Istvan Koper is an entrant in the 2018 Golden Globe Race.
In this Podcast Interview, Istvan shares with us his busy and varied life on the sea including when he was a legal pirate.
With 60,000 Nautical Miles solo sailing on top of thousands more on crewed vessels, Istvan is truly a man of the sea.
Throughout this interview, you can listen to or read one gold information nugget after another at ToSeeTheSea.com
CLICK OR TOUCH BELOW TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW
LINDSAY: I’m Lindsay Turvey. Today I’m interviewing Istvan Kopar who is an entrant in the 2018 Golden Globe Race.
Hello Istvan and welcome.
ISTVAN: Hi Lindsay. Thanks for the invitation.
LINDSAY: Ah no problem. Now we’ve never met other than a couple of short emails so I’m looking forward to hearing your story and I’m sure many of the listeners or readers are too. I haven’t had much time to prepare for this but I did a quick look at your Golden Globe Race profile and that states that you’re a professional sailor with more than 60,000 nautical miles of water passing beneath the keel of yachts you’ve been on, and that’s just the miles clocked sailing solo.
We’d like to get to know you and hear your story. This is going to be good I’m sure.
You were born in Hungary. What was it like growing up and when did you start being drawn towards the sea and boats?
ISTVAN: Well obviously Hungary is a landlocked country now, but it had coastlines for more than 800 years. Of course, it’s history because after World War II everything has changed and the country became a real land locked country unfortunately. Luckily a lake somehow stayed with the country and that lake is called Balaton and it’s the biggest lake in central Europe, which is not a big thing by US or of course even Australian standards but it’s quite a large lake. It’s 70 kilometres by roughly 10 kilometres averaging so it’s a really good body of water for sailing. It’s a shallow lake so the main thing is the dinghy sailing, but even smaller keel boats like stars, solings – actually even bigger ones are really enjoying this lake.
Anyway, this lake was obviously the starting point. My parents – my dad and pretty much all my relatives sailed in a club. This was in a unique historical situation when the country was behind the iron curtain. We were occupied by the Russians – Russian troops. It was a unique environment, a unique situation but in one respect it was favouring for my sailing because everything was kind of state owned. My dad worked for the only Maritime shipping company in the country which was, as I mentioned state owned – government owned. That shipping company was huge. It had 8000 employees at its peak and my dad spent almost 50 years as an employee for this company in leading positions. At one point he was the second in charge of the company.
The company had several departments – one of them was the seagoing department and after high school I joined it as a commercial merchant mariner.
Back to the sailing – this company had a yacht club on this lake. Lake Balaton. On the north side. I was raised there. I was not really attracted to sailing, I just was dropped into it. It was a kind of natural to learn the little tricks and the kind of assimilate in this environment.
LINDSAY: So you grew up in Hungary – a landlocked country with a lake. What was the name of that lake again? I didn’t quite get it.
ISTVAN: The lake’s name was Balaton. Just for coincidence my first circumnavigator boat was this model that carried this name – Balaton 31. There was a shipyard on this lake and there was a Swedish guy who spent one year in this ship yard working as a designer for the company there, and designed a family – almost a complete fleet for this lake. The smallest one was 16 and the size went up – 18, 21, 24 and 31 feet so the older family members – all models were named after the lake. Balaton 16, Balaton 18, 21 and so on. Balaton 31 was the largest design in this fleet and that’s what I sailed to Australia in 1991.
LINDSAY: From dinghy sailing and stars and soling you then progressed up through the Balaton designs that were built on the lake by the little ship yard. That’s very good.
Tell us a bit about your knowledge and experience by giving us an overview of your life on the sea and the time that you got your first boat.
ISTVAN: Since I started to sail really young – you know I was five years old or so when I got small task from my dad and from other club members, that okay and when they went for a race of course all the boats were kept on moorings and my first job I remember was just to row all the club members to their own particular boats and carry their big sails – that’s obviously for a five/six-year-old boy it was a big task – and take the rowing boat back. Of course, I get more and more serious stuff. I always escorted them to the races.
I think the big stepping stone was when I got my first boat at the age of 11 or maybe 12. It was of course an inexpensive, old, wooden dinghy. It was a German design. It was quite popular in central Europe. It’s called Pirate which are double handed. Exactly five-metre-long and it was a really good training vessel for me. Actually, I started to race the same class at the age of 12 or 13 and I think that was the time that I started to race in championships and I did pretty good.
Sailing became a kind of hobby, passion and you know I got the fever. As I mentioned I was kind of introduced to the sailing through the family, but I got the fever. I started to motivate myself and obviously the racing was the big thing. I was really lucky that I got the gradual learning experience. Getting from the dinghy into the keel boats, I was maybe 17 when I got my first keelboat which was the star. Star is I think one of the best training vessel for keel boats because you have a big main and you cannot reef it, so you learn the tricks – how to sail the boat without reefing and still making headway. Then the soling.
Then after high school graduation I had a big challenge. The challenge was to decide to stay on land and keep racing in sail boats – actually I did pretty good by then, or choose professional seaman job as an occupation, as a trade. I think the landlocked country was not just a landlocked country but it was behind the iron curtain as I mentioned and we were kind of isolated from the rest of the world. I got another reason to choose the commercial shipping and leave the racing on the lake behind – to taste the freedom. To go out and see the world.
