Most sailors would consider offshore distance solo racing to be a young man’s sport.
A minimum of 20 miles from land with hundreds, if not thousands, of feet between ship hull and ocean floor, this sport is not for the timid or faint of heart. Brutally alone on the open sea — and operating on very little sleep — this type of racing requires training, confidence, determination and discipline, not to mention a capable boat, equipped with the proper gear to make an ocean passage.
This past November, retired pilot John Niewenhous had it all — and, at 60, he didn’t let his age stop him.
“There’s a great quote that I have written down — I don’t even know who said it — and it’s something like, ‘Make your dreams take over your life before your life takes over your dreams,’” he said from his home in Sag Harbor, and grunted. “Good advice.”
Niewenhous grew up in Potomac, Maryland, spending every summer at his family’s beach cottage in Delaware. Both of his parents were sailors and proud owners of an American 16 sailboat, which he and his mother still take out in New Hampshire to this day.
“I’ve been on the water since being a young teen and always was fascinated with sailboats,” he said. “Sailing is a whole different game than a powerboat. You’re more in tune with the wind and sailing is a skill. It’s very satisfying, but it can be very frustrating when you race. I’ve taken it to a level that not many people do.”
While earning his aviation degree, Niewenhous first began racing at the University of Maryland before transferring to Southern Illinois University, hoisting his sails every chance he got throughout his 30-year career as a professional pilot.
“I was working for East Hampton Air and I bought a sailboat,” he said, “and I was on my way to keep it in Three Mile Harbor and sailed into Sag Harbor to get lunch and never left.”
Now a two-time former commodore of the Breakwater Yacht Club, Niewenhous is a fixture on the East End sailing scene. He and his wife, Audrey, have sailed extensively together — including four Bermuda One Design race weeks, and back and forth to the Caribbean islands.
Comfortable with offshore sailing, he entered himself in the Bermuda One-Two in 2005 — a part solo, part double-handed long-distance race from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda aboard his J120, Loose Fish.
He placed second in his division for the combined legs.
“Solo racing was, at that time, the coolest thing I’d ever done,” he said. “It took a lot of preparation, both in the boat and myself, and it was just a great thing. But a lot of people actually hate it. They hate the time away, the distance. It can be boring. It can be thrilling. You don’t get a lot of people who have any desire to even go offshore, no less race, no less race solo.”
But Niewenhous was hooked. In 2010, he sold Loose Fish after purchasing his Beneteau Cyclades 43, Vindaloo, five years earlier — sailing her many times between St. Vincent and Grenada before her sale in 2014.
He remained sailboat-less until two and a half years ago, when he began to seriously look for a Class40. With only 158 ever made, the tall-masted, wide-beamed, 40-foot sailboats are ocean racing machines, perfect for offshore distance sailing and the upcoming Route du Rhum — a transatlantic single-handed race from France to Guadeloupe, totaling 3,542 miles, held once every four years.
“Part of my reasoning for doing this race was I retired last August, when I turned 60, to be able to do this race,” he said. “It was a driver for me to retire. I could have worked until age 65 as a pilot, but I felt that if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to do it in another few years. If I kept on working until 65, there’s no way I could do anything like this.
“It was better to go for it now while I could do it, rather than hem and haw and say, ‘No, I’ve got a million reasons not to do it,’” he continued. “It was a long, arduous process to get the boat, equip the boat, qualify for the race, get the boat to the race, and go through all the inspections that are required pre-race. It was pretty close to a two-year project, from the time when I decided I wanted to buy a Class40 boat and do this race.”
In preparation for the race, Mr. Niewenhous and his coach, Josh Hall, sailed his new boat, also named Loose Fish, from France to Antigua, marking his first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a 20-day training to prepare him for what was to come.
First was the RORC Caribbean 600, a race that zigzagged around the Caribbean islands for 600 miles, double-handed with Hall.
