Randall Reeves has always loved to sail but didn’t make his first big voyage until 2010, when he was 48 years old. He started with a bang—a solo circumnavigation of the Pacific in a 30-foot sailboat. It was supposed to last a year and quench his thirst for long voyages. Instead, it took two years. It also had him thinking bigger.
“I always wanted to sail around the world,” Reeves told AJ last week. “But that had already been done.”
Eventually, the answer came to him: A circumnavigation of North and South America and Antarctica in a single year, starting and ending from his home port of San Francisco. The voyage would total something more than 40,000 miles and include two of the most mythical passages in the sailing pantheon: the Northwest Passage, and Cape Horn, which he would do twice. He called it the Figure Eight.
No one had ever done the Figure Eight before, he says. Few people had even dreamed of it, and that made it irresistible.
Reeves left San Francisco in September 2017 in Moli, a 45-foot aluminum sloop named for a type of North Pacific albatross and rigged for bombproof simplicity. No power winches or pumps, no refrigeration, a bare tiller in preference to the complexity of wheel steering. Built in 1989 to make the first circumnavigation of the Americas, Reeves reckons Moli has more miles under her keel than any private sailing yacht in history. But none of her previous owners had experienced a knockdown so hard it shattered the vessel’s plate-glass pilothouse window, as Reeves did in steep 40-foot seas somewhere in the watery wilderness between South Africa and Australia. Seawater rushed in, knocking out his communications gear.
Reeves needed a month to make Hobart, Tasmania just ahead of the next big storm. By the time he’d dried Moli out and replaced the flooded electronics it was too late to make the Northwest Passage that year. So he sailed home to San Francisco to start again in September 2018—just three months after he got home.
On Saturday he completed the Figure Eight on his second attempt, including a seven-month 32,000-mile solo nonstop leg from San Francisco and twice under the Cape to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then followed a very different but no less challenging transit of the Northwest Passage into the Bering Sea and then home, with a final Pacific gale for good measure. He chronicled both voyages eloquently on his blog, Figure8Voyage.com.
He reached Drake Bay, just around the point from the Golden Gate Bridge, on Oct. 10, a week ahead of schedule. He spoke to AJ from an anchorage 50 miles north of San Francisco, biding time before friends and family waved him in on Saturday, October 19. “I’ve been on the boat for most of the last two years,” he says. “Another week is no big deal.”
AJ: You just chased this dream to the far corners of the world, but as a kid you found adventure close to home. Tell me about those first clandestine sailing missions.
Randall Reeves: My father was a merchant Navy captain. He’d retired by the time I was born, but his sea stuff was all over the house: his sextant, the charts, his uniforms. So this man-of-the-sea stuff has been in my blood since I was a kid, even though I didn’t really start sailing till I was in high school. That’s when we bought our first boat, an old Hunter 30. I thought it was the coolest boat in the world.
I’m sure we’ve all had this to some degree where you’re doing something and you go, ‘Wow, I could do this the rest of my life.’ That was my experience sailing. You know, the wind hits the sails, the boat heels over and charges off, and it’s like you’re flying.
So I used to borrow the boat. We lived in Stockton, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the San Joaquin River flows into San Francisco Bay. Dad would be on a business trip and, without permission and thinking I was very sly, I’d take the boat. I did that several times, and the last time I got all the way to San Francisco Bay, tacking in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, thinking what it would be like to sail onward.
I can sail, but it’s not like I was in the Olympics or anything. I’ve never been a mountain climber. I’ve never been top of my class in sports. I’m not a great yogi when it comes to being alone.
You interviewed the great round-the-world sailor Bernard Moitessier for your college radio station and said the meeting changed your life. Tell me about that.
So you have to know who he was. For the longest time, he held the record for the longest solo, non-stop sail. He participated in the Golden Globe Race [the first solo round the world sailing race, in 1968-69, Eds.]. Thirteen boats left, only one made it back. Moitessier was one of the ones that never made it, but not because he couldn’t. He was actually probably winning but he just was so in tune with the ocean that he kept going and going, one and a half times around the world nonstop before finally stopping in Tahiti where he lived most of the rest of his life.
Joshua, the boat, was almost as iconic as the guy: This big steel boat, beautiful and simple. What I think I learned from him in that meeting and being on the boat was just seeing how part of his success as a sailor was boiling things down to absolute essentials only. The masts were made out of telephone poles. There were no winches, very few blocks. It was so rudimentary, and so successful.