After high school graduation at the age of 18 I pretty much got the chance, the first time to go aboard as a commercial seaman, merchant mariner and that opened my eyes. Travelling from eastern European countries was not easy. You either needed to be a diplomat or a musician, or a courier driver or something to go abroad – or a merchant mariner. I decide that I really liked the job and I learned a lot and obviously this was a different sort of maritime business because it was very different from sailing on a lake. Beside that I got the chance to visit more and more countries and every time when I got to a port I used all my saved money to explore, to learn about the local culture more and pretty much maritime places.
I spent 13 years with the same company as my dad, so I was the second generation in the same company where my dad spent pretty much almost half a century. This was a different sentiment of the marine environment because when we look at the all boating activities or if you look at the maritime business as a huge pie – there are so many slices in this pie and somehow, I am the fortunate guy who got the chance to taste almost all the slices, including on the military side, on the navy side. I always kind of joke with this part – I was even at a certain point in my life – even a pirate because I worked for a liquidation company. We stole (legally of course) boats from the owners, obviously the real owner was the bank or the US government, but we get these boats for the real owners from the temporary owners. I think that’s the right term.
I worked for the liquidation company for almost 10 years and during my employment we pretty much got back roughly almost 20,000 boats. That was another period of my life when I learned about different vessels – how to operate them, how to handle them, how to maintain them. It was quite unique.
Again, of course it’s almost a lifetime but I was the lucky one who was able to taste almost all the slices in this big cake.
LINDSAY: Well that’s incredible. Did you say 20,000 boats you recovered when you were a licensed pirate?
ISTVAN: We always gave a stock number to every boat but we pretty much got back for the real owner which was usually a bank or the government and when I started to work for this company, we were in the stock number 5,000. When I left the company 10 years later we were well above 25,000. It doesn’t mean necessarily that I was personally involved in every boat liquidation but I was the boat yard manager at the headquarter of this company which was by the way the largest recovery company in the states. National Liquidators. I was in charge to store these boats, to maintain these boats. At the end we were getting really big. I had about almost 50 employees. I had a team helping me, but I drove a really big number of boats – almost 20,000 during 10 years of course.
LINDSAY: Woah. That’s big numbers. I never realised. It must be quite a hard business for people to get in that situation where the banks repossess the boats. Very interesting. I didn’t even know that there was a career path for legalised pirates.
ISTVAN: Well obviously I am just a kind of kidding, but you know, it was almost the same excitement because our recovery guys, recovery crew and I jumped in especially when we recovered sail boats. I jumped in in person in the recovery part just to help out when we had a complicated issue or something. We did this midnight or after midnight. Our recovery agents did a kind of survey in advance and learned about the routine around the boat, and like Navy Seals we used an inflatable RIBs and approached in the dark, no navigation lights, quietly and we just grabbed the lines. Sometimes we needed to cut the lines in a big hurry. If there was a serious issue when the captain stayed on board because we recovered even bigger vessels, sometimes we used a US Marshall to help us make sure that we are not shot. It was quite an excitement.
LINDSAY: Tell us a bit more about your sailing after you finished that job? You were 10 years with the liquidation company. What happened then?
ISTVAN: Sailing sometimes was obviously not in the focus, but pretty much I tried to do some sailing even if I didn’t have my own personal boat.
Back to the earlier years – when I chose to join the merchant navy in Hungary after high school I was 18. When I went home to Hungary every time I scheduled my vacation time from work always for the championships on the lake. I always went back to racing and always somehow incorporated the sailing part in my free time.
After 13 years I had a kind of unexpected incident…Actually before I go there I need to tell you because you are an Aussie – I got the chance to get a really good Australian friend during my merchant navy career. I think it’s a kind of a good story because it’s related, or connected to sailing as well. We were in Sandakan on the island Borneo and I had some free time. I went out, I wanted to sail. I went out to the local yacht club and I just walked to the bar and asked, “Guys I’d like to sail and if there is a rent or something just please direct me to the right direction. I am in a big merchant ship and am missing sailing,” and one of the guys at the bar said, “ Look I don’t have a sailboat but I have a windsurf so if you want to borrow that, that’s fine go ahead.” The funny this is that of course I immediately jumped in and, “Okay that’s fine. Thank you. I do appreciate it,” a little problem that I had never sailed on a windsurf but I have to give it a shot.
It’s a long story – pretty much the tide was drifting me out towards the open water and they very diplomatically sent out a very skilled surfer with a pretty girl on his board and gently we switched positions and I was very gently being rescued. Obviously that was my very first windsurfing in the Pacific ocean – but this guy who owned this surf board became my friend – John Royce and he was from Western Australia, from Perth. He was a member of the Royal Yacht Club in Perth. We had a great time. Our friendship was growing bigger and bigger. Firstly I invited
his family to the ship and then I invited them to Hungary. They gave us local tours on the island and so on.
To cut a long story short, in 1987 when the America Cup was held in Perth – needless to say after Australia won the America Cup in ’84 and they needed to defend it – John invited me for the race. Of course as just a watcher but in person, locally. That was my very first time actually in Australia. I flew to Perth during my recreation time and was able to watch the Americas Cup the first time in live, locally in Perth.
The reason I mentioned this story is because that was one of the reasons when I did my first circumnavigation which was the one-stop solo circumnavigation I picked Perth as my only stopover during that circumnavigation.
