Whale Wars-Again

Last year, the Japanese whaling fleet, harassed constantly by the Sea Shepherds, went home early, and without killing as many whales as they had planned. Many people took that as a good sign for the future. Apparently, not. The Japanese whaling fleet is gearing up for another Southern Ocean season, and the Japanese government is planning to spend $10 million to send an escort vessel to help fend off Paul Watson and the Steve Irwin. So the stage is set for more confrontation.

The Japanese are saying that they need to continue their “research” whaling in order to make it possible to resume commercial whaling in the future, despite widespread condemnation from countries in the region. The economics of whaling just don’t add up, so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that cultural stubbornness, and narcissistic preoccupations with the importance of human “face,” is driving the ongoing whale slaughter, rather than any concept or morality, or even economic rationality. The result is sure to help Whale Wars score great ratings. And while I am all in favor of Watson and his team doing everything they can to stop the whale killing, and appreciate the public awareness Whale Wars delivers, I wonder how much of the profits Animal Planet puts into whale conservation.

February Is When The Southern Ocean Takes Center Stage

(Originally published on SailingWorld.com)

It’s possible to get sick of winter weather (and here in the Mid-Atlantic, more is on the way). But I don’t think it’s ever possible for any sailor to ever get sick of the Southern Ocean or the Jules Verne (unless, of course, you’re actually in the Southern Ocean, where, by the time you reach Cape Horn, I expect you’re thoroughly tired of the Southern Ocean).

But, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, I mention this because February is prime time in the Southern Ocean. And 2011 is a serious banner year. We’ve already got the Barcelona World Racers hitting their stride as they accelerate south of Cape Town (see the tracking chart here). It involves a lot of this:

Jules Verne bidder Banque Populaire is diving south and is now into the Roaring Forties as well. No Southern Ocean vid, yet, but this will give you a sense of what’s possible:

UPDATE: BanquePop has retired, after hitting a UFO (Unidentified Floating Object) at 37 knots just after entering the Roaring Forties, and smashing up its daggerboard and daggerboard case. Like Groupama 3, the boat whose record they are trying to beat, they will have to make repairs and try again. Such are the predictable vagaries of Jules Verne record sailing, as noted below.

But wait! That’s not all. Thomas Coville and Sodebo have just departed the English Channel and will be joining the party at the bottom of the world (barring breakdown or any more near-tragedies like this—34 seconds in you will stop breathing):

And last, and I’m sorry to say least (sorry Brad!), the Velux 5 Oceans racers are about to leave Wellington on the way to Cape Horn. Yep, all four of them. Though they did make a nice music video out of the Cape Town to Wellington Indian Ocean leg:

In short, it will be plenty crowded down south, with two races plus solo and crewed Jules Verne attempts. The beauty of sailing through this extraordinary ocean is that anything can happen. So the only prediction I will make is that something dramatic WILL occur. I just don’t know what, but I do know it will involve wind, waves (hopefully not ice), and some inspiring facet of the human spirit.

As I look outside at the latest wintry blast, it’s humbling to know that over the next few weeks some three-dozen iron-willed sailors will be doing everything they can to write themselves a new chapter in the storied history of the world’s greatest sailing ground. Everything in my world will pale alongside that.

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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.