After learning to sail on Bde Maka Ska, Nabil Amra prepares to circumnavigate the globe
By MICHELLE BRUCH
When Nabil Amra competes in a solo sailing race around the world — traveling without GPS or other modern technology — the Regina neighborhood resident will bring freeze-dried burrito bowls from World Street Kitchen. He’ll bring an eight-month supply of other home-cooked and freeze-dried meals made by friends, along with sails by the local Sailcrafters loft, and perhaps playlists by The Current on cassette (no modern tech is allowed).
The Golden Globe Race departs from France July 1. Nineteen sailors will travel nonstop without assistance and without touching shore for about nine months, replicating a 1968 race that produced only one finisher.
Amra quit his job in mid-March as foreign exchange trader at U.S. Bank. He is traveling to England to sail for the first time in his refitted 1990 Biscay 36 class ketch yacht. He’s funding the race out of his personal savings, with the help of a GoFundMe campaign and a recent fundraiser at fellow sailor Sandy Shipp’s Northeast Minneapolis home.
“I told him we’ve got to get you to the starting line,” Shipp said. “Then it will be up to Nabil.”
Amra, age 43, learned to sail at age 30 at Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun), joining a sailing community that keeps guitars below deck and offers free rides to people on the dock.
“I admire him,” said Minneapolis sailor Alberto Forte.
“It’s a mixture of awe and envy,” said Rick Kane, a CARAG resident who has sailed at Bde Maka Ska since 2006.
Forte said the lake is great practice, given its small size.
“Sometimes in the ocean, you sit for a day,” he said. “On Lake Calhoun, you have to tack every 10 minutes. You have the chance to practice a lot of skills.”
Forte sailed through his first storm with Amra on a 200-mile trip from Saint Martin to Puerto Rico, where a third sailor became seasick in the high winds and waves.
“You’re never done learning when it comes to water and weather,” Kane said. “You can only anticipate so much and then you have to trust your experience and instincts.”
The trial run
Amra’s longest journey to-date was a 25-day trip last May from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Portland, Maine.
“It taught me a whole bunch and also really roughed me up,” he said. “…People say keep the water out, and the mast up, and everything else is an inconvenience. I find that three or more inconveniences also become a really big problem.”
He didn’t see the sun for five days while practicing celestial navigation, which sent him 100 miles off course. The self-steering gear broke, and he had to steer the boat by hand for 800 miles. And he sailed through the “Mother’s Day nor’easter.”
“I got my taste of 50 mile-an-hour winds and 30-foot seas,” he said.
Falling short on food rations and drinking honey and olive oil, he docked for a short time at Nantucket. The Coast Guard fed him bowl after bowl of chili, and the local Fire Chief gave him a place to rest up before continuing the trip.
Aside from the challenges, Amra described beautiful experiences as well. On trade-wind sailing days, he could relax and fish from the dock. He spent a day in a high pressure system where the water was smooth as glass, and he went for a swim.
“You can’t tell the water from the sky sometimes. You can’t make out the horizon. It’s all just a beautiful blue,” he said.
He successfully practiced using a funnel to capture rainwater off the sails.
“I got seven or eight gallons in 15 minutes of trying,” he said.
During the race, he’ll bring enough potable water to last 160 days, and he will rely on rainwater for the remaining 100-plus days of travel.
In case of emergency, there is a GPS chart plotter, a desalinization pump and a satellite phone under glass, although breaking the glass means an automatic race loss. And the sailboat holds a standard method for sending a distress signal.
“So if you pull a pin, basically it sends out a signal and they send in the cavalry. Of course much of this race will be so far away from anything, it might be a while if it happens farther south,” he said.
The racers will depart from France and travel south through the Atlantic, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, past Prince Edward Island to Storm Bay in Tasmania, around Chile’s Cape Horn and back to Les Sables d’Olonne in France, the city where they started.
Amra said he’s weighed the risks and he’s ready to go.
“I’d rather have a broken bone than a broken spirit,” he said. “…I’d say this is going to be a mental race, more than physical.”
In the original 1968 Golden Globe Race, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the only finisher, and the first to circle the world solo and nonstop. Eight other competitors left the race or died at sea. The tragic story of one sailor is captured in the 2018 film “The Mercy,” starring Colin Firth.
The Sunday Times reported that Knox-Johnston set sail with “sponsorship totaling £5, a stack of tinned food, 120 cans of beer, a makeshift self-steering mechanism designed on his garage floor, a barometer borrowed from the wall of his local pub, 50 books, a shortwave radio that packed up after a couple of months and a mighty overdraft.”
He competed at age 67 in another race around the world in 2006. He told the Sunday Times that he wanted to send a message to older people: “‘Look, if I can do this, you can.’ People don’t have to slump in front of the TV just because they’re retired; you’ve only got one life, so paint it in bright colours.”
Amra said he was honored to meet Knox-Johnston as part of the run-up to the 2018 race.
“I call myself an underdog,” he said.
Amra’s competitors include Abhilash Tomy, who sailed 52,000 miles serving in India’s Navy and circled the globe solo in 2012. The UK’s Susie Goodall started sailing at age 3. Jean-Luc van den Heede is a five-time circumnavigator who is considered the father of French solo sailing.
But Amra said the contest rules, which aim to mimic conditions in 1968, will help level the playing field. They’re traveling in boats designed prior to 1988 that are similar to Knox-Johnston’s winning boat. Though modern boats can travel around the world in 80 days, the racers’ smaller boats will circle the globe in about 300 days. They will rely on paper charts and sextants and celestial navigation, without the aid of weather forecasts, communicating through a long-range high-frequency radio.
Those who follow Amra’s progress via goldengloberace.com will be cheering for Team Palestine. He grew up in Chaska and moved to the West Bank at age 12. His family intended to stay for a single summer, but arriving at the start of the 1987 Intifada, they ended up staying for two years.
His school closed after the uprising started, and he joined other youth in demonstrations against the Israelis. Walking home after one demonstration, he said a jeep picked him up and he got a “week’s worth of beatings in a tin box.”
“Maybe this will be my thumb in that eye,” he said. “…It was an eye-opening experience for a kid with no political leaning at the time to get wind that we were a third class citizen somewhere. And yet the people themselves were generous and gracious, and the hospitality like you’ve never seen before, for people that had nothing. Part of this is for them.”
Amra said that if he wins, he will use the prize money to buy racing dinghies for the Palestinian Sail and Surf Federation.
He’s renaming his boat “The Liberty,” which is the translation of his grandmother’s Arabic name and references the U.S.S. Liberty, which was attacked by Israeli aircraft in 1967.
In the final days before his departure to England, Amra freeze-dried food in his kitchen, including trays of Milkjam ice cream, Holy Land hummus and pasta made by friends like Forte.
“I didn’t expect it to be such a community supported thing, but it’s really become that,” he said. “…It might be a solo race, but there is nothing solo about preparation or the practice or the provisioning.”