In introducing Rich's speech, his friend Rich DuMoulin, himself a highly accomplished short-handed sailor, talked about why Rich was one of the few people capable of pulling it off. In short Rich was was the kind of man capable of “doing an insane thing sanely”.
The more I learn about single-handed racing, especially the Vendee, the more I am in awe of the accomplishment. According to Rich, 1,400 people have climbed Everest, 500 have been into space but only 50 have sailed around the world non-stop single-handed. (Note: I can’t substantiate these figures exactly but the relative order of magnitude makes the point – 10 times more people have been into space than have completed a non-stop circumnavigation).
Rich had no illusions about winning. He had relatively little money and was up against a field of accomplished single-handed racers. In the Vendee, just finishing the race is a massive accomplishment. Rich is one of three Americans to have ever entered the Vendee, sadly one of whom perished. Rich was also one of only eleven out of thirty to finish the 2008 race coming 9th.
The thing that struck me most about Wilson, was his humility. He was in awe of his fellow racers, especially Michel Desjoyaux. Even now that he has achieved what very few of us would ever attempt, he spoke about the other racers with quiet reverence. It was almost as if he had not come to terms with the fact that he too was among this small illustrious bunch.
He spoke movingly about the close relationship between the racers and how they would help each other throughout. As the race progressed, three packs emerged. In the rear were Rich Wilson, the Brit Jonny Malbon and Canadian, Derek Hatfield along with a few others. They were hundreds of miles back. Rich and the others would talk daily, encouraging each other.
In any other sport losing a a close competitor is a thing many would quietly celebrate. In the Vendee it felt like losing a partner. There was real empathy in Rich's voice as he talked about the anguish faced by his fellow racers.
Derek Hatfield, had to withdraw after his spreaders collapsed. As he disconsolately headed for Hobart and out of the race, Rich spoke to him every day to get through the depression of withdrawal.
When Jonny Malbon’s main sail delaminated, Jonny and Rich talked about whether or not he should withdraw. Rich did not want Jonny to pull out for a couple of very good reasons. Firstly because of the devastating disappointment for Malbon but also because they were entering into the Pacific phase of the race. By that stage, Jonny was the only racer within a few hundred miles of Rich and he knew that if anything happened to him in the Southern Pacific, Rich would be on his own. It would be very hard for anyone to get to him.One of the most moving parts of Rich Wilson’s accounts was the French support. Prior to the start, 30,000 people daily would visit the docks where the racers were moored to wish them luck and to be connected with the endeavor. There were 300,000 people at the start and when Rich returned many weeks after Michel Desjoyaux had crossed the line first, there were still thousands to welcome him back, including Sam Davies who came back to Les Sables D’Olonnes specially to welcome Rich back. There were 110,000 at the award ceremony many weeks after the race had been completed. For the racers this support was both incredibly motivating and humbling. Rich was visibly moved as he talked about the interactions he had with supporters who visited him at the completion of his race.
The French have a unique connection with single-handed racing. It would be hard to imagine any race in the UK or US getting his level of support