The Chesapeake Bay has no rich culture of solo sailing. Sure, there are exceptions. But it’s a body of water where it’s easy to run aground, easy to go for a yacht club race and easy to party with friends on a day sail.
“I know people who have sailed their whole lives and have never gone south of Solomons Island,” said Matt Rutherford, an Annapolis sailor and explorer who was the first to sail solo around the Americas in 2012.
So as the Chesapeake sailing community follows the search for missing Baltimore sailor Don Lawson in the Pacific Ocean, there are probably a few people looking at what he was trying to do — set a world record for solo circumnavigation — and wondering, why would anyone do that?
It takes skill, preparation, financial support and a desire to do something inherently dangerous. But motivation, well, that’s kinda knotty.
“No one really races around the world to raise money for cancer — you race around the world because you want to race around the world,” Ronnie Simpson said from Maine, where he is preparing his boat Sparrow for the Global Solo Challenge in October.
The first person known to have sailed alone around the world was Joshua Slocum. Aboard the rebuilt sloop Spray, the American sailed from Newport, Rhode Island, through the Straits of Magellan, across the Pacific and Indian oceans before coming up the Atlantic back home to Rhode Island. It was a 46,000-mile journey that started in 1895 and took 13 months, including stops in Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
It would be another 72 years before British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail solo, nonstop around the globe. Nine boats set out from Falmouth, England, with him in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in June 1968. Only Knox-Johnston’s 32-foot ketch Suhaili finished. He spent 312 days at sea.
Today, only about 300 people are known to have accomplished the feat, according to a number of online circumnavigation registries.
“The English were the first really do it in a big way,” said Rutherford, who is leading an arctic expedition aboard the 72-foot sloop Marie Tharp for his nonprofit Ocean Research Project. “The best single-handlers on earth today are French. It’s actually a much deeper part of the culture.”
There are only a few types of solo sailors.
There is the day sailor, someone who takes a sailboat out for a few hours or a few days alone. There are driven racers like Simpson, a wounded Marine veteran based in Hawaii who credits sailing for saving his life. His campaign will raise awareness for Annapolis-based U.S. Patriot Sailing, a nonprofit that uses sailing to help veterans.
Peter Gibbons-Neff of Annapolis shares that connection. A Naval Academy grad and Marine reservist, he will cross from France to the Caribbean in September as part of the Mini Transat race. Like, Simpson, he works with U.S. Patriot Sailing.
“I came back from one of my last deployments. I started going through a divorce and was in, let’s just say, a low point in my life,” Gibbons-Neff said, taking a break from coaching the academy sailing program. “Because of U.S. Patriot sailing, I was able to kind of get my life back in order and get back out of the house, start sailing again.”
Then there are those like Lauren Landers, who follow in the wake of Slocum, cruising alone from destination to destination.
“I saw a sailboat at sunset, and I wanted to solo sail,” she said from Puerto Rico after a five-hour crossing. “I found a boat. I had a good support system and went for it.”
Went for it is a bit more complicated. From Missouri, she spent time around boats in the Bahamas and got her captain’s license at 19. After graduating from college with a degree in marine biology, she signed on to help a friend with a catamaran for 13 months, and then another friend with a motorboat for another 13 months.
That’s when she found Soul De La Mar, a 1993 Beneteau Oceanis 510. For the past two years, she’s been blogging about her voyages and posting to her YouTube channel, where more than 100,000 followers help her secure funding.
“My first sail was partially solo,” she said. “Half solo. I’ve been pretty much sailing solo since then.”
There is danger, as Lawson’s disappearance makes clear. It can come from wind, water, weather or from things breaking far from shore. You could hit a whale or run aground. Danger can come from other people, too.
“There’s definitely times where it gets rough,” Landers said. “There’s no deemphasizing that. I just love being on the water and diving. It’s just my happy place.”
Many solo sailors rely on a tethered safety harness, physically tying themselves to their sailboats. Most carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which activates a worldwide search-and-rescue network, plus flares, a life raft and other U.S. Coast Guard-required gear.
Landers keeps a Garmin inReach close by 24 hours a day, sending her position by satellite to her family every 10 minutes and allowing her to send text messages.
Her next destination is Grenada, where she will sail Soul De La Mar for maintenance before crossing to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.
Simpson just completed a 2,000-mile qualifier for the Solo Challenge after a monthlong refit in Annapolis. That took him down the Chesapeake Bay, out and around Bermuda, and back to Cape Hatteras before sailing north to Portland, Maine.
There, he did more repairs to his Open 50 before putting it back in the water last week. He’ll set sail on Aug. 15 for Spain, where his race will start on Oct. 28. When he finishes, Sparrow will be based with Patriots Sailing in Annapolis.
He said the challenge of solo racing is part of the allure.
“It’s the pinnacle of the sport. It’s an incredible achievement,” he said. “If you’re not getting invited to go sailing on an America’s Cup, get your own boat and start your own campaign.”
Gibbons-Neff, who had plenty of offshore sailing experience before starting solo, has been training aboard his 21-foot boat Terminal Leave for three years, sailing between France, Spain, Ireland and the 2,600 miles out to the Azores and back.
“It’s tough on a small boat,” he said. “My boat is 21 feet, but it’s designed for it. But you know, you get into big storms, bad weather, it gets pretty nasty out there. It’s all about the preparation.”
Rutherford is looking forward to returning to Annapolis in October. He’s already thinking about another solo sail in four to five years.
Maybe it will be The Figure 8 Voyage, through all of the world’s oceans, approaching both poles and around Cape Horn twice.
“The ocean is the ultimate wilderness,” he said. “It can be flat one day and mountainous waves the next day. It’s really the last place on earth a human should be. We’re really not built to survive on the water.”
Sailing solo means you must fix everything that goes wrong, be an electrician, a plumber and a carpenter on top of an accomplished sailor. You must learn to snatch sleep in short bursts. But there are also spiritual challenges.
“In the ocean, you have solitude but not loneliness. Loneliness usually comes from a place of emotion, where you see people and you feel alone,” Rutherford said. “Loneliness in the ocean, there is nobody to talk with. It becomes a mental type of loneliness.”