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One man's solo voyage in sailing's most grueling race

Rich Wilson, 66, is set to take part in his second Vendee Globe race, manning the Great American IV -- a 10-year-old IMOCA 60 yacht. Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images

Late in Rich Wilson's solo voyage around the world in the winter of 2008-09, stalled by a relentless parade of storm systems as he tried to traverse the last leg between South America and the Atlantic coast of France, he found himself closer to his home of Marblehead, Massachusetts, than his destination.

His boat was one of 11 left of the 30 that had started the quadrennial Vendee Globe race, whose rules prohibit skippers from accepting assistance. The oldest skipper in the fleet at 58, a lifelong severe asthmatic, Wilson was daring fate and fate was not backing off.

He hadn't slept more than four hours at a stretch. Rough seas hurtled him around the boat on several occasions, cracking ribs, mashing his neck, opening a bad gash over one eye. Yet Wilson had kept his promise to connect with 250,000 kids back in the United States through a curriculum he helped design, incorporating science, math and history lessons in spoken and written material for teachers to use in their classrooms. That mission had driven him to take the risk.

With the finish so close yet so frustratingly distant, anger and depression swamped Wilson at times. His normal gentlemanly demeanor gave way to profanity. "You're going to need to be my shrink," he told his on-call general practitioner, Dr. Brien Barnewolt, director of emergency medicine at Tufts Medical Center, one of those who listened and helped steer him through it.

Wilson completed the 24,000-mile loop, cruising into Les Sables-d'Olonne, France, 121 days after he set out. As he glided back into the embrace of the old port and the thousands of locals massed to greet him, he felt relief and accomplishment. Not long afterward, he began to wonder whether he could do better.

Eight years later, at age 66, Wilson will set off for the Southern Hemisphere again Sunday with the same mindset: Finishing the Vendee Globe in the service of his educational program is victory enough. He's hoping for better luck and a faster circumnavigation of the planet on the Great American IV, a 10-year-old IMOCA 60 yacht that has weathered two previous editions of the race under a different skipper.

He'll stow Fig Newtons to scarf down daily, an iPod loaded with artists from Benedictine monks to Bruce Springsteen, and a motivational movie playlist featuring "Chariots of Fire" and "Miracle."

"I wanted to try again and create a truly global school program," said Wilson, whose expanded distribution network could reach as many as a million schoolkids in 50 countries this time around. "Then there's the personal challenge: Can I pull this off again? Why not? You've always got to have an adventure in your future."

Wilson knows the risk will seem "unfathomable and uncomfortable" to many. "Half the fleet won't finish and maybe a skipper won't come home," he said. "There are 29 in this race. They're thoughtful and detail-oriented, a bunch of the most non-crazy people you'll find anywhere. They're amazing sailors -- but it's not gonna go smoothly for any of them."

No holding back

The Vendee Globe fleet has never been more international. Skippers from 10 countries, including first-timers from Japan, Ireland and the Netherlands, will depart Sunday bound for the Bay of Biscay in what can be one of the most treacherous parts of the journey. Yet it remains, at heart, a French event. Hundreds of thousands of spectators visit the boats at the docks in the days before they leave and pack the shores the morning of the start. All eight editions of the race have been won by French skippers, and they will be favored again this time. Wilson and dual New Zealand-U.S. citizen Conrad Colman are the only entries with North American ties.

From Les Sables-d'Olonne, the directions are simple: Keep Africa's Cape of Good Hope, Australia's Cape Leeuwin and South America's Cape Horn to port. Keep Antarctica to starboard. Wind up back where you started.

Always a terrarium for new designs and technology, this year's race features seven boats outfitted with foils, wing-like accessories that lift the hull and reduce drag. That addition could help carve time from the record of 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds set by 2012-13 champion Francois Gabart, or it could backfire and open the door for skippers piloting more traditional versions of the IMOCA 60.

"The technology is really pushing the boundaries," said Dee Caffari, the British skipper who finished sixth in 2008-09. "Nobody's one hundred-percent convinced that these foiling boats are going to make it around the world."

Wilson won't contend for the overall win, but Caffari, who has sailed with him twice in the last year to help him discern his boat's capabilities and limits, is optimistic he'll achieve his goal.

"He's naturally gonna be a conservative skipper, but in back of his mind, he knows he has a faster boat [than in 2008] and he knows he should be able to get 'round faster," said Caffari, who plans to be in frequent touch with Wilson from shore. "He should do that hands down. I want him to get to the end and know he's sailed the boat properly, not holding back.