Your boat, Moli, is set up much the same way. But Mother Ocean still won the first round. Tell me about that knockdown in the Indian Ocean.
That was my second catastrophic accident on my first attempt. The first was 500 miles west of Cape Horn, in the biggest storm of the whole voyage. Persistent, 50-mile-an-hour winds, gusting 70 and huge seas, which are mostly not dangerous until the last part of the gale when the wind starts to let off. That depressurizes the seas and they stack up and start breaking. So we got thrown down and got some water in the cockpit and some of it got on the autopilot and knocked it out. Not a big deal; I don’t really use the autopilot that much. I have a mechanical device on the stern of the boat—a wind vane—that I use so I don’t have to sit and hold the tiller 24 hours a day.
But two days after the knockdown, a weld on the wind vane breaks. Here I am 500 miles offshore at 56 degrees south, which is hell. Huge seas, huge winds, and I have to hand-steer for a week, 12 or 18 hours a day to make Ushuaia. I spent three weeks there making repairs and put off again.
The second incident happened in the Indian Ocean, which is infamous for really terrible stormy seas, especially that that chunk between South Africa and Australia. And we had the most difficult seas I have ever experienced. Let’s call it two- or three-story-high waves, but it’s breaking for two or three hundred feet. It’s like shorebreak. The whitewater is probably fifteen feet high and that’s on top of another 20 feet of green water.
A wave came and picked the boat up—literally picked it up and threw it down to the bottom of the valley of the sea and broke this window here in the pilothouse. Just shattered it. The window that blew out was right over my navigation station. The water knocked out pretty much everything. Single sideband radio, VHF radio, fleet broadband satellite communications—all knocked out. The chart-plotter and my Garmin InReach survived. That’s pretty much it.
It was clear that I was going to have to put into port and do some repairs—get the boat un-waterlogged, replace the comms and the navigation stuff. And by the time I got to Hobart, Tasmania, and got all that done, it was just late in the year. I would have arrived back at Cape Horn, the most dangerous place in the Southern Ocean, right in the middle of winter, which is the worst time. And I would have arrived in the Arctic for the Northwest Passage just barely on time.
So your choices were Cape Horn in dead of winter, wait in Hobart until the next season, or sail home to San Francisco and start again from the very beginning. You chose door number three. Why?
Well, one reason is that my vision for the Figure Eight was really to have a super, super long solo non-stop leg. So from San Francisco down around the Southern Ocean and up to some Northeastern spot like Greenland or Halifax or St. John’s [Nova Scotia]. I wouldn’t have gotten that if I just continued on.
How did that knockdown change your perception of risk, or fear if you will?
Well, I wouldn’t want to say that I felt invincible when I left, but I felt a lot less invincible after those two incidents. When the wind gets really honkin’ and the waves get really big, you’ve got two options: keep sailing, or heave-to. I have a drogue, this big parachute-like device that I can deploy, and it keeps the boat oriented relative to the waves, nice and safe. But that means you’re not going anywhere for two or three days, because you can’t get the drogue in until the wind drops below 15 knots. So in most cases I’ve chosen to sail. And what I realized is I wasn’t going fast enough. It seems counterintuitive because when you’re in really intense weather, everything in your body says slow down. When in truth, you should be going absolutely as fast as you can because the bigger the seas, the faster the waves and the faster you can go, the more control the boat has. On the second try, we had just as bad weather, but I really pushed. I kept the boat going fast and we got knocked out a couple of times, but nothing catastrophic like the first year.
To your question about fear, when you get into really heavy weather in a sailboat, the whole boat begins to vibrate and the rigging begins to wail. At times like those, it just takes an act of will to remember that those feelings and that those sounds are not themselves indicative of danger. I’ve spent probably five, six months in the Southern Ocean by now. I know what to do and I know the boat well enough. But a wave is a wave, and it does what it wants. I have not seen the full scale of what waves can do. I’ve just seen more than most folks. And it’s still scary. It’s just really scary.
No one had ever tried the Figure Eight before you. Why?
I just think it’s so far beyond the pale. The Figure Eight is an attempt to circumnavigate both the American and Antarctic continents in one year. That’s the elevator pitch. If you’re a sailor, what you think immediately is that that incorporates two really historic routes. Cape Horn, the Everest of sailing, was the only way any commerce got from Europe to Asia until the Panama Canal. And then the Northwest Passage, we’ve been searching for that since the 1500s. It’s only recently become passable.
