Susie Goodall wanted to circumnavigate the globe in her sailboat without stopping. She didn’t bargain for what everyone else wanted.
Cassidy Randall | The Atavist Magazine | September 2022 | 10 minutes (2,925 words)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 131, “Alone at the Edge of the World.”
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In the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean, a small, red-hulled sailboat tossed and rolled, at the mercy of the tail end of a tempest. The boat’s mast was sheared away, its yellow sails sunk deep in the sea. Amid the wreckage of the cabin, Susie Goodall sloshed through water seeping in from the deck, which had cracked when a great wave somersaulted the boat end over end. She was freezing, having been lashed by ocean, rain, and wind. Her hands were raw and bloody. Except for the boat, her companion and home for the 15,000 miles she’d sailed over the past five months, Goodall was alone.
The 29-year-old British woman had spent three years readying for this voyage. It demanded more from her than she could have imagined. She loved the planning of it, rigging her boat for a journey that might mean not stepping on land for nearly a year. But she was unprepared for the attention it drew—for the fact that everyone wanted a piece of her story.
The thing was, her story was a fantastic one. Goodall was the youngest of the 18 skippers resurrecting the Golden Globe Race, a so-called “voyage for madmen,” and the only woman. Last run 50 years prior, the race entailed sailing solo and nonstop around the world in a small boat without modern technology. The media were hungry for it, and people were drawn to Goodall in particular: Here was a blue-eyed, blond, petite woman among the romantic mariners and weathered adventurers. All of them were chasing the limits of what humans are capable of physically and mentally, but much of the coverage singled out Goodall, who wanted no part of the sensationalism. She had been a painfully shy child and was a private and introverted adult. The fervor surrounding her participation in the Golden Globe made her feel like a caricature, an unwilling icon. All she wanted was to sail, to search out the connection sailors had with the sea before satellite phones and GPS.
When the race began, she was almost able to leave the attention behind. There were quiet days gliding south in the calm Atlantic; ecstatic mornings surfing swell in the Southern Ocean; the sudden appearance of a magnificent sunset through persistent clouds. But the spotlight tailed Goodall like a subsurface current. Now, after two days of brutal storm, she knew the world was watching to see whether she would survive.
In 1966, an English bookstore owner named Francis Chichester riveted the world when he set out alone in a boat to circumnavigate the globe. He wasn’t the first to do so; Canadian-American Joshua Slocum completed the first known solo circumnavigation in 1898, and the feat may have been achieved long before but gone unrecorded. Yet the 65-year-old Chichester chose a dangerous route—one that no one, according to sailing lore, had ever attempted alone: From England he would sail south in the Atlantic, along the coast of Africa to the bottom of the world. There he would pass under the Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s southern coast, and South America’s treacherous Cape Horn before sailing north across the Atlantic again. The remote lower reaches of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic where Chichester would spend much of his voyage are known collectively as the Southern Ocean. The region is a vast field of sea unobstructed by land in any direction, with enormous waves, riotous gales, and dramatic skies. Stories abound about ships meeting their end in the Southern Ocean and heroes enduring impossible circumstances.
Chichester stopped only once on his journey, at the halfway mark in Australia, to perform major repairs to his 53-foot boat, which had been battered by three and a half months on the open sea. When he stepped ashore in England nine months after he’d left, he was greeted like a rock star. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him nearly on the spot. Meanwhile, fellow seafarers understood that, after Chichester’s feat, one great ocean challenge remained: sailing solo around the world without stopping. No one knew if a boat could stand up to 30,000 uninterrupted miles at sea, or what might happen to a human mind so long without company. Nine different men decided to find out.
They ranged from a former British submarine commander to storied French and Italian sailors to thrill seekers with little seagoing experience. GPS hadn’t been invented, satellite communications and solar panels were scarcely commonplace, and computing had yet to transform weather forecasting. So the men would sail with the accessible technology of the era: a radio, a windup chronometer, and a barometer. They would catch rain for fresh water and navigate with a sextant and the stars.
The Sunday Times decided to brand the men’s individual attempts a formal race, announcing the Golden Globe in March 1968. The event had virtually no requirements or regulations, as the competitors were already planning their voyages, each with its own launch date. But in offering a trophy for the first man to complete the challenge—to incentivize urgency—and a cash prize for the fastest time—to incentivize competition—The Times instantly created one of the greatest adventure stories in history.
Only one man finished the race. Twenty-nine-year-old Brit Robin Knox-Johnston’s heavy, 32-foot boat Suhaili had been considered a long shot. During the voyage, Suhaili’s water tanks polluted, her sails tore, and the self-steering—a primitive autopilot system consisting of a wind vane that attached to the boat’s rudder—fell apart. The radio malfunctioned two and a half months in; Knox-Johnston had no way of calling for help should trouble have arisen. He jumped overboard multiple times to perform underwater repairs, once shooting a circling shark before diving in. While rigging near impossible fixes to his equipment, he splashed battery acid in his eye and stitched his mustache to a sail while repairing it. When against all odds he reappeared in the harbor of Falmouth on April 22, 1969, after nearly a year at sea, Knox-Johnston sailed into legend.
