Sunday, December 07, 2008

Toughest Sailing Race in the World

What is the toughest sailing race in the world?

Well, as a certain former president of the United States might have said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

It sure does, and for that matter it also depends on the meaning of "sailing" and "race" and "toughest". I think we can probably all agree on the definition of "world" can't we?

Let's take the easiest one first. What is "sailing"? For example, there was recently a major dispute going on about whether kitesurfers are eligible for the world sailing speed record. Are kitesurfers sailors? In any case, do kitesurfers race? Anyway let's leave them out.

But what about windsurfers? Did you see them at the Olympics "air rowing" themselves around the race course? If that's a sailing race then arguably it is the most physically demanding type of sailing race there is. Maybe some windsurfing race is deserving of the title "Toughest Sailing Race in the World"?

But what do we mean by "toughest"? Is it the race that is most difficult to win, against the toughest competition? Or is it the one that demands the highest level of skill from the crew? Or do we mean the race that is the most physically demanding?

I've no idea which sailing race or event is the most difficult to win because of the standard of competition. Would it be the America's Cup? But you could argue that that is more of a battle of designers (and lawyers) and always has been. Anyway how can it be the toughest to win when you only have to beat one other boat?

Or is the Olympics the pinnacle of our sport? Does the regatta for one of the Olympic disciplines count as the most difficult to win? Maybe. But you have to take into account that each country can enter only one boat in each Olympic discipline. So what if the top five sailors in a particular class all come from the same country? Wouldn't it then be harder to win the Olympic trials in that country than to win the Olympic regatta itself?

So perhaps the hardest race to win is the World Championship for some class? But what class? What is the most competitive class in the world? We will never agree on that.

And is it harder to be a world champion in a single-handed class like the Finn or the Laser where the sailor has to manage every aspect of the race... strategy, tactics, boatspeed, sail trim, steering etc. etc. ... by himself? Or is it harder to put together a champion crew of sailors on a larger boat, and train and motivate them to work as a team?

And is the size of the fleet a factor? Could the toughest world championship to win possibly be in a fleet of, say, twenty boats, all top class competitors? Or does Ed Baird's feat of winning the 1980 Laser World Championship in a fleet of 350 Laserites rank as the all-time toughest sailing race win?

And what class of boat requires the most skill to sail well. Foiling Moths? I don't know.

On the other hand, if "toughest" means "physically demanding" then surely ocean races, and especially the Round-the-World races, must be in the running for the title. Racing non-stop week after week in wet, cold, uncomfortable conditions must be tougher than what any of the Olympic or America's Cup or One Design World Champion sailors go through. The latter go back to a nice warm shower and a comfortable dry bed every night.

So if we are considering Round-the-World Races, once again we have to choose between fully crewed boats and single-handed racers. My vote would be that racing single-handed around the world is tougher then being part of a crew, but what do I know?

Then we have the meaning of "race". Do we mean fleet racing or team racing or match racing? Which one is toughest?

And last but not least we have to agree on the meaning of "is" or perhaps "what". When we are asked to choose the toughest sailing race in the world are we talking about a race or regatta that is run annually, or at least on a regular basis, such as "The America's Cup" or "The Vendee Globe"? Or do we mean one particular occurrence of such an event like "The 1979 Fastnet" or "The 1998 Sydney to Hobart"? When boats sink and racers die, things are pretty tough by anyone's definition.

So where does that leave us?

Speaking just for myself I would have to answer the question as follows...
  • Racing round the world must be the toughest kind of sailing race

  • Doing it single-handed is tougher than doing it on a fully crewed boat

  • Doing it non-stop single-handed when nobody in the history of the world has ever completed that feat, never mind done it in a race before, must rank as the toughest race of all time.

So my vote for title of "Toughest Sailing Race in the World" goes to the Golden Globe of 1968-69 won by the only finisher Robin Knox-Johnston.

But what do you think? What is the Toughest Sailing Race in the World?


Vigilante said...

If you're not doing this already, let me try to sell you on the Volvo Ocean Racing Game (VORG) - Blue Water Yacht Racing for Blue Collar Skippers!

Perfect for Laser sailors in the dead of winter!

Mal's Team Gherkin said...

Robin Knox-Johnston would get my votes as well :)

JP said...

I'd agree with single handed non-stop around the world racing as being the toughest (as in physically) but not the original race.

While tough, Knox-Johnston didn't exactly race pedal to the metal.

And I think fleet races (even a small ones like that one) has a psychological benefit in that you can compare where you are with others and know they are experiencing something similar.

If its allowed as a "race", I'd vote as the toughest race the single handed around the world non stop race against the clock to be the fastest. There's something worse about trying to meet a mechanical device rather than a fellow competitor.

And you have less control as success depends upon the weather conditions: if they are bad you don't have the comfort that your rivals are also going slowly.

After Ellen MacArthur did her round the world record breaking trip she was so smashed she pretty much retired from offshore racing.

It *must* have been bad.

OG said...

Perhaps the Rolex Sydney to Hobart should rate a mention. It's a pretty tough race - some say the toughest...?

PeconicPuffin said...

Within windsurfing there is a debate as to whether pumping ("rowing") as a constant source of power should be allowed. It sure as heck isn't fun.

David said...

