Golden Globe Race: Tapio Lehtinen crosses the finishing line

After 322 days at sea, Tapio Lehtinen has become the fifth and final skipper to finish the 2018 Golden Globe Race. Marking the end of the competition, he arrived at Les Sables-d'Olonne on 19 May to dry land and familiar faces – things he has had to go without for many months.

After 322 days at sea, Tapio Lehtinen has become the fifth and final skipper to finish the 2018 Golden Globe Race. Marking the end of the competition, he arrived at Les Sables-d'Olonne on 19 May to dry land and familiar faces – things he has had to go without for many months.

As a re-run of the original 1969 race, the global circumnavigation event was sure to be gruelling and unforgiving, even for seasoned sailors like Tapio Lehtinen. On 1 July 2018, he – in partnership with Wärtsilä – set off on his boat, the Asteria. Notably, all 18 participants were not allowed to have access to any modern technology except for safety equipment.

Worse things happen at sea

Only 12 days into his expedition, his high-frequency radio stopped working properly. On top of dealing with an infection in his hand and having to adjust to a new self-steering system, this development could have made his trip through the open sea feel even more isolated.

Lehtinen passed the equator in early August as new problems arose with his engine and solar panels. Working his way from eighth to fifth place, he knew that losing even one power source would mean that he might need to stop over in Cape Town, which would halt his progress.

In the face of adversity, Tapio chose safety and pragmatism. On 15 August, he sent the message, “FIXED DAMAGED SOL PANEL AS CLD, CHANGING PANEL CONNECTIONS.” Unfortunately, those repairs pulled him back into sixth place, and weather conditions were not working in his favour.

However, on 10 September, Tapio rounded the Cape of Good Hope, neck-to-neck with US sailor Istvan Kopar. After facing a large storm, he managed to push ahead of Istvan and find some good wind conditions. This move proved to be vital as the Asteria’s engine stopped working at the beginning of October.

Ever the optimist, Lehtinen insisted that he did not need the engine to keep sailing. This says a lot about his attitude on the relationship between technology and the sea. “I love sailing, and I love the sea. Making the boat bigger or adding gadgetry doesn’t improve the sensation or experience. In my opinion, it makes you more dull toward the essentials.”

Even without a fully functioning engine, October felt like much more of a break for Lehtinen as he sailed close to Istvan for 5,000 km eastwards through the Southern Indian Ocean. But, this momentum ground to a halt on 29 October with what was arguably the biggest setback of the entire journey – he discovered a goose barnacle infestation on the underside of his boat.

Could it be over already?

“By far the lowest moment was when I jumped over the side because I was wondering why I wasn’t able to keep up with the others, and I thought I might have caught a fishing line or something. Immediately, I saw that the whole underside was covered with these barnacles and I thought - that’s it for Lehtinen - the race is over.”

On 7 November, Lehtinen arrived at Hobart, the sixth person to do so. Even though he had just faced the largest and most severe storm to date – with 55-knot winds and 12-metre swells – he nonetheless approached the port with a smile.

The continuously bad weather throughout November meant that there were no opportunities to fix the barnacle problem. The Asteria’s forward compartment took on water and destroyed most of Lehtinen’s toilet paper. Notwithstanding the setbacks, he looked at the bright side.

As soon as the weather became good enough to allow him to dive into  December, a pair of sharks circled his boat for an entire day. A gruesome story about diving with sharks put him off trying for the rest of the trip. A couple of weeks later, Russian skipper Igor Zaretskiy dropped out of the race due to health issues, leaving Lehtinen as the final person headed for Cape Horn.

Rounding Cape Horn

Lehtinen rounded Cape Horn on 7 February 2019, an experience that brought out another side of him. “There was something holy and sacred in it, and I was lucky to have survived the storm.” However, as he sailed through March, the ghost of the Suhaili – the only original boat to reach the finish line in 1969 – started to race away from him, and Uku Randmaa and Istvan completed the race soon after, just 11 days apart.

Lehtinen called GGR HQ on 29 March to tell them to shut the office as he “knew that he was going to be quite a while yet.” Luckily, race founder Don McIntyre was on hand to reassure him that people were still rooting for him, and that there were reasons to remain positive.

On 8 May, he passed by the Azores and saw the wonderful sight of land and people for the first time in weeks. With a newfound energy, he hit the home straight and powered through to Les Sables-d'Olonne, back to where it had all begun. His official finishing time was: 322 days, 8 hours, and 21 minutes.

Partnership for cleaner oceans

With so much time to think, Lehtinen reflects on the state of the oceans today. “As someone who was sailing in the 1980s as a young man, I felt that there is much less bird life and absolutely much less sea mammals visible. I felt that the amount of bird life and whales and dolphins has diminished and has to do with the amount of nutrients diminishing.”

The perfect partner to underscore Wärtsilä’s passion for sustainability, Lehtinen regularly provided information about the condition of the seas over the course of his journey via weekly phone calls. As one of the leading solution providers in the maritime industry, Wärtsilä emphasises the importance of the innovation and development of environmental technology to ensure a clean maritime environment.

“Wärtsilä cares deeply about the maritime environment. By partnering with Tapio Lehtinen in the Golden Globe Race, we wanted to underline the importance of clean waters to humanity, while giving tribute to great seamanship. Lehtinen’s endurance under all the hardships has proven to be nothing short of astounding and following his 322-day adventure has been a truly memorable experience,” says Atte Palomäki, Wärtsilä’s EVP of Communications, Branding & Marketing.

In the end, Lehtinen’s story is one of determination. While competition can be great, some things in life are more important than simply winning. Perhaps Lehtinen puts it best himself:

“The Golden Globe Race is actually three races. The first race is the race to even make it to the start line. When I enrolled in the race almost two and a half years ago, I was number 37 on the list, but the maximum number of entrants was actually 30. So, I was seventh on the waiting list. Of those 37, only 18 appeared at the starting line, so I made it to the second race. The second race is the race against the ocean, the challenge of the sea. It’s cliché, but the old saying goes, “in order to win a race, you need to finish.”

That’s very much true in this race – of 18, only five made it to the end, so I’m happy that I did well in the second race. The third race is the race between the people that make it through the first two: they get to sail against each other. In Tasmania, when I found the barnacles and I realised that I was never going to catch up to others, I had to return to the second race. I had to concentrate on sailing safely.”

Written by
Harry Lawrence