Solo-Sailing To Save The Taiji Dolphins

(Originally published at SailingWorld.com)

You have to admire California-based solo sailor Michael Reppy, now in his 60s. He wants two things in life: first, to set the singlehanded transpacific record from San Francisco to Tokyo; and second, to help stop the Japanese drive fisheries (made notorious by the film, “The Cove” ) that slaughter thousands of dolphins every year.

Lots of would-be record-setters link (sometime in the most casual of ways) their attempts to environmental causes, but Reppy has been singularly dogged in his efforts to both set the record AND call-out the Japanese on their brutal, annual dolphin drives. He’s about to set on out his fourth attempt on the record—set by Bay Area singlehander Peter Hogg at 34 days, 6 hours—on his 43-foot trimaran, Dolphin Spirit.

Hogg laid down that mark in 1992, besting a time set by the legendary Eric Tabarly in 1969. And Reppy has been trying to better it ever since.

It’s certainly been an exciting campaign. His first attempt, in 1997, in a 36-foot Shuttleworth-designed trimaran, ended in classic solo-sailing multihull fashion, which is to say with a spectacular pitchpole within days of Tokyo and the record. For that attempt, Reppy partnered with Earth Island Institute to draw attention to a pod of killer whales captured by the Taiji drive fishermen.

Thirty days into the journey, as Reppy ripped along at 18 knots through squally weather 300 miles from Tokyo, he was anticipating a big press turnout to mark his imminent record. With a gale forecast, he wanted to make as many miles as he could before dropping his spinnaker. When he finally came on deck after a nap to drop it, he was a few minutes too late. As he stepped into the cockpit, the tri took off on a wave, stuck a bow in, and cartwheeled. Reppy dove back into the cabin and called for rescue. Eighteen months later, his tri turned up on the island of Midway. Bummer.

He made his second and third attempts in 2000 and 2001 in the classic Warren Luhrs Open 60 Thursday’s Child. Ironically, he lost a chunk of rudder to a whale on the first voyage and came up short thanks to light winds on the second. Now, he’s back with the speedy Dolphin Spirit, planning to set off in April. His hope is that, since the success of “The Cove,” the tide of sentiment in Japan is turning against the cruel drive fisheries. He’s again promoting Earth Island, this time their Save Japan Dolphins initiative.

Reppy wants that record. But he also wants the big press conference in Tokyo he was denied when he pitchpoled in 1997. He knows there’s only so much a foreigner can achieve in Japan, but there’s no questioning the sincerity with which he’s doing his part to stop the dolphin slaughter. “Japanese media: that’s the whole ballgame, because for years and years they would not report on it,” he tells me. “There isn’t much of an environmental movement in Japan, and that’s what we’ve been trying to help develop.”

Any sailor who’s seen the beauty and grace of dolphins playing in a bow wave, or marveled at their intelligence and, yes, humanity, has to be rooting for Reppy and the dolphins of Taiji. So I’ll be following this one with more than casual interest. You can too, and also learn a lot more about Reppy and his solo-sailing advocacy at the Dolphin Spirit website. And our friends over at Pressure Drop have also posted a nice video interview:

The (New) Wetass Chronicles: Adventure Lost

Cross-posted from The Wetass Chronicles at SailingWorld.com

When Jessica Watson set out from Sydney, Australia, last October to sail non-stop around the world, solo and unassisted, I was—how shall I put this?—extremely skeptical. It wasn’t her age—just 16—so much as her inexperience, though that is age related. It didn’t help that she collided with a freighter before the start. I thought her parents were idiots.

Mostly, though, it was my perception of solo, RTW sailing as an epic, dangerous, and lonely challenge, requiring superhuman discipline, an ability to survive on little sleep, and the capability to fix, invent, and jury-rig your way around the globe. I got that perception from devouring the RTW sailing literature from the early days: Robin-Knox Johnston, Bernard Moitessier, Miles Smeeton, and many others. Also, from following the inspired craziness of the Vendee Globe. This canon elevates solo, RTW sailing to world-class adventure, matching anything you can find in mountaineering or exploration.

But now that Jessica is cruising serenely toward Sydney on her S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady, about to conclude her voyage successfully and become a marketing superstar, I realize that it’s time to update my perception.

I don’t want to take too much away from her accomplishment. Any solo, RTW voyage is a big deal, and I sincerely doubt I would have fared as well. She was knocked down multiple times, slugged her way through gales and headwinds, and, at least early in the voyage, sometimes appeared on the verge of tears.

But after following her voyage I was struck by how much the nature of this sort of adventure has completely changed. It just doesn’t feel very “solo” or “unassisted” anymore, and that takes the blood and guts out of it. Think of all the time Jessica spent on the sat phone, talking to her family and shore team. Problem with the autopilot or generator? Get on the horn with the manufacturer for step-by-by step repair instructions. Feeling lonely and blue? Call up your Mum for a chat and some bucking up. Need an emotional lift? Read the comments on your blog.

And then there is weather. Without doubt, the most challenging element of early voyages was a nearly complete inability to know what weather lay ahead in time to do anything about it. So part of the deal was having the snot knocked out of you on a regular basis. In the Southern Ocean, you got the snot AND the crap knocked out of you, and that was why it was such a hoary, intimidating place.

But both Jessica and Abby Sunderland (the other 16-year old who was up for a little global sail), have been on the receiving end of incredibly precise and detailed weather routing. So good that Abby commented that “it was like having driving directions.” So good that I was amazed at how rare truly nasty weather was. In fact, I would venture to guess that Jessica experienced less extreme weather, and a lower average wind speed, than most if not all previous solo RTW voyages.

Now, if I was a 16-year old (or the parent of one) setting off to sail solo around the world, I would want every technology and level of support imaginable, especially weather routing. But there is no question that all that support, and all the connections to the real world, completely change the nature of solo, RTW sailing.

I think that’s a shame, and it’s something that is happening in other extreme sports, like mountain climbing (where almost anyone fit can now climb Mt. Everest, thanks to fixed ropes and climbing guides who do almost everything but push you up the last step).

In 1968, sailing around the world solo and non-stop was so hard Robin Knox-Johnston could barely do it. In 2010, it is so easy a 16-year old can do it. It’s just not that exciting anymore. Knox-Johnston’s book, “A World Of My Own,” is one of the greatest adventure books ever written. I sincerely doubt I’ll read Jessica’s.