Have to say I was enjoying this post right up until you answered your own question. Certainly nothing against Sir Robin, but it feels better to me to leave the question unanswered. Your ruminations helped remind me of the richness and diversity of our sport.

O Docker said...

There's no right answer, of course, but it's fun to work out an opinion.

Lot's of blogging about it all lately - Vendee vs. Volvo, Ainslee vs. Joyon, tough old days vs. high-tech days, Edward vs. single-hander Chris.

I'm boggled by the feats of all of these guys (and that's understandable, since blogged and boggled are almost the same word).

Toughest sailing race?

The human race.

Derek said...

I would agree with your answer. However, I also believe it is very difficult to compare different types of racing.

There is little doubt that the Olympics is physically and mentally grueling. Olypians work for 4 years (sometimes longer) for one regatta. Imagine how difficult and mentally grueling the medal race must have been for Rasmus Mygren this past summer in China. He basically had a GREAT Olympic regatta trashed by Paul Goodison during the medal race. (This is not a criticism of Paul, more a criticism of the system)

You sometimes hear of Olympic Sailors that retire from the sport after this regatta because the nature of the game put too much weight on the one event and ruined the fun for them. The reigning Laser World Champion Tom Slingsby said he contemplated this after the 2008 Olympic Regatta. One can only wonder what is going through Rasmus's mind.

Turinas said...

I totally agree with you TMan. The Golden Globe was the toughest race ever. No one had ever done it. No one knew whether it was possible, if a boat or a sailor could take it.

The fact that only RKJ completed the race is testament to that.

Blur said...

There's no way you can compare the Olympics, AC, VOR and Vendee. Plus many other tough races.

My vote right now would go to Vendee. Didn't really understand the hero status of those guys until last months when I visited the start in Les Sables d'Olonne. 300.000 people sent them off, and 3 weeks later the top 10 are fighting it out sched by sched.

4 years of preparation + 90 days of intense racing, making hard decisions 24x7 - strategy, routing, tactics, sails, trim, steering, sleep. Intense pressure from competition, team, fans, media and sponsors.

And then there is the physical side. Going up the mast when the boat is doing 20-24 knots under spinnaker (and just hanging on when it broaches). Amazing!

Read Robin Knox-Johnstons book to understand the difference between racing around the world and REALLY RACING around the world!

Tim said...

I would agree with you. I remember reading "a world of my own"; KJ's book about his race; absolutely brilliant! Where else would you hear about the magnetic properties of cheese?

Carol Anne said...

I would have to agree with your selection of RKJ and the first Golden Globe.

But you left out one other possible definition of "toughest," and that's the race that is toughest for a particular individual sailor at a particular time. Take a kid on a Sunfish at his first-ever regatta. Some kids might not bat an eye, but there are other kids for whom the prospect is scary, and just simply surviving is a moment to be proud of.

And there are adult sailors coming back from a serious accident or other setback. It can take a lot of courage to "get back on that horse." During the RGSC's fall series races, I have been observing one such sailor, and I admire her courage.

USA 4 Steve Bodner said...

For me, the toughest race has been the San Francisco Classic: a 45+ mile windsurfing journey outside the Golden Gate Bridge then downwind rounding 14 downwind gybe marks before heading through the end of the Berkeley pier and coming back upwind for the 2nd half of the race.
Here's a brief excerpt from the 2007 running:
As we got closer to the red nun just outside the gate, it was evident, the San Francisco conditions were indeed classic. The standing 4′ voodoo chop hit the fleet like a mack track in LA traffic. Boards were going down left and right…The leaders falling like trees in a storm.
The rest of the story can be found at

Captain John said...


More of a question than a comment-
I got here from Skip's blog. Do you know if he still blogging?

I'll add yours to my following list and take a day off to read yours from start to finish.

Good Blog.

Captain John

Tillerman said...

Welcome John. I'm sorry, I've no idea what happened to The Skips Blog if that's the one you mean. I used to follow it but it hasn't been updated since 2006. In its day it was one of the best sailing blogs about racing out there. Oh well. Plenty more new ones are started for everyone that stops.

Captain John said...

I love Carol Anne’s response. For me the toughest race is very personal.

My mother (‘Mom’ of Mom’s Racing Team) once described racing on San Francisco Bay as “Standing in a cold shower with all your clothes on and beating yourself with rope”.

Then why do we still do it? hmmm . . .

So personally, for me the toughest race is the race you are in where you want to quit, but don’t. It’s the one you tough out.

So maybe the round the world races are tough because there are times when you want to quit but can’t. But you are hundreds of miles from anywhere, and you have to keep going just to get home, so quitting is just not the answer.

So here is my personal favorite for ‘the toughest race’- you are racing on the Bay, it is cold and wet, and your foul weather gear is no longer waterproof. You are wet to the skin, and you are on the rail, your legs and feet hung out, the occasional wave shooting up your pants leg. It’s the middle upwind leg. You’ve got another downwind leg, and another upwind leg to go. Your fellow crew members are up there next to you.

And your bladder is full.

You are a long way from the end of the race, you can’t wait for it to end, but you tough it out, stay on the rail to keep the boat moving, instead of heading for the head.

Captain John

Anonymous said...

I would say the toughest race would be in rainy and winter conditions when it is much harder to gain control while sailing. Although Gill Sailing Clothes can keep you warm at least!

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