OSTAR veteran Mervyn Wheatley ponders the changes in sailing through his decades-long career
For Mervyn Wheatley, the 2020 Original Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) was to be his swan song, his final race.
But as with much sport during the pandemic, the OSTAR, due to set off from Plymouth in May 2020, was postponed until 2022.
In a remarkable offshore sailing career that has made him a hero among Corinthian ocean sailors, Mervyn Wheatley has competed both singlehanded and with crews, as well as cruising extensively across oceans and in coastal waters.
We caught up with him during lockdown as he reflected on how sailing has changed in the last five decades, and what it takes to sail solo.
While Wheatley ‘sailed dinghies a bit as a youth’, it was during his 33-year career in the Royal Marines that really got him into sailing, racing in dinghies owned by the service for a few years and also sailing some of their keelboats.
With sailing becoming an increasingly significant part of his life, Mervyn Wheatley was offered the chance to sail his first ocean passage by a close friend.
‘My friend Michael [McMullen] was doing the 1972 OSTAR but he’d bought another boat to be picked up over there – a cutting edge trimaran – so he asked me to go out and sail back his Contessa 32,’ explained Wheatley.
‘It was a pretty interesting introduction to ocean sailing, as everything was still being done on astronavigation back then, which I had not really done before.
‘Back then people used to spend their winter learning astronavigation on six-month courses so we tried to cram a six-month course into half an hour and set off. The first six sights took us rather a long time to work out but that did not matter too much as we had a lot of ocean ahead of us. By the time we got in, we were rather better at it,’ he added.
What followed was years of continued offshore racing for Mervyn Wheatley, who now firmly had the bug.
‘I did a few doublehanded Round Britain Races in the 1970s and then the first Azores and Back (AZAB) in 1975 – which was singlehanded then. I was also able to skipper one of the naval boats, which was one of the bigger boats owned then, at 70ft, so that gave me some very useful big, big boat experience.’
The culmination of this period came in the form of an invitation to skipper the Clipper 60, Thermopylae in the first edition of the Clipper Round the World Race in 1996.
‘That was just after I had retired so it really fitted in very nicely,’ Wheatley explained.
‘It’s an interesting thing to have done, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I really could not believe that there was someone willing to pay me to do it. It was very much a dream job.
‘You have a crew of highly motivated people as they have all spent a fair bit of money to do it so they are gagging to get on and get involved. That makes life easy for the skipper.
‘There were very few crew members with any significant experience, and even for those with experience, it didn’t matter as they hadn’t been on that size of boat before nor such a long race. So it all evened out really and it was just a question of working out those who were keen to get up, go forward and take on the sail changes and those who tended to hang back in the cockpit. And that provided you with an obvious and interesting contrast in personalities.’
Singlehanded and crewed
Much of Wheatley’s early ocean sailing experience came in the form of either shorthanded or singlehanded racing.
Although he had done a reasonable amount of crewed sailing before the Clipper Race, leading a crew around the world was something of a step up.
Mervyn Wheatley turned to his experience in the Royal Marines to help see him through.
‘It was quite interesting – when I signed up to the Clipper, there were two skippers who did the training initially: myself and a chap called Adrian Faiers,’ Wheatley recalled.
‘Adrian and I could not have been more different, he was exactly half my age and came from South London, from a fairly underprivileged background. Then there was me, public school ex-Royal Marines and we got on so, so well.
‘Adrian had done rather a lot of big-boat sailing and I hadn’t, so I had a lot to learn from him. He’d spent all his time learning to sail and had spent very little time learning about man management and so he had quite a lot to learn from me and it just worked really well, feeding off one another’s knowledge.
‘The thing about sailing is that it does not matter a bugger where you came from, and where you grew up, it is how you conduct yourself on the boat, that is the thing that matters. There were certainly some interesting examples of that on the Clipper Race. You soon sort out who is first up for the sail change and who is just a little bit later and who is always in the cockpit on the backstay runner.’
Wheatley believes that skippering a crew is essentially a leadership role, utilising very different skills than those needed for solo racing.