"He accomplishes so much with his one lap of the planet. He's not just sailing it for him, he's sailing it for every one of those children in that education program. He has the bit between his teeth. His tenacity is amazing. Such a good lesson for us all. You don't have to be an ultra-athlete to do it. People stereotype so much and I think he breaks that mold."

Wilson, who is single, is a former high school math teacher, defense industry analyst and entrepreneur who holds graduate degrees from MIT and Harvard. He learned to sail in his hometown of Marblehead, a love nurtured by his parents, John and Dorothy, and shared by his three sisters. At age 30, he skippered his father's 42-foot ketch, the Holger Danske, to victory in the Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda race.

As Wilson gained experience, the stories of legendary singlehanded sailors he'd devoured as a teenager lurked in his imagination, but he sought a greater purpose. He has been grafting his passion for education onto offshore sailing for more than 25 years, developing his first curriculum in 1990 before embarking with another sailor on a trimaran voyage from San Francisco to Boston aimed at breaking an old clipper ship record.

That trip ended in near-catastrophe as Wilson and his partner capsized in 65-foot seas off Cape Horn and were rescued by the nearest vessel, a New Zealand container ship. Undaunted, Wilson went for it again three years later and succeeded. By then, he had founded what would become sitesALIVE!, the nonprofit organization that generates and seeks outlets for teachers' guides and lesson plans.

The Vendee Globe is a natural "classroom" for subjects including geography, history, marine biology, environmental issues, and the math, physics and engineering skills inherent in navigating a boat around the world. Wilson estimates he will spend about two hours each day on the Ocean Challenge Live! program, including daily audio reports, two or three video reports weekly, an essay written at sea on a different subject each week, and correspondence with students and teachers via a Q&A and a forum.

He also will be transmitting biometric data, from monitoring his lung function with a peak flow meter to recording sleep cycles to measuring his effort while cranking the main winch. This year, written and audio material will be translated into French and Chinese (both simplified and traditional Mandarin). Wilson himself speaks fluent French and the program, geared mainly for middle school-aged students, has been endorsed by France's education minister and is being disseminated by several overseas organizations.

His team has contingency plans in place to continue supplying the classrooms with content even if Wilson's own voyage is aborted.

"It's staggering to me that he wants to do it again," said Wilson's former Harvard Business School classmate Kate Niehaus, who, with her husband Bob, have provided considerable financial and emotional support to Wilson over the years.

Niehaus describes Wilson in their grad school days as "a consensus guy in a place where there were a lot of people with sharp elbows." His chronic asthma caused him to wheeze audibly when they played coed soccer, and his spirit was just as obvious. "I joke with him that he's a man born in the wrong era," she said. "He should've been an explorer."

Pushing boundaries is Wilson's core identity, whether it's in philanthropy or competitive drive. Some aspects of his Vendee Globe preparation have remained the same as in 2008, like training with former pro runner and accomplished amateur cyclist Marti Shea, who put him through intense circuit training, core and balance work to prepare for his on-board movements and tasks.

"He asked me, 'Am I as fit as I was the last time?'" Shea said. She told him, "'No, but I think you're fit enough to do this. You were in extraordinary shape eight years ago. Now you're in incredible shape.' He's a different athlete than he was -- he knows how to conserve energy, he's smarter. I don't think he has any physical limitations."

Wilson had the Great American IV refitted at the same place as his last Vendee Globe boat, in Portland, Maine, under the supervision of the Maine Yacht Center's Brian Harris. The changes included a lightning protection system installed after a fluke strike blew out "everything with a wire" on the boat when it was moored in Marblehead, Harris said, and cabin alterations that make Wilson's cramped quarters safer in turbulent weather and more comfortable for the catnaps that pass for sleep.

He'll take his usual four asthma medications a day, although paradoxically, the cleaner environment at sea generally mitigates his condition despite the triggers of stress, cold air and exercise. Wilson's asthma specialist, Dr. Christopher Fanta, calls him "a man of incredible discipline. He knows what can go wrong and what he's putting himself through. He's doing it because it's an important thing to do. That's my definition of courage and heroism."

Wilson's noble purpose co-exists with the reality of any Vendee Globe campaign. It is a perilous, multi-million-dollar undertaking that can end within days of the start through no fault of the skipper's.

"He's very safety-conscious," Caffari said. "He's not a young gun out there with no responsibilities. I think he knows the slightest mistake is a show-stopper for him. He's not gonna bounce back as quick as the others. He can't afford to be ill or injured. It's hard enough out there anyway without making it more difficult."