Rich Wilson SM '76 piloted his 60-foot racing yacht, Great American III, across the finish line at Les Sables d'Olonne in France on Tuesday, March 10, after sailing nonstop for four months -- and 26,000 miles -- around the world.
Wilson, 58, took ninth place in the Vendée Globe solo sailboat race, making him the oldest skipper and only the second American in the race's 20-year history to finish successfully. Equipment failures and severe weather knocked out 19 of the 30 boats that initially set sail with him in November.
Race organizers praised Wilson's determination to complete the race, which had the highest-ever attrition rate: "[Rich's achievement] is a testament to his excellent seamanship skills, deep determination, careful planning and prudent execution."
To survive the journey, Wilson packed his monohull with a 120-day supply of food, including generous amounts of homemade granola, foil-packed tuna, and freeze-dried meals. He cluster-napped -- a 40-minute sleeping technique that kept him in sync with his body's natural sleep cycle and allowed him to intermittently monitor the horizon for oncoming vessels.
Although he sailed alone, he was in touch with supporters and the world daily. You can relive his adventure virtually on his SitesAlive Foundation web site with daily blogs, podcasts, photos, a live map, and Q&As about sailing and oceanography answered by experts. He documented the challenge to share this learning experience with K-12 students around the world.
As Wilson, who has been a defense analyst, technical consultant, and investor, told his SitesAlive followers, he began sailing with his father at age three. The fresh air on the open ocean helped his asthma, and he liked learning about boat maintenance and sailing strategy. In 1980, he became the youngest overall winner of the prestigious Newport Bermuda Race as the skipper of Holger Danske, and in 2004 he won second place in the solo Transatlantic UK-USA. He also set three world records as skipper and navigator on clipper routes: San Francisco-Boston in 1993, New York-Melbourne in 2001, and Hong Kong-New York in 2003. Most recently, he completed the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre in 2007 and the return solo race, the B2B from Brazil to France.
Wilson still enjoys learning and confronting obstacles -- as he did during several storms, when mechanical and electrical failures forced him to make repairs while his boat rocked violently -- but he also enjoys the ocean's wildlife. On his web site, he described sightings of albatross, flying fish, porpoises, and shooting stars.
Light rain and cloudy skies accompanied Wilson in his final stretch to the French port where he was greeted by thousands of onlookers, including his family who live in Marblehead, Mass.
"For me, this was not just a race, but something else too," he said after landing in France. "The difficulties were worth it for all the lessons and essays I sent back."
Wilson's final essay on SitesAlive recounts advice from one of his greatest teachers at MIT, Ray Pariser, who said, "You need to stretch your mind."
"For me, being at sea does that exactly," Wilson wrote.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 2009 (download PDF).