Rich Wilson is sailing around the world by himself, but he has plenty of company.
The 66-year-old skipper from Marblehead is participating in the Vendee Globe, a solo non-stop sailboat race around the planet, and has a worldwide audience of students along for the ride.
The former Boston schoolteacher uses the adventure to educate. He takes two hours out of every day to answer questions from students and post updates on his progress on his sitesALIVE website. Students learn about weather, geography, science, math, and history through interacting with his website.
“His curriculum changed my life as a teacher. Students became engaged in estimating Rich’s position at sea, it took learning into the real world,” said Lorraine Leo, a former teacher.
Wilson is joined by 28 other competitors representing 10 countries in the Vendee Globe, which is held every four years and began in 1989. It is 28,000-nautical mile non-stop sailboat race that begins and ends on the western Atlantic coast of France in a small town called Les Sables d’Olonne. More than 300,000 fans descended upon the town for the start of the race.
Since 1989, 136 skippers have started the Vendee Globe, and only 70 have finished. Two are already out this year.
“Finishing this race is a victory,” Wilson said.
Teachers around the world are exposing their students to a 15-week interactive experience.
Will Sargent attends Boston Latin School, and was in grade school when he his teacher exposed him to the program.
“By following Rich I learned to overcome adversity, he inspired me, and that shaped my character, today I know I can do whatever I set my mind to,” Sargent said.
It takes between 78 and 120 days to complete the race. Sailors sleep for less than 20 minutes at a time to be on watch as much as possible. They must avoid other ships and icebergs, cook, and tend to the boat’s operating systems.
The skippers also have to survive five weeks crossing the vast and unpredictable Indian Ocean, a brutal place to be alone that tests navigation and technical skills and pushes boats and emotions to the limits.
Wilson doesn’t see his age as a disadvantage.
“I’m going to rely on my experience and not take any unneeded risk”, said Wilson
Marti Shea, Wilson’s trainer, said he is prepared.
“He is a tenacious athlete, Rich is not trying to prove anything, he loves to sail, he loves to compete and his educational program provides a unique motivation for him, explained Shea.
Wilson is popular with both his fellow competitors and fans, but no non-French sailor has ever won the Vendee Globe. Like in past years, the fleet is made up of two types of competitors – adventurers seeking to survive and finish and those who want to set records and win.
This year the latter group will have a clear speed advantage with seven boats equipped with foiling dagger-boards, which dramatically increases speed.
“The boats with foils are taking big risk with untested technology. My approach is to increase average speed over the length of the race and try to survive,” Wilson said.
Solo sailor Jonathan Green said people around the world will cheer for him.
“Rich is one of the premier solo sailors in the US. He has accomplished things others can only dream of and he educates students around the world and people have enormous respect for that,” Green said.