Sailing through life

By Zhang Wen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-26 19:43:01

A weary but victorious Guo Chuan holds up a flag after completing his single-handed sail around the world.

A weary but victorious Guo Chuan holds up a flag after completing his single-handed sail around the world.

Arriving in Qingdao

Arriving in Qingdao  Photos: Courtesy of Guo Chuan

After 137 days and 21,600 nautical miles on the open water, Guo Chuan couldn't wait a moment more to reach the dock as his sailboat approached Qingdao, Shandong Province. Guo, 48, jumped into the sea, swam to the bank and crawled into the arms of his wife and two children. Tears, rain and sea water soaked him through.

Guo's arrival at Qingdao, on April 5 marked a new record for a solo nonstop sail around the world with a 40-foot vessel.

"I don't know what to say. I haven't seen so many people for a long time," he told reporters at the scene as he was greeted by a crowd of cheering supporters waiting for him on the dock. He had fans heralding him upon his return to his home in Beijing, too, as he was awarded the title of ambassador of environmental protection by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau on June 5.

As much as he missed life on land, Guo finds that two months since returning to Beijing, he's itching for his next exciting endeavor.

"You have to use all your courage, wisdom and ability to combat the unpredictable and sudden changes that happen," he said. "It takes all your adrenaline to face and overcome challenges at sea. The pleasure of finally conquering them is addictive."

Love at first sail

Born in 1965, Guo grew up with his grandmother, as both his parents were geologists and often away. A straight-A student, he headed to Beihang University, majored in aircraft control and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

After graduation, he was hired by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, a State-owned enterprise, and worked on the launch of international commercial satellites. Guo spent his free time embracing his love of freedom, fresh air and the outdoors with hobbies such as skiing, hang gliding, scuba diving and, of course, sailing, which he first started in 2000 after seeing an impressive sailboat in Qingdao.

"I still remember the tall, white, beautiful mast," he said. "But I never expected this hobby to become my profession. In 2000, sailing wasn't common in the Chinese mainland."

Step by step, he gained more sailing knowledge and experience. He realized that sailing differs from all other sports in that he could make longer and grander plans to challenge himself.

"Sailing takes you to a primitive world where you're facing wild, natural forces," he said.

Embarking on a new voyage

In 2000, Guo quit his desk job to pursue sailing. He studied under expert sailing coaches in France, and in 2008 was asked to join a crew for the Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world yacht competition dubbed the "Everest of sailing."

As the only Chinese crew member among the team of 11 top-level circumnavigators, he felt pressure after realizing the large disparity in ability between himself and them.

"It's like I'm a high school student facing university students. I was the newcomer," he said.

Guo's strong desire to stand out became an impediment in the cramped quarters, and he suffered from claustrophobia. Determined to finish out the nine-month voyage, he took anti-depression pills to calm him.

Once Guo sets his mind to do something, he does it. "A person must have this entrepreneurial vigor, this spirit for exploration," he said. "People nowadays think too much and have too many hang-ups."

In the end, his team took fifth place out of eight competitors. He was touted as the first Chinese sailor of the race, an international recognition that motivated Guo to finish better next time. Impressed with his performance, sports agency Xiyuechengzhang signed him on, and Guo officially became a full-time sailor.

His own captain

After three years of preparation, Guo felt ready to test himself on a new level, and set out from Qingdao alone aboard a 330,000 euro ($432,000) French vessel his team bought for him. It was equipped with solar panels, a generator, desalinizing facilities to provide drinking water and an antenna system through which he could communicate with his family and team.

When comparing his own experiences to those depicted in the movie Life of Pi, Guo said the movie shows only the drama of the seas, while a real voyage has more peaceful days. In pleasant conditions, he might sail right alongside a school of dolphins or flying fish.

Guo, however, describes the constantly changing weather and unpredictable dangers on the ocean as more like a horror movie, particularly when he was passing the treacherous Cape Horn at the bottom of South America.

Single-handed sailing was exhausting for Guo. He had to constantly adjust the motorless vessel according to the wind, maintain his logs and collect sea water every two to three days for a Swiss scientific experiment. During his 137 days on the water, Guo lost 7 kilograms.

Sleep for a solo sailor comes in 20 to 30 minute spurts during calm weather. In extreme weather, Guo might not get a single wink for 24 or even 48 hours. He slept, on average, less than three hours a day.

In order to drive away feelings of loneliness, Guo stuck pictures of his newborn son all over in the inner wall of the 5-square-meter cabin. When he set out in 2012, his younger son Guo Lunbu, named after the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, was only 10 months old. His wife e-mailed him the latest photos so he could add to the collection.

"Family is the most important emotional support for finishing my around-the-world sailing. They gave me the hope and confidence I needed to reach the finish line," he said.

After all those hardships, he still feels it's worth it to go for another single-handed sail in 2014 - the Route du Rhum sailing race.

"Every time you sail is different, every wave gives you different feeling," he said. "Like eating the same meal every day, you'll start to feel bored, but after a while, you'll miss it and want it again."

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