The ocean is a wild, potentially dangerous, magnificent place to explore. Boats and ships, large and small, become corks by comparison with Nature’s whim. Quite a few would-be sailors have dreamed of “leaving it all behind,” sailing around the world, until that day when they find themselves venturing beyond sheltered waters, out into the deep blue. That’s the day some of the dreamers buy a set of golf clubs instead. Not so, said Ryan Finn, sailor extraordinaire.
Ryan is a 37-year-old native of New Orleans who grew up sailing the Gulf Coast with his parents. These formative years cultivated his love of the sea, and gave him an inner-strength to face adversity when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 18 years ago. He battled the cancer during a one-year stay in the hospital. Reading about sailing helped pass the time and maintain his hope. Though friends and family can be by one’s side during an illness of this nature, there’s a certain psychological element of being alone. It’s no coincidence, then, that solo sailing became his guide, his kindred spirit.
Upon regaining his health, Ryan’s maiden, solo, long-distance voyage was the 1,200 miles from New Orleans to Savannah, Georgia. Since then, he has amassed over 20,000 miles sailing solo in often challenging waters—including Atlantic and Pacific crossings.
Now, with the help of countless supporters, Ryan is preparing to sail a unique Micronesian/Polynesian-inspired sailboat design—the proa—from New York, down around Cape Horn, up to San Francisco; all of this solo, all of this non-stop. Two key partners are Paul Bieker, a naval architect on the design crew for Oracle Team USA—America’s Cup winners in 2010 and 2013—and Russell Brown, a modern-day, highly-experienced proa sailor with the most proa miles at sea of any non-Pacific Islander.
We sat down with Ryan to ask him a few questions about his life and his upcoming adventure.
The Clymb: We can safely say that sailing is a passion that drives your life, but should we define it further as solo sailing, not just sailing?
Ryan Finn: It’s probably better to say it’s more of a passion for sailing, than solo sailing. Sailing offshore solo is much different than sailing offshore with a crew, even if it’s just one other crew. Sailing with a crew is less stressful, more relaxing and often more “fun” than solo, but solo sailing is more rewarding for me. The challenges of managing sleep and not having someone in the cockpit handling lines, etc. while you are on the foredeck are far more than with a crew. There is a sense of real accomplishment through singlehanded passage-making.
The Clymb: You are pursuing a world record, solo-sailing the 13,000 nautical miles (a nautical mile equals ~ 1.15 statute, or land-based, miles) heading south from New York, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, then a northern leg up to San Francisco. You said once that this is largely about a proof of concept. Is it more about winning a world record—solo—with a proa design used for hundreds of years, or something more personal?
RF: This is a record attempt which is largely personal but also a proof of concept for our unique sailboat design. Establishing a record is a fraction of what makes the project interesting to me, but in the end, if the record existed already, it would likely be on a much larger boat with a much larger budget, and my arriving in San Francisco behind the established time would still be massively rewarding to me, and proof that our design was safe with the performance data needed to scale up if possible.
The Clymb: Why this particular world record?
RF: I chose this challenge for a few reasons. One is to test my personal limits and to see how much stress and cold/hot/cold I can take and still carry on effectively. Two is to prove how safe and efficient a proa can be and whether it could be worth sponsor investment to scale up to a larger boat for other records. Three is the navigation challenge of sailing from New York in the dead of winter, crossing trade winds all the way to Brazil, negotiating the South American coast and safely rounding Cape Horn, then negotiating the South Pacific to the Equator and finally the very tricky light and shifty conditions that will “accompany” me from the Equator to San Francisco, all without stopping. This is a beautiful and challenging navigation route and very exciting to me.
The Clymb: You are clearly adventuresome, on a rather large scale. Is this part of what can follow when overcoming personal adversity—your overcoming Hodgkins Disease when you were a teen? Did setting your sights on the challenges behind open-ocean sailing, on your own, help you to regain your health, perhaps your emotional well-being?
RF: The simple answer is yes, Hodgkin’s disease was the inspiration for my first solo passage. Honestly, I hoped that after I made that 1,200-mile trip, it would be out of my system. What ended up happening is that I discovered a lot during the passage and wanted go out again and keep pushing myself. Sleep deprivation combined with the beauty of being at sea are pretty intoxicating when you first start single-handing offshore. For sure the idea of solo sailing inspired me during my radiation and Chemotherapy treatments. For better or for worse, cancer will always be a haunting inspiration in my life, whether it comes back or not. I’d be lying if I denied its role in my 2oceans1rock.org project.
The Clymb: You mentioned once that this upcoming voyage is intimidating, though you had no real fear on any of your previous offshore trips. Is this due to the sailboat design?
RF: The intimidation aspect of this voyage has to do with the complexity of navigating through all of the changing conditions and potential perils of coastal navigation that are part of this course. Though the boat has not been built yet, I have faith in the design, and the experience of the designers. The built boat will have thousands of miles “under her keel” before actually making an attempt to sail nonstop from NY to SF. There’s always a debugging process for a boat making such a trip.
