The creator of the ‘retro’ Golden Globe and Ocean Globe Races has experienced more adventures in one lifetime than most could dream of, as Helen Fretter reports

Don McIntyre is on relaxed form when he calls from Les Sables d’Olonne. His current flock of round the world racers are swooping south on the second leg of the Ocean Globe Race, McIntyre’s 50th anniversary homage to the Whitbread Around the World Race. Conditions were good, and the crews had been revelling in their first taste of Southern Ocean swells. It’s a lifelong ambition made real for those who dreamt of taking part in the original iconic races.

The Ocean Globe Race (OGR) is also something of an apotheosis of McIntyre’s 50-year career. His life story is all about creating adventures, but this is an adventure made accessible. It’s something that ‘normal’ people could do. Don McIntyre sees that as the reason so many sailors – 160 crew in the OGR so far, 24 solo skippers in two editions of the Golden Globe Race (GGR) – have signed up for his new breed of ocean races.

“I consider myself to be very normal. Some people think I’m an arsehole, others will think I’m a genius, but I’m very normal. So if it’s something that I’d like to do, I’m sure there are other people that want to do it too,” he muses.

But though McIntyre might see himself as an everyman, he has not lived a ‘normal’ life. Racing solo around the world is enough isolation for most, but Don followed it up by deliberately stranding himself on Antarctica for a year. His stories are peppered with sentences like “And then I learnt how to fly a helicopter”, or “We had some pirate interaction – so I got off the boat and instead took up rally car racing.”

It’s a delivery that will be familiar to followers of his daily race video updates – genial, with a slightly homespun air that’s at odds with the slick production values of most sailing events today. But these adventures are serious business – and Don’s formula of back-to-basics retro ocean races has hit on something that has a surprisingly wide appeal.

Don McIntyre on board Sponsor Wanted in January 1991 during the BOC Challenge. Photo: Stuart Davidson/Fairfax Media/Getty

Outward bound

Don McIntyre was born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1955 and began developing expedition skills from his earliest years. “We used to go on holiday to a place called Aldinga Beach,” he recalls. “I was always in the water. I was either fishing, or I’d make my own hand spears, or I’d go rabbit trapping. I’d do all sorts of things, but the water was a constant.

“I started surfing when I was about 12 or 13 – I had a 9ft longboard. My sailing was off the beach, I had a Heron dinghy and some catamarans. Then I saw a movie called Crystal Voyager, which was about three guys who fitted out a 36-footer and went sailing-surfing. I’d also been influenced by Chichester with his stop-off in Sydney.

“By 18, I’d started building my first boat, which was a replica of Suhaili, because Robin Knox-Johnston was one of my three heroes. The other was Jacques Cousteau, and the third was a guy called Tom Neale, who was a dropout on an island in the Pacific. His autobiography An Island to Oneself was the first book I ever read cover to cover at high school, because I was dyslexic and I didn’t read a lot.

“Those things all had a profound impact, which I didn’t realise really until probably 30 years later.”

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McIntyre was brimful of inspiration – and had become a certified celestial navigator aged 18 – but his plans needed refining. “The replica of Suhaili was too big, so I swapped it down for a 29-footer. And then I realised you can’t go sailing-surfing easily because you’ve got to anchor somewhere and the surf is where there are no anchorages. So instead I decided to set out into the Pacific and that’s how it all began. I built my little Duncanson 29, and set off on a three-year trip, where I did my first single-handed sailing.”

Having left Adelaide in 1978, sailing to Sydney, through the Great Barrier Reef and out to the Pacific islands and back, McIntyre found himself anchored in Apollo Bay, southern Australia, at the same time as David Scott Cowper. Scott Cowper was on his way to beating Chichester’s solo circumnavigation time on his 41ft S&S Ocean Bound. “He’d come in because he had a problem with his wind vane, and I got to know him. We became good friends.”

