For American sailor Rich Wilson, the Vendée Globe is a lot more than the toughest sailboat race in the world—it’s a chance to educate and inspire students of all ages.
The start of the Vendée Globe is a spectacle to behold: An estimated 350,000 people lined the shore to wave goodbye to 29 sailors from 10 countries, who will spend the next 70 – 120 days at sea.
Every type of watercraft imaginable lined the race boundary near the starting line, from large ferryboats, military ships, and police boats to small sailboats and a fleet of press and VIP powerboats.
At exactly 1:02 PM on Sunday, November 6, the impressive fleet of IMOCA 60 race boats crossed the starting line—followed by every boat on the water. Mayhem ensued as dozens of power boats desperate to catch the last glimpse of these daring adventurers crossed into the racecourse in front of, behind, and next to the race boats.
The list of skippers in the 2016 edition features the crème de la crème of sailing superstars. There’s Jean-Pierre Dick who is making his fourth attempt at the race and a likely podium contender; the first time he sailed the Vendée Globe his boat was powered entirely by solar and in the 2012-2013 edition of the race he finished fourth, despite losing his keel 2,643 miles to the finish. British sailor Alex Thompson, also making his fourth attempt, hopes to become the first non-French sailor to win the race. And then there’s Vincent Riou, a boat designer, weather analyst, and the only previous winner in this year’s race.
To the windward side of the fleet, American skipper Rich Wilson unfurled the jib of Great American IV. At 66, Wilson is the oldest competitor in this year’s Vendée Globe.
The race, known as the Everest of the Oceans, is a 28,000-nautical-mile solo, non-stop, and unassisted sailboat race around the world that begins and ends in the small town of Les Sables d’Olonne on France’s Atlantic coast. Since 1989, 136 skippers have started the Vendée Globe; only 70 have finished.
In the 2008-2009 edition of the race, Wilson, then 58, finished ninth after 121 days at sea on his boat Great American III. Only 11 boats out of 30 finished the race that year.
Wilson says he sees himself more as an educator than a sailor—although he is alone on his boat, he has a worldwide audience of students traveling with him.
His journey is documented as part of sitesAlive!, an online educational program he founded to connect K12 classrooms to adventures and expeditions around the world. The 15-week interactive curriculum features weekly topics that range from perseverance to climate change.
An estimated one million students followed his first Vendée Globe, and he reached millions more upon his return through articles in newspapers, speaking events, and his book, Race France to France: Leave Antarctica to Starboard.
Will Sargent, now a student Boston Latin School, was in grade school when he his teacher exposed him to the program. “By following Rich, I learned to overcome adversity. He inspired me, and that shaped my character, today I know I can do whatever I set my mind too,” said Sargent.
The Vendée Globe is a grueling race that pushes skippers to the limit physically, mentally, and emotionally, allowing for little time for sleep let alone relaxation, Wilson has pledged to take two hours out of every day to answer questions from students and journal about his progress on the sitesAlive! website.
“His curriculum changed my life as a teacher, students became engaged in estimating Rich’s time of arrival in the last race, and take into consideration weather predictions, it took learning into the real world,” said Lorraine Leo, a teacher at the Jackson School in Newton, MA.
Solo sailor Jonathan Green explains why people around the world cheer for him: “Rich is one of the premier solo sailors in the U.S., he has accomplished things others can only dream of and he educates students around the world, and people have enormous respect for that.”
“Excite a kid with bats, bugs, and snakes in the rainforest, or with gales, flying fish, and dolphins at sea and they will pay attention not knowing what will happen next,” said Wilson. “Then the science, geography, and math flow freely.”
Wilson has already influenced and inspired millions of people of all ages, from the students who follow his online program to his peers. No doubt they will all be cheering for him over the next three months!