Chinese Sailor Lost at Sea


I saw it for the first time on October 2nd, the red trimaran with the golden stars.

Moli and I entered under the bridge that day, ending our summer passages and exchanging the sweet, white-capped wilderness for a marina, flat as a parking lot and mad with weekenders.

I noted the exotic red giant nested in among boats gathered for a Westsail Rendezvous; sprawling and ungainly in aspect only because of its company, a Gulliver among the Lilliputians; hemmed-in, tied-down, an escape appearing all but impossible.

Over the next two weeks I visited Moli several times and each time I saw the red trimaran. Qingdao, hailing from China. Sleek, with modern, transverse bows and a spidery black mast. Arching, muscular supports for the outer hulls. A pilot house suggestive of a space capsule. The boat meant business.

Once I saw it gliding up the fairway, returning from what I gathered was a test sail. Once I saw a man giving a tour. Once the man seemed to be lounging on deck with his family.

I should say hello, I thought. But the boat was on G Dock. I was on F.

I didn’t know the story. I made the assumption Qingdao was crewed and preparing to be part of some larger race. I’m not much interested in drag racing and expensive, heavily crewed boats. I never stopped by.

Last weekend I noted that the boat was gone.

Today I read that the lone skipper of that red trimaran, the man I saw on deck with his family, is lost.


From Bill Hancock’s feed:

[As of October the 27th] Guo Chuan, China’s most famous sailor, is missing at sea and the Coast Guard have suspended their search for him. Mr Chuan was attempting to break the single-handed record for the fastest time to cross the Pacific. He left San Francisco on the 19th October heading for Shanghai but this past Tuesday [October 25] his support team lost contact with him. He had been keeping a regular blog about the trip and was making good time but suddenly there was no response. At first the Coast Guard flew over and tried to raise him on the radio but there was no response and later when they boarded the boat they found no trace of him. His lifejacket was there and one can only surmise what happened.

Guo Chuan was the first Chinese sailor to sail singlehanded around the world and he did so in 2013 in a Class 40. The World Sailing Speed Record Council recognized his accomplishment as the fastest time for a solo lap of the planet in a 40-foot boat. He had also competed in the Volvo Ocean Race and last summer set a benchmark record transiting the Northwest Passage from Murmansk in the extreme northwest part of Russia to an imaginary finish line in the Bering Strait. For that trip he purchased Francis Joyon’s old IDEC and he was using the same boat for his Pacific record bid.

As to surmises, Guo Chuan’s website has posted two:

Scenario 1

With the information Guo Chuan Racing got about the sea and wind conditions at the supposed moment of the accident, the team think this desaster could have happened in two ways.

Guo was sailing with 1 reef on mainsail and gennaker in about 13 to 20 knts wind downwind which is a reasonable sail configuration for these conditions.

At the end of the day he decided to furl the gennaker in order to sail even safer for the night. After that he tried to drop it on windward side (which becomes a tricky maneuver in stronger winds for a solo sailor). Holding the halyard and restraining the gennaker at the same time, he lost the control of the halyard and the gennaker finally fell brutally down far away on the leeward side of the boat. As he was trying to restrain the gennaker to fall in the water he got pushed and ripped out of the boat either at the side of the starboard float or in front of the starboard front beam.

Scenario 2

Guo was sailing with 1 reef on mainsail and J1 in about 13 to 20 knots wind downwind which is the safest sail configuration for sailing at night.

The gennaker was furled and still hoisted. For an unknown reason the halyard or the gennaker cable broke. Guo first furled the J1 in order to slow down the boat before taking care of the gennaker that has fallen in the water.

He then began to get the gennaker back on the net close to the starboard float. By manipulating the very powerful gennaker (which was drifting in the water) out of the water, he had at a certain moment to unhook his safety lifeline in order to change his position on the boat. A bad wave throw the gennaker back in the water and pushed Guo out of the boat.

Guo had most probably a life jacket with a safety line and a beacon for these maneuvers. In the first scenario, you need to unclip the the safety lifeline at one point.


