Is Mike Horn the ultimate expedition sailor? Helen Fretter spoke to the yachtsman and adventurer to find out
Mike Horn is not a man you forget easily, yet if you were to name the world’s most famous sailors, it’s unlikely Horn’s name would top the bill. For a man who has, by his own count, sailed 27 times around the planet, this seems something of an oversight.
The ultimate South African tough guy, Horn has a commanding manner and physical presence. This, partially, is what has made him a household name in France, where he presents a reality television show called The Island (similar to the English show with Bear Grylls).
But Mike Horn is far from being a ‘celebrity’ explorer. He has spent a lifetime achieving near-impossible journeys in the wilderness and campaigning against climate change. He has made global headlines over 25 years of adventures, many of which have been spent exploring the limits of ocean crossings, but the sailing element has often been seen as almost an adjunct to the front-page grabbing records and near-death experiences.
Africa to the alps
Mike Horn’s introduction to sailing was, like most things about him, a little unconventional. He grew up in South Africa, and although his family would sometimes sail on the sheltered bay area of Langebaan in the Western Cape, the ocean was not his playground: “I was always more active in the bush, with the lions and the elephants and what Africa really stands for,” he says.
Instead, Horn developed a fascination with expeditions.“I love the history of the Dutch and the Portuguese sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. My father spent a lot of time taking me along the coast of south-west Africa, showing me where Bartolomeu Dias arrived at the tip of Africa. As a kid, I remember imagining these wooden boats. But [my] sailing really started when I left South Africa and arrived in Europe.”
In his 20s Horn moved to Switzerland, qualified as a ski instructor and began making a name for himself with a variety of unusual challenges – body boarding down the Mont Blanc glacier, then plunging 22m down a waterfall in Costa Rica to set a record for the highest descent.
His first major expedition took place in 1997. “I had this stupid idea of swimming 7,000 kilometres down the Amazon River,” he recalls. “I was the first and only person to swim from the source all the way to the ocean.” Horn had to forage for food in the jungle for six months, broke a bone in his knee plummeting over rapids, and was shot at. Nevertheless he successfully river-boarded from the Pacific coast of Peru to the Atlantic coast of Brazil, and began to attract attention as an adventurer.
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Around the same era, Horn was sucked into big boat racing. “I quickly established a kind of name in Europe, and especially in France, where I was asked to go and work on a 60ft trimaran called Primagaz with Laurent Bourgnon,” he explains.
Freely admitting his main contributions were brawn, stamina and bravery, he was welcomed onto the team.
“I knew nothing about sailing. I was just the guy they could ask to winch, and I would winch on and stop when they tell me to stop, not knowing exactly what I did.”
Competing with Bourgnon on the Orma 60 circuit in the late 1990s, Horn crossed paths with some of the most talented and exciting sailors in the world. He raced with Thomas Coville, and met a young Ellen MacArthur, who was also learning the ropes of multihull sailing, together with her business partner Mark Turner.
“Mark wanted to try and manage me, but he said I was really unmanageable,” Mike Horn recalls. Given some of the strong characters and improbable ventures Turner and the Offshore Challenges team did take on, this gives some clue as to just how maverick the young Mike Horn was.
“To me, it was one of the most amazing adventures that I had experienced. I really got fascinated by being on the ocean where it was an element that stays the same, but I never saw the same thing twice in one day.”
By now bored of grinding to command, Horn wanted to understand more, and helm and trim for himself. “On my first expeditions I was always flying with paragliders and jumping off mountains. So I knew what sails do. If you glide, you have to understand the wind. With that little bit of knowledge, I applied that in the world of sailing.”
Horn was already forming the idea for a new expedition, which would see him take the helm for the first time. “It was an expedition called Latitude Zero, the first unmotorised circumnavigation following the equator right around the world.
“For that I needed to sail across oceans, but I had never sailed alone.” Needing a boat that could be transported from coast to coast, he sought Bourgnon’s advice. “He said: ‘You’ve got to take this foldable trimaran, a 28ft Corsair, it’s made for lakes and coastal navigation but I’m sure you’ll manage to sail it across the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
“The advantage is it will go fast because you don’t know a lot about sailing, so if you choose the weather window correctly, you can get across the Atlantic without running into many problems. Although if you go into a storm, it might be the last storm you go into.’”
Horn began his expedition from Libreville in Gabon, and managed to navigate 4,200 miles across the Atlantic from Gabon to Brazil on his Corsair trimaran in 19 days. “That’s when my life as a sailor really began. It gave me the experience to be able to sail across the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.”