Relaxing after completing the Australian leg of the BOC. Photo: Stuart Davidson/Fairfax Media/Getty

After helping Scott Cowper fix Ocean Bound, McIntyre became the Australian agent for Aries wind vanes, and travelled to Sydney to service yachts competing in the 1982 BOC Challenge (later the Around Alone/Velux 5 Oceans). “I’d been cruising for three years, and didn’t even know the BOC was on,” he recalls. “I put all the wind vanes in my little Triumph TR7 sports car, drove from Adelaide to Sydney, and there was Philippe Jeantot, Bertie Reed, Guy Bernadin… I was like, ‘Whoa!’”

McIntyre immediately decided that he wanted to compete in the 1986 BOC race, and – after considering borrowing Ocean Bound – later set out to build his own aluminium 50-footer for the race. He now had a plan, and the means to make it happen.

“We learned very early on about how to make some money, and one of those was selling things. When I built my first boat, I was importing stuff all the time. And when I wanted all the gear for the BOC you couldn’t buy it in Australia, you could only buy rubbish.

“So, effectively, I just started bringing in equipment that I needed and instead of bringing in one for me, I’d bring in five or six and sell them. Very quickly I had a very viable marine equipment importing business that doubled its turnover every six months.”

Rig checks during a 1990 BOC Challenge stopover. Photo: Tim Clayton/Fairfax Media/Getty

In the news

McIntyre realised Australia wasn’t just lacking a supply chain. “Short-handed sailing was just about illegal in Australia at the time, it was so frowned upon. And I thought, I’d better start a short-handed sailing association.” He invited Robin Knox-Johnston to be patron.

Due to a lack of funds and time, there was no way McIntyre’s was going to be ready to compete in the ’86 BOC. Instead, in the interim, as chair of the Australian short-handed sailing association he organised a new race, the Goodman Fielder Wattie Bicentennial Around Australia Yacht Race, in 1988. First home was Peter Blake in the 60ft trimaran Steinlager, having overcome horrendous conditions that included 9m waves and 50-knot winds. But the race was marred by the death of a competitor who was lost overboard.

During the search and rescue operation, a police boat sank, and the Australian police commissioner was swift to condemn McIntyre’s race management. It led to a lengthy and highly public defamation trial, even after the coroner’s inquest placed no blame on the organisers.

Having sailed past Antarctica in the BOC Challenge, McIntyre went back to explore it in 1993. Photo: Wade Fairly

In the end, McIntyre won. But when the French sailing federation, the FFV, initially criticised the Golden Globe Race as a ‘totally unconscious and dangerous challenge’, it hit a sore nerve with McIntyre, who posted a lengthy rebuttal online. (It was later established that the event would not be run under FFV jurisdiction and, according to McIntyre, the French maritime authorities went on to praise the safety and security aspects in the GGR Notice of Race as the best of any sailing event in France).

Around alone

McIntyre finally got his solo ocean racing adventure in 1990, when he took part in the BOC Challenge, setting off without a sponsor, and around $300,000 of debt (a backer was signed part-way through the race).

He finished 2nd in class despite several knockdowns, being fully rolled, and finishing with a broken forestay. “I wasn’t a racer, I was a compass and knife man. But it wasn’t about the racing for me, it was a voyaging and challenge and adventure thing. I’ve never done a Sydney Hobart, even today, it just doesn’t appeal to me.”

McIntyre returned with yet more adventurous dreams in his head. One was to sail non-stop around the world. “The BOC was great, but it had four stopovers. I always thought I just really wanted to put myself up against Robin, not as a competition, but just to go through what he did.

McIntyre and his then wife, Margie, lived for a year in this cabin at Antarcica’s Cape Denison. Photo: McIntyre Adventure

“It was a very attractive concept, building a Suhaili replica in timber and doing what he did. That was the lead-in to how the GGR started.”

The other was inspired by David Lewis and his Antarctic voyages on Icebird. “When I did the BOC we were going around Antarctica, it’s literally just over there on the right! I had a Southern Ocean-capable boat that could take on anything. So when the BOC was finished, it seemed natural to go to Antarctica at last.”