“It was an extremely rough race,” Niewenhous said. “I think half of the boats withdrew and we were the only double-handed boat to finish. We didn’t do that well, but I was pretty happy with the fact that we finished. It was a brutal race, it was tough — big winds and big seas.”
They would pale in comparison just nine months later during the Route du Rhum. To qualify, Niewenhous sailed solo from Antigua to Charleston, South Carolina — meeting and exceeding the prerequisite 1,000 miles, as monitored by the race committee. Then, he sailed single-handed to Portland, Maine, and back down to Newport, Rhode Island, where he put Loose Fishon a ship to England. Mr. Hall met her there, and sailed to France where he awaited Niewenhous’ arrival.
More than 2 million people visited Saint-Malo, France, in the weeks leading up to the race on November 4. And of the 153 boats on the start line, 53 were Class40s — perhaps the largest showing to date, Niewenhous said.
“We had a horrible start,” he said. “I was way too far away from the start line, which is very confusing when you have hundreds of spectator boats and helicopters flying all over, and all the race boats going. Not that that’s an excuse, but we were just way too far away. I crossed the start line about 11 minutes after the start.”
He would make up for the lost time, and quickly. Loose Fish was fast, passing competitors all afternoon and evening as they cleared the northwest corner of France — Niewenhous clearing seaweed from his rudders for most of the night, he said.
They were all headed toward the Bay of Biscay, an already-feared gulf by most seamen, with a treacherous forecast lying ahead: gusts of up to 60 knots and 8- to 10-meter waves, stretching over 30 feet high.
“We had a couple days to get out away from land, to get out into deep water for the weather that was coming,” he said. “So I did, I went pretty far, quite a-ways west to get a lot of distance between myself and the shore, and the shallow waters of the Bay of Biscay. When you have giant swells that are coming from deep water into shallow water, you end up having waves stand way up high.”
The predictions proved to be understatements, with ships in the area reporting wind gusts around 65 knots and even higher seas knocking them around. It was 10 straight days of merciless abuse.
“The boat would leap off of the top of waves and come slamming down,” Niewenhous said. “The pounding on the boat was just relentless for days and days. I’m just amazed it didn’t break like an egg.”
About 1,400 miles and 13 days out, Niewenhous made a decision. He withdrew from the Route du Rhum, arriving on the island of Madeira, off Morocco, three days later, as the race continued on toward Guadeloupe. There, he assessed the damage.
The solent and staysail were destroyed. Both checkstays had failed. The halyards and reefing lines chaffed through, and he had lost all masthead wind instruments and the windex to violent gusts, forcing him to navigate by compass.
“I was worried about being 1,000 miles or more from shore and being dismasted,” he explained. “That was a big concern. I thought that abandoning the race was the wiser choice of action, although I now still question my choice every night.”
He laughed. “I wake up in the middle of the night!” he said. “Yeah, I really do.”
Later, Niewenhous would learn that about a third of the Class40s withdrew from the race and, from back home in Sag Harbor, he cannot imagine giving the Route du Rhum another run. In 2018, he was the third eldest in the Class40 monohull class and only one of a handful of sailors without a corporate sponsorship. The rest were paid, he said.
“One and done,” he said of repeating the race. “Things would have to change drastically in my life — mainly, I’d have to win the lottery. It’s also very physical. I certainly should have been in a whole lot better shape than I was. It’s tough, man; it’s hard on your body. It takes a lot of strength and agility. It’s a young man’s sport, solo offshore distance racing.”
Still a member of both the Breakwater Yacht Club and the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, the sailor said racing on the East End has its appeal, but is not comparable to the thrill of offshore distance solo racing — or the Route du Rhum.
“It was a great adventure,” he said. “I would never have thought that I would participate in something like it. But it goes to show you, if you have the desire and you tough it out, you can do things you thought you might not have been able to.”
These days, Loose Fishlives in France, back on the market and looking for its next owner. “At this point, I’m hoping that it does sell,” he said. “If it doesn’t, that leaves other options down the road a-ways.”
As to what those options are, he’s keeping them to himself — for now.