Fossett's unrivalled string of crewed sailing races should not overshadow his own incredible sailing skills


I’m writing a piece about Steve Fossett (something I am taking no pleasure in, under the circumstances) and yet again I’m amazed at the depth and breadth of his feats.

Fossett notched up an amazing 21 speed sailing records and 9 distance records between taking up sailing – by which I mean learning to sail – in the early Nineties and setting a new non-stop round the world record in the giant catamaran Cheyenne in 2004. They include the 24-hour record, the Atlantic and Round Britain and Ireland records as well as records across the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.

I first met Fossett in 1994 and found him charming: soft-spoken, quiet, modest and resolute. There was nothing starry or self-satisfied about him. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d have thought him an ordinary, if highly successful, businessman.

Back then, he was about to set off on the single-handed Route du Rhum in his 60ft trimaran Lakota. Because most of his records were crewed, it’s often forgotten that high speed sailing is something he is skilled at himself.

He set out to learn how to sail, and boy did he. In the highly competitive and professional Route du Rhum that year he finished 5th. Because he fancied something even longer, he later sailed single-handed across the Pacific and set another new record.

Many people also aren’t aware of his early achievements. Long before he did the round the world plane and balloon flights and glider distance records Fossett swam the English Channel, drove at the 24 hours of Le Mans, husky sledded for more than 1,000 miles across Alaska (he bit the recalcitrant lead dog on the ear to enforce the chain of command and get it going again) and he did an Ironman Triathlon in his Fifties, swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and then running a marathon.

Oddly enough, the last time I talked to him in 2004, he told me he thought one of his greatest skills was a clear-eyed understanding of risk and, as he put it, “situational awareness. I understand the things that might break and cause an injury or places where you might get caught out or surprised.”

I really do hope that’s the case this time.