Randall Reeves has become the first person to solo circumnavigate the American and Antarctic continents in one season. He talks to Yachting Monthly about the highs and lows of his Figure 8 voyage and what he is planning next

American solo skipper Randall Reeves has made history after successfully finishing his Figure 8 voyage around the American and Antarctic continents in one season.

The 57-year-old sailor completed his circumnavigation in his 45ft, flush deck, aluminium expedition sloop, Mōli in 306 days, leaving San Francisco Bay on 30 September 2018 and returning on 19 October 2019, having navigated the Northwest Passage and rounded Cape Horn twice.

Reeves has previously completed a two year, solo cruise of the Pacific in a 30ft ketch in 2010-12, which took him to Mexico, French Polynesia, Hawaii, and Alaska.

‘Most thrilling to me were the month-long leaps rather than the exotic ports on either end. To witness this vast, watery world being its wild self, to be fully and completely on one’s own, to successfully plan and execute a long passage–these things are very rewarding. I returned to San Francisco in 2012 hungry for more, much more,’ he told Yachting Monthly.

Rough seas in the Atlantic during the Figure 8 voyage

Moli and Reeves encounter rought seas in the North Atlantic. Credit: Randall Reeves

He said it was his wife ‘who laid down the challenge for the Figure 8.’

‘She insisted that if I were to take off again, the endeavour had to be a big one. Of course, like many sailors who grew up reading about Sir Robin Knox-Johnson and Bernard Moitessier, I had wanted, since childhood, to experience the extreme difficulties of the Southern Ocean; and at about that time I read of an American, Matt Rutherford, who in 2011 completed a solo circumnavigation the American continents non-stop, including a very difficult transit of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage.

Rough seas at Cape Horn

Randall Reeves and Moli enconter rough seas after passing Cape Horn for the final time. Credit: Randall Reeves

‘That’s when it clicked: what if a person could weave these two historic high-latitude routes into one, extraordinarily long singlehanded voyage. Was that even possible and if so, could I do it? The idea bit me hard, and I started planning almost immediately,’ he explained.

Second time lucky

This year’s successful completion of the Figure 8 Voyage was his second attempt.

‘The first attempt began in October of 2017 and taught me some rather forceful lessons as I achieved southern high latitudes. In late November, Mo and I had just made 56 degrees south and were about 500 miles west of Cape Horn when we were overtaken by a large low.

‘At the height of it, winds were 50 knots gusting 70, and the large seas resulted in a knockdown that disabled both automatic steering devices and forced an emergency change of course.

‘For a week I hand steered 12-18 hours a day, a difficult thing given Mo‘s short tiller and barn-door rudder, and toward South America’s lee shore, finally making Ushuaia, Argentina nearly undone,’ explained Reeves.

After making repairs, he continued with the voyage when another low in the Indian Ocean ended his dreams.

‘We were above the Crozet Islands where currents from the Agulhas and the rather shallow water causes seas to stack up and break furiously. In the latter phases of this low, Mo was spun around and thrown to the bottom of a particularly large snorter, the force of which shattered a window in the pilothouse, filled the boat with water, and drowned most of the boat’s electronics.

‘Again, I made for port, in this case, Hobart, Tasmania.’

Now behind schedule, he abandoned the voyage, returning to San Francisco to prepare for a second attempt.

‘This failed attempt was a full, solo circumnavigation of the globe in three stops, which I like to think may be the longest shakedown cruise in history. After return, I had a scant three months to be ready for the second attempt.

‘When I departed on the first attempt, the fear I felt then was based on ignorance, but when I departed for the second time, I was afraid because I knew what I was getting into,’ explained Reeves.

Preparing for the Figure 8

He said he had to do little to prepare Mōli as the yacht was already set up for solo, high latitude passages.

Built in 1989 by Dubbel and Jesse, a yard in Norderney, Mōli was initially owned by the German journalist Clark Stede, who used her to circumnavigate the Americas (through the Arctic, around Cape Horn) over two years.

He then sold her to Canadian Tony Gooch, who, for 16 years, cruised her every summer in high latitudes.

Randall Reeves in his yacht during the Figure 8 voyage

Randall Reeves surveys the pea soup fog from Moli’s pilothouse , 670 miles from his next stop in Nuuk, Greenland. Credit: Randall Reeves

In 2002, Gooch departed Victoria, BC for a solo, non-stop circumnavigation via the five capes and was the first to successfully make this passage from a west coast of North America departure.

