We were thinking the other day about who might be some of the most influential sailors of the modern age. Beyond old-school guys like Columbus and Captain Cook, sailors don’t get a lot of run. So, at the risk of forgetting someone painfully obvious, here are the top five great sailors of modern age. Feel free to weigh in if you have a candidate you think should be on the list.
- Sir Peter Blake
Peter Blake was a class act that died tragically at the hands of pirates back in 2001. He was an extremely accomplished open ocean racer and an America’s Cup champion but it was his passion for environmental issues that made him a special breed of sailor. He was a prominent member of the Cousteau Society and was a special envoy for the United Nations Environment Programme. It was clear Blake was making a difference through his efforts. He was regarded as a credible source who walked the walk. He had seen parts of the world very few others had and had an ability to articulate environmental concerns in a palatable way. At the time of his death he was on a mission to investigate and bring awareness to global warming and pollution.
- Bernard Moitessier
Bernard Moitessier inspired a generation (and some) when he participated in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first single-handed round the world yacht race in 1968. There were no single-handed races of this magnitude at the time and the difficulty and braveness it took to participate were enormous. Moitessier shocked the world when he decided to not cross the finish line – not because he couldn’t succeed, but because wanted to keep sailing! He sailed on for three more months, feeling the sea was his true home. His book The Long Way, that tells the tale of this monumental voyage, is regarded as one of the most interesting and inspirational sailing books ever written.
- Ellen MacArthur
At the risk of making this list all about solo sailors, racer Ellen MacArthur has to be here because of how she demonstrated the strength of women in a sport dominated by men. In 2005 she set the record for the fastest solo-sail around the world and also finished second in the incredibly difficult Vendee Globe, a race in the merciless Southern Ocean. MacArthur became quite famous and a hero to many for her relentless tenacity, but also for her displays of vulnerability. Nearly all of her journeys were videotaped giving the world a chance to witness how arduous and painful these voyages can be.
- Ernest Shackleton
Like everyone on this list, Ernest Shackleton was fearless and driven. In the early 1900s the British explorer sailed to and traversed the inhospitable and greatly unknown Antarctic for the purposes of discovery and exploration. His greatness and legacy are probably most measured by the incredible expedition in 1914-17 where his boat was crushed by the polar ice. He and his crew were stranded in the frozen land for years but during this time there were actually photographs and some moving pictures recorded. Much was learned about the remote region from this expedition, but maybe more was garnered about the human spirit. Although he wasn’t the skipper of either of the boats on this voyage, he was the leader and a brave one at that. This odyssey remains one of the most remarkable sailing adventures in history.
- Joshua Slocum
Like Moitessier and MacArthur, Slocum was also a round the world sailor, but he was the pioneer – the first to sail single-handed around the globe. Although we’re flirting with breaking the “modern age” parameter – he made that famous voyage in the late 1800s, Slocum has to be on the list because he, in many ways, gave birth to what modern sailing is. He sailed to sail. It was a life spent at sea and he introduced the world to the concept of sailing smaller boats strictly for the sake of adventure. Upon returning from his three-year circumnavigation aboard his 36-foot sloop, Spray, Slocum published Sailing Alone Around the World that was heralded by critics. His influence is still felt to this day.