The most experienced skipper to sign up for the Golden Globe Race 2022, multiple solo circumnavigator David Scott Cowper explains why he is taking part in the longest yacht race around the world
David Scott Cowper is no stranger to extreme offshore adventure.
The 79-year-old British skipper was the first person to sail solo around the world in both directions and to circumnavigate, solo, via the Northwest Passage.
David Scott Cowper has been ‘keen on the sea’ since the age of 7, sailing with his father off the northeast coast.
‘The northeast coast is a very good training ground. After all the best sailors, like Cook came from the northeast and Nelson was from Norfolk,’ he told Yachting Monthly from his home port of Newcastle.
He followed the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race; a ‘lack of money or ability to acquire a boat’ meant he didn’t take part himself.
David Scott Cowper said he was inspired to sail offshore by the likes of Sir Francis Chichester and Humphrey Barton in his Vertue 15.
In 1980, he completed the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe via Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin in his 41ft Huisman-built S&S sloop Ocean Bound. He took 225 days, beating Sir Francis Chichester’s 1966-67 record aboard Gypsy Moth IV by one day.
Two years later, he circumnavigated again on Ocean Bound, sailing against the prevailing westerly winds and rounding all five capes in 237 days, becoming the fastest person to sail singlehanded around the world in both directions.
David Scott Cowper began sailing high latitudes in the 1980s as ‘they were not being explored’, switching from sail to motorboats.
In 1984–1985 he sailed westwards round the globe in a converted ex-Royal National Lifeboat Institution Watson 42-foot wooden lifeboat, the Mabel E. Holland, via the Panama Canal, becoming the first person to circumnavigate solo in a motor boat.
In 1986, he embarked on a circumnavigation via the Northwest Passage which he finished in 1990, during which Mabel E Holland survived a sinking while overwintering at Fort Ross.
Between 2009 and 2011 he completed the voyage westward through the Northwest Passage via the coast of South America to the Antarctic, South Georgia, Cape Town, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii before doubling back again east, via the Passage.
In 2012 he transited the Northwest Passage via the McClure Strait, one of the most northerly of the seven known Northwest Passage routes, aboard his 48ft aluminium motorboat Polar Bound.
Four years later, accompanied by his son, Fred, he transited one of the most difficult routes of the North West Passage, the Hecla and Fury Straits, becoming the first to navigate through this passage since William Parry discovered it in 1822 with the ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury.
David Scott Cowper will be racing in the 2022 Golden Globe Race aboard his Tradewind 35 Cutter, currently named Tim Pippin.
Finishing the race would bring his tally of circumnavigations around the world to seven; he has completed six Northwest Passage transits.
‘It has been interesting doing the various routes through the Northwest Passage. There’s just one I’ve got to do – that’s the Prince of Wales Strait, which I plan to do after the Golden Globe Race,’ added David Scott Cowper.
Why have you decided to take part in that 2022 Golden Globe Race?
David Scott Cowper: I met Don McIntyre [Golden Globe Race Chairman] back in 1979, and formed a very close friendship. Although we don’t see each other very much, we pick up the threads, instantaneously, so, I thought it would be rather nice to support him in doing the race.
I also thought the race was a very good idea. The only thing that I disapprove of, although I fully understand why Don has got to do it, is all of the rules and regulations.
I feel the race should be in the spirit of the times, back in 1968 where you just turned up and went, but now you’ve got 50 pages of rules and regulations [to comply with].
For instance, we have to have a genuine chronometer.
Back in 1968, they were only a few hundreds pounds but now, they are really expensive. You really wouldn’t take it on a small little boat where there’s a good chance it will never survive.
We also need to take Iridium phones, all bought in the last six months. I think he’s [Don McIntyre] gone overboard on all these safety measures.
You need to be assessed for medical fitness which is a cost and we need to complete a survival courses [STCW 95 or ISAF approved Survival course].
The mast has to be certified; the boat has to be certified seaworthy. It just goes on and on.
I would much prefer it was run like the original race, where you just roll up and take pot luck.
What did you pick up from following the 2018 Golden Globe Race?
David Scott Cowper: I was surprised at how many masts were lost [5 boats were dismasted in 2018 race].
Do you think the 2018 fleet was in the Southern Ocean too early?
David Scott Cowper: No. I think that a lot of them didn’t realise the power of the sea.
And don’t forget, even in the last Vendee Globe race, a boat broke in half in the Atlantic. [Kevin Escoffier lost his IMOCA 60, PRB, 840 miles SW of Cape Town after the boat broke in to after it was hit by 16ft waves]
How are you preparing your Tradewind 35 for the race?
