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Forty years on: the loneliness of the long distance yachtsman

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Forty years ago this summer nine men set out in a race to be the firstto sail single handedly non-stop around the world. Their boats andequipment were nothing like the high-tech racing craft of today, withsatellite communications and contact with family and supporters all theway.

Most of them found loneliness was a particular problem along withthe ever present risk of physical injury. Medical treatment was verymuch a do-it-yourself operation.

Four of the nine — John Ridgway, Chay Blyth, Loïck Fougeron and BillKing — all retired well before the halfway mark, their boats or spiritsbroken by the power of the ocean. Alex Carozzo retired vomiting bloodbecause of a peptic ulcer.

The tragic voyage of Donald Crowhurst ended in his disappearance,apparently committing suicide. Realising he had no chance of survivingthe Southern Ocean he tried to cheat by pretending to race on whileaimlessly cruising in the lonely Atlantic Ocean and sendingdeliberately misleading radio bulletins.

Only Nigel Tetley, Bernard Moitessier and Robin Knox-Johnson roundedCape Horn. Tetley, believing Crowhurst was close behind, raced hisfragile craft until she broke up and sank just over 1,000 miles fromthe finishing line. He was rescued, but he found it impossible toreturn to normal life and later committed suicide.

Knox-Johnson’s vessel, Suhaili, was built in India. She washeavy, built of solid teak, and therefore slow. She carried a hugequantity of food and spares, including 1,500 tins of corned beef,stewing steak and baked beans. He hoped to increase his speed as he atehis way through his stores.

In contrast, Moitessier’s craft, Joshua, was stripped of anyexcess weight. He appeared to live on fresh air, and his yacht,although made of steel, was more of an ocean racer.

The race had two targets, first round and fastest home, as the menstarted at different times between June and October 1968. AlthoughMoitessier set off long after Knox-Johnson most experts reckoned hewould overtake Suhaili in a close finish. If not first home, he would certainly be fastest round.

Knox-Johnson rounded Cape Horn first. Moitessier was catching up but ashe entered the South Atlantic he decided against fame and fortune.Instead of heading home he continued across the Southern Ocean andended up in Tahiti. It was, he said, “to save my soul”. Well, Plymouthor Tahiti? Which would you choose?

The only one of the nine to complete the circumnavigation wasKnox-Johnson. Although he wrote of his loneliness, he was reported tobe “disturbingly normal” by a psychiatrist who carried out a post-racemedical.

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