Richard Shrubb, Sailing writing

Steve White – round the world the wrong way

Steve plans to sail round the world on a boat like this

A central Dorset sailor is planning to break the record for sailing solo the wrong way round the world next November. Steve White is an experienced solo sailor having come 8th of the 9 skippers to complete the Vendee Globe in 2008-09. 30 boats started the race, showing what an achievement it is to even make it home solo the ‘right way around’. He plans to sail 24,000 miles on his own on a former Volvo Ocean 70 Grand Prix racing yacht, against the prevailing winds of the Southern Ocean.

This is no mean feat. Where the east about record is 57 days 13 hours, the west about round the world record is 122 days and 14 hours. This requires great feats of physical and mental endurance and success will allow him to join a group of only four who have broken that record.

What is the wrong way?

Weather systems travel around the Southern Ocean from west to east, meaning that the ‘right way’ is to follow the weather systems on their endless path around Antarctica. Over 200 people have done this as a solo trip, with the fastest solo east about round the world time being just over 57 days.

Where 200 sailors have sailed around the world ‘the right way’, only five have attempted to sail around the world solo the wrong way – west round the world. You need a totally different set of kit to do this – where the right way can be done on a huge trimaran you can only really sail the other way on a mono hull as they can sail so much closer to the wind.

Another thing about going the right way round the world is that because the current record is so fast, Steve White explained to me, “there are a lot of people building very huge trimarans for this, and you could spend many millions of pounds and make it around only to be 10 minutes too slow!”

This is not to say that going into the wind for over 12,000 miles is a gentle stroll. The winds and waves are hammering the boat and it will be extremely uncomfortable. If it was easy, many more would have attempted it – as is, more people have walked on the Moon than have made this record attempt.

Who is Steve?

I met Steve a few weeks back the night before the start of the Vendee Globe solo round the world yacht race in Les Sables d’Olonne on the Biscay coast of France. I was introduced to him by my hosts, who have lived in the small fishing town for many years and are connected to the race. Beers were drunk and he came back to my hosts’ place for dinner where he told some of his back story.

Steve wasn’t born to sailing. He was a professional horse rider based in Mid Dorset for many years and one day bought himself a small boat to sail with a friend. He got into sailing for fun, and one day his boss at the stables offered him a chance to sail on a BT Global Challenge 60 footer as a passenger. To cut a long story short, Steve loved it so much he quit his day job and became a professional sailor.

Fully qualified and with many thousands of miles’ experience under his belt, Steve signed up to race the Vendee Globe in 2008. To survive that race and make it home is no mean feat. To be one of the nine who made it with a 70% attrition rate among the fleet shows just what an achievement this is.

The 2017 round the world campaign

This is the boat's cockpit as she is now. Needs a lot of changes for Steve White to sail round the world alone...

Steve plans to convert a Volvo Ocean 70, not unlike the former Telefonica boat in the images here, to be sailable by one person. These boats are designed to be sailed by 10 people and are blisteringly fast in the right hands – they sail on ‘apparent wind’ in much the same way as the Americas Cup catamarans do, and can sail at speeds in excess of 25 knots in 20 knots of wind.

Doing this won’t be cheap, but will be chicken feed by comparison to a typical Volvo Ocean Race campaign for example. Where Steve estimates the total cost will be in the region of £1.4 million to get the boat ready for a solo sailor, to pay for a personal trainer to get Steve physically up to the job, do a trans-Atlantic shakedown trip and then to do the record attempt itself, a Volvo Ocean race campaign will cost in the region of £12 million. Steve joked, “No one’s getting fat off this campaign!”

Those sponsoring it should see very good returns – on Ellen MacArthur’s 2004-05 solo round the world campaign it is estimated that the sponsors Kingfisher got £100 in publicity for every £1 spent on her campaign. Not a bad return on investment!

There is no fixed date for the record attempt – he will wait for the right weather and then set off. The weather needs to be just right for Steve to blast out of the English Channel and south west across the Atlantic to catch the Trade Winds south to the Equator. It needs to be in the Southern Hemisphere summer so he will leave in around November 2017. He explained to me, “We will go on standby on October the 12th for a November start. Ideally I need to go in November as recently there have been little Low Pressure areas in the South East Trade Winds in the early part of the year that could delay me coming back from the South Atlantic.”

