Yacht Racing, Vendee Globe Competition, Vendee Globe website
By George Grattan (with support from colleagues across the pond in Earthwatch's UK office).
I'm going to risk bad taste and begin this blog—about record-breaking yachtsmen Brian Thompson's bid to win the VendÃ©e Globe round-the-world solo ocean race and promote research at the same time—by invoking Melville's Ishmael.
Ishmael (and, you can call him that, just don't call him later for dinner ) explains in the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick that he goes to sea when thoughts of mortality become too-constant companions. He says, "Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."
Well, probably not most men these days, dude. (And, given the way your little Find-the-Essential-Meaning-of-Life-Cruise worked out, you'd have been better off building a log cabin near a pond in Concord and fishing for smaller critters.)
Nevertheless, Thompson no doubt gets where Melville (and his narrator) were coming from. And, like them, he's embarked on a massive project that may have a major impact—in ways we can't even guess—on the ways we think about our oceans and our relationship to them. At a time when a funereal mood Ishmael would have recognized blankets discussions of ocean health, Thompson hopes to pump some life back into our sense of the oceans themselves.
In part, he wants to do this by becoming the first British sailor to win the most coveted prize in solo ocean racing; the VendÃ©e Globe is regarded as the ultimate challenge in ocean racing. But he's upping the ante by sailing for science as well as for the record books. He will record marine life for Earthwatch researchers as he skippers The Pindar Open 60-class yacht through 23,000 nautical miles—which should take about three months.
Sailed non-stop and without assistance, the race is a severe test of individual stamina. Founded in 1989 by Philippe Jeantot, the VendÃ©e Globe takes place every four years. The 2008 race began November 9 from the harbor of Les Sables d'Olonne, France.
Thompson will be blogging throughout the race, and Earthwatch scientists will also post regular articles about the threats facing our oceans to Thompson's blog as he experiences them first-hand.
(Those of you with nightmarish memories of struggling through the dense cetology chapters of Moby Dick should stop twitching; I don't think there'll be anything like that on Thompson's blog. Then again, it can get awfully lonely in such a race, and who knows where the creative impulse will take him .)
Thompson will sail through a wide range of marine habitats on the journey: from Western Europe down the Atlantic African coast, eastward around the African Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas, then clockwise around Antarctica—keeping Australia's Cape Leeuwin and Chile's Cape Horn to port before sailing east across the Atlantic to return to Les Sables d'Olonne. Like the traditional "Clipper Route" upon which it is based, most of the VendÃ©e Globe race takes place in the treacherous Southern Ocean.
Unlike Ishmael, Ahab, and the actual captains on those clippers of yore, however, Team Pindar's skipper will be looking to help protect the natural resources he encounters, not exploit them.
"Having first learned to sail at just three years old, the ocean has always been a major part of my life," Thompson says. "Out on the water is where I come alive—it can be exhilarating, beautiful and also very challenging. Consequently, I have grown to develop an enormous respect for it. With over 70% of the earth's surface covered by water, the oceans are under threat from pollution, overfishing, and climate change. I am delighted to be working with Earthwatch and looking forward to learning more about how we can all play a part in tackling the issues that are harming our planet."
Although the race will push his physical and mental endurance to the limit, and he will experience violent seas and storms, sleep deprivation, isolation, and perpetual cold and damp, Thompson says he enjoys the serenity and challenges of solo sailing.
Thompson will fly the flag for Earthwatch during the race to raise awareness of the threats to ocean health and of Earthwatch's many ocean research projects. And his sponsors at Pindar and AlphaGraphics are equally committed to their partnership with Earthwatch and its mission, right down to refitting the yacht itself.
As Thompson explains, "The Pindar Open 60 has recently undergone a refit and has been modified with environmental issues in mind, including solar panels. My goal is to make the boat's consumption of electricity carbon free for the VendÃ©e Globe Race, through very efficient solar panels plus wind generation. Apart from making an environmental statement, it will have a sporting benefit for the campaign, through making the boat lighter by removing hundreds of kilos of fuel, and making it more reliable without the reliance on internal combustion engines."
So, if your soul's feeling a little damp and drizzly this November, check out Thomspon's journey, and pass along your inspiration on behalf of the ocean , so that it has a chance to bring us all back from thoughts grown too funereal.
Brian Thompson (left) with Earthwatch (UK) Acting Head of Research Nat Spring
Team Pindar Open 60