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What I learned on a round-the-world yacht race (tonyhaile.com)
191 points by arctictony on Sept 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments



I've heard of skippers going at guys with winch handles. If you're going to do distance sailing i.e. more than 5 days at sea, it's best to invite a well interviewed/researched stranger as crew rather than your best friend. That way you risk gaining a new friend rather than losing an old friend. If you're crew, talk to other crew about the skipper before you commit. People behave in unexpected ways on long trips. Some of them are awesome, in the galley every day baking bread, doing the dishes in rough seas, etc. Others get really weird, stay in their cabins and sulk, throw random temper fits, etc. Some skippers are awesome, chilled. Others have reputations for being psycho assholes [not mentioning names].

I have around 20k nautical miles, 2 atlantic crossings, cruised africa, thailand, and my younger bro and parents put me to shame in miles/experience.


Once in a while I am blessed enough to come across a post like this. It made me think a lot about my life and who I wish to become. I've been working a "normal job" and just forgot that it is possible to do something like this.


Thank you! I'm really glad it connected. I love this from Goethe:

  Then indecision brings its own delays, 
          And days are lost lamenting over lost days. 
          Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute; 
          What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; 
          Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.


I started on the training for the 2008 race, however after 2 sessions, the Global Challenge business folded due to lack of a headline sponsor (it had previously been BT).

In your training manual the first page has the perfect quote.. "There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures. "

I'm not into cheesy inspirational posters, but this is the only one on my wall.


It was gutting to see the Challenge business go under. The 2004 race also had major challenges and only just got round financially. That is a great quote though


Can anyone comment on how doable it is for an ordinary Joe to get involved in something like this?


First off, I would love to make this comment longer but I'm pressed for time. If you would like to, send me an email. My HN name @gmail.com.

I was born & raised on a boat so it is hard for completely put myself in your shoes (notably, I do not get sea sick, no matter what), but I personally think it is do-able. I have not done it yet, but I've sailed quite a bit and someday I want to start crossing oceans. Financially it isn't as bad as most people think. I actually think that the oppurtunity cost of quitting your job for a year or two is the biggest expense.

First off, you need to know how to sail at its most basic level. The cheapest way to learn is to get a dinghy (a Laser, maybe a Hobie 16 or Hobie 17 are all easy to find. Something decently high performance - you want to wipe out sometimes so that you learn.) You need a lot of time on the water and there is absolutely no substitute. You need to learn how to drive by the feel of the wind on your neck, and you need to learn which clouds are safe and which ones are going to wreck you.

Then you should step up to 30-40 foot keelboats. You probably don't want to buy one straight away. Learn on someone else's boat as crew for racing or deliveries. (a delivery is generally moving a couple hundred miles for the owner, i.e. the owner needs the boat moved from NYC to Maryland, but can't do it himself. He hires you to move it and pays all expenses. I've done this several times and it always seems to lead to the hairest situations because you are forced by the schedule to sail even if the weather doesn't cooperate. Generally you will be shorthanded 2-3 people which is good practice for offshore work)

So at this point you probably have been sailing for 3-5 years or so, know how to do everything on someone elses boat, and you need to buy your own boat. There is a lot of discussion on a fast boat vs a slow boat. A fast boat means you spend less time out there which is good mentally, but they are more physically demanding (bigger sails, crash through waves harder, get wetter, etc), but you can also avoid weather if you know a storm is coming. Faster boats break more often. A slow plodding boat can survive everything, but you can't avoid anything. Slow boats are cheaper.

You also need to figure out your route. Sailing non-stop around the world is one thing, but honestly that is kind of boring. I know 3 couples who have done it, and they made a point of stopping a lot along the way so it took about 3 years each. (1 couple stopped in New Zealand and taught school for a year, 1 couple was in Indonesia during the tsunamai on their boat in the harbor, and in the aftermath stayed for a year because they were doctors). The stops sound like more of the journey than the sailing honestly.

If I were to think of places to start, I'd subscribe to some sailing magazines. Cruising World comes to mind, there is also Sail, and Sailing. For websites, try Sailing Anarchy (rough crowd in the forums for sure, but there are some gems). You will definitely find them ridiculing people for what not to do on Sailing Anarchy.

