By the early 1970s early pioneers Francis Chichester, Alec Rose, Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth had all circled the world alone under sail, the last two non-stop. Could a fully crewed ocean racing yacht do the same? In those days the term ocean race was tagged to events like the Fastnet, Sydney Hobart, Bermuda and Transpac races, most of them little more than 600 miles. There was a big question mark about whether any could sustain 27,000 miles of racing through some of the harshest conditions, particularly in the Southern Ocean.
The idea was first conceived by Anthony Churchill, the navigator aboard Edward Heath's Morning Cloud, who tested the waters with a pamphlet distributed to yachtsmen during Cowes Week in 1971. He found some interest, but not the sponsorship to make it happen, and handed the idea to the Royal Naval Sailing Association, which was already in discussions with the Whitbread Brewery to host a major event.
The first Whitbread Round the World Race began from Portsmouth UK in September 1973, had three stopover ports and was won by Mexican washing machine manufacturer Ramon Carlin and his Swan 65 production yacht Sayula whose prime motive was to gain the attention of Mexico's President. The Race has been held at four-year intervals ever since and Sailing Legends, written by the two journalists to cover every one of them, tracks all the highs and lows during the first 40 years.
During that time, Barry Pickthall and Bob Fisher witnessed the primitive preparations for the first race where crews were still building their bunks as they sailed out of the Solent and cut sheets from a spool of rope to control each new sail as they were hoisted for the first time. They also listened to crew complaints about the rudimentary food they had to endure for 6 weeks at a time, and waterproofs that proved to be anything but whenever it was wet on deck.
Conny Van Rietschoten raised the game in the next race in 1977/8 with his Dutch ketch Flyer, crossing the Atlantic twice before the Race to test the 65ft yacht and hone his crew into a winning team. Four years later, he did the same again, this time with a 76ft maxi yacht, also named Flyer in which he won both elapsed and handicap honours after their most competitive rival, Peter Blake and his Ceramco New Zealand, lost the rig during the first leg.
The authors witnessed records tumble in quick succession from a 281-mile Noon to Noon distance set by Flyer during the 1977/8 race (an average of 8.36 knots) to the edge of the 600 mile barrier (596.5 miles - an average of 12.11 knots) set by the Volvo 70 Ericsson 4 in the 2008/9 race.
Quite apart from detailed chapters covering each race and lessons learned, the book carries a detailed appendix cataloguing records, complete results, list of designers, and a roll of honour listing all crew members and the yachts they sailed on during the first four decades.
The start has moved from its Solent traditions to Spain, where what is now known as The Ocean Race, has its headquarters in Alicante. Throughout its history the race has been one of triumph and tragedy, of hardship and pleasure, but essentially it has been the ultimate sailing challenge that has attracted the best in the world.
The perfect appetiser for the Ocean Globe Race in 2023 marking the 50th anniversary of the first Whitbread.