CCA’s Blue Water Medal
The Cruising Club of America will bestow the 2019 Blue Water Medal upon Jean-Luc Van Den Heede in recognition of his achievements in singlehanded sailing. Most notable among his accomplishments are six solo circumnavigations. He won the 2018 Golden Globe Race and set the world record for fastest west-about circumnavigation.
The Cruising Club of America (CCA) established the Blue Water Medal in 1923 to reward “meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea.” Previous winners include Eric Tabarly, Sir Francis Chichester, Bernard Moitessier, Rod Stephens and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. More recently, Webb Chiles and Jeanne Socrates — both favorites with Latitude Nation — have been recipients.
An Accomplished Life
Born in France in 1945, Van Den Heede completed two Mini Transat races in 1977 and 1979 before sailing his first solo circumnavigation in the 1986 BOC Challenge Race. He placed second in that race. He then sailed in the inaugural Vendée Globe, coming in third. In the second Vendée Globe, in 1992, he finished second. Next up was the inaugural Transat Jacques Vabre. A doublehanded event since 1995, the first race, from Le Havre, France, to Cartagena, Colombia, in 1993, was for solo sailors. In 1994-1995, Van Den Heede again raced in the BOC Challenge, placing third in class. He competed in the singlehanded Route du Rhum transatlantic race in 1998, after which he began attempts to beat the record for the fastest east-to-west circumnavigation.
Pitting sailors against the prevailing winds and currents in the Southern Ocean, this goal is considered one of the toughest in sailing. VDH made his first attempt in 1999, but hit a submerged object halfway between Cape Horn and New Zealand. He then built the 85-ft aluminum monohull Adrien for a second attempt in 2001, but was again forced to retire when the keel began working loose from the hull soon after rounding Cape Horn. In 2002, Van Den Heede attempted the circumnavigation again, but was dismasted south of Australia. This time, he brought the boat back to France with a steel mast he’d built himself in Tasmania.
In 2004, aboard Adrien, Van Den Heede, sailing singlehanded, broke the record for fastest west-about circumnavigation, crewed or solo. He made the voyage in 122 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes, 49 seconds, cutting 29 days off the previous record. His record still stands today.
Looking Back at the 2018 Golden Globe Race
At age 73, Van Den Heede entered the 2018 Golden Globe Race, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first round-the-world yacht race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the only one of nine entrants to complete the original race.
The 2018 GGR limited entrants to the same type of yachts and equipment that were available to the competitors in 1968. This meant relatively heavy displacement, full-keel yachts with lengths on deck of 32-36 feet, and no GPS.
Before the race began, VDH commented about these conditions. “The slow speeds of these classic old boats with their long keels, the absence of weather information, the loss of all electronics and reliance on a sextant to plot positions, the lack of terrestrial contact, and the replacement of an electric pilot with windvane self-steering, will make this test even more difficult than the Vendée Globe. But this is good. I want to relive the conditions and challenges that my sailing predecessors enjoyed.”
VDH won the Golden Globe Race on January 29, 2019, having been at sea 212 days aboard Matmut, his Rustler 36. He did so despite a capsize in the Pacific that required him to repair his rigging. Of the 18 entrants in the race, only five finished; of those who retired, five were dismasted. In winning the Golden Globe, VDH took over from Sir Robin Knox-Johnston as the oldest sailor to complete a solo round-the-world race. Reflecting on the race, he commented that morale is more important than physical strength.
Looking Ahead to the 2022 Golden Globe Race
Among the 21 entries, only one is a woman, South African Kirsten Neuschäfer, 37. Tapio Lehtinen, 61, will return. Despite a serious barnacle infestation, the Finnish Lehtinen managed to complete the race in 2019, coming in fifth out of the five finishers.