Octogenarian Sailor Sets Out On Antarctic Expedition

Octogenarian Eric Forsyth has been sailing the world for more than 50 years, at times on his own. Forsyth speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about what it's like to be alone at sea, why he loves to sail and about his current trip to Antarctica.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for another episode of archrival series, Wingin' It. This week, we introduce you to an 87-something-year-old British sailor who has racked up approximately 300,000 nautical miles; sometimes with no crew, just him and his 42-foot yacht, Fiona.

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MARTIN: For more than 50 years, Eric Forsyth has failed the world, from the Arctic to the Azores, and South America to South Africa. We managed to anchor Eric to a seat in one of our studios a few months ago. At the time, he was getting ready to set sail on an epic trip to Antarctica - for the third time.

ERIC FORSYTH: I'm actually happier on the boat than on land.

MARTIN: Are you?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Is that true, do you think?

FORSYTH: I think the physical and mental demands on the boat are what keeps me what young.

MARTIN: So this isn't your first trip to Antarctica by boat.

FORSYTH: No, it's my third trip to Antarctica. But...

MARTIN: What is it about Antarctica that fascinates you so?

FORSYTH: I guess it's an addiction.

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: I lived on my boat with my wife many, many years ago in the '60s, and I saw enough tropical beaches for my whole life. And now I like to go places that are more difficult to get to. And the people you meet there are generally more interesting than average.

MARTIN: Are you alone on these trips or do you have crew with you?

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: Let me put it this way, I tried to get crew but they don't always show up or they get off early.

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: For example, on this last trip, one crew just didn't show up despite numerous e-mails. And in order to stick to our timetable, I just had to push on by myself and actually cross the Atlantic to Brazil by myself.

MARTIN: Are there particular dangers with this destination, with the route you planned out in Antarctica?

FORSYTH: Yes. The biggest danger is the ice. The ice is different every year and you don't really know what you're going to run into until you get there. When I get to Falkland Islands I'll check with the fisheries people there, they always know what's going on and I'll see if it looks really feasible.

This particular trip has taken a year in planning and it's rather unusual. I'm going to sail down to Antarctica and sail around the continent heading west. Most sailboats, when they get down to those latitudes, head east and I've done that trip myself. But if you go far enough south, the winds becoming easterly, and then that means that going west is it a downwind sail. The trouble is the ice may be in the way, and so it's sort of a balancing act to keep the ice under control and still keep a fair wind.

MARTIN: This may be a silly question, but for someone who is never been to that part of the world, how cold is it?

FORSYTH: The water temperature is precisely 32, so everything on the boat sinks to 32. The cabin air temperature is usually between 38 and 40.

MARTIN: What does that mean in terms of just living on a boat?

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: Well, you dress up warmer. You never take your clothes off.

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: You certainly don't have showers or anything like that. And then you live like people used to live in past centuries.

MARTIN: I suppose there isn't such a thing as a typical day. But if there were, could you describe what that looks like?

FORSYTH: We do two hour watches and that means that you have to keep an eye on the way the sails are drawing. You know, you've got to keep the boat moving. Also, look out for, as I say, the ice. There's one occasion on this when we went through an ice field, it lasted three days with big icebergs just popping up all the time. So you sort of dodge around.

And then I like to have a very strict meal schedule so that people can sleep and know when they can get fed. You generally make your own breakfast, but we have morning tea. Lunch is usually soup and sandwich. And then there's happy hour, which is a crucial part of the day. I always carry enough rum to make sure everybody gets a slug...

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: ...at 5 o'clock. And then at 7, there's dinner.

MARTIN: Sounds quite civilized.

FORSYTH: It's actually a very nice life, believe me.

(LAUGHTER)

FORSYTH: And then you sleep when you can.

MARTIN: Well, Godspeed. Eric Forsyth, adventurer, sailor fearless man, thanks so much for talking with us.

FORSYTH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: We spoke with Eric before he set out on that trip a few months ago. When we contacted him last week, he was in South Africa. He said his boat had been clobbered by the bad weather. Those icy conditions he mentioned in the interview have made his epic journey to Antarctica impossible. Eric is now waiting for his yacht to be repaired. His next adventure: South Africa to the Caribbean.

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