Is Mike Horn the best expedition yachtsman? Helen Fretter spoke to the sailor and adventurer to find out.
Mike Horn is not easy to forget, but if you were to list the most famous sailors in the world, it is unlikely that Horn's name would be among them.
For a man who, by his own calculations, has walked around the planet 27 times on a yacht, this seems like a kind of oversight.
A tough South African guy, Horn has a domineering personality and is in good physical shape.
This is partly what made him a household name in France, where he presents a reality show called "The Island" (similar to the English show with Bear Grills).
But Mike Horn is far from being a "celebrity." He has spent his entire life making nearly impossible wilderness travel and campaigning against climate change.
Over 25 years of his adventures, many of which were spent exploring the boundaries of ocean crossings, he made headlines around the world, but often in the context of life-threatening adventures and some kind of addition to sailing records.
From Africa to the Alps
Mike Horn's introduction to sailing, like much of it, was a bit unconventional.
He grew up in South Africa, and although his family sometimes sailed in the sheltered area of Langebaan Bay in the Western Cape, the ocean was not his playground.
“I've always been more active in the thickets, with lions, elephants and what Africa really means,” he says.
Instead, Horn became interested in expeditions.
“I love the story of the Dutch and Portuguese sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.
My father spent a lot of time walking me along the coast of southwest Africa, showing me the area where Bartolomeu Diaz arrived.
As a child, I remember imagining these wooden boats. But my yachting really started when I left South Africa and arrived in Europe. "
At 20, Horn moved to Switzerland, qualified as a ski instructor, and began making a name for himself by tackling many unusual challenges - descending the Mont Blanc Glacier, then descending 22 meters down a waterfall in Costa Rica to set the record for the highest descent.
His first major expedition took place in 1997.
“I had the stupid idea of sailing 7,000 kilometers on the Amazon River,” he recalls.
"I was the first and only person who swam from the source to the ocean."
Horn had to find food in the jungle for six months. He broke a bone in his knee while jumping over the rapids and was shot at.
However, he successfully crossed the river from the Pacific coast of Peru to the Atlantic coast of Brazil and began to gain attention as an adventurer.
Around the same time, Horn became interested in big boat racing.
“I quickly built a reputation for myself in Europe, especially in France, where I was asked to work on a 60-foot trimaran called Primagaz with Laurent Bournion,” he explains.
Recognizing that his main merits were muscularity, endurance and courage, he was accepted into the team.
“I didn't know anything about sailing. I was the kind of guy they could ask to turn the winch, and I started to turn the winch, and I stopped when they told me to stop, not knowing what exactly I did. "
Competing against Bournion at Circuit Orma 60 in the late 1990s, Horn crossed paths with some of the most talented and exciting sailors in the world.
He raced with Thomas Covill when he met young Ellen MacArthur, who was also learning the basics of multihull sailing with her business partner Mark Turner.
“Mark wanted to try to control me, but he said I was really out of control,” recalls Mike Horn.
Considering some of the strong characters and incredible ventures that Turner and the Offshore Challenges team have taken part in, this provides some insight into just how individual the young Mike Horn was.
He was invited to join the Mari Cha III team seeking to set the record for a transatlantic west-to-east crossing in 1998 (and they set a record time of 8d 23h).
“It was one of the most amazing adventures I have had. I was completely fascinated by the ocean, where I never saw the same thing twice in one day. "
The time came when Horn became uninterested in team yachting. He wanted to understand more, as well as to control the steering wheel and maneuver.
“On my first expeditions, I flew a paraglider and jumped from the mountains. And I knew what sails did. If you are planning, you must understand the wind. With this little knowledge, I applied it to the world of sailing. "
Horn was already hatching the idea of a new expedition, which he would lead for the first time.
It was an expedition called Latitude Zero, the first voyage around the world without a motor along the equator.
"To do this, I had to sail across the oceans, but I never went alone."
Needing a boat to take this route, he turned to Bournion for advice.
Then he said, "You need to get this folding trimaran, 28-foot Corsair, it's designed for lakes and coastal sailing, but I'm sure you'll be able to cross the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans on it."
“The advantage is that it will go fast. And since you are not well versed in sailing, if you choose the right weather window, you can cross the Atlantic without facing many problems.
However, if you get caught up in a storm, it could be the last storm you get caught in. "
Horn began his expedition from Libreville in Gabon and managed to cover 4,200 miles of the Atlantic Ocean from Gabon to Brazil in his Corsair trimaran in 19 days.
