Randall Reeves grew up dreaming of the sea. On his second date with his now wife Joanna, he confided in her that his childhood dream of going deep blue sea sailing. Serious, around the world alone sailing.
Reeves learned to sail on the rivers of Central California, and has followed his dream. In 2010, he completed a two-year, 12,000-mile solo-loop of the Pacific Ocean (which he’s now crossed seven times) in a 30-foot sailboat – seeing Joanna only every four months. Then in 2014, he sailed through the Northwest Passage, an exhausting 65-day trip through 5,000 mostly frozen miles in the Arctic. Reeves was hooked. Every time he returned home, he soon returned to the sea. He told his (very understanding, it has to be said) wife he couldn’t be a normal person again, and wanted to be on the ocean.
The Figure 8 Voyage passes through the world’s five oceans, approaches the North and South Pole and goes around treacherous Cape Horn twice. The journey is roughly 40,000 miles, which is roughly the equivalent of going around the globe twice. No one has done this before.
Reeves’ first Figure 8 attempt started in September 2017 aboard a 45-foot aluminum boat he named Moli. Storms knocked out his electronics and windows. He stopped in Tasmania for repairs and started wondering if he’d ever complete this. He didn’t.
But you can’t keep a good sailor down. In October 2018, Reeves set out on Moli, again from San Francisco. We interviewed the 57-year-old while he was momentarily in port at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on his final leg to the finish line, the Golden Gate Bridge back in San Francisco.
How massive is the ocean?
People often ask me about what interesting places I’ve visited when cruising, as if a long sea passage is about getting to the other side. But for me, much of my pleasure and much the draw is in seeing the ocean itself, for itself, as it is and in the raw. It’s the ocean that fascinates me; the crossing — not the destination, per se — is what’s interesting.
The ocean is, after all, the single largest feature on earth; it counts for three-fifths of everything here. Yet most of us rarely get even ankle deep at the beach. Consider the Pacific Ocean, for example. In surface area, it’s 15 (that’s a 1 and a 5) times larger than the U.S., including Alaska. Recall the last time you flew across the U.S. Now take that times 15 and that’s the size of ONE of the five oceans on Earth. The amount of water here (and by this I mean seawater — fresh water only accounts for 5% of total water) is truly mind-boggling. And I can tell you, after making many passages across all that, the sense of “wow” doesn’t diminish.
Arthur C. Clark once said: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly planet Ocean.”
What did you do to keep yourself from going insane?
You keep busy, is what! Especially for singlehanders like me — sailors call other crew members “hands”; so a singlehanded is a boat with but one crew. It’s a common misconception that sailors have oodles of free time for such luxuries as going insane. There’s running the boat: making sail, trimming sail, making adjustments to Monte (my wind-driven steering device – whom I talk to) and fixing what breaks (there’s always something that breaks). Then there’s the cooking and cleaning and route planning and somewhere in there I try to squeeze in some sleep. It’s a lot. And it gets more difficult when the weather is rough — which is quite the typical thing where I like to sail. I have filled the boat with books. And I just don’t have time to read them. As to going insane, there isn’t time for that!
Besides, if you are doing what you enjoy and have always dreamed of doing, there’s little reason to go insane.
Was there too much solitude?
So, clearly, I’m the kind of guy who enjoys solitude in large doses. I’m quite happy with my own company, or, to be more specific, I’m quite happy with the company of boat, wind and sea. But one does want all good things to come to an end, eventually. On this second Figure 8 Voyage attempt, I sailed from my home port in San Francisco all the way to and under Cape Horn, all the way around the Southern Ocean and under Cape Horn again and from there up the Atlantic Ocean to Halifax, Nova Scotia — alone, and without stopping. The distance was about 30,000 miles and to do that I was at sea for 237 continuous days — 8 months! By that time, I was ready for a small break, and to see my wife again. I miss her company more than anything. In this time I spoke to Joanna and my family once around Christmastime by satellite phone and then did an interview from sea some time later. As I recall it, I went all the way around the Southern Ocean, Cape Horn to Cape Horn (110 days) without voice contact. That’s probably the longest.