Sailing into Cape Denison in 1993, McIntyre and crew were astonished to find the shelters built by pioneering Australian explorer Douglas Mawson during a 1911 expedition to the South Pole still standing.

“I was looking at Mawson’s Hut, which is where all the boys lived for a couple of years and thinking, this is unbelievable, you could come here and live here.”

Incredibly, he and his then wife Margie did, sailing back to Cape Denison in 1995 with building materials, tools and provisions for two years in an expedition called Together Alone. They built a tiny 2.4m x 3.6m shelter, chained to the rocks just 40m from Mawson’s Hut, and equipped it with solar panels, a generator, and basic furnishings.

And there they lived, entirely unsupported and without human contact, for a year-long experiment including a full Antarctic winter. (The expedition is the subject of a compelling documentary film, see the McIntyre Adventure YouTube channel).

Round Australia gyrocopter record. Photo: McIntyre Adventure

The project demonstrated a familiar characteristic of Don’s: his ability to not only think up an outlandish idea, but see it through, even without financial backing.

“Most people don’t stop and think about whether they really want to do it. But for me, there’s a lot of joy planning these expeditions. The planning and preparation is often more enjoyable than the execution.

“I knew how to do it and I believed we could do it and we did. It cost us about AUD$800,000 to do that trip, to get the boat set up, build the box, get it down there. It was like a military operation, but it was fantastic fun. It was very special because it was unique.”

Ice and tropics

After the Together Alone expedition, he and Margie returned to Antarctica to attempt a 70km trek to Madigans Nunatak, a rocky outcrop discovered by Mawson’s team in 1912. They also spent time surveying the Great Barrier Reef.

Next McIntyre bought a 36m ice expedition ship. “That was my Jacques Cousteau dream. I ended up with a ship that was better than Calypso. It was fantastic, called Sir Hubert Wilkins. I had exactly the same helicopter and I was flying that. We had all the dive gear, we had a five-man recompression chamber. And we had four years of just crazy stuff.”

Exploration ship Sir Hubert Wilkins. Photo: McIntyre Adventure

They spent several seasons surveying areas of Antarctica, supporting expeditions and conservation teams, before taking on a private charter ‘treasure hunting’ in the Philippines, in search of significant wreck sites. The search was unsuccessful, but caught the eye of a terrorist group who attempted to board the ship. Provisioning became high risk, with local militia harassing the crew whenever they stepped on land.

For a change of scene, Don and Margie took up rally car driving, buying a Peugeot 206 GTi and competing in some of Australia’s biggest road races. Next he set a record flying a single-seat gyrocopter to the furthest east, north, west and southernmost points of Australia, some 115 hours in the air. He became one of Jessica Watson’s main backers, buying her S&S 34 Pink Lady and supporting her bid to become the youngest solo skipper to sail around the world in 2009.

In 2010 Don got back on the ocean, with an ambitious plan to recreate William Bligh’s epic voyage after being cast adrift during the mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789. Sailing with a crew of three (unlike Bligh’s 18 men) in an traditionally-built 7.3m open whale boat, the Talisker Bounty Boat, they covered nearly 4,000 miles from Tofua, Tonga, to Kupang in West Timor.

The voyage took McIntyre and crew 48 days, finishing within three hours of Bligh’s time, despite capsizes, near grounding on a reef, McIntyre twice developing kidney stones, and severe food and water shortages.

“A lot of people think I’m 68, but I’m really 28,” McIntyre jokes. “People say I’ve never really grown up because all of these things are basically like camping holidays. They’re just great things to do. I’ve always had a project, I want to wake up in the morning and have something to do. Otherwise you think, why wake up?

McIntyre recreated Captain William Bligh’s epic 4,000 mile ‘mutiny on the Bounty’ voyage in an open boat. Photo: David Pryce

“When you start dreaming about something long enough, you get to the stage where you have to do it because otherwise you’ll regret it. And that’s how most of the ideas form.”

Retro appeal

His longest held ambition – to recreate Knox-Johnston’s famous solo circumnavigation of 1968, finally came to fruition in 2018 – but not as he’d imagined it.