Back to the original line – as you can see even within my merchant mariner career, I always went back to sailing any time when I got the chance.
Now back to the tragic story – what happened is half of my family pretty much, my younger brother, my mother, my mother-in-law – everyone died within six months and the family needed me at home. I interrupted my career as a merchant mariner and I stayed at home just to help the rest of the family to survive emotionally of course, and be around. That was the time when I created the very first private sailing school on this lake in Hungary. This was the year when we still had the socialist system. We were still behind the iron curtain. Russian troops were still present. This was a kind of pioneer operation as a private enterprise. I was the very first one on the lake who joined with an Austrian so-called capitalistic guy, we created a joint venture – the very first joint venture in Hungary in sailing, and we started to charter boats on this lake for foreigners, which was a kind of ice-breaking activity from a private enterprise in a socialist country. It was another unique situation that our biggest customers were the West Germans because they chartered the boats from us on the lake in Hungary and they were able to invite the East German relatives and unite with the East German family members on our charter boats. Because the East Germans were able to get to Hungary because it was a part of the socialist block, but the West Germans were able to come too. Business was really doing well.
We had a big success with this pilot project, but it was too much for the socialist – the communist party in Hungary. They started to investigate, follow us, my phone was tapped, they followed my car, they searched my home, they believed that we doing something illegal. Needless to say, in a socialist system this area was not properly regulated. It was a new, as I mentioned, pioneer project. We tried to do our best to do everything by the book legally, but they were unregulated areas so they tried to use this and they wanted to take our boats.
To cut a long story short, we were in the middle of a summer which is the main season for sailing and chartering in Hungary, and they sealed down our boats and they started to investigate our operation seriously. We needed to repatriate the chartered guests and our business went into bankruptcy completely. The whole case didn’t go to a court trial unfortunately because I was really ready for that, but it was bad enough to put out us from business. We lost so much money. Everything was seized during the peak of the main season.
I got really frustrated and very disappointed with the system so that was the time when I decided, “Okay. I need to test myself, challenge myself. Is the system around me the wrong one? The environment is not working? Or the problem is with me?” I was really curious (about my abilities), and that was the time when I decided, “Okay. I am going for my one-stop solo circumnavigation,” after Chichester kind of copying except not Sydney but Perth, and I started to build my boat in my friend’s backyard.
It took two years to build this boat which was a Balaton 31 and did my first circumnavigation, which has been pretty much so far my biggest challenge for a sailor and even as a human being. The conditions, the shoestring budget, the equipment on board, the boat design – everything. We are pretty close what we are trying to do now in the Golden Globe race. So you know, no electronics, no serious financial help and so on. Except I had scheduled a stopover in Perth.
LINDSAY: Well you covered a lot of ground there. I’d just like to paraphrase a little bit of what’s happened there. I was trying to take it all in and take some notes.
There was a tragedy in your family and within six months there were some deaths. That was a life-changing event for you. You went back to Hungary to support the remaining family. In that time you set up a sailing school which turned out to be a very successful business which the socialist party didn’t like, and they basically made you bankrupt. Then you got motivated to do a single-handed sail in a boat that you built. It took three years to build and you took off around the world with just the basics, no electronics and a tight budget. That’s where we’re at now. Is that correct?
Did I get everything right there?
ISTVAN: Yeah. I think you summarised it pretty good. Obviously I try to cover a lot of ground here because I think I am a modest guy, but you know I had a lot of actions in my life. I can say easily it was definitely more than average., which is really interesting and I am still surprised that everything somehow I feel that way happens for a reason. Even tragic events somehow directed me to a new direction in a positive way somehow.
LINDSAY: Oh that’s quite a story. Quite a story so far, and yet there’s still more to come.
You sailed around the world solo on a boat just using sextant navigation – no electronics. Tell us a little bit about that. What was that like, because this is pretty much what’s coming up in the future as well for you. The first time around, what was that like once you actually slipped the lines and headed off?
ISTVAN: Well first of all, I am not a brave guy. I did a lot of kind of dangerous actions, but I always try to prepare myself. Of course when I was really young I did stupid stuff too. The ice boating was definitely, during the winters when we were teenagers. We did a lot of not necessarily prepared stuff. Also interesting, of course it came with a high price. It was definitely we paid a so-called education fee in a very expensive way because let’s say at one point we lost one of our friends who pretty much broke through the ice. And again, there was not a winter in my teenage years when I didn’t break the ice at least half a dozen times because we just couldn’t wait for the strong, thick ice and we just wanted to do the ice boating and skating as soon as we can.
Later on we decided we need to learn the rescue operations. So we started to get smart and we created a kind of rescue back up plan if someone is going under the ice. Of course, this was in my younger years, but later on – always tried to prepare.
When I started to build my circumnavigator boat it took two years. I think one of the reasons that the boat became really seaworthy and really reliable is because I had serious concerns. I had the fear. I had the respect towards the nature, towards the sea because of my so-called former life. The years what I spent in sailing on the lake, ice boating on the lake and during my merchant mariner career we had serious issues. One time, in the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic we had a serious cargo shift and our ship almost capsized. I just got real lucky to get into situation when I learned a lot and at the same time survived. Somehow I feel that, that’s just God, or luck, or some mysterious supporter.
