasn’t my purpose. As a 10-year-old French boy said to me, “L’important c’est de participer.”

And off you went, with 28,000 miles of ocean ahead of you. Were you afraid?

All the time. It wasn’t always the pure fear you feel when you’re tired, injured, and alone in a hellacious storm. But you constantly worry. What happens when there’s something I can’t figure out or fix? What do I do if the mast breaks? You’re on high alert and stressed all the time because you never know what’s coming next.

And the sea will find your mistakes. Just two days after the start, during a big storm that knocked four boats out of the race, I was taking a picture for our school program. For an instant, I stopped holding on and got thrown across the cabin and broke one or two ribs. For twelve hours I couldn’t even reach the satellite phone to call the race doctor because it hurt so much. We do have painkillers, but I didn’t want to take any strong stuff.

So sleep was a problem right from the start. How do you manage it over four months?

Every 24 hours, I tried to get 2 to 5 hours of sleep, 40 minutes at a time. And that’s only possible because the autopilot sails the boat without me steering. During the last six weeks, because the pilot lost its wind-tracking function, I had to go to the cockpit every 15 minutes to visually check the masthead wind vane. With the muscle fatigue of three months at sea, this last phase was the hardest for me. But you must stay disciplined: study the weather data, make the sail changes, write for the schools, grind the winches.

I’ve been fit all my life, and after working for nine months with a superb trainer to prepare for the race, I was as fit as I’ve ever been at any age. But by the final weeks, I was just done.

What’s it like out there, week after week?

Cold. Wet. Exhausting. Constant storms. Unrelenting wind and waves. The boats are big racing machines, tough for one person to handle in good conditions, let alone for four months in the open ocean. Sometimes you’re a thousand miles from the nearest ship or point of land. Other times you risk getting run over by ships or crashing into things in the water: whales, cargo containers, tree trunks. Once I had to climb the mast 70 feet to cut a line.

There is solitude but not loneliness: With modern technology, we can talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. None-theless, at sea I am reminded that my place in the universe is very, very small.

What were some of the good moments?

Sunrise. Sunset. Sailing by moonlight…I made a video of that, in French! Flying fish are amazing to see, though I wore a helmet with a clear Lexan visor to protect myself: They glide at 25 knots, so you don’t want to get hit in the eye. In the Southern Ocean, the albatross are beautiful companions. With their 10-foot wingspan, they hardly ever flap their wings; they circle the world and spend months at sea.

Why did you sail this race?

I started sailing in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as a kid and have always loved it. I’m severely asthmatic, on four medications a day, so the clean air at sea is good for me. I followed the Vendée since it first ran in 1989 but never had any interest in doing it. The boats are too big; the sails are too big; the race is too hard, too long, too risky, too dangerous, too everything. But then Internet technology inched its way into schools, and we thought we could make a global school program out of this uniquely global event. That was the goal.

Tell me about the program.

For the Vendée Globe, we published a Teacher’s Guide for a 15-week program. Fifty U.S. newspapers published my accompanying weekly series, written live from the boat, with essays tied to the Teacher’s Guide. Online, we had daily audio, ship’s log, photos, video, and Q&A. We reached 7 million readers and about 250,000 students, mostly in middle school.

The program team included experts in environmental science, shipping, oceanography, medicine, geography, history, math, aerodynamics, fisheries, and other subjects. They wrote for our newspaper series and also answered questions online. I’ve done five voyages but we’ve had seventy other full programs in partnership with other organizations in a variety of places on a variety of subjects. The kids get so pumped about learning this way, it’s electric.

What about the business side?

On the company side, with an assist from classmate Michael Hintze, financing for the boat was done mostly by me, at about 10 percent of what the new boats spent. For our nonprofit, the school program, sectionmates Bob and Kate Niehaus were very helpful.

My asthma and my age seemed to make our initiative a natural for asthma-drug companies, as well as for AARP, to support. We were not successful in that. I do think it’s a failure of imagination and a missed opportunity for those organizations. I’ve since talked to a PR outfit in Paris, and they’re excited about the possibilities — maybe we’ll have a French sponsor for Great American IV.

Someone once said that the defining trait of all Vendée Globe sailors is a “mature wisdom” and that they are modest, frank, unaffected, and humorous. Is that you?

That’s pretty accurate about solo sailors. Everybody’s a competitor but they also help each other. This year the defending champion diverted to rescue a competitor, damaged his own boat in the process, and had to drop out. But he never hesitated: to aid a mariner in distress is the unquestioned code of the sea. I wish that on land we could emulate the humanism of that tradition.

You’ve had some close calls yourself during past sailing adventures.

In 1990, on our first classroom-linked adventure, Steve Pettengill and I set out from San Francisco on the 60-foot trimaran Great American to try to beat a clipper ship’s 1853 record passage to Boston. In a storm off Cape Horn, we capsized in 65-foot seas and 85-knot winds. An hour later, the boat was re-righted by a wave, the first time in history that’s ever happened. Later that night, we were rescued by a giant containership. Three years later, with Bill Biewenga, I tried again, and we successfully broke the record.

The next Vendée Globe is in 2012. Will you do it and the program again?

For now, I’m giving talks, and there’s a book in the works. As for 2012, we know how to do successful school programs. If we could get distribution channel commitment to our other core constituencies, asthma and seniors, along with the financial support to help us gain access to a newer, faster boat, then I would do it. We know we can affect millions. It’s a contribution I can make.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1982, Section G

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