David Scott Cowper: I bought the Tradewind 35 in Denmark in 2018 and sailed her to my homeport of Newcastle.
I pulled the boat apart and it was surprising that everything needed attention, which I am doing now.
The boat is in the shed and I am basically doing the work myself. I am slowly rebuilding the boat now, and hoping it will be stronger and in a better condition.
Getting her back in the water is the $64,000 question. One of the difficulties with the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to get parts, and to get any servicing done.
The pedestal needed servicing, but was told it would be 6-9 months before it was done, so that was a job I then just had to take on myself.
This happens time and time again, that you’ve just got to do it yourself, otherwise it will never get done, although the standard of workmanship today is considerably less than it was a number of years ago for the simple reasons that we’ve hardly got any shipwrights; we’ve lost all of our trade skills.
The boat has really insubstantial strengthening around the chainplates, so that’s one of the things that I’m concentrating on.
I want to replace the deck-stepped mast with keel-stepped, because I feel that it will give the mast a bit more support.
Everything from winches to cleats have come off the boat; the rudder, the prop shaft, the engine, the engine bed. It is just a question of now putting it back better than it was, and hopefully make it much more reliable.
I’ve changed the chart table around. It ran longitudinally with the boat and I’ve put it athwartships, which I think is a better configuration so that was quite a big job.
Why did you choose the Tradewind 35 cutter?
David Scott Cowper: I thought it was quite a solid boat.
It has got a good foredeck as opposed to a cabin where you’re walking along a narrow sidewalk.
On the Tradewind, once you come out of the cockpit you haven’t got far to reach the full deck.
The boat is called Tim Pippin, but I’ll most probably change the name. I’m still thinking of a suitable name.
I sailed her back from Denmark and I am hoping to get her back in the water as soon as possible, but there is still a lot of work to do.
I’m still debating on the mast, which is quite a critical item.
Are you confident the boat will be ready in time for the start of the race?
David Scott Cowper: I certainly hope so, because I have spent quite a bit of time preparing and it has taken quite a bit of money.
It’s amazing how expensive parts are for the boat.
I’ve stripped all the wiring out, the engine has been out, the fuel tank.
I’ve got to pressure wash the in-built water tank, but literally there wasn’t a thing left on the boat, apart from just the fibreglass, which is thin in places so I’ll be strengthening that up too.
For this race there will be no HAM radio allowed only registered, licensed maritime-approved HF Single Side Band (SSB) Radio, with discussions limited to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) weather. Weather Fax will be allowed for the race. Some of the 2018 Golden Globe Race skippers raised concerns about picking up GMDSS in the Southern Ocean. Do you have any concerns about this?
David Scott Cowper: That was another thing I raised with Don.
I don’t see the point of taking a very expensive HF radio set, and having insulators on the stays to communicate when there’s no one you can communicate with because a lot of it depends on propagation.
His argument was you can talk to fellow sailors close to you, but it’s an expensive item.
It is £10,000 worth; it takes a lot of juice out of your battery, so you’ve got to keep charging your batteries, because once you’re engaged in conversation it’s difficult sometimes just to keep it to a couple of minutes.
I think it’s a waste of time. These days, no one really communicates by old fashioned radio, they just pick up the Iridium telephone.
Are you concerned about your ability to get weather data?
David Scott Cowper: No, as in small boats like a Tradewind, you can’t run away from the weather. You have to take the weather as it comes. You just have to try and read the signs and watch your barometer.
You are not going to run away from weather or run before it or do some clever things like the Volvo 65s or the Vendee Globe boats, which can do 30-40 knots.
We will be travelling across the ocean at scenic speeds of 3-5 knots.
With this in mind, storm tactics will be vital for the race. Have you decided on your tactics yet?
David Scott Cowper: Not until I have sailed the boat and see how she sits in the water.
Most boats when you pull the sails down just turn broadside onto the waves, and depending on how rough it is and how big the crests are, you’ll make a decision as to whether to have a little bit of sail up and run before it.
I really need to see how the boat handles. Even if I don’t take the boat out in heavy weather in the winter, I will be able to tell fairly instantly once I’m at sea how the boat is going to handle and what is the best way to handle it.
Do you favour warps or a drogue?
David Scott Cowper: I suppose a drogue is superior to warps because warps haven’t really got good enough friction to slow the boat down, so the drogue is a better method.
The difficulty with all of this equipment is pulling it back [on board].
Space is limited on the boat for a lot of warps; I might take a drogue.