Initially McIntyre began planning an event that he wanted to take part in. “The original race had nine, so I was thinking there might be six, seven, or eight other people that might want to go,” he recalls. Instead, dozens of applications poured in. Three years before the start, the race had received 30 provisional entries and over 150 expressions of interest. “We created a monster and the popularity was going crazy,” recalls McIntyre, “So our first stop for a sponsor was obviously NewsCorp.”

Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp owned The Sunday Times, sponsors of the original 1968 race. Early conversations were initially positive and a delegation including McIntyre and Knox-Johnston went to present their proposal. “Without going into the fine details, by the time they walked out the door it was looking like nearly £5 million might have been possible,” McIntyre says. “But directly after that, NewsCorp announced a billion-dollar write down of their print properties.”

No title sponsorship was ever forthcoming, though the port of Les Sables d’Olonne stepped in to rescue the event.

McIntyre and his Talisker Bounty Boat crew. Photo: David Pryce

It also became clear that Don would be needed to stay ashore and run the show, with a small team including his current wife, Jane.

“I didn’t mind that. Running the race itself became my adventure. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it – we created something from nothing. Many people think that our first Golden Globe Race in 2018 was a disaster. We lost a few boats and lots of rigs and a lot of people believe it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in sailing. But I didn’t look at it that way at all.”

“I was really proud of the first fleet,” he adds. “There was a really good mix of people.”

The outcome of the first revival Golden Globe Race is well documented: of 18 starters, just five finished, four skippers had to abandon their boats, five were dismasted. But it certainly didn’t put off would-be entrants, as four years later another 16 skippers set off to do it again. Enthusiasm for the race seems undimmed.

“I think there are many factors that contribute to the popularity of the Golden Globe Race,” last year’s winner Kirsten Neuschäfer explains. “One of the biggest, in my opinion, is Don’s emphasis on the ‘human story’. Because this is not sailing at its highest performance and technological level, instead, I think, it talks to people from all walks of life, of all age groups, and people who are not necessarily sailors. It transports them back to the true spirit of adventure.”

McIntyre is founder of the retro Golden Globe Race. Photo: MAXPPP/Alamy

Passion projects

The GGR had its fair share of critics, and the OGR has not been controversy-free either. “About a week before the start of the race, I had a letter signed by a group of entrants basically saying the race was dangerous and that they demanded satellite weather forecasting,” Don reveals. His response was the same as it has been to Golden Globe skippers demanding rule changes.

“The reality is that the entrants have signed on for this. This is what they want.

“I say to them all, if you’re feeling that way, I am telling you not to start. Just stay home.” The teams did start (after being requested to resign their liability forms), and the OGR rules have not been changed to allow satellite weather forecasting.

Start of the 2023 Ocean Globe Race. Photo: Tim Bishop/OGR

McIntyre certainly isn’t impervious to criticism, particularly when it comes to the safety of his events. “I’ve been facing uphill battles all my life, because what I do is not conventional.

“I’m not saying all our decisions are correct because they’re not. But we make those decisions based on very sound values. All our events have risk. We can never get rid of it. But that’s the attraction, the entrants are there because of the risk. Our role is to minimise that risk.”

There is no question that McIntyre cares deeply about the safety of his competitors.

“It’s very obvious that the GGR is not a job for him – it’s his passion,” Neuschäfer adds. “He is the one who bears the responsibility, the hopes, fears, anxieties and dreams that he shares with all the skippers, who he has in some way ‘sent’ out on their adventure.”

As for his own dream to sail in the wake of his hero Knox-Johnston, McIntyre says that dream has passed. On a transatlantic passage on his Globe 5.80 yacht he had ‘a huge revelation’ that he no longer wanted to sail around the world solo.

“I worked out why I do all this stuff. I finally had the answer. I do it to prove something to myself. And at that stage in my life, with the people around me, I didn’t have to prove anything to myself, not a thing. And you sort of think,” he says, becoming emotional, “that people and time are the most valuable commodity you have.”

Opening photo by Jan Kasl @jankaslphoto

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