The Clymb: Are you looking to beat any existing records, or will the fact that you are sailing a proa, solo, be the record?
RF: The NY to SF record has never been made singlehanded and nonstop. The proa aspect has nothing to do with the record. It’s just the boat part.
The Clymb: Can you speak to how Paul Bieker and Russell Brown have influenced your decisions?
RF: I can say that Russell’s massive amount of miles on similar proas without major incident and Paul’s exceptional engineering in the America’s Cup gave me the faith to move foreword. You cannot have a successful project if you don’t have faith in your designers. I’m simply the pilot and want to focus on my role without questioning and micromanaging all aspects of this project. I know what my limitations are there.
The Clymb: Regarding sleep, you may know of Dr. Claudio Stampi, an M.D. As a long-distance sailboat racer, he wanted to understand how rest could be attained under such adverse conditions—where the longer the sailor sleeps, not attending to the boat, the slower the boat ultimately travels. He discovered that, for these extreme events, some sailors could take “naps” of about an hour long, give or take, equaling a total of roughly 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep every 24 hours. He doesn’t recommend this in general, as it can be dangerous, but it can work for some sailors. What do you do? Do you use any autopilot systems so you can leave the helm for extended periods?
RF: I’ve actually been to a sleep seminar with Dr. Stampi, where he was giving a group of us information about his findings and having us do some basic sleep exercises to wrap our heads around the technique. Even though it was not a full study, it was very helpful, and I still use what he made me aware of while single-handing. Most importantly, he discussed the differences between people who are morning people, night people, and those who are more adaptable. I am firmly a night person. I like to push fairly hard through the whole night until sunrise. Once the sun begins illuminating the horizon, I typically become very drowsy and druggy feeling and when I do actually get my solid hour of sleep, it’s a very deep sleep. The rest of the day is peppered with 15-minute naps here and there. [And, yes] auto pilot for sure.
The Clymb: Do you read on these journeys?
RF: It’s good to have something so you can unplug from the duty of sailing. I did a [boat] delivery from Florida to San Diego—watched a lot of movies. Books weigh a lot. Best are books on tape.
The Clymb: How did you pick your departure date?
RF: I spent a few months this last winter studying the course from NY to SF with daily weather observations for the whole course. What it looks like is the worst time to leave NY, with the coldest wind, etcetera, is the best time to get around Cape Horn. As things mellow out in the NE of the US, they become increasingly more powerful around Cape Horn. Average wind forecasts go from 35 knots rounding the Horn during depressions to over 50 knots. The remoteness of Cape Horn, and the difficulty to get clear of it really make the NY departure date important. I’d rather take my lumps early while a few hundred miles from civilization on the East Coast than wait too long and get into trouble in the deep south.
The Clymb: When is your anticipated departure?
RF: I’m aiming for Winter 2016, but the boat has to be built and funding has to be raised to pull this off. This is too dangerous to do half ass.
The Clymb: How do you handle provisions, including water, given that every racer does all they can to keep the overall weight to a minimum?
RF: The sad reality for trips like this is that we rely heavily on freeze-dried cuisine. The freeze-dried food is actually really good for the most part, but one grows a little tired of pasta-type mush consistency after a while. As I get closer to San Francisco I’m sure I’ll be fantasizing about fresh salad, bread and other solids. Once, on a singlehanded Transpac, all I wanted was fresh baked bread. The water will be from a water-maker/desalinator. For a boat this small, carrying all of my water with me would be entirely too heavy, so I have to rely on the technology to work the entire trip or it’s going to get interesting.
The Clymb: Do you stay in communications with others while at sea? If so, is this by shortwave radio, or other type of HAM equipment?
RF: I’ll be connected to the Internet via satellite phone the entire trip. I require that connection for my routing and weather updates, as well as social media obligations which are more than ever part of ocean racing. I’ll bring a SSB receiver so I can listen to the BBC and whatever else is bouncing around out there.
The Clymb: Given that large ships have the right of way, and their radar systems may not see you if you are in the signal shadow near the large vessel, do you sail in the shipping lanes, including at night?
RF: Have you read John W. Trimmer’s book on this subject, “How to Avoid Huge Ships”? Me neither, but I may have to splurge on this title before leaving. Truthfully, I’ll be zipping across a lot of shipping lanes on this voyage, especially on the Atlantic side. They are fairly tight lanes though, and it’s really a matter of being aware of them ahead of time and making sure I’m rested when I get there. I’ve been sailing small boats offshore long enough to not assume they see me, even if they say they see me. I’ll give them the right of way.
The Clymb: What would you offer to anyone needing to overcome a significant challenge in their life, be it health, or loss, or simply being dealt a difficult hand?
RF: Find something to hold onto and use it to pull yourself out. You may never be able to let go of it when you’re out, but at least you’ll be out!