Belgian Edouard de Keyser is one of the participants in the Global Solo Challenge. When in September, at age 56, he will set off on this extraordinary adventure from the port of A Coruña, it will be a childhood dream coming true for the man from Brussels. Very committed to the environmental cause, Edouard will attempt the feat of sailing around the world without any fossil fuels on his yacht, SolarWind. A few months before the start, we met him to talk about his past as a sailor, his boat, and his preparation.
The sea was initially a refuge for Edouard. A memory from his holidays in Brittany when he was a child, and which will always be with him. In Perros-Guirec, where he has been going every year since he was a child, Edouard spends his time in the ports, contemplating the racing or sailing boats. It is also there that he enrolls in a sailing school and discovers the Optimist and the 320, a sort of precursor of the Laser. “Sailing was my own space. My parents were separated but they always agreed that I should sail.” The sea, a reassuring place? A strange idea for most people…
The idea of being able to travel independently, without having to spend money, fascinated Edouard. When he was a teenager, he took over the management of the Glénants sailing school where he quickly became an instructor. Summer and winter alike, Edouard savored every moment. At 17, he bought his first boat: a Corsaire. “I put it in a shed and then I fixed it up for a year. I love to tinker”. The Brussels native quickly realized that he could not go very far with this boat and acquired a 7-meter-long hPrimaat. With it, his first year of medicine barely in his pocket, he sails all summer in Brittany. Alone. “This is one of my best memories. I was gone for two months, it was freedom.” Was it the trigger? Two years later, Edouard quits his medical studies and decides, at the age of 23, to take on a crazy challenge: the Mini Transat.
In 1988, the famous transatlantic regatta did not have the notoriety it has today and Edouard quickly found sponsors to set up his project. “My boat was called ‘Bruxelles gagnant’. As I was the only Belgian at the time to compete, it was relatively easy to find partners. His two-year project gave him a taste for the open sea and solo racing, even if the results were not there. “I wanted to be clever, but I took the wrong option. You always learn from sailing, that’s what’s extraordinary about it.”
The sailor will have the opportunity to learn in his new adventure. On July 14, 1991, aboard the Kittiwake, a 14.5-meter long steel schooner, Edouard set off towards Greenland for a three-month 100% Belgian expedition. The challenge and the conditions prove to be as hard as the human adventure is beautiful. But Edouard understood that he would not earn much money if he persisted in becoming a sailor. So the Belgian put away his follies and turned to computers, at a time when the Internet was still at the beginning. Edouard was gifted and participated in the emergence of the Internet in Belgium. “At the time, everyone thought we were crazy. We started like in the movies, in our garage, and nobody believed that it would work.
The years passed, the money came in, but Edouard kept an eye on the sea and the horizon. In 2007, he decided to sell his company to find the open sea. “At 20 years old, I said that I would not work on a boat to earn money.” But now, it was the opposite. With his family, Edouard sailed around the world for two years, from the Caribbean to French Polynesia. There again, he learns and gains experience. 15 years later, Edouard dreamed of one last challenge: a solo round-the-world race. The Global Solo Challenge appeared at that moment, like a sign of destiny.
We met him to ask him a few questions.
Hello Edouard, first of all, how are you doing in your preparation for the Global Solo Challenge which will start next September? Will you be on the starting line?
I am hopeful and I will do everything I can to be on the starting line. My boat is currently in Brussels to finish the technical preparation. I did my qualifying leg between the Azores and Brittany last November and everything went very well. I still have my medical and survival training to do. I also have to find a solution for the engine as my goal is not to use fossil energy for my challenge but, for safety reasons, my boat needs sufficiently powerful means of propulsion to navigate in the waves of the southern seas, for example, if I had to help another participant during the GSC. So I need to find a satisfactory electrical solution. But the main job is to raise funds. My budget is not yet completely covered, I am still looking for sponsors. I am also organizing conferences and I will launch a Crowdfunding campaign. But this is part of the adventure and it is also very gratifying because you don’t go alone, but with people who trust you. So, it is important to be enthusiastic and create enthusiasm around you.
Can you tell us more about your boat?
My boat is called SolarWind. It’s a 34-foot plywood boat, reinforced with glass/epoxy fabric, built by Jacques Riguidel and designed by David Réard. Jacques Riguidel was a French sailor who sailed several times around the world single-handed without using fossil fuels, as I wish to do. This boat was built for his second round-the-world trip, this time in reverse, west-about. 30,000 miles against the currents and the prevailing winds, that’s how solid it is! When you sail on SolarWind, what impresses is the number of tricks that make life easier when solo sailing. You can see straight away that Riguidel has thought of everything. It is an extraordinary boat. In April 2022, I stumbled upon it by chance when I was looking for a boat for the Global Solo Challenge. 24 hours later, I bought it.
What do you think of the Global Solo Challenge and its innovative format?
I have always dreamed of sailing around the world. Like all sailors, I dreamed of the Vendée Globe, but I don’t really appreciate the spirit of the race, which consists of building a boat for each race with extravagant and counter-productive technology. And let’s face it, it’s out of reach. I also studied the Golden Globe Race project but I quickly realized that it was too much of a return to the past. We are imposing old boats with extreme technological conditions. The Global Solo Challenge seems to be a good compromise. In any case, it is the ideal solution for me to make my dream come true.
The start of the Global Solo Challenge will take place in A Coruña. What do you think?
It’s a great idea. A Coruña is a beautiful city with a very old maritime heritage. I also like the idea that a major round-the-world regatta does not start in France or England. Spain is also a land turned towards the sea, we tend to forget that. And La Coruña allows getting into the race in the best conditions. The Bay of Biscay can kill competitors right from the start. It is not necessary, we already have to sail 27,000 miles in often difficult conditions.
Are you going there to win?
I have focused my project on three points. 1) To come back 2) To win 3) To respect the 0 fossil energy pact. I have a very competitive boat which, I think, should start in the middle group. So yes, I am going there to win!
The environmental cause is very important to you. How are you going to respect your 0 fossil fuel pact?
Yes, the environmental cause is very important to me. My project is also to show that it is possible to do things by consuming less. Exactly as Bertrand Piccard did, who agreed to personally sponsor my adventure. One of the most difficult aspects to manage will be the cold. I sailed at the beginning of December in the North Sea, it was -5 but thanks to my equipment, I was not so cold. The most important thing is not to lose body heat. The design of the boat allows you to stay dry inside, which is very important. I will use a spirit stove for cooking and a firebrick in case of intense cold. I also have a moisture wicker. For the rest, there are solar panels. Because obviously, there are essential technologies that require a considerable source of energy, like the electric pilot. The idea is to find the right balance between the past and the future.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge?
The boat is fine, I have it under control. I have sailed SolarWind in very difficult conditions, with breakers and cross seas, it is a boat designed for this type of condition. The unknown is me. 5 months alone at sea is a long time. I don’t know how I will react. And then there is my family. Not being there if something happens is really hard.
And what’s next on your schedule?
Finish the preparation and get the boat afloat. Then sail with friends, family, and all the people who have helped in any way before leaving for A Coruña in early July. Because sharing this adventure is also a pleasure.
Text Mathieu Houllière - Global Solo Challenge
Image: ©Edouard de Keyser