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In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. It was a feat that had never been accomplished and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death.
In this extraordinary book, Peter Nichols chronicles a contest of the individual against the sea, waged at a time before cell phones, satellite dishes, and electronic positioning systems. A Voyage for Madmen is a tale of sailors driven by their own dreams and demons, of horrific storms in the Southern Ocean, and of those riveting moments when a split-second decision means the difference between life and death.
About the Author
Peter Nichols is the author of the national bestseller A Voyage for Madmen and two other books, Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, a memoir, and the novel Voyage to the North Star. He has taught creative writing at NYU in Paris and Georgetown University, and presently teaches at Bowdoin College. He is lives in Maine with his wife and son.
Read an Excerpt
In 1966-1967, A 65-year-old Englishman, Francis Chichester, sailed alone around the world. He stopped only once, in Australia.
A tall, thin, balding man with thick-lensed glasses, Chichester looked more like a prep school headmaster than an adventurer. He owned a small book and map store in London. He was a vegetarian. But the urge to subject himself to extreme tests characterized his life. In his youth he made a pioneering flight in a small aircraft from England to Australia. In 1960, at the age of 59, he and four friends made a wager to race each other single-handedly in their four very different boats across the Atlantic. The course began at Plymouth's Eddystone Lighthouse and finished at the Ambrose light vessel off New York Harbor; the route between these two points was up to the racers. There were no other rules. The winner would receive half a crown.
Francis Chichester won the bet and the race. Sailing his 39-foot sloop Gypsy Moth III, the largest boat of the five, he made Ambrose in 40 days. But winning was not enough; he thought he could do it faster. Two years later, racing nobody but himself, he crossed the Atlantic again, cutting more than 6 days off his earlier voyage. Still he was not happy with his time; he believed a crossing of less than 30 days was possible.
The London Observer had covered the 1960 race and found that it owned a story with major and growing public interest. Four years later, in 1964, the Observer sponsored a second single-handed transatlantic race (now famously known by its acronym, OSTAR). Ten additional competitors joined the original group. One of the newcomers, the Frenchman Eric Tabarly, trounced the fleet and took the honors in 27 days, 3 hours, 56 minutes. Chichester came second, 20 hours and 1 minute later. He beat his personal target time handily, but second was a new place for him, an ignominious position for a lone adventurer.
Tabarly was awarded the Legion of Honor and became a national hero in France: "Thanks to him it is the French flag that triumphs in the longest and most spectacular race on that ocean which the Anglo-Saxons consider as their special domain," proclaimed the Paris Jour.
Single-handed racing hit the big time. National pride on both sides of the English Channel, from two nations famous for their sense of superiority, xenophobia, and rivalry, now focused on the third OSTAR, due to be held in 1968. At least forty sailors announced plans to compete. Many had new, experimental craft designed and built solely for the purpose of winning that one race. Eric Tabarly was building a new 67-foot trimaran, capable of tremendous speeds; at the time this was a radical reappraisal of the size of boat one person could handle. These boats, with their size and gear and engineering, became so expensive that they were beyond the reach of ordinary sailors. Yacht racing began to resemble motor racing, and the long, increasingly ugly hulls were plastered with commercial logos.
A few sailors felt this was veering too far from the notion of "sport." They wrote disapproving letters to yachting magazines, dropped away, and left the field to younger sailors who were learning to navigate the tide rips and currents of commercial sponsorship.
Chichester decided not to compete with the pack in 1968. He would be up against younger men sailing larger boats, and the outcome must have been clear to him: he would be the game old campaigner who would manage a respectable placing halfway through the fleet. He quietly set off to do something else.
Sailing alone around the world was nothing new. The Nova Scotian-born American Joshua Slocum, a sailing ship master beached in his middle years by the steam age, was the first to do it, in 1895-1898. He sailed from Gloucester, Massachusetts, west-about around the globe, against ferocious prevailing winds through the Strait of Magellan, north of Cape Horn, in a seemingly unhandy, fat-hulled, engineless old oystering sloop that he had rebuilt himself and christened Spray. The Spray's seagoing abilities, and what Slocum managed to do with her, have been wondered at and argued over by sailors ever since. Slocum (who couldn't swim and nearly drowned trying to set an anchor off the Uruguayan coast) stopped in many places and wrote a drily humorous yet thrilling book of his adventure, Sailing Alone Around the World. One hundred years later it is still the standard by which all other sailing narratives are gauged.
Eighteen other men had circumnavigated alone by the time Chichester set out in 1967, but his voyage caught the public imagination as perhaps none other since Slocum's. It was no pleasure cruise. His route was down the Atlantic, east-about around the bottom of the world, back up the Atlantic. Virtually all the east-to-west part of his circumnavigation took place in a sea not found on most atlases but infamously known to all sailors as the Southern Ocean: the windswept southerly wastes of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans between latitudes 40 and 60 degrees south, between the habitable world and the Antarctic, where storm-force westerly winds develop and drive huge seas around the globe, unimpeded by land except at one fearsome place, Cape Horn, the southernmost rock of the Andes, the scorpion-tail tip of South America.
Sailors have respectfully and fearfully labeled the latitudes of this global band of turbulent water the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, the Screaming Sixties. The tea clippers from India and China and the square-rigged grain ships from Australia took this route back to Europe because, blown by the westerlies through the desolate seas of the Forties and Fifties, circling the planet at a short, high latitude, it was the fastest way around the world.
But it took sailors through the most isolated area of the globe, the emptiest expanse of ocean, the remotest place from land.
What People are Saying About This
“Extraordinary ...One of the most gripping sea stories I have ever read.”
