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A Chinese sailor navigates extremes
2013/09/19

Rays of summer sun streamed through the window of GuoChuan's cozy study in Beijing, casting light on a white model sailboat that alludes to the master's passion.

As Guo, a stocky middle-aged man casually outfitted in a gray T-shirt and black running shorts, rested in a white leather armchair, only the skin peeling from his knees and feet were evidence of his legendary voyage.

From Nov. 18, 2012 to April 5, 2013, the 48-year-old completed a solo around-the-world odyssey aboard a Class 40 yacht. His 138-day journey started in Qingdao, a coastal city in northeast China's Shandong Province. From there, he sailed across the Pacific Ocean and down to Cape Horn off the coast of South America before making his way into the Atlantic Ocean and back to Qingdao. His 21,600-nautical mile (40,000-kilometer) journey took him through the most dangerous waters on the planet and set a world record for solo non-stop circumnavigation in a Class 40 yacht.

His boat, the Qingdao, arrived back in the city of Qingdao on the morning of April 5. Though only several meters away from the pontoon, Guo couldn't wait to jump into the sea and swim to his wife and two sons.

Kneeling in front of his family, he burst into tears of pride, excitement and gratitude, after his adventure through biting cold, scorching heat and other types of severe oceanic and climate extremes.

"All the adversities flashing back are like surreal dreams," he sayed calmly, listening to his wife teach their younger son to speak in the next room.

Guo was the first Chinese to traverse the Atlantic Ocean by himself and the first Chinese to complete the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, a nine-month race from October 2008 to June 2009.

Summarizing his accomplishments, he simply said, "I just follow my heart."

"IT'S ADDICTIVE"

Fifteen years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Guo as a sport sailor.

Born in Qingdao, Shandong Province, in 1965, Guo once dreamed of being a scientist. He holds a master's degree in aircraft control from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a master's degree from the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, one of China's top business schools.

In the 1990s, Guo managed a branch company of China Great Wall Industry Corporation, the country's only commercial organization that provides satellites and commercial launch services and carries out international space cooperation.

His life changed during a trip to Hong Kong in 1998, when he boarded a friend's yacht for a day of sailing.

"The feeling of braving the winds and waves is like... I was free from all boundaries," he reminisced. "Sailing creates an adrenaline rush in me, especially when I conquer a storm with logical thinking and efficient handling. It's addictive."

In 2000, Guo resigned as deputy general manager of the company and devoted himself to sailing.

"I found that I longed for challenge and adventure. My job was promising, but I knew that I wanted something else," saidGuo, who began training as a professional sailor in France in 2004.

As China's first professional ocean sailor, Guo participated in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in 2006 and took part in the Mini Transat race in 2011, successfully sailing solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a 6.5-meter mini yacht.

Sailing has been popular as a sport in Western countries for over 400 years, but hadn't been introduced to China until the 1990s, as Chinese incomes have grown and the country's two applications to host the Olympic Games brought in more Western sports.

"But it is developing very fast," Guo said, pointing out that the amount of yachting clubs in China had ballooned in the past decade.

Voiles & Voiliers, a leading professional sailing magazine, pointed out in January that Guo's transition from engineer to one of China's top sailors shows that the sport is making waves in China.

RIDING OUT THE STORM

Sailing has been Guo Chuan's life over the past decade, but it hasn't always been easy. "It has made me suffer from loneliness, desperation and a nervous breakdown, but I never gave up."

After dealing with equipment failures, barrages of fishing nets, fast-moving tropical storms and a no-wind situation during the first two months of his around-the-world voyage, low temperatures combined with high humidity posed new challenges as Guo approached the Strait of Magellan south of mainland South America in January.

"Wind from the South Pole was bone-rattling cold, and the sun hid behind clouds for weeks, leaving the whole world dreary and lifeless," Guo recalled. "I reached Cape Horn in a state of desperation on the night of January 18."

Notorious for treacherous winds and huge waves, Cape Horn, located at the southern tip of South America, has been the site of 500 shipwrecks and the deaths of more than 20,000 sailors throughout history. It is sometimes called "the Mountain Everest of sailing."

"That night was my weakest time of the whole voyage," Guo said.

He lighted a cigarette, took a deep drag and slowly let out a stream of smoke before continuing, "I hadn't changed clothes for two weeks and they were all sticking to my skin, wet. The whole night, I curled up at the corner of the cabin, which actually became a water cell, wishing that time could move faster."

"The cold, loneliness and helplessness almost killed me, but an inner voice kept telling me, 'Stick it out! Make it home!'"

He would have given up that night, had it not been for a powerful, life-changing event four years earlier, he admitted.

In 2008, Guo was recruited as a media crew member to participate in the nine-month around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. Most of his fellow sailors aboard the Green Dragon had participated in the Olympic Sailing Regatta, including five gold medalists and three silver medalists.

"We ate dehydrated food and slept only several hours a day. The ocean was so unpredictable in some waters that we had to be ready for storms that could occur at any time," he recounted.

However, for Guo, the mental anguish was far worse than any physical trial. Working with his fellow top professional sailors, Guo felt like a student facing 10 professors.

"I was quite nervous and depressed due to the language barriers and my inferior sailing expertise," Guo recalled. "I couldn't blend into their circle in the beginning, and I felt that I was like an idiot. What's worse was that I had no place to be alone."

This stress kept him awake at night, but it also prodded him along in the voyage. "I even wished that something bad happen to our boat, so I could quit."

When the boat finished the fourth leg of the race, Xiao Li, now Guo's wife, found Guo on the verge of collapse.

"He was numb, with no smile for anybody and no hope for life," she said. "He finished three bowls of noodles in front of me, not stopping, without looking up, not saying a word. I couldn't bear seeing him like that."

Her care and affection, however, warmed Guo's heart, and he decided to return to the Green Dragon and finish the race, no matter how difficult that may be.

"I went to the doctor and took medication to help alleviate my symptoms. I had to save myself by sticking it out, or I would regret it and despise myself for the rest of my life."

The adversities he faced in the Volvo Ocean Race in 2008 almost destroyed him, but they also forged him into a mature sailor with inner strength. "True inner strength is more crucial in ocean sailing than energy and skills."

AROUND THE WORLD AND HOME AGAIN

Of all the suffering Guo endured during his solo 138-day voyage, incessant homesickness was the most intense.

"Drifting alone in the ocean can make the toughest guy fragile," Guo said, frankly describing his vulnerability. "I cried countless times, sometimes because of missing my family, and sometimes just because a bird flying in the sky made me feel like I wasn't alone."

Although he could talk to his family almost every day via satellite phone calls, his homesickness grew day by day. He filled the cabin with pictures of his younger son to encourage himself to brave all the difficulties he would encounter on his way home.

"My wife and my sons were the strongest driving force during my solo sailing on the ocean," Guo said through a lump rising in his throat. "She is really a great woman for her understanding, support and taking care of the whole family."

Xiao Li runs a company on her own and is always there for her husband. "He is a simple but great man. He doesn't spend much time at home, but his heart has never left."

Just over one month after finishing his around-the-world voyage, Guo went to France to prepare for an international sailing race next year, though he has not yet decided which race he will participate in.

"I still expect new challenges in my life," Guo said over the phone. "I'm looking for the next voyage."

"Challenging the ocean is not my dream," he explained, "The ocean is just the stage for me to challenge myself and to fulfill my dream of living a meaningful life."

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