Back to the circumnavigator boat – the good thing is we built a new boat. If I compare with the Golden Globe race prep where we needed to buy an old boat and refit it, that’s where I got a little bit misguided. I underestimated this kind of project because I thought that when I am building my new boat it’s maybe more serious. No. I don’t think so. With the new boats I got the chance to do everything by my own desire. I was not kind of stuck with the characteristics of the former boat and the former owners, and so on. To cut a long story short I think we built the strongest Balaton 31 ever built in Hungary and just a couple characteristic issues. I laid actually with help the fibreglass guy eleven extra layers under the water line inside the boat, just preparing for hitting an iceberg or floating container, or whatever. The design boat supposed to be 3600 kilograms, and my boat empty was five tonnes. I went overboard not just with the hull thickness, but with all the fittings including the keel bolts, and the standing rigging, the mast itself – everything was oversized and so-called bullet proof. I think one of the reasons I survived my circumnavigation which was my first solo circumnavigation with a boat. When I failed or when I made mistakes, when I did my capsize in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the boat was my helper I can say just to get to Australia.
The fear in this respect is I think it’s very good. If you don’t have this kind of motivation maybe you don’t prepare the boat properly. Of course the preparation is not just about boat building, but pretty much it started at an early age. Okay I admit I wanted to do this solo circumnavigation race when I am older guy. I didn’t expect to do this so early but as I mentioned with this kind of detour with my business, I decided to realize it earlier.
LINDSAY: So how old were you when you did this circumnavigation?
ISTVAN: It was in 1991. I was born in ’53 so I was 38, 39 something like that. Yes, I was old enough but you know, remember Chichester was 65 when he did his first one-stop and I still had the family responsibility because I had a younger child. I knew exactly that you know, I can be lost. There is no guarantee that I am returning, or I am surviving. I was not really rushing to accomplish this dream. The reason it moved forward in my scheduling was this incident with the Hungarian communist party and system. It was definitely a kind of urge to bring forward on my schedule to do this.
LINDSAY: You’re an entrant in the Golden Globe race and that’s a slow back to basics solo race. Here’s the big one word question, why?
ISTVAN: First of all I hate to repeat. I always try to do something new since I evaluate life as a kind of one time opportunity and cover as much ground as I can. I had the one-stop circumnavigation eastbound. In ’96/’97 race west bound which was called Hong Kong challenge. That’s another big story of my life obviously when we sailed from England to England west bound in 55’ boats. That was of course a full crewed race and by luck we won the race. I won the race as a captain for the team. In ’96/’97, in the handicap we became just second by IMS handicap but we were absolutely the winner of the race otherwise.
So I had this westbound fully crew circumnavigation and the missing item among the big trophies is the non-stop solo I think. At least for me. It came at the right time and I think my kids are self-sufficient independent persons and they really don’t need my support and luckily my wife is not protesting. This is the short answer.
The longer answer is I think one of my problems is that I have to be on a mission all the time. I just want to deliver something. I think it comes from the merchant career that I am not satisfied if the ship is empty and we go somewhere without purpose and there is no cargo to deliver. I feel the same with sailing. I just don’t like to sail around the block or I mean, around the buoys because yes that’s nice to win the race or participate in exciting races, but I think sailing is much more than just a sport. In my vocabulary sailing is a lifestyle. A way of life. It’s the perfect vehicle to create or help us to find our spot in others and in the world I think. It’s the best vehicle to connect to nature and I think one of the best tools to train people to be self-sufficient independent human beings. Sailing means a lot for me.
I like to kind of use this race as well just to spread the word about my interpretation of sailing.
LINDSAY: So the adventure is one of the big draw cards, the fact that you need to be doing something – on a mission, that helps you find your place in the world and is a good test for self-sufficiency. What yacht did you choose and why did you choose that yacht?
ISTVAN: The Tradewind 35 was an easy choice for me because that was the only boat available for me in my geographical vicinity and in my financial situation. It was definitely. I don’t have the luxury but let’s say I see other entrants have this financial comfort that they pick the boats by their advantages. The Rustler 36 seems to be definitely a good choice for this race. Of course we are not 100% sure but definitely it’s faster and actually I did a little search online because I have never sailed the Tradewind 35 so I have zero sailing experience with the Tradewind 35 because I purchased it blind and the only reason I purchased it because it was accepted for the race and I was able to pay it. The price was right. If I had no financial limitations I definitely go further and do a serious investigation and learn about the other ones and pick the right one. Frankly I am happy with the Tradewind right now. After I’ve worked on it for almost two years I invested just too much – not just money wise but with my labour and frankly, I got emotionally attached to the boat. The more I worked, the more I adjusted to my desire I can say, the more I like it.
LINDSAY: I’ve seen a few of the photos of how the boat looks now that you’ve spent all that time on it and it’s a beautiful orange colour. Very shiny. You’ve obviously done a lot of work to it and that’s going to stand out at the start line for sure that bright orange colour.
ISTVAN: For me everything has a kind of practical reason behind it. It doesn’t mean that my favourite colour is the orange. I am just a very practical guy. It’s the right boat colour. It’s officially international orange. All the lifeboats have the same colour and it’s not a coincidence obviously. This is the most visible colour on the ocean.