I feel an affinity for Guo, this man I never met, though our approaches to (and presumably our appreciation of) the sea, boats and projects were very different, and I can imagine that Guo, working the foredeck with spray in his face, sometimes wondered, as do I, what it would be like to fall overboard.

Ironically, such a thing never feels possible, much less imminent.

Once beyond the land, the world simplifies and the center shifts. There’s the wind and sea, the boat, and you. With time and the perpetual motion of life on the waves, the boundary between you and boat becomes hardly noticeable, even the boundary between boat and sea blurs. This weird world where you forever fly atop the water … feels perfectly natural.

What is just beyond that thin skin of hull is uninhabitable, as alien as the ice giants circling the sun. But you have forgotten this long ago.

The sudden lurch from an unseen wave. The lost grip and momentary sense of weightlessness. The cold splash and then the immediate, frantic, impossible swimming, soon given up. The boat is already several waves ahead.

One long scream, the boat’s name, with full faith that such a call will turn her on her heels. It must. You slap the water. You blink salt from your eyes. The boat sails on.

So that’s what she looks like sailing, you think! If anything, her beauty intensifies the sense of loss. You stare and stare as she grows small. Then she is but a shaking mast above the waves. Then she is gone.

What happens next I can never quite force myself to imagine. The waves roll. You become colder and colder. If you are lucky, at night you see the dome of stars. Because you are lucky. You wished to push beyond the usual, to witness a world others cannot imagine. And you succeeded.


5 Comments on “Chinese Sailor Lost at Sea

  1. I sometimes imagine being dragged by a harness, maybe on top of a broken rib? Not a rat’s ass chance of regaining the boat only ten feet away. Being pulled under. One doesn’t have to lurch overboard un-clipped to die. The difference is – will the tether chafe through before the boat is noticed, on her own.

    Yesterday I looked on the planetary wind program, the green hairy ball you can rotate and play with online, and I admired the five major spiraling low pressure storm systems circling Antarctica with tentacles up into the 40s. And that’s springtime down there. You have to be kidding! You’ve got the right boat, I think, but do you really think you have better than a 50-50 chance of coming back alive? And maybe that doesn’t matter, or maybe it does? You seem to be following Tilman, who I’m sure expected to die out there and couldn’t care less. Unfortunately he took others with him. Your vision is cleaner. I’ll give you that.

    Just asking. Trying to understand. Not my business at all. But also caring.

    • Kurt,

      Re your first comment, agree. Like you I’ve heard of fallen sailors being towed behind their boats like cowboys behind a horse and with similar happy result. Tony Gooch, previous owner of MOLI (when she was TAONUI and went around the world via the southern ocean non-stop) solved this problem, though he never had the fortune to test it, by rigging a line down both sides of the boat. In case he got tossed over the side while tethered, he could use this hand rope to haul himself aft where he could then climb aboard using the Monitor. Still not an easy feat in rough and cold weather.

      Re your second, rather ominous comment, the answer is that I think I’ve got much better than even odds of surviving and wouldn’t pursue something like this for less. Remember this boat of mine has done the whole passage already, twice, over the space of about 30 years. All I’m doing is attempting to compress that into one year. Moreover, I’m guessing that people who take on challenges like see it as inherently doable. They see a solution to the puzzle of, for example, climbing Everest or walking to the South Pole that others don’t see, which, in their own mind, severely reduces the risk. I recall hearing Sharon Adams, the first woman to solo the Pacific back in 1968, this back when women weren’t supposed to leave the house, say regarding her passage, “There wasn’t anything about it I couldn’t do.”

  2. Randall, you claim to have completed a Northwest Passage then should know that the above is not a Northwest Passage but rather a Northeast Passage. Please edit and delete this comment.

    • As the gods are still gnawing at Guo’s bones, I think we can leave-off quibbling over his many accomplishments.

      • No wonder yachties have trouble… they don’t know the rules of Passage and mistake Russia’s Northern Sea for a Northwest Passage which is like saying you climbed Mt Everest when all you did was climb Mt. Rainier but never summited… either get it right or expect those who do know to call you out…

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