In Depth: Pieter Heerema Shares His Story of Sailing Around the World Alone

How to explain what it is like to sail the Vendée Globe, a round-the-world solo yacht race, non-stop and without assistance? Pieter Heerema, who finished the prestigious race on March 2 this year, is certain that it is not going to be easy.

“I can talk for three weeks about my voyage and still only give you a glimpse of how it is to sail the world non-stop.”

Emotions can be hard to describe, but if you just show them, everybody knows what you are talking about. And that is what Heerema did during the lecture at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam.

He told the audience about the tiger who lived on his sailing boat No Way Back: “Sometimes she was nice, sometimes I was hanging on her tail. But I had to keep an eye on her at all times.” The tiger stood for the fear and constant stress, caused by the fact that he had to be alert all the time.

Heerema told about the finish, after sailing the ocean alone for so long. When he reached the finish, his team members who supported him from the shore, jumped on the No Way Back. And with that, they popped the bubble in which Heerema had lived in for 116 days.

“They shot the tiger right then and there when they entered my boat,” said Heerema with emotion in his voice.

The Vendée Globe starts and ends in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. There the course goes down the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope; then clockwise around Antarctica, keeping Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn to port and then back in the Atlantic Ocean to Les Sables d’Olonne. The race is considered by many a test of extreme individual endurance.

Egg timer

Sleep deprivation is one of the hurdles during the race. Heerema told that he didn’t sleep the first 48 hours of the race: “The Bay of Biscay is very busy with all its maritime traffic. You have to watch every minute and sleeping is impossible.”

After this start, there is no time to catch up. Heerema only slept for two or three hours a day: “The longest period without sleep was sixty hours. I slept with an egg timer on my chest. Every twenty minutes it went off, so I could check all the instruments.” After two hours of sleep, he had to check the deck if everything was in order.

Another challenge is the solitude during the solo voyage. The only humans that Heerema saw were on the cargo ships.

He also crossed Point Nemo, the farthest point from land on our planet. Located in the Southern Pacific ocean between New Zealand and South America, the nearest landmass is 1,600 kilometres away. The remoteness of the area meant that the nearest humans from Pieter Heerema were the astronauts in the International Space Station orbiting above his head.

Fast and vulnerable

Because of these conditions, Heerema had to rely heavily on his equipment. The No Way Back is designed by the French-based naval architectural firm VPLP-Verdier and built at the Persico Marine yard in Italy.

She has a length of 18,28 metres with a beam of 5,8 metres. The No Way Back weighs 7,5 tonnes. The skin of the sail boat is only 2,7 millimetres thick and made of carbon.

She is very fast but also vulnerable. If I had hit a trunk of a tree or a whale I would have had a serious problem.” The boat needed a lot of maintenance work and systems like the automatic pilot failed. “I took care of her and she took care of me.”

Pieter Heerema is a long time sailor, in inshore racing but also cruising with his family in various parts of the world.

Since the nineties, he has spent a lot of time racing with a crew and made it often to the podium. But the podium was not the goal when Heerema started the Vendée Globe.

“It was my goal to complete the voyage. To sail all the way around the world alone…”

Jaap Proost


This article was previously published in Maritime Holland edition #4– 2017.

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