A large part of the campaign is being on the right side of the weather and given that he plans on making time on the record attempt by getting maximum speeds in the charge south to the Southern Ocean and then north back to Portland in Dorset, problems with the weather could stymie his attempt.

The calling…

The sea gets under your skin and as I have found, once you have been out there you want to go back time and again. Where I am a very experienced cruising sailor I am pleased just to walk in the shadow of the giants who race around the world singlehanded.

It seems for them too, once you have done a solo round the world race you get called back to do it by something mysterious and greater than yourself. Even at the age of 44 Steve wants to do another Vendee Globe campaign in 2020 when he’s 48, beginning his preparations as soon as he returns from the record attempt.

Age isn’t a problem when it comes to racing around the world – indeed it can be an advantage. Pointing out that the oldest skipper on the current Vendee Globe is Jean Le Cam who is 57 years old (and currently in 8th spot on the fleet), Steve said to me, “It is not only a physical sport but a cerebral sport and to that extent you get better as you get older. If you look at the ultra-marathon runners and other endurance sports competitors they tend to be older and that comes with mental toughness!”

Wishing him luck!

As with all major feats like Steve White’s, you can prepare for every eventuality but it is down to the cooperation of the weather and sea whether you make it or not. I for one hopes he achieves this – if he manages to beat the current record he will be among the upper tier of the giants of ocean racing.

Watch this space for developments in his campaign – I for one will be following it closely… For more details of Steve’s campaign visit www.whiteoceanracing.com or watch this video

Adventure sports, Sailing writing

A sailing geek’s view of the Vendee Globe…


A few weeks ago I discovered an old shipmate of mine from my square rigger days lives in Les Sables d’Olonne, home of the Vendee Globe singlehanded round the world race, and has connections to one of the teams, as well as one of the two Golden Globe entries from this quiet fishing town on the Biscay coast of France. I messaged him by Facebook and got an immediate invite to be a part of one of the greatest sailing events on Earth.I am a bit of an elite sailing geek. When I’m not getting depressed as hell about the destruction of the NHS and welfare state on Facebook I switch over to my passion of following the America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean and Vendee Globe – not unlike a footie fan switching off by following their team. I’m lucky enough to have a few regular sailing writing clients too, so in some ways I can indulge my passion through my profession. This trip though, was purely social.

Everest my arse

People often speak of climbing Everest as the greatest physical challenge to man. It isn’t. I discovered today that something like 3500 people have summited the mountain and survived. Did you know that in the last 150 or so years, only 41 people have sailed around the world singlehanded? Most of those have done it in the Vendee Globe, though you have the odd record attempt such as Ellen MacArthur in 2005. With only 12 people walking on the Moon, a solo circumnavigation is closer to a Moon landing than Everest in terms of numbers of people who have actually done it.

The madness began…

I warned my clients, including my sailing writing clients, that I was off for a few days to indulge my passion, and got in the car last Friday on my crazy adventure. Accuse me of being a midlife crisis boy if you wish, but I’m not going to get a replica boat and wear replica gear and go to sailing event ‘sportives’ like middle aged men in Lycra (Mamils) do on their racing bikes. I was just going down to see and taste the madness around the event. I left at 5 in the morning and got there 15 hours later and caught up with my host who I hadn’t seen since we were hard drinking 19 year old tall ship crew in the US Northeast. Bed (finally) after a 22 hour day…

Golden Globe? A race for real men…

Outside the village was ‘my friend’s’ Golden Globe boat, a very sturdy and very slow 32 footer that is set to sail its occupant and a steady pace around the world in 2018 in around six to eight months. Unlike the IMOCA 60 Vendee Globe boats, its autopilot is controlled mechanically by a wind vane and its navigation systems are a sextant, speed log, magnetic compass and a paper chart. The racers will leave Falmouth in 2018.
The last Golden Globe was completed by only one man, Robin Knox Johnson, while the rest of the competitors sank, retired or committed suicide. Six months alone at sea is as much a psychological battle as it is a physical one.
Into the village…

The village...