In between he traversed South America on foot and by canoe, before sailing across the Pacific from Ecuador to Borneo. He crossed into Sumatra, then sailed the Indian Ocean to Somalia, and made his way across war-torn central Africa. He was bitten by a poisonous snake, captured by both drug traffickers and the military in Columbia, and faced a firing squad in the Republic of Congo, but made it safely back to Gabon’s coast.
In Blake’s wake
It was another adventurous spirit who set Horn on the path of expedition sailing, when he became friends with the great Peter Blake. Drawing on the experience of his 1997 swim, he even advised Blake on navigating the Amazon before the fatal expedition which saw Blake shot by pirates aboard Antarctica in Macapá, Brazil, in 2001.
After Blake’s death, Mike Horn says his widow Pippa asked Horn if he would consider taking over the expedition programme, but, he said: “I couldn’t. It’s Sir Peter Blake, I’m just idiot Mike Horn, I can’t live up to his reputation.”
However, the discussions he’d had with Blake about Antarctica had sown the seed of an idea. Horn received a Laureus World Sports Award in 2001. The award sponsors were Mercedes and Panerai, and both were so impressed with Horn that they offered to support his next venture.
His next venture was going to be an 115ft aluminium expedition yacht, but again Horn would do it his way.
“I went to Brazil, where I knew a guy that built a similar boat to Antarctica. I wanted a modern version of that.”
Although Mike Horn had pledges of support, he had yet to secure the cash. “I started to build the boat in the slums of São Paulo because I didn’t have money, I just had a project. I got people in the favelas that were welders, carpenters, electricians, and we built the boat where they could walk to work, not at the ocean at all, we were 150km away from the ocean. The project became part of the community. In the highest crime district of Sao Paulo, I never had one of my screws or one welding rod or one screwdriver stolen.”
Horn pitched his ambition of a yacht that could be used to educate young explorers and conservationists to Mercedes-Benz and Panerai, who part-financed the build. The remainder came from Mike Horn selling his own intellectual property. “I sold my name to investors that
gave me the rest of the budget,” he explains.
The boat might have been finished, but it was still miles from the ocean. Thanks to Horn’s contacts with Brazilian military from previous expeditions, it was loaded onto low bed trailers usually used for transporting submarines, and trucked to the port of Santos. When the boat got stuck under the first bridge, the bridge was simply cut apart with blowtorches, lifted out of the way by crane, then welded back together again.
“It was a massive effort from everyone. Thousands of Brazilians walked alongside the boat at night as it slowly crept its way down to the ocean,” Horn remembers.
Mike Horn’s sailing future
Pangaea was launched in 2008 and for four years was home of the Pangaea Expedition programme, taking young people on research voyages around the world.
It was also the centrepiece to his recent Pole2Pole challenge, a three-year circumnavigation via the South and North Poles. Having first sailed around Antarctica, in 2019 Horn sailed Pangaea deep into the Arctic Ocean, with Swiss ocean racer Bernard Stamm co-skippering.
“Pangaea was, and is still, the sailing boat to have reached the most northerly position at 85° 30’, not with an icebreaking vessel but an ice-going vessel.”
Horn and fellow Arctic adventurer Børge Ousland disembarked at 85°N in the East Siberian Sea, and set off on a 900-mile crossing of the dark North Pole, dragging sleds across the drifting ice sheets of the Arctic Ocean. Stamm, meanwhile, was tasked with delivering Pangaea to the Norwegian side of the Arctic Circle to meet them.
“I love that moment of stepping off the boat,” Horn recalls. “The last thing Bernard Stamm told me before we left was, ‘Mike, I never abandon anybody in the ocean.’ Because the Arctic is an ocean, OK, so we’re walking on ice, but he couldn’t understand that he’s actually leaving somebody in the middle of the ocean.”
The expedition was among Horn’s most dangerous. Due to global warming, the ice sheets were thinner and more unstable than predicted and both men plunged through the ice into the ocean. Despite frostbite, polar bears and dwindling food supplies Ousland and Horn refused rescue, only conceding to meet an icebreaker ship instead when conditions made it impossible for Pangaea to reach them north of Svalbard.
At 54, Horn is aware that the extreme physical toll of his high latitude and altitude expeditions will be difficult to continue. Sailing, however, offers many more avenues of possibility.
“There is so much to do and age doesn’t have much of a restriction on real sailing. I can feel now that I need to be younger to be able to climb K2 or another 8,000m peak without oxygen. But I can still set those sails. I can still winch as fast as the young guys. And that’s what makes sailing so amazing. As an adventurer, I think I will end my exploration life more on a boat than climbing mountains and crossing jungles.”
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