The other eight competitors sank, abandoned the journey, or worse. Alex Carozzo bowed out in Portugal, vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer. John Ridgway surrendered to intense loneliness and a poorly constructed boat, exiting the race near Brazil. Nigel Tetley barely survived 80-foot waves in the Southern Ocean, only to have his boat sink a thousand miles from the finish. A storm destroyed Bill King’s mast, and he ended his journey in Cape Town. Favored winner Bernard Moitessier, a sea mystic who practiced yoga naked on deck, was well in the lead after passing Cape Horn. But, imagining the glare of the international spotlight that surely awaited him, he used a slingshot to hurl a message onto the deck of a passing ship, informing the world that he was abandoning the race “to save my soul,” and continuing on to the tropics.
And then there was Donald Crowhurst. He sailed slow circles around the Atlantic in his rushed build of a leaky boat, transmitting fake radio reports of progress in hopes of fooling the world into believing he was winning. His log told the story of a man slowly going insane under the pressures of deception and monstrous debt to his sponsor, until his transmissions went silent. His trimaran was later found floating on the waves, its skipper having slipped into the ocean in an apparent suicide.
It would be half a century before anyone attempted the Golden Globe again.
Susie Goodall’s father was obsessed with the sea first. Stephen Goodall learned to sail as a teenager and taught his Danish wife, Birgitte Howells, to sail too. “Sailing is one of those things where people either have a yearning to get back on the water, or they have no particular desire to,” he told me.
Susie and her older brother, Tim, began sailing and racing small boats on a lake near where they grew up outside Birmingham. In 2004, when Goodall was 15, English sailor Ellen MacArthur set out to break the record for fastest nonstop solo circumnavigation; Susie and Tim followed her journey. After that, Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing. Maybe one day she, too, would sail around the world.
When Susie was 17, she told her parents she wanted to attend university, and they took her to visit several campuses. One day she announced, “I’m not going to go to university. I’m going to the Isle of Wight to become a sailing instructor.” Yes, her father thought. That’s what she should be doing.
Susie got her instruction certificates and taught sailing courses. She also worked on superyachts, delivering boats to port for their wealthy owners or crewing them while the owners were on board. She loved long ocean passages and taking night watches to memorize the patterns of the stars. But the yachts were so mechanized that her work felt like operating a computer. She marveled at stories of sailors once keenly in tune with the ocean and the boats they helmed: Ancient Polynesians, for instance, found their way by swell direction and the flight patterns of certain birds. She taught her students celestial navigation, but there was always backup—a GPS or their smartphone could be turned on at any time.
Susie voyaged to Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and the Baltic, and rose through the ranks of instructors and crew to become a skipper, the small-boat equivalent of a ship captain, in an overwhelmingly male industry. Still, she doubted her abilities. She rarely felt pressured by her crewmates to prove her worth, but that hardly mattered; with few female role models to look to, her internal critic was more than happy to pick up the slack. Susie found herself wondering: Am I smart enough or strong enough? Am I good enough to do this job?
It didn’t help when, in her early twenties, she voiced her dream of sailing around the world to her boyfriend. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” he replied. “You can’t sail around the world by yourself.”
Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing.
In July 2015, Goodall, then 25, was teaching in Iceland when one of her crewmates mentioned that a rerun of the Golden Globe was in the works. When her boat came ashore, she used a computer in her tiny hotel to look up the details. And there it was: The race was set to launch in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the original voyage. Don McIntyre, a decorated Australian adventurer who’d grown up idolizing Robin Knox-Johnston, was masterminding the event. On the edge of 60, McIntyre knew that if he didn’t re-create his hero’s journey now, he never would. And if he wanted to do it, he figured a few others might, too.
Boats would be limited to the same class as the intrepid Suhaili, between 32 and 36 feet. Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed: no physical contact with anyone else, no help with repairs, no supply deliveries. The specifications couldn’t have been more different than those of the only other solo, nonstop, round-the-world race on offer, the Vendée Globe. That event, which took place every four years, was high-tech, high-speed, and high-cost; the boats alone were worth $300,000 to $5 million. But the new Golden Globe seemed more about the journey than the competition. Goodall downloaded the application and sent in the $3,000 entry deposit.
Telling her parents wasn’t easy. She called her mother—her parents were by now divorced—first. Howells knew something was up just by the sound of her daughter’s breath.