A great book that combines the amazing stories of nine lone
adventurers into a narrative so seamless that it made me want to drop
everything to do what these men did: sail around the world alone. A Voyage
For Madmen is a thoroughly exciting
account of a historical event that changed how we perceive our world.
(Daniel Hays, author of My Old Man and The Sea)
A wonderful, terrifying book about aspiration and fallibility, and how
success and doom and madness are kept apart from each other by the
slenderest of threads.
(Richard Rayner, author of The Cloud Sketcher)
Peter Nichols has written a compulsively readable book that has
everything a sea story should have. A Voyage For Madmen evokes the uniquely
terrifying hazards and demands of the sea and, with a novelist's skill for
character and detail, shows how nine single-handed sailors in their puny and
inadequate boats undertook the last great maritime featthe longest,
loneliest sea voyage in historyand how, one by one, the sea cut them down.
A marvelous book.
(Derek Lundy, author of Godforsaken Sea)
Exclusive Author Essay
If you can remember "The Race," which took place earlier this year, you are a hardcore sailing enthusiast. Five fully crewed, gigantic yachts sailed nonstop around the world by way of the Cape of Good Hope, the perennially stormy Southern Ocean, and the fearsome Cape Horn. The aim was speed, and the marshalling of technology to produce it. This resulted in machines that looked otherwordly: 120-foot-long, narrow-bladed catamarans with towering dagger-shaped rigs, true 21st-century creations. Their crews were high-tech gladiators, wearing the right gear and sunglasses, advertising fantasies made flesh, celebrated in glossy magazines. The winning boat, Club Med, finished in a record-breaking 62 days, 7 hours and set a new 24-hour, distance-sailed record of 655 miles, smashing all records set by the great ships down the roll of time.
"The Race" was a triumph of technological achievement, but the effort now seems conspicuously lacking in return. Certainly the boats were amazing: freaks of engineering, designed and built to (and beyond) the limits of tolerance for this single event. It was also a slick collaboration between market-savvy sailors and their necessary corporate sponsors. Each boat, with its overall price tag for crew, supplies, shore teams, and support, cost about the same as a medium Picasso of good provenance. This placed the race in a rarified sphere well outside of the normal parameters of "sport." It was really a form of technological field testing, one that had the appearance of glamour. It left in its wake nothing for us to ponder over, to be amazed at, to glory in. Like a flashy but superficial summer movie, it has had its brief run and gone straight to video. It will be quickly forgotten because it told us nothing new about ourselves.
This is not to make light of the conditions modern circumnavigators face: The weather in the Southern Ocean is as old as time and as nightmarish as ever, and modern racing boats are not cushy yachts; they are unforgivingly austere tubes stripped of everything but pure speed. But however grueling their voyages, modern sailors cannot know the hardship, loneliness, the uncertainty, and the heroic perseverance demanded of the men who showed them the way.
Thirty-three years ago, nine men -- six Englishmen, two Frenchmen, and an Italian -- sailed from England, bound around the world by the same arduous route, alone and without stopping. It had never been done before, and no one knew if it could be. A race, dubbed the Golden Globe race by its sponsor, the London Sunday Times, was born of the coincidence of the sailors' timing, after their preparations became known. The men weren't sportsmen or yachtsmen -- one didn't even know how to sail. They navigated, as had Captain Cook, by sextant readings of the sun, stars, and moon. They had no faxes or emails, no weather reports other than the conclusions they drew from looking up at the sky or at the mounting waves. They had no support or encouragement except the mettle they carried inside their own skins. Some brought radios, but in all cases the radios failed. One carried a slingshot to launch messages about his progress onto the decks of passing ships. Their boats were a motley array of new and old yachts, the largest being 40 feet long. They sold everything they owned and bankrupted themselves and their families to attempt this wild voyage. Only one man crossed the finish line, ten months after leaving England, in the slowest, oldest boat of the fleet -- by then held together in places with string. The others dropped out, were shipwrecked, went mad, or committed suicide, and one man, a Frenchman, never turned left after Cape Horn. He just kept going.
Now, that was a race. That was the race. It was not about the boats but about the men in them. And about the slender margin between human aspiration and fallibility. (Peter Nichols)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was full of gripping suspense without the violence. It was just great. It gave me a strong feeling of affinity with the British people (I am American). I'm not sure that in America such an event would receive so much media recognition. In England, it did. That was neat.
I could not put this e-book down. You don't have to know anything about sailing to enjoy this book. The e-book copy of this book had no pictures and that was too bad. The true story of nine men who attempt to be the 1st to sail around the world non stop! Keeps moving the whole time.
I bought this book for a friend, a sailor. I don't know why or how I began to read the book, but I couldn't put it down. I don't sail and didn't understand a lot of the sailing jargon. No matter. The story of courage, persistence, ingenuity was riveting.
"A Voyage for Madmen" is a gripping and quick-moving story. Each race contestant is profiled (some more clearly than others) with emotional connections created. You find yourself rooting for the underdog to win, wondering when the truth will catch up with the bad guy, and inspired by the favorite who chooses to pursue his own path to happiness. The personality build-ups are combined with sufficient amounts of technical sailing language, weather and geography changes, and equipment-related problems, to generate high drama. "A Voyage for Madmen" is an adventure story to be enjoyed by sailors and non-sailors alike.
One of the best books I've ever read. I'm not even into sailing but this book was so incredible and easy to understand jargon-wise I couldn't put it down. Even now years later I still think about it and reread it. In my top 5 for sure. 11/10 recommend.
I read this in paperback, and decided to get the nook version also. Reading it again.
Oh my god this was thr most emotional book i have ever read in my life. i thought that this book was an A+ if you like the ocean sailing and heroic ending i would have you read yhi book
Merry go, merry go, merry go round tootootoot!