Don’t forget that these are very small boats, and we need to carry food, water and diesel. Once you’ve got food on board for 250 days, there’s not much room left.
We also have survival suits on board, EPIRBS, two grab bags; you’re going to have limited room.
What spares are you planning to take?
David Scott Cowper: Spares will be limited because I’m hoping to fit out the boat in good quality equipment that shouldn’t break.
What self steering set up are you planning to use?
David Scott Cowper: A Hydrovane because it can act as a spare rudder, according to Don [McIntyre].
Is your plan to win and beat Jean-Luc Van Den Heede’s time of 211 days?
David Scott Cowper: It would be nice to do that, but I don’t want to be that optimistic and become conceited.
I will take each day as it comes and hope to sail the boat reasonably quickly.
I would have thought it would take around 225 days, but I will prepare the boat for 250 days.
Are you planning to get some routing advice ahead of the race like Jean-Luc Van Den Heede did?
David Scott Cowper: These things, to a certain extent, are hypothetical in the way that the weather beats us every time.
What one can do is to look at what the Clippers did and how they sailed.
But of course, the race has certain gates.
We have to call into the Canaries, we have to pass with Trinidade to port, as Don [McIntyre] thinks that will be easier on the boats and then we have Cape Town, which I have complained about, as if you have a Cape Doctor blowing, you might not be able to enter Cape Town for two or three days.
On the other hand, you might have absolutely no wind at all, and take days to get in and out of Cape Town.
It doesn’t add an extra challenge [to the race] as it is just about luck.
It would be better if a time penalty was given if you didn’t call there [Cape Town].
What antifouling do you plan to use on your boat?
David Scott Cowper: The trouble with antifouling these days is they are all like dishwater; useless.
The only worthwhile antifouling is commercial antifouling that Joe Bloggs can’t get.
The other problem is that the boat will be travelling at 3-4 knots which will give plenty of time for growth to grow on the bottom, so there is really no good antifouling that can stay the course for 250 days without any growth.
Even if you used copper based antifoul, you’re going too slow for it to act as an abrasive; there is not enough friction as the boat goes through the water to keep it clean.
Do you plan to go over the side to keep the hull clean?
David Scott Cowper: No, because I don’t swim. I also think it is a silly thing to do when you’re on your own, because you might suddenly get cramp or there might be a shark in the water.
Even if the water is tranquil, there’s always a current running.
The rope might not even be tied on properly or something like that; you don’t know what mistakes could just happen.
You’ve previously used celestial navigation. Is it coming back to you?
David Scott Cowper: I’m hoping it won’t take me too long [to brush up].
I did pull out my sextant the other day. Although I’ve got to have cataract operations on my eyes, I could spot the sun still.
[The operation will be done after the 2022 Golden Globe Race].
With extensive solo experience, I assume isolation will not be an issue?
David Scott Cowper: No. I’m quite content with my own company.
Do you think your previous solo circumnavigations and your numerous Northwest Passage transits will be an advantage in the race?
David Scott Cowper: I will know what to expect which is the biggest thing, but, of course, as one gets older, you haven’t got the brute force [strength] that you did when you were a youngster, so I’ll have to be a little bit more intelligent with my energy retention.
Do you think your age will make a different in this race [David will be 80 when the race starts]?
David Scott Cowper: Unfortunately, one does slow up and your strength levels are not quite the same as before, but on the other hand, one knows what to anticipate so I’m hoping that stands me in good stead.
Will you be taking any treats with you?
David Scott Cowper: No I don’t think so. The trouble with a treat is that I would be rewarding myself too quickly and then they would all disappear.
I will just take the essential equipment and maybe a book or two.
Will you miss anything while taking part in the race?
David Scott Cowper: You don’t really think about missing things, because if you’re going to miss everything you wouldn’t do it.
You’re at sea, you’re concentrating on sailing the boat. If you’re not concentrating on that you’re either sleeping or you’re cooking or navigating.
GGR 2018 was a celebration of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. The GGR 2022 is a celebration of Bernard Moitessier. What words of wisdom from Moitessier will you be following in the race?
David Scott Cowper: It is difficult to say. Moitessier, apart from Robin Knox-Johnston, was the most experienced sailor [in the 1968 race].
Although people think he was a bit peculiar, he was a very good seaman, and his boat was strong and well prepared.
So the answer is a well prepared boat, which is fit for seagoing.
Boats today are basically built for marinas. They have very attractive galleys, but as for handgrips and strength, they lack quite a lot of essentials.
When you read sailing magazines, the basic boat is X pounds but by the time you’ve made it fit for sea, it is Y pounds – usually £100,000 more.