Modern ocean racing has its roots in open ocean sailing. The first person to complete a solo circumnavigation was Joshua Slocum. Slocum was a retired Master Mariner, originally from Canada, but subsequently a citizen of the USA. He sailed in 1895 on a route that took him across the Atlantic, down South America and through the Strait of Magellan, and then on to Australia, South Africa and home. He had rebuilt his 35 foot sloop Spray by himself before he sailed and proved a good and safe sailboat bringing him safely home in 1898.
Even with the publicity gained by Slocum there was no attempt to repeat his voyage for more than 20 years and this, again, was also in a boat built by the sailor. In 1921 Harry Pigeon set off from California in his 35-foot yawl Islander and completed a fairly uneventful circumnavigation. Alain Gerbault of France followed in 1924 in his 39-foot cutter Firecrest. The year 1942 would appear an unlikely time to try to circumnavigate the world, but that was when Vito Dumas set out from his home in Argentina in his ketch Legh II, making the voyage completely in the Southern Hemisphere.
More than 20 years passed before anyone attempted another solo circumnavigation. This time it wasn’t a cruise like the previous voyages but an attempt to beat the sailing times of the great Clipper ships. Francis Chichester set out from England in his 56-foot ketch Gypsy Moth IV taking 107 days to reach Sydney. After a re-fit he continued his voyage, which totaled 274 days at sea. Even as he returned Alec Rose was setting out in his 36-footer Lively Lady and completed his circumnavigation, with two stops, in 11 months.
After Francis Chichester brought Gipsy Moth IV back to Plymouth in 1967, he challenged all single-handed sailors and adventurers. In his mind a nonstop, solo circumnavigation was the only voyage left. Although a non-stop voyage was seemed an impossible achievement, people were soon announcing their plans to make the attempt.
Chichester’s challenge manifested itself in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe. In January of 1969 Robin Knox-Johnston answered Chischester’s call in his 32-foot ketch Suhaili, after a 9 month beating though the Southern Ocean. Knox-Johnston proved that what once was though impossible, was indeed possible and in fact possible with one of the slowest boats to have actually crossed an ocean.
After the Golden Globe most of the circumnavigators were cruises. In 1970 21-year-old Robin Lee Graham made history by becoming the youngest person to solo circumnavigate the globe. He completed most of his 5 year journey in the 22-foot Lapworth sloop Dove. After Graham completed his journey many people realized that a circumnavigation or even a journey across an ocean was possible and in fact within reach of people with just a little bit of sailing experience.
Not much was to happen to ocean sailing until a large man by the name of David White had an idea while having a drink in a Newport, RI bar. White had just returned from sailing the Bermuda One Two, a single-handed, double-handed race from Newport to Bermuda and back. While at sea he had thought about the idea of a solo race around the world, and that night, after a few too many beers, he proposed his plan for a new race, which he called the Around Alone. His idea was met with inebriated enthusiasm. A course was quickly sketched out on a napkin, plans for a new design were floated, and a set of rules devised.
After securing sponsorship for the event from the British company BOC, the inaugural BOC Challenge finally got away at the end of August 1982 with a fleet of 17 boats setting sail for South Africa, the Southern Ocean and beyond. They were a rag-tag bunch, but among them one entry stood out, an unknown Frenchman by the name of Philippe Jeantot. He arrived with a purpose-built 56-foot sloop named Credit Agricole, and went on to win all four legs of the race with an overall elapsed time of 159 days, 2 hours, 26 minutes and 1 second.
Around the same time the Vendee Globe got it’s start in France. The Vendee Globe is probably one the hardest races out there right now. It features no stops and forces the skippers and boats to be tough as nails; pacing themselves as they journey down the Atlantic, around Antarctica and back up to the finish line to the Vendee coast in France.
Some aspects of ocean sailing haven’t changed since the days of Joshua Slocum. Other aspects have changed; the boats and gear have taken huge step forwards since the turn of the 20th century. Slocum’s boat Spray was held on course by tying the helm in place, while Chischester’s boat used a self-steering wind vane to keep his boat sailing as fast as possible. Bluewater sailboats didn’t change much from the days of Chistester until Jeantot’s Credit Agricole. Credit Agricole closely resembled today’s Open 60 sailboats.
That pretty much brings us up to speed. Of course I left out a lot of lesser events, but as this is a brief history I chose only the events that had some significance to the big picture. Feel free to msg me if I have left any very important details. Again this is a brief history.
Sources available on request