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Richard Wilson, SM ’76

Solo sailor shares adventures with K-12 students
October 20, 2008

On November 9, Richard Wilson, SM ‘76, an experienced sailor and erstwhile consultant, is to set sail in an international race around the world as skipper of the 60-foot monohull Great American III. For about 100 days, Wilson will battle sleep deprivation, weather, and waves in the Vendee Globe 2008, a nonstop 26,000-mile sailing race that begins and ends in France–and takes sailors through the isolated waters off Antarctica.

“I’ll be the only American in the Vendee Globe ‘08 race and the oldest sailor at 58,” says Wilson, the founder and president of the SitesAlive Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers virtual learning adventures on land and sea to K-12 students and educators by linking classrooms to remote field sites. Though sailing solo, Wilson will not be out of touch. Through SitesAlive, he will share the race interactively in the form of live reports by e-mail and satellite. Wilson will also chronicle his experience in 17 newspapers with help from a team of 10 experts in science, medicine, maritime art, and psychiatry–including Dava Newman, SM ‘89, PhD ‘92, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems. The experts will contribute to weekly newspaper columns and answer students’ questions online.

Wilson, who lives in Marblehead, MA, grew up sailing and has competed in numerous sailing challenges. In 1980 he became the youngest overall winner of the prestigious Newport Bermuda Race as the skipper of Holder Danske, and in 2004 he won second place in the solo Transatlantic UK-USA. He also set three world records as skipper and navigator on clipper routes: San Francisco-Boston in 1993, New York-Melbourne in 2001, and Hong Kong-New York in 2003.

Wilson’s career has included stints teaching in Boston’s public schools, working as a defense analyst in Washington, DC, and serving as a technical consultant for power and desalination plants in Saudi Arabia. He also successfully invested in private ventures in the publishing and entertainment industries. Besides his MIT degree in interdisciplinary science, Wilson earned two degrees from Harvard: an AB in mathematics in 1972 and an MBA in 1982. His father, John J. Wilson ‘29, SM ‘30, was an avid sailor and served as volunteer secretary of the MIT Corporation from 1959 to 1979.

Recalling his MIT days, Wilson says faculty members’ enthusiasm for teaching is what has stayed with him most. In fact, he says, “the idea behind SitesAlive reflects a statement by Doc Edgerton, who said, ‘The trick to teaching is to not let them know they’re learning anything … until it’s too late!’”

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