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Final Voyage

Guo Chuan, the ‘No.1 sailor in China’ and the first Asian to circumnavigate the globe non-stop, has gone missing in his latest trans-Pacific world record attempt – but his legacy lives on

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

Guo Chuan’s trimaran Qingdao China arrives at the San Francisco Bay on September 29 / Photo by IC

I am very confident about going now. See you in Shanghai within 20 days,” sailor Guo Chuan, 51, said before he left San Francisco on October 18 for his latest world record attempt adventure – to traverse the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Shanghai within 20 days.  

One week later, on October 25, the skipper disappeared halfway through his voyage, with his 97-foot Qingdao China trimaran found drifting, empty, in the Pacific Ocean.  
As a pioneering figure of Chinese sailing, Guo’s disappearance has dealt a dreadful blow to the young but growing community. His achievements have been compared to scaling Mount Everest and Guo Chuan’s two world records have made him a hero: the 40-foot solo non-stop circumnavigation world record (finished in 137 days and 20 hours in 2013) and the Arctic Ocean Northeast Passage non-stop sailing world record (12 days and 3 hours in 2015).  

Guo’s disappearance, however, has caused arguments online: many netizens expressed their respect and admiration for the sailor’s fearlessness and adventurous spirit, but others questioned the meaning of such adventures, arguing it is worthless to put one’s life in danger for a quixotic quest. But whether the pull of the ocean can be understood or not in a largely land-locked country, where sport sailing is not yet a common practice, Guo’s perseverance and fearlessness have inspired more followers to head for the ocean.  

“All is Well” 

“Today is the second day of the voyage. I’ve sailed over 500 nautical miles since departure. All is well. Today I was so happy to hear this song. My son’s laughter accompanying it makes me so pleased,” Guo Chuan said in his video log on October 19 as he stepped into the cabin and played Spanish pop singer Enrique Iglesias’ song “Hero,” which he mixed with the sound of his baby son’s laughter.  

Guo named his three-year-old child, his youngest son, Guo Lunbu, sounding like “Columbus,” to pay tribute to the great mariner.  

“My current location is in N27°26,’ W165°04’, in the north of Hawaiian Islands. […] That nothing happens is the best news. The boat is sailing smoothly, which is the best stabilizer for me,” Guo Chuan said in his last phone call to his onshore support team on October 25.  

Nevertheless, at 15:30 Beijing time the same day, Guo’s support team discovered his boat was slowing down. They attempted to reach him via satellite phone and Internet telecommunication but received no reply.  

The United States Coast Guard sent search-and-rescue aircraft from Oahu to the scene, and spotted the sailor’s 97-foot boat drifting and unmanned in the Pacific Ocean almost halfway to his destination, with no sign of Guo Chuan. It suspended the search on October 27.  

A Chinese commercial vessel also joined the search, and more than 1,000 ships affiliated with China’s COSCO Shipping Corporation have been told to keep an eye out along their travel routes in the hope of finding Guo.  

Guo Chuan told a reporter at Xinhua in an earlier interview that his greatest fear when sailing solo was to become separated from the ship. “If I hadn’t grabbed the rope,” he said, talking about an earlier incident, “Then I would have been thrown into the water. In that scenario, I would never have caught up with the ship. I would have had no chance of survival.”  

Guo’s support group is reluctant to give up. Xiao Li, Guo Chuan’s wife, said in a recent China Central Television interview that she believed her husband would be all right. One of the biggest problems she faced was how to tell her two sons why their father didn’t return on the day he promised. The only thing she could say was “Daddy’s journey has been extended.”  

Guo Chuan’s disappearance saddened the whole Chinese sailing community.  
“For quite a long time, I couldn’t accept the news. I kept believing that a miracle would happen. But after two weeks passed, my reason told me that this miracle might not come,” Gao Mingming, 32, told NewsChina. Gao is a professional skipper from Hebei Province who participated in over 40 sailing races, and is the champion of the 2012 City Club Open Regatta (CCOR). Gao was informed of the news right after he finished the Fareast Cup International Yacht Race 2016.  

