Discovering solo regattas

What is the story of the most adrenaline-fuelled sailing at the helm of a sailing boat? And who started it all? Once again the British have something to do with it, but not everything

Home race Discovering solo regattas
Discovering solo regattas

Nine men took part in the first regatta around the world. Five withdrew, two committed suicide during the race, one suddenly gave up and only one reached the finish line. It was 1968, and the Golden Globe Race was just a prototype, a solo, non-stop sailing race around the world: nothing like it had ever been seen before. Later, many other men tried again. "Men in the middle of the sea count more or less as much as mundane plankton, it is on a boat that they go back to being human". Mariette Navarro wrote this in her book “Ultramarins,” in which she recounts stories of the sea across the Atlantic.

The oceanic regatta is a mesmerising sporting competition, an extreme sport full of dangers and tensions. Like almost all the sports practised in the West, this type of competition was canonised by the British. It all began in 1960, when Colonel Blondie Hasler had an idea: he imagined a Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race dedicated to sailing boats with a crew made up of just one person. He found sponsorship in the Observer newspaper, which led to the coining of the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, Ostar. In 1960, four Brits and one Frenchman participated, departing from the British city of Plymouth and arriving in Newport, in the United States: the route has never changed since.

Something new was being born, but it was not enough. The adrenaline and passion of these lone sailors out in the open sea could not be satisfied. They needed something more, something different, ambitious and extreme. At the age of 65, Francis Chichester completed the world’s second sailing circumnavigation in 274 days, making a 48-day stopover in Sydney. This feat thrilled an entire generation: he was the first to round the three great capes, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn. His exploit, dated 1967, became the breeding ground for the concept of a regatta to attempt a non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race quickly became a legend: the spirit of competition, the tragedies and the epic human effort against the unknown soon transformed it into the Everest of sailing. The philosophy of solo ocean navigation has revolutionised the sporting concept of competition: the race becomes an instrument, it is never an end in itself. The competition creates by nature a privileged relationship with the sea, the sky, the weather; it forces the sailor to relax any tension and drives them to search for physical and mental well-being in prohibitive conditions: among all sports, oceanic regattas are distinguished also and above all by their legendary near-incredible abilities.

This can be seen in the history of the Route du Rhum – the non-stop solo trans-Atlantic regatta without assistance, which takes place every four years between metropolitan France and Guadeloupe – which has been extravagant from the outset. This competition was born out of spite: the British had invented the oceanic regattas, so the French wanted to invent one of their own. Immediately after the Ostar in 1976, the Royal Western Yacht Club – the organising company – decided to limit the size of the boats, making the regatta inaccessible to many great sailors of the time. So Michel Etevenon decided to launch a French event: the Route du Rhum was presented on 25th May 1977, its ambition being to replace the Ostar in the Olympus of oceanic regattas.

That same year, however, Bob Solomon, another British mind, decided to make small boats cross the Ocean. He wanted to reach America from Europe on a 6.5-metre vessel at most, partly to reduce costs and partly to make the boats more manageable, and so accessible to different categories of sailors. In practice, water racing shells were created: the Mini Transat, or Transat 6.50. It was the epitome of solo sailing: sailors put to sea without seeing or hearing from anyone for whole days, on board a boat whose living space has been reduced to the bare minimum, sleeping and eating little. This is why the name “Esprit Mini”, a sense of belonging, an identity and solidarity among all the participants, was immediately formed. In 2019 Ambrogio Beccaria became the first Italian to win it, the fourth non-Frenchman ever.

While the ‘60s and ‘70s are the cradle of the great, historic ocean regattas, the subsequent decade is what gave the world the solo ocean regatta best known among the mass public. In 1989 Philippe Jeantot designed a route to and from the French port Les Sables-d'Olonne, in the department of Vendée, France. The Vendée Globe is above all a very hard test of endurance, prohibitive even for many top-level sportsmen, and today it is perhaps the most important competition in the sailing field. With the Golden Globe Race, it is the only solo race in the world without stopovers and without assistance, which envisages the complete circumnavigation of Antarctica.

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