Disclaimer: sailing is very dangerous. Way more dangerous than most people realize. I personally know 5 people that have been killed sailing in the last 4 years. It can happen in a lot of different ways. And I personally have been involved in some really close calls. Sinking boats, out of control boats, overturned boats. The fastest boat in the world (Rambler 100) just flipped and almost killed its crew off of Ireland. In the 70s the Fastnet race killed 50 people. The Volvo Ocean Race had a professional get killed in its last go-round. The ocean is no less forgiving now than it was in the 1700s. The Coast Guard can only reach so far, and when you are in the middle of the ocean you are absolutely alone.

As just one example, a few weeks ago we went out racing on a wednesday night (3 man high performance boat). It was a clear, calm night. Thunderstorms were rolling in, we saw them, we thought we could keep the sails up about 2 minutes longer than we should have. We knocked the boat over on it's side, the guy driving fell below and cut open his shin and was bleeding everywhere trying to get back up, the boat had no driver, and the 2nd guy on the boat froze like a deer in the headlights. Our sails were dragging us down and the wind was up like crazy and the rain rolled in to the point where we no longer could see our competitors who were 75 feet away. I crawled up to the bow and cut down one of the sails and hand over handed the thing into the boat, and when we finally got it all sorted out and the rain cut back, we were still sailing at full speed and realized we were in the middle of a reef. We got out of the reef without sinking the boat and decided to just quit the race and go home. I think my adrenalin was still going 4 hours afterwards.

I flipped my race boat a couple years ago while teaching my girlfriend to sail and the keel broke. The boat started sinking, and she started getting hypothermia. Another guy who was out that day coaching jumped in the water in full clothes to help me get it back upright and took her in by powerboat while I sailed the sinking boat back to the crane to get it pulled out.

The point is, unlike other sports when shit hit the fan, there is no time out. You don't blow the whistle and talk about it. If there are rocks coming up and your boat is out of control - you are going to hit the rocks and sink. If the boat flips - you better hold your breath and start swimming and hope it comes back upright. If something snaps and the rig falls down, better start cutting before it punches a hole in the boat and sinks you. When things start going wrong you can feel really exposed out there, with little to no safety net, so you better be prepared.

Anyone can do it but you have to do your homework. You have to put in the practice and preparation.

edit: My god, I posted that before reading the article itself, I can't believe how close his story is to my experience. Aside from the 90 foot wave comment (90 foot waves simply are not common, hurricane irene was throwing legit 30-40 footers around but it's hard to believe much more than that), he is spot on. I've never put a word on it, but initiative is exactly right. That day I went out and I mentioned the 2nd crew had the deer in the headlights look, he had 10x the experience of me, owned a boat bigger than mine, but in that moment he was completely stuck and useless until we started yelling at him what to do. This is an amazing account of what it is actually like. Really not that much hyperbole (which believe me, sailors are prone to, but it really is like this).


Love this comment, thanks for this. On the 90ft wave front, you find them down in the Southern Ocean. There's no landmass to break them up so they just roll around getting larger and larger. In Southern Ocean storms we regularly had waves above the mast (95ft).

Having said that, it is a sailors prerogative to increase the height of waves by 10 ft for every year since their journey. :)


Excellent response, but I would like to add that sailing to meet a schedule is evil. Schedules cause lots of the problems mentioned by krschultz and races are schedules on crack.

Sailing the open ocean has substantial dangers, but watching the weather and sailing in "good weather windows" helps a lot to reduce risks.


Learn the basics on a dingy but dont' turn it into a meal. Larger boats are very different to dingy sailing. e.g. you'll find yourself purely working a grinder or being ballast on the weather rail. Dingy racing is short, real-time and the moving parts are a little different. e.g. no spinnaker poles on small boats, most big boats don't have dagger boards, big boats have spinnaker, gennaker, several jib's, often with roller-furling etc - so quite different.

Distance skippers (deliveries or racing) look for guys with a strong stomach who don't mind packing sails in the forward sail locker during a shitstorm or cleaning the galley or unblocking the toilet. People like that with a great attitude who come back asking for more and get along well with others are hard to find. There are some specific skills that help like knowing your way around a diesel engine, strong on navigation or knowing how to cook (well). Cruising in particular, most people who haven't spent time cruising have no idea how much time you spend repairing diesel engines. You'll get very used to the awesome smell of fresh diesel or diesel exhaust washing around the bilge.

I'm going to reiterate this: A strong stomach is important. My bro has found himself in 21 ft swells with a crew of four experienced sailors and 2 of them ended up lying in their bunks puking their guts out - completely debilitated and unable to help. Him and a 16 year old were left to get the boat out of the shit.

