On a gorgeous June morning in 1980, a guy called Phil Weld, sailing a 56-foot trimaran designed by Dick Newick, sailed past Castle Hill lighthouse to win the sixth running of the famous OSTAR, the Observer singlehanded transatlantic race. Phil Weld was FREAKING AWESOME. He was 65 years old, from the North Shore of Massachusetts, a World War II hero and a publisher of small newspapers. But solo sailing was his true passion, what he really lived for.
Weld had a mug that looked like a portrait out of Picasso’s cubist period, lots of sharp angles. Like me, he had a big roman nose – roamin’ all over his face – huge bushy eyebrows going in opposite directions and a crewcut with a cowlick that would’ve made Alfalfa proud. But the best thing about his appearance, other than his lopsided smile, was this huge, greasy fisherman’s knit sweater draped over him. Nobody was cooler than Phil Weld.
1980 was an America’s Cup summer and I was on the docks that morning as Weld pulled up alongside Goat Island. I remember the scene well. All the Cup teams – the French, the Italians, the Aussies, everybody – where heading out for practice but first they did a drive-by lining their decks to salute Weld’s accomplishment. It was right here in Newport, but it seems like a different place and time altogether.
Quick 1980 America’s Cup joke: How do you know when the Italians are about to tack? When they throw their cigarettes over the side!
Before moving on, we need to put the sport of solo sailing into context. It seems hard to believe now but in 1980 singlehanded yacht racing had only been “a thing”, a competitive sport, for just 20 years. Talk about extreme: it was the X-Games way before the X-Games. Yes, Joshua Slocum – another mariner with some pretty deep Newport connections – was the first famous singlehanded sailor, having circumnavigated and written a celebrated book about the voyage at the turn of the last century. But Slocum’s trip was a cruise, a voyage, not a race.
So it wasn’t until 1960 that a Brit called Blondie Hasler organized the first real transoceanic race, the OSTAR, an upwind thrash across the North Atlantic that struck pretty much everyone as insane. It was sponsored by a London newspaper, the Observer, and when the race began there were plenty of critics who said nobody would survive to the finish line.
Hasler persuaded four fellow madmen to join him, the mightiest of whom won pretty handily, another Brit called Francis Chichester. That first race, from Plymouth, England, ended in New York, but in 1964 the second OSTAR – they ran every four years – concluded here in Newport, and would continue to do so for many years. Everyone who finished was greeted by a local marina operator named Pete Dunning and cleared customs by a fellow called George Monk. Talk about legendary Newporters. Like Chichester, the winner of that second OSTAR was also a pretty fair sailor, a French guy called Eric Tabarly.
If you see a pattern here, Brits and Frenchmen, it’s because they dominated the sport from the beginning. In fact, that’s what made Phil Weld’s feat so remarkable, and why he got those standing ovations from the Cup crews. By 1980, the OSTAR had become a Grand Prix event that attracted fleets of some the best sailors in the world, many of them sponsored by big corporations. And Weld was the first American winner, the first sailor to beat the Brits and French at their own game.
Two years later, in 1982, Newport was again the scene of a far different solo race, this one with much higher stakes: the BOC Challenge, a marathon 27,000 mile round-the-world contest via the southern ocean, rounding the five great southern capes, including the Cape of Good Hope and the sailor’s Mt. Everest, Cape Horn. There’d only been one previous solo round the world race, the Golden Globe, which took place back in 1968. Surprise, surprise, that one also came down to a Brit and a Frenchman, Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier. They waged an epic battle eventually won by Knox-Johnston, the sole finisher after a lonely Odyssey of 313 days. Moitessier retired in legendary fashion, using a slingshot to deliver a note to a passing freighter, saying he was continuing on to Tahiti to “save his soul.” By quitting, ironically, he inspired countless young Frenchmen to take up the sport.
The BOC race was dreamed up in the great old Goat Island Pub by a bunch of reprobates let by David White, a big dude with a foghorn voice and big dreams to match. Seventeen sailors set out, 10 finished, the first of whom was a French deep sea diver called Philippe Jeantot, who had a boat specially designed for the event, with twin rudders, a very nifty nav station that included a custom berth built in, and an incredible innovation, movable water ballast to keep the boat in optimum trim at all times. All these years later, we can wander down to GryphonSolo2 and see many of these same features. Jeantot and his Credit Agricole were way ahead of their time….
That first BOC had a lot of things – our own Tony Lush crashed and burned off Cape Town and was rescued at sea by another great sailor, the one and only Francis Stokes. And there was the skipper who led the fleet out of Newport at the start, a Czech sailor who’d defected that morning and would come to call Newport home, Richard Konkolski. What it didn’t have was a Phil Weld, an American winner. But that would change four years later, in the 1986-87 race, in the form of a young upstart by the name of Mike Plant.
Mike had landed in Newport a couple years earlier, a restless soul who was kind of drifting through life until he caught a documentary at the Jane Pickens Theatre about the first BOC. For Mike, the film was nothing short of a revelation. Suddenly he had a burning ambition, to race alone around the world.
Mike assembled a team in a shed off Oliphant Lane to build his boat, and what a team it was: he was like the pied piper of wild men. Among others, there was a corn-rowed Frenchman named Serge Viviand; handsome Harry Sherman, a jack of all nautical trades; a cockeyed newcomer to town who also wanted to dive into solo racing, a character by the name of Steve Pettengill; and an impressionable lad called Brad Van Liew who had no idea what he was getting himself into. And of course there was Rodger Martin, the naval architect who designed Mike’s 50-footer, Airco Distributor. When Rodger Martin represents the adult supervision in the room, you know you’re in trouble.
Mike went on to win Class II of that second BOC after a voyage of 157 days. He’d go on to race twice more around the world, and before all was said and done, this transplanted Midwesterner had earned his reputation as America’s greatest all-time long-distance solo sailor. I think it’s very fitting that Mike came to call Rhode Island home.
The BOC eventually moved, changed names and fizzled out, replaced by the non-stop Vendee Globe race, a very French affair. The OSTAR also evolved and changed, and it’s been a while since Newport was the epicenter of the sport. So it’s also quite fitting – actually, it’s tremendous – that today we’re gathered at the opening of a fresh new chapter in Newport’s rich history of long-distance solo sailing.
Like Phil Weld, Joe Harris is an Ivy Leaguer from the North Shore, and like David White and Tony Lush and Mike Plant, he’s chasing long simmering, big water, deep ocean dreams…while flying the Stars and Stripes off his transom.
There’s nothing else quite like solo sailing, you’ve got to have a dazzling set of skills and be not only a great sailor, but a good mechanic, navigator, electrician, rigger, plumber, trimmer, athlete, the list goes on and on. And you’ve got to have an almost un-definable quality that Phil Weld knew well, so well in fact that he used the word for the name of his boat: Moxie.
I reckon Joe Harris has himself some Moxie.
And when he sails past Castle Hill in the next few days on the way out, and past it once again a few months from now on the way back in, he’ll continue a rich legacy in a sport unlike any other, to and from a sailing town unlike any other. You may not know it, Joe, but you’re not really going alone, you’re taking all of us for the ride, and we’re all looking forward to it.
So fair winds, brother, god speed. You’re joining some pretty great company. Show ‘em what you got…….