Back to the Future

18 Sep

The news of Don McIntyre’s reinvention of the original Whitbread race raises some interesting questions about the psychology of modern sailing. The thought of a fully crewed race around the world employing none of the technology and little of the labor-saving equipment we now take for granted excites some people and strikes horror into the hearts of others.

McIntyre tested the waters, so to speak, with the recently concluded Golden Globe race, in which 16 redoubtable sailors set off on a somewhat quixotic rerun of the original solo round-the-world race held half a century ago. Minus mod cons like GPS, satellite communications and weather routing, and sailing long-keeled 36-footers, they were thrust back into a simpler, forgotten world where you either relied on your own resources to get where you were going or you were never heard from again. Well, of course they had EPIRBs and emergency-only Satphones, but you get the picture.

Scheduled to start on the 50th anniversary of the original Whitbread fully-crewed race in 2023, the Ocean Globe taps into the same vein of adventurousness that inspired the 17 crews that sailed out of Southampton, England in 1973. Entry is restricted to boats designed and built before 1988, and there are some hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t allowed on board. Basically, if it wasn’t available to sailors before 1974, forget about it.

This, of course, made me sit back and think about how sailing has evolved over the last 50 years. The oceans were lightly traveled by non-professional mariners back then. Onboard weather forecasting involved mainly tapping the barometer while biting your lip. Overcast days meant no sun or star sights so you’d be rushing headlong into the unknown, hoping the naviguesser was getting his sums right. Close to the coast, you could never let your guard down. This was still pretty much the case when I started sailing back in the early ‘80s and I loved every minute of it.

But now? I’ve obviously softened up. I’ve embraced the evolution of electronic navigation and digital charting, on-demand weather forecasting, and all the other equipment and devices I use that aren’t just labor-saving but, more importantly, anxiety-saving. I amused myself by wondering how McIntyre’s retro-sailing concept would translate to modern family cruising. I suspect some people would take to it quite well, but for one thing, without phones to gawp into or plug into, teenagers would refuse to come sailing; Dad’s old Abba and Beatles cassettes can only take you so far. 

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