LINDSAY: I can understand what you’re saying there and my captain Larry Robins would be the first to agree with you there. When we did some rescues, one a yacht in 11 metre seas it was very, very difficult to see the yacht even though it was less than a mile away. We needed an Air Force Orion to actually give us an angle, a bearing to steer to come across this yacht and we didn’t see it until it was only about three or four waves away. Less than half a mile. What you say is very true. Having a bright colour is certainly a good idea.
Now I have a personal question, and you touched on it just a minute ago. How are you funding the Golden Globe race?
ISTVAN: I underestimated the project. You know, frankly Don at the beginning when he introduced his idea and the race on his very first website, he posted a couple ballpark numbers regarding the budget of this project. I am of course, based on this and I am not blaming Don and I am not referring to his number, but you know it was a kind of orientation number and I know for sure that that number unless you are able to buy a ready to go boat – that number is not realistic. I still don’t have the real number but the US$100,000 – $150,000 initial number I think we can multiply it with the minimum two but most will probably be three to get to the start line. Even if you don’t have personal labour. Right now I spent more than US$100,000 and unfortunately a significant part of this number is personal loan. That’s very troubling for me obviously.
The other aspect is the labour. I am sitting in the boat right now. I got the chance – which is a big help that I am in a boat yard which belongs to a club – a yacht club, and very few yacht club has its own boat yards. I have the advantage of a boat yard so I can borrow certain tools and just use their shops, which is a huge advantage. I do a lot of dumpster diving when I fish out used and trashed boat parts and I think what I start to enjoy in this boat refit project is this is the perfect recycling. There is no waste on this boat. I am reusing everything what I can from the original boat and try to minimise the new stuff however I did big changes. If you want to go through the details of course my website is the best place because I have a blog there about Puffin restoration and I am posting Part 11 within a couple of days, just to get the update. The hull was reinforced significantly, the cockpit lay out was changed. A lot of the chain plates, and a lot of modification happened on the boat.
Back to the financial side – as of US$100,000 more than 2000 hours heavy personal labour, I am still in the plumbing stage. I just cannot tell you…Obviously at the end if there is no other solution my wife told me and I think that’s huge help – that in the worst case we need to sell our house. I am hoping that will be the last resort.
LINDSAY: What does your family think about all of this?
ISTVAN: Well they are not really happy about it because I think they aware of the risk of this race of course. Obviously the original Golden Globe race statistics were not great – you know, nine boats left and one arrived. It’s pretty telling. On the other hand, they know me. They know if I go for my next project I am on it. Luckily my wife is definitely my biggest supporter in this race. The other thing is that my children are adults so I don’t have the kind of extra stress and load about the family responsibility. Of course I still have a lot of responsibility especially with this prep – the financial responsibilities are definitely growing. But you know, they are self-sufficient, independent adult persons. My younger daughter is a Navy pilot, my older daughter is a doctor – she’s doing her fellowship at Yale as a intern in surgery? They are doing great and I don’t have this kind of extra responsibility, “What happens if I don’t return?” Of course I do my best to finish the race and come time, but at the same time I don’t want to leave a financial risky situation for my wife.
LINDSAY: Well what you are doing is extraordinary and it’s going to be world headlines in just over a years time when you get to the start line in June. I’m sure there are sponsors out there. People that are prepared to help you along. The boating industry is huge and if they want to get their name upfront and associated with you I’m sure they can contact you through your website. Can you give us the name of your website. Just spell that out for us.
ISTVAN: It’s quite simple because my last name Kopar which is relatively easily. www.koparsailing.com is my website. Pretty much all the race related info and the links are there, a kind of detailed description what I did on the boat, where I am now, where I am heading to. I try to of course post all the race related news there. I am also available on social media so Istvan Kopar which is my full name – Solo Circumnavigator on Facebook page also on Twitter.
The sponsor hunt is the other part of this race prep which takes a lot of time and effort from the boat outfit unfortunately, and needless to say it’s a bumpy road. Certain entrants are lucky. I am happy for them. In France I think it looks to me much easier because first of all the French reaction towards offshore sailing is very different from the US evaluation. First of all in the US sailing is definitely not in the front part of the sport life. Of course America Cup might be different, but offshore racing is not big in the US. Rich Wilson who just took his second Vendee Globe really couldn’t get sponsors throughs sailing. He got the sponsors through an education program which is great and it was obviously a very smart move, but I think it’s a kind of telling that the sponsor hunt is difficult.
I got sponsors for products but you know in this race, if you have this kind of sponsorship then you need to pay a double entry fee. By June 30th I need to pay my double entry fee and it’s difficult. You know none of the sponsors gave me a nickel so nothing is helping financially. Of course, in an indirect way yes of course but again with the double entry fee. I am still gaining obviously, I am still ahead but it’s difficult.
LINDSAY: I understand. I think I was reading the other day that double entry fee is around $11,000 so maybe there’s a sponsor out there that can help you to get to the start line they’ve got just over 12 months to get you there. It’s an absolutely incredible task that you’ve taken on here and I’m sure there’s people out there that would help. Have you considered crowdfunding?
