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Celebrating offshore sailing success and the CCA's annual awards

by David Schmidt 25 Feb 16:00 GMT February 25, 2020
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede wins the 2018 Golden Globe Race © Christian Favereau

Given that the calendar still reads late February, with several months of cold rain and snow left before spring's arrival, it's fair to say that thoughts of offshore sailing might be more the stuff of dreams than reality for most North American sailors. Fortunately, for those of us who always harbor dreams of wide-open horizons, starry nights under sail, and opportunities to define oneself in the presence of nature's awe-inspiring power and grandeur, the Cruising Club of America's recent awards - including their prestigious Blue Water Medal, which is given to those as a reward for "meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea" - are a great opportunity to celebrate offshore sailing in the depths of winter.

Winning any one of the Cruising Club of America's (CCA) prestigious awards is a big deal for any sailor, but the Blue Water Medal, which was established in 1923, is one of the highest honors that any skipper can attain. The list of previous winners - including Eric Tabarly, Sir Francis Chichester, Bernard Moitessier, Rod Stephens, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston - reads like a Who's Who list of offshore sailing.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede (FRA; 74), the winner of the 2019 Blue Water Medal, should be no stranger to regular readers of this newsletter, given his incredible performance in the singlehanded 2018-2019 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which he won aboard Matmut, his Rustler 36 with an elapsed time of 211 days, 23 hours, 12 minutes and 19 seconds.

For readers who are just tuning in, the GGR is a retro race that seeks to recreate the challenges and at-sea trials of the 1968-1969 Golden Globe Race, which was the first non-stop and singlehanded around-the-world race. For 2018-2019 GGR sailors, this meant sailing aboard older boats using celestial navigation and forgoing modern satellite communications and weather-routing technologies for the purity of a contest that tests one's seamanship skills.

To help frame the gravity of Van Den Heede's achievement, the winner of the 1968-1969 Golden Globe Race was none other than Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

While Van Den Heede enjoyed a significant lead over his rivals for much of the 2018-2019 GGR, his passage was not without serious trial. This included a rig-damaging pitchpole some 2,000 nautical miles west of Cape Horn that forced the French skipper to gently sail his Rustler 36 while his competition - most notably Dutchman Mark Slats, also sailing aboard a Rustler 36 - was able to press their sailplans considerably harder.

But, as is often the case in serious offshore sailing, experience beat better equipment, and Van Den Heede sailed into Les Sables d'Olonne, France, roughly two days before Slats' arrival.

But to only think of Van Den Heede as the winner of the 2018-2019 GGR would be vastly underselling his offshore experience.

Impressively, the 2018-2019 GGR was Van Den Heede's sixth circumnavigation. These five additional "laps" also include his 2004 west-about solo circumnavigation, during which he set the still-standing west-about singlehanded record (122 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes, 49 seconds), which represented an improvement of some 29 days over fellow Frenchman Phillipe Monnet's record (151 days, 19 hours and 54 minutes), which he established in 2000.

In addition to the Blue Water Medal, the CCA also awarded the Rod Stephens Seamanship Trophy to Van Den Heede's fellow 2018-2019 GGR competitor Gregor McGuckin (IRL; 32), and their Young Voyager Award to Guirec Soudée (FRA; 28).

Neither of these awards came easy.

McGuckin was dismasted in hurricane-force winds in the Southern Ocean but jury-rigged his retro sloop to come to the aide of fellow GGR competitor Abhilash Tomy (IND), who was dismasted and injured in the same storm. While another vessel ultimately rescued Tomy, the CCA recognized the considerable lengths that McGuckin undertook to try and help his fellow sailor.

For his part, Soudée earned his prestigious award by logging a five-year journey from France that included crossing the fabled Northwest Passage (this included spending 130 days in ice with only his pet hen for company) and cruising past Antarctica's ice-strewn shores aboard his 39-foot cutter Yvinec. Soudée is the youngest person to have crossed the Northwest Passage singlehanded, and likely one of the only modern sailors to have attempted this journey sans radio or satellite phone.

Finally, the CCA also awarded their Far Horizons Award to Peter and Ginger Niemann (USA) for their multi-year circumnavigation that included the Northwest Passage; the Royal Cruising Club Trophy to Steven W. James (USA) for his cruise from Buenos Aires through Tierra del Fuego; the Charles H. Vilas Literary Prize to Molly and Porter Barnes (USA) for their article entitled "A Family's Three-Year 36,000-Nautical Mile Adventure" that was published in the CCA's Voyages publication, and the Richard S. Nye Trophy to Sheila McCurdy (USA) for her leadership at the CCA and her impressive ocean-racing record.

Sail-World congratulates all of these award winners, and we sincerely hope that their stories of seamanship, bravery and sailing grit help inspire future generations of bluewater ocean-racing sailors.

May the four winds blow you safely home,
David Schmidt

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