Reeves bought the boat from a couple who had just completed an east-to-west Northwest passage.

Mo is uniquely suited for solo, high latitude ventures. Her hull is incredibly strong; she has three watertight bulkheads; her full keel provides stability in large seas and protects the rudder and propeller from the ice in the north,’ said Reeves.

‘She’s very simply set up as well, having no watermaker, no fridge nor freezer, no electric pumps. She’s tiller steered, which makes the use of a windvane simple and efficient. Her cockpit is small; her rig simple, and her capacity for water (nearly 1000 liters in two tanks) and food carry is more than ample for one guy, even if his needs are a full year’s worth of provisions.

‘Because she’s been sailed constantly since her launch date, and often solo, I had to make very few changes. Standing and running rigging were renewed as was the suit of sails HOOD sails; main systems were overhauled; the Monitor windvane was rebuilt, bottom paint refreshed, and that was about it,’ said Reeves.

North Atlantic rough seas during Figure 8

Rough seas in the North Atlantic. Credit: Randall Reeves

There were many memorable moments during the Figure 8 voyage, but Reeves particularly loved spending such an extended time at sea.

It took him 237 days to sail non-stop and solo from San Francisco to Halifax, with much of that time spent in the Southern Ocean.

The Figure 8 Voyage required a full circuit below the five capes and two roundings of Cape Horn – 110 days and 15,000 miles at roughly 47 degrees south.

Randall Reeves fixes an oil leak during Figure 8

Randall fixes an oil leak in Sisimuit, Greenland. Credit: Randall Reeves

‘Being embedded as I was in such a remote and wild place, living for months in strong winds and among seas the size of three-story houses, sharing the air with Wandering Albatrosses–for a guy like me, this was a slice of heaven,’  noted Reeves.

‘And of course, it was also incredibly difficult. Constant wind and sea changes, lack of sleep, biting cold, all wear after months, and by the time of the second dip under the big cape, I was ready for a relaxing run through the Atlantic’s SE trades.’

Ice challenges

Ice also caused difficulties.

He wisely decided to ‘hang back’ during the 500 miles of the Northwest Passage between Peel Sound and Cambridge Bay in the Canadian Arctic.

‘The boats ahead of me had been having a terrible time with the ice. Imagine two crew at the bow poling as the crew at the wheel attempts to wedge and pivot the boat through the ice to make a lane, and all that for a mere 20 miles of southing a day.

Navigating the Northwest Passage during Figure 8

Navigating through the ice of the Northwest Passage (near Peel Sound, Arctic Circle, above Canada) . Credit: Randall Reeves

‘It wasn’t something even possible for a singlehander. So, when I began to make my southward drive, it was with a lot of apprehension. Luckily, my strategy of hanging back and waiting paid off. By the time I got to the worst of the ice pack, there had been enough thaw that I could work Mo through with relative ease,’ he explained.

‘Still, we left a lot of bottom paint in the Arctic this year. There was one time when I’d been hand steering for nearly the whole day through 4 and 6/10ths ice and was just blisteringly tired.’

Reeves said the biggest challenge in the Arctic was sleep.

Figure 8 voyage

Randall Reeves commemorates completing the Northwest Passage and is in the home stretch of his Figure 8 voyage. Credit: Randall Reeves

‘If there’s light (and at that time of year, there’s always light) and any chance of headway, you are driving the boat forward. In this case, I saw an opening in the ice, a longish extent of blue water with the white of more ice way ahead on the horizon. I dashed below, flipped on the autopilot and set the alarm for a five-minute nap.

‘On the fourth minute of my five-minute nap, I was awakened to a crashing sound. Mo stopped in her tracks and the engine ground right down.

‘We had rammed a bergy bit the size of a school bus. How I didn’t see it before going below is a mystery…and that it didn’t even dent the boat, even more so,’ he reflected.

Future plans

Reeves admits he pressed hard to complete Figure 8 in 306 days, and would now like to take things more slowly.

Randall Reeves passes Cape Horn during his Figure 8

With Cape Horn in the background, Randall Reeves marks the final of two Cape Horn passages during his Figure 8 voyage. Credit: Randall Reeves

‘I’d love to return to the south, to take it more slowly, to visit the many remote islands like the Crozets and Kerguelen. And too, I’ve transited the Northwest Passage twice now, but have been in a hurry both times. So, I dream of exploring slowly up there, even to freezing in for a winter,’ he said.

‘But most of all what’s next for me is time at home with my wife; as you can imagine, my honey-do list is quite long…’