That said, even a very sane person (like myself, ahem!) begins to talk to himself after a while. I talk to the boat, talk to the wind vane. And I write every day, so words are still flowing through my head, even if they are not being exchanged with another human directly.
What are you most tired of?
My cooking. I don’t have a refrigerator or freezer. All my food is canned (meats, veg, soups) or dried (pasta, rice, quinoa, dried beans, etc.). It’s good, hearty stuff, but my menu is small. One breakfast, muesli with dried milk, crackers and cheeses for lunch, and five different stew-type dinners. After a few months of that, I just want pizza by the slice and a cold beer.
The other thing that gets tiring after time is the constant motion. You can never move freely; you are always on all fours and / or hanging on while trying to get dressed or make coffee or make the bed. You can’t just lay the can opener down because it will get thrown to the other side of the boat; if you chop an onion, keep a hand over it or it will end up on the floor. That gets tiring after a time. You scream at the top of your lungs, “Just hold the fuck still.”
How has this excursion changed you?
So, we are having this talk while I’m in the Aleutians of Alaska and waiting out a storm. Of the 40,000 total miles of the Figure 8, I have only 2,400 miles to go to get to the finish line. But I am very much still on the course, so I’m not really sure how to answer this question yet. I think I will need to be home to know how / if I’ve changed.
Of course, for some, the sense of spiritual impact is huge. One of my early heroes was Bernard Moitessier, who participated in the first around-the-world-solo and nonstop race – this was back in 1968. It was called the Golden Globe Race then, now it is the Vendee Globe. Moitessier was one of 13 participants and one of only three boats to survive the Southern Ocean. He was so impacted by his experience of the ocean that instead of turning for the finish line in Plymouth, England, for Europe and a civilization he’d come to hate, he just kept going. He went all the way around the world again solo and stopped in Tahiti, where he stayed for most of the rest of his life. It’s a joke in my family now – are you going to “pull a Moitessier.” But no. I’m not. I adore being at sea, but I also have a home life and a wife I love and miss.
What marine life did you see?
If you enjoy sea birds (called pelagics), as I do, then a trip around the Southern Ocean is a must because down there live 11 of the 13 species of albatross, including one of the most remarkable creatures ever invented, the Wandering Albatross. This bird has an 18-foot wingspan, it spends 95% of its life at sea and almost all that time flying, well, soaring, actually. It can even sleep while in flight. It is a sight to behold and not at all rare in the south. There were many days when the boat was surrounded by so many pelagics they were almost like a cloud of birds.
What’s the inspiration for the name of your boat?
Moli is the native Hawaiian name for the Laysan Albatross, one of the two albatross species not in the Southern Ocean. This one is endemic to the North Pacific and roosts on the island of Kauai. I consider the Pacific my “stomping grounds” and have sailed to and from Hawaii many times. The Laysan / Moli is one of my favorite sights. The name seemed appropriate because the bird is a big, gray, long distance expert…just like my boat.
How much food did you bring on board?
I left with a boat stocked with a year’s worth of food. Now that was a fun challenge, planning how much and of what to take. How much ground coffee does one guy need in a year? Forty pounds, as it turns out. How many pounds of rice or powdered milk? How many chocolate bars? At one point the living room at the house was so stacked with food of every kind, I thought it might tip the house over. And finding stowage for it on the boat is a big challenge. Every corner is packed with food!
What was your self-care like?