My friend and I went down to the race village with our access all areas passes, and joined the crowds. It was estimated that 70,000 people turned up the day before the start – the picture above is just the press to get through security at the gate!

It was an opportunity to see the boats close up, though understandably with 24 hours to go you had to have a wristband as well as an access all areas pass to get on the dock. Our passes gave us access to the press area and a chance to breathe in air that wasn’t flavoured with red wine, garlic and cheese…

Even though I have an aversion to crowds I caught the bug of enthusiasm from the French there. The symbiosis between the town’s government and the Vendee organisers made it a real success. Two months after the summer season petered out, so the local tourist businesses got full tables at the restaurants and many a bottle of wine was sold for a solid week. UK seaside councils could replicate this and really benefit – offer free entry to a global event and let your local businesses have a field day. UK councillors generally don’t understand that events such as this have a direct impact on their tax revenues…

Beer o’clock

After going sailing on a classic boat that afternoon, so the time came to socialise. We met a Vendee veteran from the UK who was ploughing through the beers, who told us a few stories. While racing on your own you never sleep for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. Alex Thompson, skipper of Hugo Boss, has a shock watch that gives him a jolt if he has been still for more than 30 minutes. My new drinking buddy explained that there’s no sense in practising sleep before – he spent the week before getting drunk and making last minute decisions before waking up at early o’clock and getting into routine once the race had started.

The Vendee Globe begins…

After another extremely late night I was up at 0800 on the Sunday. Coffee and cigarette in hand, I noticed cheering from a crowd. The coast was half a mile away and clearly many of the 350,000 spectators had found their spots many hours before and were using wine to fend off the cold.

The family had national TV breakfast news on and all the skippers were interviewed before they headed out. The French take this event at least as seriously as the Tour de France (unlike the cycling event they have a chance of winning it) and I know that the Vendee Globe race tracker will get millions of hits a day.
I’d paid €75 to join a spectator boat myself. A week earlier and I may have got a €230 place on a boat with lunch but it is worth shopping around – it isn’t just the Vendee organisers who run the boats. Anyway, the ten vessels left the dock after the 31 racers, and the dangerously drunk crowds on the shore cheered us as if we were in fact going around the world…

We passed some of the competitors as we went to a holding area, around a hectare of sea where ten, 100ft ferry boats jostled for a view of the start line. If you imagine a dancefloor full of pissed hippos, then add in the 1200 lives aboard, you can imagine just how nerve wracking watching the other boats was… Whenever a boat tried to get sea room, the French Gendarmarie boat jostled us back into the pissed hippo mosh pit.
The gun went off and suddenly everything changed for the spectators – the ferries’ bows turned out to sea, and throttles on full ahead as we just about kept pace with the IMOCA 60’s. In sunshine and on a broad reach in F5 winds, this was the best ever weather for a Vendee Globe race start. People explained to me it is usually into F7-9 head winds and big seas that break half the fleet in a few days.

Not today – we blasted out to sea in perfect conditions. With 1.5 metre swells those on the bow got wet, while those with hangovers or prone to seasickness soon lost their lunches. An hour later we slowed, and headed back to port at a cruising pace. I’d been told we would be out until 4 and we were home by 3 but I had a massive grin – it was brilliant fun and something I plan to do again.

Overall?

Beer and food until the wee hours, and up early for my drive home. 16 hours after my return I’m still a bit of a wreck from the weekend.

I write this with a note of sadness though. I’m from an island nation that once ruled the waves. With regard sailing we might as well be a central European nation with no sea whatsoever. We ignore our sailors by and large, who are still some of the best in the world.

From a business perspective, the likes of Weymouth, Plymouth or Christchurch could run an event such as this and make their local businesses very happy indeed. Make it free, and get a buzz going: watch the cash flow in by the kilo. I hope one of my old home towns Falmouth does the Golden Globe like Les Sables d’Olonne does the Vendee Globe, as it could inject tens of millions into their coffers through business rates.

The UK has the resources to make sailing big again. It just needs the bollocks to go for it.

Click here to see a short film of it...