ISTVAN: Yes absolutely. You are right. The only problem – I am single handed even in the prep ( alone in the boat refit) and I work diligently through the week but when working on the boat – you cannot work on the computer. That’s one of my biggest challenge to divide myself on all the stages and create a priority list. Needless to say, there are good news. In spite, it looks like a really tough struggle because yes I got some support especially from this club actually I am sailing under Seawanhaka Yacht Club burgee, this club which was my last employer – I was the sailing director for Seawanhaka for almost five years before the race, so they are helping me. Of course, I don’t give up the sponsor hunt and I am hoping as we are getting closer to the start we get more exposition and we will be more visible. Look at what happened with Susie who got a wonderful sponsor and I am happy for her. DHL sponsoring her participation in this race and I think from this moment her refit I am hoping will be a piece of cake.
I am kind of puzzled by the reaction of big companies because I think this race offers a very unique opportunity for sponsors because first of all it’s global. It’s worldwide. The second – its long. The longest sporting event in sport history. This is the super ocean Marathon and third of all, it’s not just high-performance racing. This is when an ordinary boater might be interested. Even a regular so-called land lubber might be interested just follow the race on social media. Just be curious that what happens to these guys in the southern oceans, do they survive? It’s the real reality show.
We are not sure yet frankly about the “Big Brother” part because I think it’s still in the decision making that we will have cameras on board – kind of “Big Brother” cameras or not, but you know, we will be visible on Facebook by the tracking devices. Of course, we are still using celestial navigation and all kind of old fashioned way, but we can be followed with the high-tech stuff and I think it’s a huge benefit not just for the participants, not just for the fans, not just for the relatives, but for the sponsors as well. So, I am kind of puzzled why American Express or Coca-Cola or whatever big companies just rejected me.
Lindsay: So really what you need is people to help you spread your time, you need a team of people to help you do some fundraising and get those big sponsors on board, because you’re busy with the boat – focused on the race and getting the boat ready. You are pretty low risk because you’ve already done a trip around the world. You’d be very good for sponsors. You’re a pretty sure bet I would say to actually complete the race. You have the skills already. We need some people to get in behind you and help you organise that side of things. It’s very difficult. Especially when you’re focused on making the boat safe and all the other things that go along with preparation.
Now I’d like to ask you, what sort of food will you be eating while you go around? It’s a long time to be at sea – nine months without a trip to the supermarket.
ISTVAN: Right. I think after the boat, which is the most important thing in my view, obviously the sailor itself is vitally important. Our condition, our fitness, our feeding. You are absolutely right. Food will play a big role about our success or the results in my view. Because a lot of hard work, a lot of racing, a lot of actions. Beside that, there won’t be any entertainment as you most probably know. Even the equipment on the entertainment side will be restricted to the 1968. We cannot take CD’s or whatever with us, we need to go back to the original tapes, cassettes and so on, even on listening to music. We cannot take even a pocket calculator with us, so we really go back 50 years with everything including the entertainment.
With the food – yes we got the green light on the freeze dried food but it’s a catch-22 because first of all I have never used it, but since we cannot take water maker with us and my understanding it needs much more water – it’s a kind of risky business. I am sure it’s nice to have a portion of our provisioning of this stuff if we are comfortable with our water supply, that means if we can collect enough rainwater, but otherwise the most of the supplies supposed to be regular tin or canned food. I was kind of spoiled when I did my first circumnavigation when I did the one-stop because the Hungarian Army helped me with a kind of customised food supply. They made the canned food for me. They prepared one package for the moderate climate, one for the tropical and one for the cold southern oceans in calories, in content and so on, and variety was pretty good. It worked pretty well. Unfortunately for the second lag from Australia back to Europe I didn’t get the same supply because somehow I didn’t get it to Australia, but the first lag from Europe to Australia it worked pretty well.
When I did my full crew circumnavigation obviously we had the luxury having a water maker onboard that we could run. Obviously we had plenty of water supply and we had refrigerator. On this race, I won’t have any refrigerator. The canned food is the key I think.
LINDSAY: Mostly canned food, the freeze dried is good but the amount that you can carry is restricted to the amount of water that you can catch – rainwater. You don’t have a water maker so freeze dried, although it’s a nice option it’s not ideal because of the water restriction. Mostly canned food. It’ll be quite heavy too I imagine storing all that canned food on the boat, but they’re a good little boat they can handle a bit of extra weight. Can you teach us a little bit about how you will be celestial navigating. Tell us a bit about what you know about celestial navigation?
ISTVAN: I don’t have this huge…I read the interview that you did with Mark Sinclair – he has this huge background with celestial navigation so I cannot compete with him obviously. I was lucky to do something similar for a much shorter time during my solo circumnavigation. My experience when you are in a small boat that you really cannot go for seven stars, five stars method during the twilight and using that limited timeframe because unless you are in a really calm water at the equator or somewhere, you don’t need to focus on the motion of the boat. I try to keep it simple because first of all when I did my one-stop solo I had timeframes even more than one week, sometimes even 10 days when I just couldn’t do any good shot with the sextant because if the sun showed up for a second, it was constantly overcast and it’s rough. You have this routine that the sextant is the kind of sensitive equipment and you try to store it in a very safe, very secure way to avoid the corrosion effect from the salty water. To cut a long story short – when you dig out the sextant from the secure spot, by the time when you get out on the deck the moon or the sun is gone. It’s a constant hunting for one of the heavenly bodies and you have a lot of dead reckoning when you just try to make notes of your progress by your Walker log and by the estimated speed and then of course your estimated drift. The funny thing is that after a couple of months you are getting pretty good at it. The key is to get lucky at the beginning. After practice, it’s working pretty well. But I need to confess in the recent years I didn’t do any celestial navigations so right now my priority is the boat but definitely I am planning to have a kind of refresher course for myself to refresh in the knowledge. I am not concerned about using the sextant because it’s like riding the bike – if you did it, you know it comes back, but for the calculation I need a refresher that’s for sure.