Upon learning of the disapperance, Gao closely followed the search and rescue news updates. “Guo is not only a pioneer of Chinese sailing, but also a spiritual leader who inspired many people to dream. The reason why it’s so hard for me to believe he’s gone is that if I do, I fear some of our spirit might be lost as well. He stands for the peak of Chinese sailing, but he has suddenly vanished. It is a huge loss to the Chinese sailing community,” Gao told our reporter.  

Guo Chuan returns back to his home city of Qingdao after his 137-day solo non-stop circumnavigation on April 5, 2013 / Photo by IC

Wild Oceans 

Before Guo threw himself into sailing in his 30s, he led a conventionally successful life. He had a master’s degree in aircraft control from Beijing University of Aviation and Aerospace and later earned an MBA degree at Peking University. He had made a living by managing the launch of international commercial satellites, and became a deputy general manager at his company. 
 
He came late to his love of sailing, but made up for that with extraordinary energy. In 2001, by chance, the then 36-year-old Guo was entranced at once at the very sight of a Hong Kong yacht. Soon he found a job in Hong Kong and learned sailing skills from professional sailors. In 2007, Guo studied for a year in La Rochelle, “The City of Sails” in France, where there are professional sailing schools and coaches. 

Since 2006, Guo had taken part in various kinds of world top professional sailing races and logged a number of firsts: he was the first Asian competitor to finish the 10-month Volvo Ocean Race 2008-2009, which is one of the most influential professional sailing competitions around the world; he was the first Chinese competitor to join the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, the first Chinese person to traverse the English Channel in a yacht solo, and the first Chinese person to take part in the 6.5-meter extreme yacht race.  

In 2012, the skipper set sail for his epic challenge, the solo nonstop circumnavigation. No sailor had ever attempted this in a boat as small as his 40-foot vessel Qingdao China. The journey, over 21,600 nautical miles, used a brand new route.  

During the non-stop trip, Guo faced numerous challenges from roaring storms to towering waves and even getting tangled in fishing nets. He survived by eating dehydrated food in vacuum packages and never sleeping for more than 20 minutes at a time.  

Moreover, the sailor had to overcome the tortures of loneliness and homesickness. He attached pictures of his family to the cabin walls. No matter how much he missed his family, the skipper forced himself to repress his emotions. “It’s sweet. But you’d better keep it in your mind, instead of showing it too much,” Guo said in a later interview. 
The most thrilling moment for Guo during the circumnavigation was on January 18, 2013 when he sailed around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. Cape Horn is seen as the “Mt. Everest for sailors” and also called “the sailor’s graveyard.” The channel here has some of the worst sea conditions in the world, with roaring winds and great chunks of ice.  

In his video log, when catching the sight of Cape Horn, Guo could not hold back his tears.  

 “To be the first Chinese sailor completing a single-handed non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe, it makes me feel really proud and happy. It’s been too hard… extremely hard. But I believe I will keep going,” Guo said in his log. He lit up a cigar and opened a bottle of Captain Morgan rum to celebrate this moment, following a long sailing tradition.  

On April 5, Guo returned to his start point, Qingdao. When only five meters away from the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Wharf, his long suppressed emotion erupted: he jumped into the water, swam hard to the shore, knelt on his knees, kissed the ground and embraced his wife and two sons in tears.  

“It’s become a lifelong memory and a lasting mark,” Guo Chuan later recalled in his documentary My Odyssey, “All the bitterness I’ve suffered has changed into something sweet.” 

One year later, in 2015, Guo and his crewmembers from Germany, France and Russia successfully set a new world record for sailing non-stop for the first time in history through the Arctic Ocean Northeast Passage. They took only 13 days to finish the 3,240 nautical mile journey through treacherous waters, encountering strong winds, growlers, icebergs and extreme low temperatures.  

“Some say Chinese are conservative and only follow the norms of what to do and what not to do at different ages. I’ve reached 50 now. It seems that I should follow the rules as well. But for me, life should not be a river that only grows wider but slower. Instead, it should be more like a creek that runs through the rocks and cliffs, sometimes almost drained, sometimes overflowing. You never know what kind of scenery or what story you might encounter around the next bend,” Guo Chuan wrote in the article “A Dedicated Person is a Happy One” published on his Sina Weibo account in 2015 on the second anniversary of his epic circumnavigation.  

