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 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!