Crackly radio, oiled wool sweaters and prayers to God - have they all disappeared from solo sailing?
‘No law, no god’, was what Mike Golding said about the Southern Ocean when he sailed alone the wrong way round the world. And that is how the world’s most brutal oceans have crystallised in our modern vision: a realm of occasional spectacular beauty and terrifying storms remote from mankind and therefore bereft of mercy.
So it was a jolt yesterday to hear Peter Perham and his 17-year-old son Mike, who has just sailed round the world alone, to hear them talk of a place overseen by a force much greater than mere weather.
I was asking their views on the debate about records based on youth and how Peter Perham and his wife prepared themselves to shoulder responsibility as parents should anything have happened to Mike.
And Mike’s Dad said simply: “We are Christians and we have faith. We prayed and our friends prayed and that gave us confidence.”
Faith is a complex and personal matter, but it’s also cultural. It struck me that expressing faith in God and stating that you prayed for help when the weather got really terrible was the norm in the early days of single-handed sailing.
Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth both wrote in their accounts of the Golden Globe race of 1969 of praying to God for deliverance. I don’t think Chay, for example, is especially religious at all, but possibly prayer was an ingrained thing to do in extremis and it was certainly OK to write about it. Apart from anything else, it connoted humility.
Now, of course, it’s neither expected nor even particularly accepted. You will not find a specifically religious reference if you read Ellen MacArthur’s, Pete Goss’s, Mike Golding’s, Dee Caffari’s or pretty well any other modern day solo sailors’ books. Conversely, celebrating maritime superstitions are absolutely de rigeur and carefully penned into the media schedule.
Perhaps having faith in divine supervision looks like you might have missed a few ticks off the prep list. Sailors rarely write of a situation in which there is nothing more they can do. As for prayer, who needs that when you can nearly always get someone on the satellite phone?
Solo sailors will happily talk about the need for a dose of luck, but you notice that they do that before they start a race yet very rarely put much down to it after the event.
In Mike Perham’s case, because of his youth and the debate surrounding it, the opposite is the case. He surely had his share of luck, or whatever you want to call it, plus a belief that it could be called upon, but it’s actually the tremendous and very grown-up technical achievement that is in slight danger of being overlooked.