“What’s the matter?” Howells asked in her light Danish accent before Goodall could speak.
“Nothing, nothing, all is good,” said Goodall.
“There’s this race,” Goodall said. “Round the world. Robin Knox-Johnston has done it before. I’ve applied to join it.” She didn’t mention that the race would be nonstop, and run solo without modern technology. She hoped to drip-feed the more worrying details to her family. What Goodall didn’t know was that Howells, on her first sailing trip with Goodall’s father, had read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. The book recounted the original Golden Globe and Crowhurst’s haunting end. Goodall’s mother knew exactly what her daughter would face. And she also knew from her own experience that the sea offered a connection to something greater and deeper, something perhaps beyond words.
“I’ve been waiting for you to do something like this,” Howells said.
In the ensuing months, Goodall didn’t tell many people that she planned to sail the Golden Globe. When it did come up, she dreaded a particular question: What made her think she was capable of sailing around the world alone? She had no response to this. It was true that the farthest she’d sailed single-handed was four miles across the Solent, a strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland Britain. Still, she knew she was a strong sailor and could cope with being alone.
In truth, that she didn’t know whether she’d make it was part of the reason she wanted to try. She wasn’t content to merely read about the size of the Southern Ocean’s waves, the ferocity of its wind. She wanted to feel those forces, face them on her own. Only then would she know what she was capable of.
Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed.
Interest in the new Golden Globe came fast and heavy. Dozens of people wanted to run it. McIntyre eventually sacrificed his own entry to devote himself to overseeing such a large event and securing the necessary funding.
The first meeting of participants was held in London in December 2015. There Goodall was introduced to Barry Pickthall, a former yachting correspondent for The Times who had written dozens of books on sailing. McIntyre had enlisted Pickthall to publicize the race in hopes of gaining a major sponsor. Pickthall was a teenager when Knox-Johnston went around the world, and remembered following the voyage. Of the rerun, he said, “In the end we had 18 starters, with 18 different reasons for going, and very few had aspirations to win it. That wasn’t what they were doing it for at all. They wanted to prove something to themselves, to other people, or just do something they’d always dreamed about.”
In Goodall, Pickthall saw a golden opportunity. Indeed, Goodall remembered him telling her as much the first time they met. He said that having a woman in the race made it more glamorous and he wanted to get The Sunday Times to feature her. “We’re going to dangle you like a puppet for the media so we can attract a sponsor for the race,” Goodall recalled him saying. She was immediately put off. During my conversations with him, Pickthall disputed Goodall’s characterization of their meeting, but conceded that he knew she had media appeal. “It was the sex side of things! Pretty girl sailing around the world,” he said. “And I made the most of it.”
In A Voyage for Madmen, a book about the 1968 race, author Peter Nichols writes about the “Ulysses factor” in human mythology, “the lone hero figure in society, the rare character who by his or her exploits stimulates powerful mass excitement.” The archetype encompasses a set of characteristics—imagination, endurance, selfishness, discipline, courage, and social instability. Francis Chichester was such a figure, Nichols writes, as were many of the other original Golden Globe sailors. Goodall didn’t fit the Ulysses mold in many ways. It would be difficult to call her selfish, and although she’s an introvert, she’s socially adept, with valued connections to friends and family. But she was a woman at an unprecedented time of women’s empowerment, when the public was hungry for stories of lone heroines who’d found success in male-dominated arenas.
When Goodall told her mother about what Pickthall had said, Howells was surprised. Back in 1989, when she’d just had her daughter, Howells followed Tracy Edwards’s history-making circumnavigation during the Whitbread Round the World Race. Edwards had worked as a cook in the 1985 edition of the race, and she was treated like a servant or worse. One crew member wrote “For sale: one case of beer” on the back of her thermal underwear. After that, Edwards refinanced her house to buy a yacht she named Maiden, and she assembled an all-female crew for the 1989 Whitbread. The media skewered her. Journalist Bob Fisher called the crew a “tin full of tarts” in The Guardian. While other crews were interviewed about experience and strategy, Edwards was asked about packing waterproof mascara and how such a “gorgeous slip of a young girl” expected to raise the millions of dollars needed to participate in such an extravagant race.
Among the journalists lambasting the Maiden crew was Barry Pickthall. In his telling, it was essentially the women’s fault for the things that were written about them. “They hadn’t done very well in their preparations. We saw all sorts of catfights,” Pickthall told me. “We said, ‘How are these girls going to get round the world?’ ”
When the women came in third and then first in the first two legs of the race, Pickthall said, “We were absolutely astounded. Bob had to change his view to a ‘tin full of smart, fast tarts.’ ”
Howells saw how the media had treated Edwards, but that was nearly three decades before her own daughter planned to embark on a similar endeavor. This is a whole new century, she thought. Surely we’ve moved on.