For most adventure sailors, doing one or the other is the pinnacle. I just don’t think people have ever kind of put it together, or even whether they thought it’s possible to do in the context of a year. It’s a lot of miles, and the route is highly dependent on timing.
Other than being first, what attracted you to this voyage?
From my perspective, one of the attractions of the Figure Eight as a total voyage is that these two extremities of the globe, south, and north, are very different. You sail all the way to the Southern Ocean and then you’re looking at the bottom of the globe, around Antarctica you see this big donut of water. And the wind blows in this great big circle, and it’s just water and big waves. And then you sail up the Atlantic and you get to Greenland and Canada and try to go to the Northwest Passage, it’s as opposed to that as you can possibly imagine: Shallow waters, archipelagos of islands. A lot of it is uncharted, even today. And you have this very narrow window of opportunity, which is usually the second week of August to about the first of October. You’ve got to get through then or you’re stuck there for the winter. Oh, and by the way, the winter is 10 months long. So the risk is very high.
There aren’t many obstacles to avoid in the Southern Ocean, but the Northwest Passage is like a maze filled with crushed ice. That seems very challenging for a solo sailor.
Exactly. The challenge for me was ice piloting. I was in company with some other boats that were ahead of me, so I knew what was coming. They had two, three, four, five people on the boat. They had ice poles. Two people on the bow pushing, somebody on the wheel revving the throttle trying to drive through this. And there I am, just me. I can’t do that.
I was getting maybe three or four hours of sleep a night for a couple weeks. I remember seeing a clear stretch. Blue water almost to the horizon, maybe 15 minutes of no ice. I flip on the autopilot, dash down below to take a five-minute nap. I set the alarm, and on the fourth minute of my five-minute nap—wham! We just T-boned this truck-sized piece of ice.
During this passage I take it you were mostly motoring. Is it possible to traverse the Northwest Passage completely under sail power?
It has been attempted twice now. Last year and this year, a French daughter and father have tried leaving from France under sail and trying to get through the Northwest Passage. And this year they got maybe 100 miles into the Northwest Passage. The challenge is that you’re above the weather. The Arctic is mostly this enormous high-pressure system. So you get lots of clear skies in the summer and lots of calm.
You’ve got to get through then or you’re stuck there for the winter. Oh, and by the way, the winter is 10 months long.
Easier isn’t the right word, but has climate change improved the odds of making a successful Northwest Passage?
I think the answer is yes, pretty emphatically. The first yacht to go through the Northwest Passage went through in 1977, a guy named Willy de Roos on a big steel boat called Williwaw. He had a lot of ice for much of the 5,000 miles from Point Barrow in Alaska all the way to Baffin Bay next to Greenland. And at this point, if you get a good year, you’ll probably face your worst ice in the Canadian archipelago and you might not see any ice at all anywhere else.
I talked to locals in the villages, ‘So, does it still get cold?’ They said, ‘Oh, yeah. But you know what? I think it was only 60 below a couple of days last year. It used to be 60 below for weeks.’ So the effect of that is twofold. One is the extent of ice that you experience now versus 20 or 30 years ago is much smaller. And the other is we’re not facing any multi-year ice.
What did you learn about yourself on this trip?
This is not a brag, right? I don’t mean this as a brag. But I have just done something that has never been done before, and I’m not entirely sure more than a couple of other people have even ever envisioned. I’m no great hot shakes, right? I can sail, but it’s not like I was in the Olympics or anything. I’ve never been a mountain climber. I’ve never been top of my class in sports. I’m not a great yogi when it comes to being alone. But to have done something, your own vision which you know is difficult because you mapped it out, and to fail once meant to give it another go and to succeed—that’s pretty cool. I’m pleased that I was able to make it happen.
I know you’re actually not even officially back yet, but what are you thinking about doing next?
I’m really looking forward to being just a simple dude for a while. This has been a long and difficult adventure. The prep alone took three years, and the voyage took two tries, so I’ve been at this five years. So I’m content to clean the leaves out of the gutter and bake the bread for a while.
I’d like to do a sailing survey of the so-called Garbage Patch, the Pacific Gyre. And I’d love to do the Figure Eight again, but slowly, because I passed by so much interesting territory—like all the islands in the Southern Ocean. So remote, so beautiful. So difficult.
No more records?
Not for me. The next logical next step is to do the Figure Eight solo and without stopping. The step-up in the level of difficulty from what I did, to that, is enormous.
I’m interested to support the guy or gal who wants to give that a shot.