Personally I'm good for cruising trade-wind conditions but forget southern ocean deliveries/races. I don't have the sea legs for that. So know your limitations and crew accordingly.

If you're going to race, you'd beter get very very fit if you're going to work a grinder. I crewed an afternoon race around the cans once on a boat called America's Cup Challenge - it was a whitbread 60 - and worked the grinder with a friend. It's insanely hard work and my friend took pity on me after a few minutes and sent me back to the weather rail.

I would start by hitting ft lauderdale or another big sailing town and start networking like crazy - check the bulletin boards, grab beers with other crew, try to get on an afternoon race. There are a ton of guys, many of them non US citizens, who just show up in sailing towns each year and stay in a local crew youth hostel getting odd jobs until they line up a gig. Many of them have very little experience. If you're serious about racing you'll want to start working towards your skippers ticket. Good luck.


Personally I did it by joining the Clipper Race - http://www.clipperroundtheworld.com/ . The Challenge went under the year I decided to do it unfortunately and Clipper is the next closest thing.

Toyed with the idea of trying to get on a boat myself but I knew the reality of it is that it's just too unapproachable. It may cost a little money but Clipper make it dead easy - you just need to give them a call, they're probably training for the next race at the moment.

Clipper yachts are filled with ordinary Joes. The majority of us hadn't even sailed before. Like Tony, I had the pleasure of being bowman and mast monkey. You learn a lot about yourself out there. Definitely can't put a price on it.


This was the Global Challenge, a pretty unique event in that it was designed for a crew of amateurs with a professional captain. More here:

http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/STAGING/gl...

And here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Challenge


No personal experience, but you should check out the book bumfuzzle: http://www.amazon.com/Bumfuzzle-Just-Looking-Pirates-ebook/d...

Its about some guy and his wife that had zero sailing experience and decided to sail around the world, pretty entertaining book.


You could join a boat with experienced sailors. Google "crew wanted" and you'll find plenty of opportunities to do so.


I do a lot of whitewater kayaking and have been involved in swiftwater rescue training a number of times. The first lesson I learned and have tried to teach others is that most people do not want responsibility. One of the first things I teach people is that if they are the first on the scene of an incident, in almost all cases, others (even those demonstrably more experienced or qualified) will defer responsibility to the first on the scene because they want to be told what to do (just human nature). The most important thing you can do is immediately establish who is in charge, and think hard about being that person. Overcome your natural tendency to follow. The best way to do this is practice, and it's the single most important lesson you can take away from being in situations like this (or even better hearing about other people's experiences).


Fantastic post, very good to see someone's similar experiences. I haven't sailed around the world, but been through things that taught me the same; I'm glad for it every day.


I really enjoyed reading this. Especially the section about bravery, "the opposite of fear is initiative not courage". Well said. I'm leaving today for a big wall climbing trip and trying to prepare myself mentally for the intense fear that I feel high on the wall. Sometimes that fear will shut me down and I stop climbing even though I'm safe. When this happens I have to keep moving and keep making decisions.


listen to the little voice and act immediately


Blowing his horn and chasing Cape Horn dreams, Harry [Mitchell] sails out of Charleston on September 17 1994. 'For the rest of your life don't waste any time. Make the best of what you may before you turn into clay,' he told students before he left Sydney for the Southern Ocean.

(Harry Mitchell, age 70, was lost at sea in the Southern Ocean in the 1994 BOC solo around the world yacht race).

-- Paul Gelder, The Loneliest Race

I began to understand the struggle and the despair in the simply written ships' journals, in the monochrome prose that could suddenly bloom with feeling:

March 29, 1913: Terrible heavy NW gale. Lost mizzen upper topsail and main lower top gallant sail. Got two men hurt. All hands on deck all night.

30th. 6 AM: quick shift from NW to SW with hurricane force, with terrible heavy cross sea. Ship under two lower topsails and under water. Lost outer jib. Washed off the boom.

31st: wind SW. Very heavy gale.

April 1st: terrible heavy WNW gale, ship under two lower topsails and drifting to the eastward, and my heart is broken under these heavy gales all the time.

So reads the log of the Edward Sewell, 263 days out from Philadelphia to Honolulu, battering to westward in the grip of The Horn for 67 days.

-- David and Dan Hayes, My Old Man and The Sea


Filing this under 1st world problems right next to "almost dying while climbing Everest".




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