The Around Alone is one of the world’s toughest sailboat races. The Around Alone is the longest race on earth for any individual in any sport. Formerly the BOC Challenge, the Around Alone course spans about 28,755 miles of the world's roughest and most remote oceans. It is a grueling single-handed sailing race, one of the most difficult and dangerous ever conceived, where competitors are both the captain and crew, pitting themselves and their craft against the elements, alone, and where the finish line is literally a world away.
Boats entered in the Around Alone are broken down into 2 classes. Class one boats are open design yachts 50 feet long or greater, but no more than 60 feet according to the IMOCA class rule C-3 on LOA. Class two boats are between 40 and 50 feet according to the IMOCA class rule C-3 on LOA.
The Around Alone is the dream of David White. It started, like many grand ideas do, in a bar over a couple of drinks. The scene was the Goat Island Marina Pub in Newport, Rhode Island. White had just returned from sailing the Bermuda One Two. While at sea he had thought about the idea of a solo race around the world, and that night, after 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. It was the summer of 1979 and it would be three long years before White’s Around Alone idea took hold.
Finally in 1980 White managed to get the British company BOC to sponsor the event. The inaugural BOC Challenge finally got away at the end of August 1982 with a fleet of 17 boats setting sail for South Africa and the Southern Ocean. They were a rag-tag bunch of people, 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. Class 2 was won by a Zen Buddhist cab driver from Tokyo by the name of Yukoh Tada. The year before Tada had been a support leader for a North Pole expedition, and during the race he entertained his fellow competitors by playing the saxophone during each stopover.
As you can expect the race had its dramatic moments. There were two rescues; one on leg two where American Francis Stokes plucked fellow countryman Tony Lush from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean after Lush’s boat had pitch-poled and sunk. On leg three Richard Broadhead rescued Jacques de Roux after his boat was dismasted and began to sink. The low point of the race came when Desmond Hampton fell asleep near the finish in Sydney and ran his boat, Gipsy Moth V aground, wrecking it on the rocks. In a much less dramatic, yet poignant incident, David White retired on the first leg when his boat began to fall apart. White was never able to realize his dream of a solo circumnavigation, but despite that fact, the race was a huge success with eight of the original fleet finishing back in Newport after nearly 10 months of sailing through punishing seas and harsh conditions.
The second BOC Challenge continued the success of the first with 25 sailors setting out from Newport. This time there was a more professional attitude. Eleven new boats were specifically designed and built for this race. Philippe Jeantot returned to defend his title aboard a brand new 60 foot Credit Agricole III, he had hoped for an easy win but instead found himself up against some very stiff competition. South African John Martin won the first leg while Titouan Lamazou took Leg 2. It was only Jeantot’s consistent performance that finally led him to his second victory, clipping almost 25 days off his previous time. American Mike Plant won Class 2 sailing his home-built Rodger Martin designed Airco Distributor. Plant managed to finish in 157 days. The first fatality in the history of the event occurred when Jacques de Roux, returning for his second attempt at the race, was thought to have been washed overboard near the end of Leg 2 after his boat was found drifting 250 miles from the finish line.
By the third race, Philippe Jeantot had his name firmly affixed on the event and returned once more to defend his top spot, but it was not to be. By this time the radical Open Class designs had become even more extreme, with beamy, water-ballasted, carbon fiber boats carrying massive elliptical sail plans. Jeantot’s highly conservative design was no match against the speed machines of his fellow countrymen Christophe Auguin sailing Group Sceta, and Alain Gautier aboard Generali Concorde. Auguin and Gautier took first and second places respectively leaving Jeantot a distant third. Auguin’s finish was a bit of an upset considering his position in leg 3. By the end of Leg 3 it looked as if Gautier had the race in hand with a commanding 21.5 hour lead. Gautier had underestimated Auguin’s determination. Auguin secretly ordered a huge mainsail for the last leg where he knew boat speed in the light winds of the doldrums would be key. Auguin won the final leg and in doing so slashed a total of 14 days off the record. Yet another French sailor, Yves Dupasquier, won class 2, managing to win all four legs.
By the time the 4th Around Alone rolled around. The event had become firmly established on the racing calendar with stopover ports fighting to host the fleet. For the first time race organizers forsook Newport as the start and finish port, choosing instead to begin and end the race in Charleston, South Carolina. Christophe Auguin returned in his brand new boat Sceta Calberson, but like Jeantot, he too found that a second victory was not a sure thing. From the outset France’s Isabelle Autissier sailed a flawless race arriving in Cape Town a full six days ahead of second place finisher Steve Pettengill on Hunter ‘s Child. Auguin came down generator problems and limped in more than a week behind Autissier. Unfortunately the tenacious Autissier capsized and was dismasted on Leg 2 forcing her to stop at Kerguelen Island; a windswept outpost in the Southern Ocean. A jury-rigged mast was erected and Autissier set off in pursuit of the fleet only to be rolled and dismasted a second time. Autissier was stricken this time just south of Australia. She finally abandoned her boat and was rescued by the Australian navy. Harry Mitchell, the oldest competitor sailing one of the smallest yachts, was not so fortunate. He disappeared on Leg 3 and no trace of his body or boat has ever been recovered. Auguin meanwhile found his stride and went on to take overall honors. In Class 2 a real cat and dog game took place with Australian David Adams who finally beat Italian Giovanni Soldini after the two boats sailed much of the race in sight of each other.
1998 saw the return of Soldini. He arrived this time with sponsorship from Fila
and a brand new Open 60
. Soldini eventually won the event, but not before dramatically rescuing Isabelle Autissier from her upturned yacht in the Southern Ocean. With Autissier out, and British sailor Mike Golding who ran around off northern New Zealand
while in the lead. Golding’s unfortunate accident opened the chance for the Italian to take a victory. With a high attrition rate in Class 1, the real attention was on Class 2 where JP Mouligne, Mike Garside and Brad van Liew battled among themselves before Mouligne finally won. Russian sailor Viktor Yazikov left his mark on the race forever by conducting self-surgery on an infected abscess in one of his teeth. Filming the operation the whole time. The video was later seen on televisions around the world making the humble sailor an overnight celebrity.
April 2001 Clipper Ventures plc, the AIM quoted yacht racing, marine events, hospitality, and training company; acquired Around Alone from Great Adventures Ltd. The acquisition marks the first time that a single-handed event of this scale is to be run by a UK based company, at a time when British sailing is at an all time high. In addition to the change in hands the Around Alone was also changed to it’s new name the Around Alone from the BOC challenge as it was called from 1982-98.
In the 20 years after the first running of the Around Alone, it has grown to be recognized as one of the premier offshore races. As of the 6th running it holds a coveted place in the offshore racing calendar and a bright future. This next running holds the same promise for a hard fought, highly dramatic event as the first run did back in 1982.
Interviews with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston
This write-up was compiled mainly from e-mails and phone conversations with Sir Robin. If anything in this piece sounds familiar; it might just be, considering that Sir Robin wrote the article for the Around Alone website and was the source for much of the information in Don Holmes The Circumnavigators