Over 100 people from all sectors of society attended a vigil at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Wharf to pray for Guo Chuan on October 28, 2016. They spelled out in candles the words “Guo Chuan, Come Home Safe.” / Photo by IC

Legacy 

The Chinese public has paid close attention to the lost sailor’s fate, ever since the news of Guo’s disappearance broke. Many netizens showed concerns and sadness online, hoping the sailor could return safely.  

Nevertheless, Guo Chuan’s adventures also aroused controversy. There are two distinct opinions on how to view Guo’s adventures as well as the meaning of sailing. Many netizens see Guo as a respectable hero, a nation’s pride, a great adventurer, but just as many question his deeds, and some even strongly criticize them.  

Those who disapprove of Guo’s deeds see him as a “selfish” and “irresponsible” man who put his own interest higher than his fulfillment for family duties. Many cannot understand the meaning of adventures and believe what Guo did was nothing heroic, since it was only for himself and not for society.  

“He was pushing himself to extremes. But did such challenges make any contribution to his family and his society? Or was he just doing it to satisfy his own interests, his sense of pleasure, the so-called sense of freedom, and putting all this above his duty to family?” a netizen with the handle “Baixuekui” commented on Sina Weibo.  

“What’s the point of doing this [sailing]? It is understandable to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of your country like soldiers or astronauts. But risking one’s own life for adventures is totally pointless,” another Sina Weibo user, “Zhouyangfan,” commented.  
“It is quite normal to have such arguments, which reflect the discrepancy of different values,” Zhang Yiwu, a famous social critic, cultural scholar and professor of Chinese in Peking University, wrote in his article, “Guo Chuan’s Fearlessness is Not Pointless.”  
As Zhang indicated, traditional Chinese society attaches great importance to familial and social responsibility. Sacrificing for the public can be respected, but adventures based on individual ambitions won’t be accepted and understood easily.  

Moreover, as Zhang pointed out, the urgent problem of material insufficiency has afflicted Chinese society for a century. The majority of Chinese were struggling to get rid of poverty, with no chance to try adventures, and found the idea of taking extra risks inconceivable. 

“In recent years, more people are capable of pursuing their interests since their lifestyle is increasingly similar to that of Westerners. To pursue personal fulfillment and actively explore nature perhaps might not have a strong social influence, but still has its own value and meaning,” Zhang wrote.  

Guo Chuan himself was constantly questioned over the meaning of sailing. “If I were French or British, I wouldn’t be asked such questions. People [in those countries] might be more interested in the details of how I overcame the challenge. Asking questions from ‘why you do it’ to ‘how you do it,’ the different angles of these two questions indicate an ideological discrepancy that might take dozens of years to make up,��� wrote Guo.  

In the eyes of professional skipper Gao Mingming, the significance of Guo Chuan and of sailing is seriously underestimated by society.  

“Sailing, and pursuing dreams and meeting challenges, is not in conflict with family and responsibility. Each individual has his or her own right to live up to their best self, especially when they gain the support from their family. The deep-seated traditional familial and moral values, to some extent, restrain the imagination and creativity of Chinese people,” Gao added.  

Apart from being a professional yacht racer, Gao also teaches and promotes sailing. “Sailing is one part of spiritual and cultural pursuits. I do hope every Chinese can have a chance to experience sailing and feel the beauty and infinity of ocean, which can change who we are and how we see life.”  

“I regard Guo Chuan as ‘the father of Chinese sailing’,” Gao stressed, “His solo non-stop global circumnavigation was the high point of Chinese sailing.” He compared Guo to Gol D. Roger, a fictional character in the famous Japanese manga One Piece, and the soul of the work as the pioneering “Pirate King.”  

“Roger’s death does not stop the steps of those committed dreamers, but stimulates more and more followers to embark on the great voyage. Similarly, I see Guo Chuan as the real Roger in China. I firmly believe that more Chinese sailors, inspired by his spirit, will head out onto the ocean, and sail for the Grand Line,” Gao told NewsChina.
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