The Most Dangerous Sailing Event in the World
ON NOVEMBER 5, 2018, some 2,000 miles west of Cape Horn, a monster wave picked up Jean-Luc Van Den Heede’s 36-foot sailboat and pitched it end over end, knocking the sleeping skipper against the side of his cabin. After realizing what had happened, the 73-year-old Frenchman staggered out into 70-knot winds to wrestle his boat upright and survey the damage. A bolt connecting the mast to its tension lines had been yanked loose, which would prevent him from letting out the sails fully. As a seasoned sailor, Van Den Heede calmly considered what to do and whether he was too old to climb the mast for repairs.
Van Den Heede was 127 days into the Golden Globe Race—a solo nonstop round-the-world sailing event that had attracted 18 fearless (some said foolish) competitors. He worried that his bid to win it was over, his 2,000-mile lead possibly rendered moot by the capsizing. But when the sea calmed, he knew he had to go on, if not to win the race, at least to prove to himself he could do it. So he climbed 20 feet up no less than seven times to complete the repairs. Two and a half months later, he won the Golden Globe.
“There are only two types of sailing: cruising and racing,” says Van Den Heede. “When I’m cruising, I want to have fun. When I’m racing, I want to win.”
The race was last run in 1968–’69, when the only great feat left on the oceans was to become the first to sail solo nonstop around the world. No one even knew if a boat could survive 30,000 miles at sea without stopping, or if a human could remain sane for that long alone. But nine sailors decided to try anyway, and the U.K.’s Sunday Times announced a 5,000-pound prize for the fastest to complete the challenge, instantly creating a race—and one of the greatest adventure stories of the day. Only one man returned: Robin Knox-Johnston. His 32-foot teak boat, Suhaili, suffered torn sails and busted self-steering, and had its radio break two months in. His main contact was sightings from other ships to confirm he was still alive. When Knox-Johnston sailed back into Falmouth, England, 312 days after launching, he became a legend.
The other eight competitors sank or abandoned the journey, most in spectacular fashion. The favorite, Bernard Moitessier, who was on track to be the fastest finisher, slingshot a message onto the deck of another ship after rounding Cape Horn: He was abandoning the civilized world, he wrote, “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” He stayed in the South Pacific for several years and wrote a book, The Long Way, about his adventures. Donald Crowhurst sailed circles around the Atlantic while transmitting fake radio reports in hopes of fooling the world. His ship’s log, found in his empty trimaran, shows a man slowly going crazy in the throes of the deception until he finally slipped into the ocean in an apparent suicide.
The other competitors didn’t fare much better. Two had their boats damaged in a storm and withdrew. Another pulled into port in Portugal vomiting blood, because of a peptic ulcer, and bowed out. Royal Navy officer Nigel Tetley barely survived crossing the Southern Ocean, only to have his broken-down boat sink when he was just 1,100 miles from the finish. He was picked up in a life raft while floating at sea. The race was deemed a voyage for madmen.
Van Den Heede was just 23 when the first Golden Globe was launched. “I had a little boat at that time, but I wasn’t strong enough to go around the world then,” he says. In 2015, when he heard the first rumors of the race being resurrected, he worried he was then too old for such a endeavor. But he entered anyway. Sailing had defined his life. His first toy was a tiny boat. As soon as he could read, he devoured books on characters in French sailing lore, like Moitessier, from the first Golden Globe. By the time Van Den Heede entered the 2018 iteration, he had competed in dozens of sailing regattas and circumnavigated the planet five times.
“There are only two types of sailing: cruising and racing. When I’m cruising, I want to have fun. When I’m racing, I want to win.”
For the 2018 Golden Globe Race, boats were required to be similar to Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili—a single hull between 32 and 36 feet—and be designed before 1988. Since then, better boat designs, satellite communications, and GPS have made ocean crossings a comparatively prosaic adventure. But true to the original race, the organizer, life-long sailor Don McIntyre, required skippers to navigate with paper charts and sextants, forecast weather themselves, and communicate by radio only. The rules were so strict in preserving the vintage aspect of the race that they couldn’t even bring a digital camera—film only. The prize purse was the same as the original, too: 5,000 pounds.
“Today, you have electronic steering, and you just push a button and you see a chart with where you are and where the wind is coming from,” says Van Den Heede. “In this race, everything is different.”
He refitted a Rustler 36 named Matmut with clean white lines and a brilliant blue spinnaker, and strength-trained with a coach and physical therapist for two years before the race. On July 1, 2018, he positioned Matmut alongside the other boats in the predawn dark of France’s Les Sables-d’Olonne harbor, then set off on one last great adventure. He navigated the Atlantic and Indian oceans and the South Pacific without incident, settling into the rhythm of solo sailing: making small repairs each day, reading when the winds are light, staying up for hours when the winds are good, constantly staring at the vast nothingness of the open ocean.
After his brush with disaster, Van Den Heede lost a quarter of his lead to 41-year-old Dutchman Mark Slats. Slats had weathered his own knockdown two months earlier in the Indian Ocean, during a vicious storm that forced two other competitors out of the race but spared their lives. “Once you start to realize that what’s in front of you might cost you your life, your brain functions differently and you think really clearly,” Slats says. “I thought, I’m going to fight this storm right till the end.”
The carnage continued. In December, Susie Goodall, the youngest skipper at 28 and the sole female competitor, was pitchpoled by 25-foot waves that somersaulted her boat and knocked her unconscious in the cabin. She was rescued by a cargo ship, which prompted the media to call into question the sanity of the race, an unwitting echo of the original endeavor.
Van Den Heede, with his crippled mast, sailed cautiously over the next few weeks as Slats narrowed the gap between them to just 50 miles. But he sailed into Les Sables-d’Olonne to claim victory by 400 miles on January 29, 2019, after 211 days and 23 hours alone on the ocean.When asked what’s next shortly after winning, the Frenchman just laughed. “I have no plan. I am too old to go around the world again,” he said. “I am thinking I might go cruising with my wife on the Mediterranean.”