‘To be honest I have never found the leadership bit very difficult. I have spent years in the Royal Marines and if you cannot manage a bunch of blokes on a boat after that, then there is probably something wrong with you. Sailing solo, however, is an entirely selfish endeavour. I mean there is really nothing more selfish than singlehanding,’ he admitted.
Mervyn Wheatley highlights the obvious points about the ‘selfish’ nature of solo sailing – that you are doing it for yourself, that you have to listen to no-one but yourself, but also that it is selfish in a broader sense; that your loved ones left back onshore have little clue about where you are and how safe you are.
In fact, Wheatley’s concern for family back home comes up repeatedly in the course of our conversation.
It is clearly something that has weighed heavily on his conscience over the years.
There is a slight sense that he looks back on his solo sailing in the 1970s, where communications were scant, and wonders just how selfish he was being.
‘The first Azores race I did was in 1975,’ he said.
‘We had Sarbe beacons with 12 big batteries and I had a VHF receiver, not a transmitter, just a sailor receiver. On the way back I put my kite up. There were a few other boats in sight and I could hear they were chatting to each other about this boat they could see and eventually I got my Sarbe beacon out and called them up and said that boat you have been talking about is me – a bit smugly because I was young and stupid. We had a bit of a chat and eventually I signed off and said to them, right I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
‘It was shortly after that, I realised I really did not want to speak to them tomorrow, it was my first solo trip and I was really enjoying being so cut off from anything. So I called them the next day – because I had said that I would – and afterwards said well that’s it, otherwise I‘ll use up all my batteries. I didn’t call again and that was a great relief.’
After he had a family, Wheatley realised that it ‘was not acceptable to bugger off on my own and not keep in touch’, so kept in contact with sat comms and now with Iridium, where ‘every step of a trip’ can be followed by loved ones.
‘The ocean is a smaller place because of it,’ he reflected.
The loss of adventure
Mervyn Wheatley is not alone in his rueful reflection of the technology we now have at our fingertips.
Many of us have faced the question of how intrusive is too intrusive when it comes to technology, compared to the trade-off of increased safety.
‘By far the greatest change I have seen over my time is the introduction of GPS, which obviously has allowed the introduction of electronic charts and things like that,’ said Wheatley.
‘From my point of view, that has absolutely revolutionised the game. I mean, in the 1970s you had to navigate using astronavigation, but now anyone can set off across an ocean.’
Wheatley sees this as a ‘huge development and a massive advantage’ for sailing as it makes it more accessible but admitted that ‘from an old fart’s perspective’ it was a disadvantage as it meant more boats to ‘clutter up the ocean.’
He also believes it encourages people to go sailing ‘without the other needed skills to set off’.
‘We all know that experience is 90 per cent of sailing. You can spend all the money in the world on the best GPS and navigation systems, but waving a GPS at a Force 9 gale is not really going to solve the problem.’
Wheatley is also somewhat caught between the benefits of modern technology – particularly from a safety angle – and the loss of adventure that has come with it.
When the 2018 Golden Globe Race was first announced, he initially thought it ‘looked like a brilliant adventure that could recapture some of the adventuring spirit of the original.’
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‘But then you look at the rules that needed to be in place around safety and I soon realised that it was not a recreation of Robin Knox-Johnston’s experience because they have all the safety backstops there and ready to go. That fundamentally alters it [from the original race],’ he continued.
Despite the intrusion of technology into the sport, Wheatley’s passion for getting out on the sea alone remains as strong as ever.
‘On the solo side there is the dependence on one’s self for survival that is simply thrilling. If something goes wrong then you are going to have to sort it out yourself.
‘In the modern world it is almost impossible to find that sort of isolation. You cannot climb a mountain by yourself anymore – or at least not a serious one. There are very few opportunities to be entirely on your own and at the mercy of the elements. Sailing still allows that adventuring spirit to live on.’
Mervyn Wheatley still has the ‘adventuring spirit’.
‘Well I’m 76 now, so even if it had gone ahead this year I would be 80 by the next one [OSTAR] and I’m not sure I would be fit enough to do it.’
Mervyn Wheatley certainly seemed sincere about stopping competing in ocean racing, but nothing about the man implies he will be giving up on finding the isolation and self-determinism he so clearly craves and that the ocean delivers.
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