“It was then that my life as a yachtsman began. This gave me the opportunity to walk across the Pacific and Indian Ocean. "
Before Horn crossed the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador to Borneo, he crossed South America on foot and canoe.
He went to Sumatra, then across the Indian Ocean to Somalia, and made his way through war-torn Central Africa.
On the way, Horn was bitten by a venomous snake, captured by both drug traffickers and the military in Colombia, and encountered a firing squad in the Republic of Congo, but returned safely to the Gabon coast.
In the footsteps of Blake
Another spirit of adventure set Horn on the path of an expeditionary voyage when he befriended the great Peter Blake.
Based on his 1997 experience, he even advised Blake to travel the Amazon ahead of the fateful expedition when pirates shot Blake aboard Antarctica in Macapé, Brazil, in 2001.
After Blake's death, Mike Horn, his widow Pippa asked Horn if he would consider taking over the expedition program, but he said:
"I could not. This is Sir Peter Blake, and I'm just an idiot Mike Horn, and I can't live up to his reputation. "
However, the conversations he had with Blake about Antarctica sowed the seeds of the idea.
Horn received the Laureus World Sports Award in 2001.
The award was sponsored by Mercedes and Panerai and both were so impressed with Horn that they offered to support his next venture.
His next project was to be a 115-foot aluminum expedition yacht, but Horn will do it his own way again.
“I went to Brazil where I knew a guy who built a similar boat for Antarctica. I wanted a modern version of this boat. "
Although Mike Horn was promised support, he has yet to receive the money.
“I started building a boat in the slums of São Paulo because I had no money, I only had a project.
There were welders, carpenters, electricians in the slums, and we built a boat 150 km from the ocean. The project has become part of the community.
In Sao Paulo, the very center of the criminal world, I have never been stolen from one of my screws, welding rod or screwdriver. "
Horn expressed his wishes for the construction of a yacht that could be used to train young explorers and conservationists, Mercedes-Benz and Panerai, which are partly funding the construction.
The remainder came from Mike Horn's sale of his intellectual property.
“I sold my name to investors who gave me the rest of the budget,” he explains.
The boat might have been finished, but there were still many miles to the ocean.
Thanks to Horn's contacts with the Brazilian military on previous expeditions, he was loaded onto low trailers commonly used to transport submarines and transported by truck to the port of Santos.
When the boat got stuck under the first bridge, the bridge was simply cut with a blowtorch, lifted with a crane, and then welded again.
“Everyone made a great effort. Thousands of Brazilians walked at night along the boat slowly descending towards the ocean, Horn recalls.
Mike Horn's sailing future
Pangea was launched in 2008, and for four years was home to the Pangea Expedition program, which sent young people on exploratory travels around the world.
It was also the centerpiece of his recent Pole2Pole challenge, a three-year voyage around the world across the South and North Poles.
Having sailed around Antarctica for the first time, in 2019 Horn went to Pangea deep into the Arctic Ocean, accompanied by the Swiss ocean racer Bernard Strain.
"Pangea was and remains a sailing boat that reached the northernmost position at 85 ° 30 'not with an icebreaker, but as an ice ship. "
Horn and his fellow Arctic adventurer Börge Åsland landed at 85 ° N latitude. in the East Siberian Sea and embarked on a 900-mile crossing over the dark North Pole, dragging sledges across the drifting ice sheets of the Arctic Ocean.
Meanwhile, Strain was tasked with taking Pangea to the Norwegian side of the Arctic Circle to meet them.
“I love the moment I get off the boat,” Horn recalls. “The last thing Bernard Strain said to me before leaving was: "Mike, I never leave anyone in the ocean. " But the Arctic is an ocean, OK, and we are walking on ice. He could not understand in any way that he actually left someone in the middle of the ocean. "
The expedition was one of the most dangerous for Horn.
Due to global warming, the ice sheets became thinner and more unstable than expected, and both people fell through the ice into the ocean.
Despite frostbite, polar bears and dwindling food supplies, Osland and Horn abandoned rescue, yielding only to an icebreaker summons when conditions prevented Pangea from reaching them north of Svalbard.
At 54, Horn realizes that his extreme physical losses on expeditions to high latitudes and altitudes will be difficult for him to endure.
However, sailing offers many more options.
“There is so much to do here and there is no particular age limit for true sailing. Now I feel like I need to be younger to climb K2 or another 8000m peak without oxygen. But I can still set sail.
I still know how to turn the winch as fast as the young guys.
This is what makes sailing so great.
As an adventurer, I think I will end my exploration life on a boat rather than climbing mountains and crossing the jungle. "
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