Sailing’s Underdog: Steve White
Posted By Peter Zimonjic On May 26, 2009 @ 4:00 pm In Cover Stories,Features,Sports
It was T.S. Eliot who said that only those who risk going too far can find out how far they can go, and last November British yachtsman Steve White set out to prove it. Along with 29 other solo sailors, White set off from Les Sables d’Olonne, France, on the Vendée Globe nonstop around-the-world race — the Everest of yacht races, where just finishing is one of the sport’s greatest accomplishments.
With top budgets close to $15 million, entrants are typically sailing royalty, like Hugo Boss–sponsored bad boy Alex Thomson and former round-the-world record holder Ellen MacArthur — who either spend months surfing ferocious 50-foot seas or days waiting for one of the world’s navies to rescue them when everything goes wrong. They aren’t a 36-year-old dreamer and father of four, in a beat-up racing yacht with a patchwork of small-time sponsors and anonymous donors.
“It was slightly surreal being on the start line with people whose prowess I had been following for years,” says White. “They are the gods of the solo sailing world.”
As Vendée director Denis Horeau puts it, “We’ve always had boats with big money and some with less money, but Steve has no money, and that made him different.”
Just 12 years earlier a friend had invited White out for his first afternoon of sailing; four days later he bought his first boat. In two years he joined a crew to follow the route of the grueling Fastnet race, from Plymouth, England, to the southwestern tip of Ireland; in 2005 his was the first monohull across the finish line in the OSTAR transatlantic single-handed race — which convinced a financial backer to take the White family’s house as collateral for an aging race yacht.
“I’m still paying the loan,” White says. “So, yes, the kids wear hand-me-downs. We ate nothing but porridge for two weeks, we’re driving around in a borrowed car, and I work two jobs plus full-time on the campaign.”
White sleeps four hours a night to fit more working hours into each day; the classic car restorer claims he has worked 16 hours every day since 2004. Just three weeks before the Vendée Globe, he still didn’t have enough funds to refit his boat. Then an anonymous backer put up $350,000 — the cost of a sail for some yachts, but it was enough for White.
White’s race started badly. Three days in, a fire started in his battery compartment, filling the cabin with smoke. His autopilot stopped working off of Australia, forcing the former mechanic into the hull to repair it as 40-knot winds lashed the helpless boat. Then the gooseneck, the crucial hinge that holds the boom to the mast, broke — a disaster that, three-time Vendée vet Mike Golding says, would have ended the race for a more experienced sailor. White somehow repaired it with lashings and spare parts, keeping his improbable bid alive.
On a virtually windless February 26, 109 days after he set off, White glided his clunker into Les Sables d’Olonne. He was eighth of only 11 boats to finish.
“I was surprised he got past the first week, to be honest,” Golding said. “He should not even be involved in this race, but somehow, by sheer power of will, he managed to complete the course. It’s an amazing story.”
Although White’s performance is likely to draw interest from sponsors with deeper pockets, there’s no guarantee it will change his fortune. Yet he’s undeterred. “We are definitely going to race again, and we’ll be out to win. Our lives have changed after this. I am getting too old to be poor.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
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