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Circumnavigation Still Alive: Retro Sailing Race Begins by David Boos

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Circumnavigation Still Alive: Retro Sailing Race Begins

Among the many legendary sailing races, like the America’s Cup or the Fastnet Race, one is remarkable for its renunciation of modern navigational aids: the Golden Globe Race. Not to be confused with the Golden Globe awards, this is a distinctively old-fashioned sailing race with severe restrictions on what equipment may be used. The rules are based on what was available to participants at the first edition in 1968, when Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to circumnavigate the globe in a solo, non-stop voyage lasting no less than 9 months. Sailers cannot consult GPS, maintain intensive communication with the shore, or navigate by any modern materials. The self-proclaimed “retro race” aims to recreate the conditions of the original sailing event, forcing skippers to rely on using sextants and paper charts, rather than on computer screens and satellites.

On September 4th, the third edition of the Golden Globe Race started in Les Sables-d’Olonne in west France. Participants embarked on this race in relatively ordinary yachts between 10 and 11 meters in length, and designed prior to 1988. Of the 16 skippers, all but one are men, ranging in age from 27 to 80. The average age of participants is 55; among them sails the winner of the second edition, held in 2018: Frenchman Jean-Luc van den Heede, who set a record as the oldest solo circumnavigator in a race at 73. 

Clearly, this is an event that values experience over youth. The route will lead the skippers south, around the Cape of Good Hope, before crossing the Indian Ocean, passing Australia, traversing the Pacific Ocean, and returning to Europe after navigating Cape Horn. In 2019, van den Heede finished the race in 211 days, besting the original time of Knox-Johnston by 100 days.

Don McIntyre, the president and founder of the Golden Globe Race, reflected on the start of the race: “To watch the sailors depart the marina was both humbling, exciting, and electric. We were all swept up in the emotion and human spirit on display. Trying to imagine the hardships and joy these sailors and dreamers will experience in the months ahead was hard.”

The first race in 1968 was partly inspired by a record navigational feat set by British yachtsman Francis Chichester in 1966, who completed the fastest voyage around the world in a small boat—beating the records set by clippers in the past. Following Chichester’s record, a non-stop solo circumnavigation became the final frontier of the sailing world, a challenge many skippers were already preparing for at the time. The Sunday Times took the initiative in early 1968 to turn the challenge into an official race. Nine skippers participated in the trial back then, but only one finished the race.

To honor the 50th anniversary of this feat, a second edition of this race was held in 2018 and drew plenty of international interest from 18 competitors of which five reached the finish line. Before the end of the race in 2019, potential participants lined up for the third edition, held in 2022.

While the skippers have to rely on traditional instruments, those interested in following the race can rely on a modern website featuring a live tracker of all the ships in the race. 

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.