First off, I have to carry or catch all the freshwater I will need. Mo has NO water maker. Instead, she has two large tanks that hold about 200 gallons of freshwater, and I have a few rain catchment techniques for the wetter latitudes. So, even from the outset, I’m rationing water. Freshwater is used ONLY for drinking and cooking; my consumption is about three liters a day. Seawater is used for all cleaning (e.g. dishes) and washing. Secondly, I don’t have a hot water heater. Thirdly, I don’t have water under pressure, only hand pumps. So, “showering” is dumping a bucket of seawater over yourself when it’s hot on deck and washing from a bucket in the galley sink when it’s cold. As you might guess, I’m cleaner when it’s warm out than when cold. It’s one of the reasons my wife doesn’t come along. Her requirements for “hot and cold running water under pressure” are well outside anything I’ve been able to provide.
And yes, I tend to be like the WWII submariners. I wear the same clothes until they a) fall apart or b) combust. I’m not trying to impress anyone with either my appearance or my aroma, so there’s not much incentive to “get dressed for dinner.”
Did you celebrate any milestones on your trip?
Yes, milestone celebrations were fun. I did two things. One was to cook a celebratory breakfast at key accomplishment times, like scrambled eggs and hash browns with ketchup and anything remotely like bacon (like salami) that I might have aboard. Not at all sure why this is important, but it was. And with champagne, too! I have a good friend who is a winemaker at a winery in the Sonoma Valley of California called Amphora. For a few years now they’ve been making a Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine and I was well stocked up for both equator crossings, two times around Cape Horn and arrival. A bottle of sparkling wine is a nice break from my one can of beer a day!
Did you have to dock anywhere?
I had to make an emergency landing during the first Figure 8 attempt in 2017. In the South Pacific and while on approach to Cape Horn, Mo (I shorten Moli to Mo) lost her ability to self-steer and I had to make my way to Ushuaia, Argentina for an unplanned stop. It took a week of hand steering to get to safety and I was awake for over two days on the final run in because there was no safe place to stop in the fjords of Chile or beneath mountains and glaciers. But, the reward was otherworldly. I entered Chile via Bahia Cook, named for and explored in the late 1700s by the most famous of navigators, James Cook. Then I continued on to Ushuaia via the Beagle Channel, named by Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin was passenger. South of me and below Cape Horn was Drake Passage, made famous by Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation in the 1500s. North of me was the Strait of Magellan, first passed by Ferdinand Magellan in the 1400s. All the early explorers I’d read about had to pass by here to get from one ocean to the other. It was like sailing through sacred territory, and I was in awe, even though it was three in the morning, I’d not slept for two days, and it was blowing a blizzard.
Did you ever think about taking your boat and going home?
This second attempt has gone to plan where stops are concerned. Eight months non-stop from San Francisco to Halifax was in the plan, and that stop was required only because from there I headed into the Arctic, where I would have been way too early — it was still frozen solid. So, I had to wait somewhere in the northeast for summer to catch up.
Were you willing to die to complete this?
First off, ultra-long-distance sailing is not a death sport, unlike, say, free climbing or wingsuit flying. The better comparison is like going from a marathon to an ultra-marathon to a 100-miler to then linking a few 100-milers together. The issues are more endurance, focus, careful planning and sticking to the plan. If you are looking for a thrill don’t do this. This is hard work.
That said, it is still quite risky. Where I like to sail is very remote and very demanding. There is just nobody down at 47 degrees south latitude to come help you if disaster happens.
Did you encounter any particularly dangerous conditions?
This is my second attempt at the Figure 8. I departed for a first attempt in October of 2017 but ran into troubles at 56 degrees south and about 500 miles west of Cape Horn. By the way, sailing around Cape Horn is known as the Everest of sailing. Anyway, I was negotiating the tail end of a gale (50 mph winds gusting 70) when a wave knocked the boat down — wave fully over the boat, mast in the water. Some water got into the pilot house and shorted out my autopilot. No big deal, I use a manual wind vane to steer most of the time. But two days later, a welded part on that unit broke. Not repairable at sea. Now I have problems. I’m at the bottom of the world in the stormiest part of the stormiest ocean ever known and I have no way to automatically steer the boat. Moli is big. Her tiller is very heavy. In rough weather she’s a beast. I simply can’t steer her manually for the remaining 10 months the Figure 8 requires. Game over for that attempt.