LINDSAY: Yeah very good answer. Thanks for that. That’s actually highlighted a few things that stand out to me. You mentioned that it was too hard to plan on getting five stars to get a position at nautical twilight in both the morning and evening stars because of the movement of that boat. Sometimes you would go for more than a week without getting a position at all due to the cloud cover and not being able to see any celestial bodies. When you went off on your previous solo around-the-world race it took you a couple of months to actually feel like you were good at it. With practice it got easier.
Some very significant points there. When you consider how with GPS navigation we can get an update on our position every second, it’s a massive shift between going one week without knowing exactly where you are, to knowing every second where you are. It just shows how far we’ve come with GPS and that’s what makes this Golden Globe race so incredibly special.
I’d just like to ask you now, what challenges do you see coming up as your biggest to overcome with the Golden Globe race campaign?
ISTVAN: Partially connected to the previous question because I am telling you that I always create a kind of hierarchy about the potential dangers in this race, or any kind of offshore activity. Especially when you are in a small boat. In my hierarchy the biggest danger is the land itself. In a certain way, in my view the coastal sailing is much more dangerous than real offshore sailing when you are far from land masses. The second biggest danger in my view is collision usually with ships. We have more and more ships, bigger and bigger ships, and more and more kind of remote controlled. I use the term remote control because it happened during my sailing career that in the middle of the southern Atlantic it was not in a shipping lane, and the ship was a European ship because I was able to identify it, but the officer was not on the bridge. I used my VHF, I used everything. At the end I shot my rocket gun – a flare toward the ship because I was on the spinnaker and of course I have the right of way. I just didn’t want to ruin my spinnaker sailing but after awhile I realised that this guy is obviously on auto-pilot and nobody’s there. I think the really big danger is the collision itself and obviously this is because for a solo sailor there is no way that we can maintain 24/7 lookout unfortunately.
We won’t have the gadgets the Vendee Globe guys have onboard. Again, I don’t want to underestimate their performance or anything, but it’s different. They have the radar, and everything onboard and what they want.
For the navigation we just talked a couple of minutes ago about the challenge of the celestial navigation. Because there is no way to confirm your fixed position, you are really in a big concern when you are approaching a land mass. It can be a small island, or a rock, or something in the south Indian ocean or Caribbean Islands, or who knows where. You just didn’t get the confirmation of your navigation beforehand, because you really won’t want to check it at Agulhas Cape of Good Hope because you want to avoid that Cape as far as you can. You don’t want to meet the swells and absolutely weird waves, the shoreline between Durban and Cape Town is a very risky area. Actually it’s a boat graveyard. There is no year when one boat or ship doesn’t go down. The freak waves are very common there. You want to go away at least 300 miles south and you don’t want to have a kind of visual check on your navigation.
LINDSAY: What about the human factor? Can you tell us a bit about that as far as the challenges to overcome?
ISTVAN: It’s also a big thing how to maintain ourselves. How to keep ourselves together for almost one year, because I got the chance to compare solo sailing with a fully crewed circumnavigation and obviously when I did the full crew circumnavigation I had a kind of nostalgia towards solo sailing because that’s difficult to keep a team together for almost one year in an around the globe race. It can be similar with the solo sailing. After all, we are social beings and obviously needless to say we are missing the family and of course wife, children, and so on. Not to mention that the life is worse than being a caveman. Someone in a jail has a much more luxurious lifestyle than we will be having in a boat for almost one year. From the water, to the personal hygiene – everything will be very limited, and it’s not easy to cope with. The other thing is the age related thing. When you are young and we have several entrants in this race who are obviously very fired up and it’s there first challenge of their life and of course everything works pretty well for them. Their hearing, their seeing (eye sight) and everything, their muscle, their fitness and so on. We have a couple of old salts who might have more sea miles but definitely less fitness and it will be interesting actually even just to compare the races with this age gap. I think this race will be unique and historical in many ways with the features. That’s one of the reasons I don’t understand the prospective sponsors because it will be for me I think a really colourful, very diverse race which is challenging not just the sailors, but as you mentioned the human beings.
LINDSAY: That leads me onto my next question – do you get seasick?
ISTVAN: Oh yeah. I am not a lucky one. Not like Mark. One of the reasons I like long offshore sailing is because I need adjustment and get my sea leg back. Sometimes it takes a week and that’s not fun. When I started my merchant mariner career I just tried to cheer myself up that you know it’s not a big deal to be a mariner if you are not seasick. It’s like the man is not the man who can hit but the man is who is standing it. It’s a kind of assimilation but the good news that after one week I am usually okay. Actually it can be the worst weather after that adjustment period, I am fine.
LINDSAY: That’s very interesting. Now you’re a US coast guard licensed captain, tell us about your experience dealing with seasick crews?
ISTVAN: I use what which is already known. There are little tricks as with everything else. First of all, don’t be a passenger. The activity, the actions will help to cope with this unpleasant period. The best thing is to get a rope, get tasks and just get busy. The other is of course before you cast away, make sure you are well rested.
