4 Jun 2018

Solo sailor Lisa Blair's epic journey

From Karyn Hay Presents: Queen's Birthday, 9:40 am on 4 June 2018

Lisa Blair’s sea voyage around Antarctica turned into a nightmare as she battled a broken mast amid giant waves – but she still made history.

On a 103-day journey with only one stop, Blair became the first woman to sail solo around the Antarctic.

Lisa Blair

Lisa Blair Photo: Supplied

Why would anyone do this?

It’s a question the Australian sailor says she’s asked a lot.

“The short version is that I discovered sailing when I was 22, and I fell in love with it completely.

“I sourced an opportunity to sail around the world with a crew in an amateur yacht race … 40,000 miles across an ocean and I loved it.

“That snowballed into deciding solo sailing was the ultimate challenge for a sailor.”

Last year Lisa upped the ante on this challenging pursuit, by setting off to sail alone around Antarctica in her boat Climate Action Now.

She’d planned the trip and for three and a half years – with the aim of sailing non-stop and beating the 102-day record at the same time.

Part of that preparation was thinking about “everything going horribly wrong” and checking historical information on storms and icebergs.

“But I also thought about how I would cope being on my own for such a length of time – would I lose my mind and would I suffer from mental issues … or hallucinations?

“That mental preparation, of knowing what I signed up for before I left, allowed me to deal with the situations and the loneliness that came along with being at sea for that length of time.”

On a solo voyage you're not just sailing the boat, she says.

"You’ve got to fix the engine, you’ve gotta be able to repair the sails, you’ve gotta be the cook, the cleaner, the navigator, plumber." 

Lisa Blair leaving Portland, Victoria on the Climate Action Now.

Lisa Blair leaving Portland, Victoria on the Climate Action Now. Photo: Dean Coopman

When it was needful – such as when her diesel engine packed in – she had a “phone a friend” option to consult experts via satellite phone.

She set off in January 2017 from Albany, Western Australia - her route determined by the rules of a challenge to the 2008 men's record held by Russian sailor Fedor Konyukhov.

She loaded a Kindle with 200 books – and got through almost all of them in the six hours a day where there were no tasks to do.

“I would then read a book or stare at the ocean longingly just wondering where the next land was.”

There was plenty of wildlife in the Southern Ocean; seals, dolphins, whales, albatross and the tiny storm petrels that ride the frontal systems.

"So you always knew a storm was coming 'cause all these little birds would just start filtering around the waves around you."

With no land to get in their way, storms in the Southern Ocean get bigger and bigger as they circle, producing huge waves. Blair says.

“Your average swell down there is about 30ft [9m] – the biggest I saw was about 15 metres which ... is huge, like a two-to-three storey building.”

“You’re going up and down these skyscrapers of waves."

Antarctic Ocean

Photo: Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

In one of those storms, 72 days into the journey, a section of rigging wire failed and the mast snapped off at deck level.

In a 7m-8m swell, a 30-40 knot wind at night and 1000 nautical miles from land, Blair had a “22-metre spear” half on, half off the deck.

“It would only take one extra big pull from the wave to rip it off the deck of the boat, and then the next wave would pierce the hull and shove it through the middle of the boat and sink me.”

She spent a “frightful” four hours trying to detach rigging wire and separate mast from the boat – at one point climbing out of the safety rails onto the bowsprit.

 “I had to sit down on that with these waves going straight over the top of my head, breaking on top of me, almost washing me off, just to separate that one part of the rigging.

“It was a nightmare situation – there’s nothing positive about that journey except that I was able to save the boat and my life that night.”

After Blair separated the mast, the line dragging it along the water snapped and it sank to the bottom of the ocean – but luckily she’d salvaged the boom and was able to build a temporary one.

“I was actually three-quarters of the way round the world, so I only had four weeks left of the whole record – and I was beating the men’s record at the time.”

Lisa Blair's upcoming book Demasted.

She motor-sailed to South Africa – with fuel a passing container ship had transferred to her boat – and re-started the record from there, completing the journey with one stop.

This October, Blair takes up her next challenge – an attempt to become the first woman to sail round Australia solo, non-stop and unassisted.

It will be even harder than the Antarctic voyage, she says.

Because of all the “stuff I could hit” – ships, reefs and rocks - Blair will sleep for only 20 minutes at a time during the entire six-to-eight week journey.

Looking further ahead, in 2020 she hopes to go to the opposite end of the globe to the Antarctic, and attempt to become the first person to sail round the Arctic solo, non-stop.

In keeping with her quest to raise awareness of climate change, she points out such a circumnavigation is only physically possible because of melting icecaps.

Lisa Blair's book Demasted is due to be published later this year.