But the bigger problem was getting to safety. The nearest port was a week away. Seas were running 15 to 20 feet, winds were high, and the only way to save myself and the boat was to hand steer — for 12 hours a day. Very hard work, like trying to row a boat but the water is so heavy the oar won’t move. If I’d had crew, a one-hour shift at the tiller would have been too long. But I have no choice. It’s cold. I’m dressed in triple layers and still shivering. I can’t keep the boat going straight. I scream and yell for her to help me out just a little. I even weep in frustration when it just feels like I can’t steer another moment. Then I take a break and steer some more. Because I’m it. There is no Coast Guard, there is hardly even a ship down there. If I want to get home, it’s up to me.
How does one sleep on a journey like this?
My usual pattern while underway on the open ocean is to sleep in 90-minute chunks. I wake every 90 minutes by alarm, make sure the boat is going in the right direction and isn’t about to be run down by a ship, and then return to sleep. I sleep as many 90-minute cycles as I like, but four cycles is usual, sometimes five. If weather is rough or we are along a coast or near other dangers, I shorten that cycle to 60 or 30 minutes.
Sleep cycles are frequently interrupted by the need to change sail or course or avoid a ship. On most nights, I’m up for some time, say an hour or more, working the ship before returning to the sleep cycle. In rough weather I will often stay awake all night so as to be ready if the ship needs me. This is what made the Southern Ocean so tough; wind changed frequently and strong gales were not rare, so my sleep patterns were always being interrupted. Very fatiguing.
Typically, I sleep at night like normal people. And I nap leaning against a bulkhead for 10 to 15 minutes during the day when the mood strikes. Sailors are like cats; they sleep whenever and wherever, just not for very long at a time.
Why 90-minute cycles?
it is the shortest amount of time one can sleep and still get into REM. Thus, one can operate (and I do) indefinitely on 90-minute sleeps. I used to operate on 60-minute sleeps. This works well for passages of, say, a month or so. But after a couple months at sea during the first Figure 8 attempt and getting only 60 minutes sleep at a time, I was beginning to feel unhinged, always foggy-headed and weak-kneed and was near hallucinogenic; thus the extension to 90 minutes.
What was the longest you were awake for?
The longest I’ve been awake with no formal sleep at all is three days. Ugly. I don’t recommend it. I was awake for two days a couple times during this recent Arctic run and went many nights with only three or so hours sleep.
What’s your next conquest?
I’d like to do a real survey of the North Pacific Gyre (aka the Pacific Garbage Patch). In 2012, I was sailing back to San Francisco from Hawaii, where I’d gotten to know the professors at the University of Hawaii who are mapping plastic debris concentrations and drift in the Pacific. This was the year after that tsunami in Japan had pulled about 1.3 trillion tons of debris into the ocean.
Anyway, the professors in charge of tracking all that stuff are, well, they are scientists, not sailors. They never leave the office, and so they asked a few sailors headed north into what we now call the Pacific Garbage Patch to track what they saw and collect what they could. I did. It was mind-blowing. Once I started getting up into the debris zone, I saw all kinds of stuff: plastic hair brushes, toothbrushes, chairs, tables, shoes, bits of string, bits of rope, plastic bags of all sorts, filing cabinets, fish boxes, tons and tons of unrecognizable plastic fragments…on and on. I even encountered a half-sunk fishing boat. Very spooky. And get this, I was traveling around the outside of the debris area.
So, what I’d like to do next is to sail through the middle of it and the help my friends at the University of Hawaii actually validate their models by tracking concentration by geographic area. Now, to be fair, I’ve not dropped this on the professors yet (or my wife, for that matter). It’s just a fantasy. But I think it might be a fun adventure and useful to science.
POSTSCRIPT Randall arrived in San Francisco on Saturday October 19th, and posted this beautiful, moving soliloquy about ending his amazing voyage www.figure8voyage.com