by Christopher Clarey
MARBLEHEAD, Mass. — When José Luis Ugarte, the oldest sailor to finish the Vendée Globe yacht race, finally arrived back on terra firma in 1993, he soberly pronounced the solo, round-the-world race “an inhuman event” that should be done no more than “once in a lifetime.”
But here is Rich Wilson, back for more at age 66 and in position to break Ugarte’s age record by two years. After placing ninth in his first Vendée Globe in 2009, Wilson, an asthmatic American educator from this yachting hub near Boston, will again set sail alone from France on Sunday. Taking nearly three months to complete, the Vendée Globe remains a singular test of character that allows no stops or outside assistance and too few hours of sleep as the weeks and months pass by along with the swells and storms.
“The last time, I slept two times in that race for four hours straight, and both were accidental,” Wilson said last week in a Skype interview from France. “They had a 120-decibel alarm clock on the boat, and I slept through that, and that sort of defines the fatigue.”
A chain saw, by the way, typically registers 110 decibels, but there was more delight than dread in Wilson’s voice last week as he prepared to depart with the 28 other competitors from the Atlantic port of Les Sables d’Olonne.
“The Vendée Globe,” Wilson declared, “is the greatest sailing race in the world.”
There is certainly nothing nautical that rivals it in France, where the Vendée, a quadrennial event that began in 1989, remains a major cultural happening, one capable of inspiring Sunday sailors and lifelong landlubbers alike and of appealing to the adventurous and iconoclastic niches in the French psyche. Despite a growing international contingent, a Frenchman has won every edition of the race.
The start is one of the great spectacles in sports, as each of the 60-foot yachts is towed out to sea through a narrow channel lined with hundreds of thousands of spectators. Then, quite abruptly — after the cheers and the commotion — there is solitude, or at least a modern approximation of it, with all the satellite phones and other means of communication now at offshore sailors’ disposal.
“The first trans-Atlantic passage I did, our communication was through ham radio,” Wilson said. In that race, he said, communication with anyone involved muscling a simple antenna up the mast and hoping for the best.
“The way it is now changes it, certainly, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Wilson said. “I think you get to maybe tell the stories a little bit more immediately to whomever it is you are going to tell them to. And I think it allows other people to participate in your adventure.”
That is the point of all this peril for Wilson, who values education above adrenaline. He was a math major at Harvard who later got a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School and a graduate degree in interdisciplinary science from M.I.T. A high school teacher in Boston in the mid-1970s, he later worked as a defense analyst, consultant and investor. Divorced and with no children, he has been using his ocean voyages as teaching moments since the 1990s, reaching students initially via newsletters and more recently through the internet.