LINDSAY: This next question is going to be difficult considering all the thousands and thousands of sea miles that you’ve done, but here it is anyway – what is the worst experience you have had at sea or when did you feel really bad about a situation that you were in while at sea?
ISTVAN: It’s maybe kind of disappointing but the worst experience that I had in my marine career was not at sea. It was on a lake. Actually on the great lakes here in the US. My worst experience was a kind of professional mistake when I run aground on a lake which is a very embarrassing experience obviously.
LINDSAY: Was that serious in that the boat was stuck there for good or?
ISTVAN: Well actually I have my excuses, but it was an unmarked area. I had never sailed there before. It was early season. The coastguard didn’t deploy the marks yet. It was really an unknown, uncharted area. I didn’t have even the local charts so I ran aground. I damaged the propellers and for me that was the worst thing in my professional life. But you know, there is a saying that there are two kinds of sailors – one is already run aground, the other is the liar.
LINDSAY: Yeah. It definitely is a numbers game. I remember the first time I ran aground. I felt very bad, very humbled and then all these old salts started telling me their stories which helped I guess. I was very surprised to hear their stories. They were people I highly respected and I was amazed at how people get it wrong sometimes and it it wasn’t just me that was the klutz.
What’s the best experience you’ve had when were you on the water, or when you were the happiest on the water?
ISTVAN: I did all kind of interesting deliveries. One of them was taking a 37’ Crealock from Durban to Georgia. Which is roughly a little bit less than 9000 nautical miles, so it’s a unique crossing of the Atlantic diagonally. I think this was the most adventurous experience of my life because I didn’t get to the chance to be really prepared. Actually it was an interesting deal because the boat changed ownership in Durban, South Africa and the new owner hired me to deliver the boat to Georgia Savannah solo. Single-handedly. Obviously this was a blind date for me. I had never got the chance to know the boat in advance. I took obviously what I could with me to Durban. My personal tested tools and even I took my storm kit with me and unfortunately the boat was in worse shape what I expected. There was a feverish race with time to prep the boat for this crossing and needless to say I am not sure that you are familiar with this area, but sailing from Durban around the Cape of Good Hope west bound is always a risky business. Especially when you are close to the coastline. There are roughly 200 nautical miles when you have no shelter and freak waves, as I mentioned it earlier, create an active graveyard for boats and ships on an annual basis.
It’s a kind of dangerous area, but the good thing that in Durban there is a really good weather forecast and actually they run a regular seminar for sailors who are challenging themselves with this trip, so I got a good prep there. I tried to prep the boat as fast as I could. It took 65 days to deliver this boat and considering the previous prep and everything else, I think it was a very satisfying adventure.
LINDSAY: Is there anything more you can offer our listeners and readers to help them get started in terms of the opportunities available to people now. Something that can help them move on from dreaming about going sailing, and actually living the life on the sea and becoming a mariner?
ISTVAN: It’s not so easy for me because somehow, I always did this in a kind of professional way – almost like it was a job for me except my younger years when I was sailing just for pleasure, just for racing, just for fun. Later on the boating, the marine activity, the everything became a kind of mixture of an income earner activity and of course I was the lucky one that I loved to do it. I was lucky in this way and it’s not always the case for everyone. My big learning when I saw that someone was just kind of dreaming about boat ownership, I think it’s always good to slow down, step back and get the experience first before you invest money or your time, or a lot of effort, or sacrifice any other things because it’s not sure that you like it. Let’s say if you are dreaming about cruising around the world or living like a sea gypsy and moving on sea, first I think you should test yourself and get the taste of it. You can do this in a charter situation, you can do this to hook up with the right people who owns boats and so on. I think that would be a major thing because I saw the pain of the guys – actually they became my friends thanks to these special deliveries, but they realised that it’s a different story to own a boat and be responsible in its maintenance and keep it up, and not to mention it’s very different to live onboard. It’s a very confined area, very small. It can be really very satisfying for the right people who are a kind of created for this lifestyle, but it’s not for everyone.
You know, from a distance especially when you watch this on tv, or movie, or whatever it can be misleading. Sailing is always about tropical countries and beaches, and gorgeous blue ocean, and this and that. Then sometimes it’s in the middle of heavy weather in a cold, nasty winter storm it’s a very different experience. The best thing is just to get the taste for it and test your own reactions, and decide about continuation after that.
LINDSAY: That’s great to hear you say that. That’s a common theme from everybody that I talk to and it’s good to test yourself first. There’s a lot of money involved in boats. There’s not just the money there’s the time involved in maintaining them and it can take large chunks of your life away from you. If you’re not really happy doing the maintenance or you don’t have the funds to back up the adventurous lifestyle, you can take a big chunk out of your life.
Thank you very much Istvan for giving me your time. We’ve covered a lot of ground here. I really do appreciate it. You’ve got major projects on at the moment which are keeping you busy and I wish you all the best of luck for your Golden Globe Race which starts in just over 12 months from now [Starts 30 June 2018]. I really hope that those sponsors that are out there, and I’m sure they are – come onboard and help you out, or if they can’t help you out financially they get behind you and help you with some of the organisation behind the scenes.
Definitely a great adventure and we’re going to love following you and seeing how you get on.
ISTVAN: Thank you Lindsay for the opportunity. I wish the best for you too and thank you for the opportunity.
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