Mike Horn: Action Man

After shifting from South Africa to Switzerland, Mike Horn embraced life as a land-based adventurer and thrill seeker – and then became a sailor.

Dec 26, 2023 | By John Higginson
Mike Horn, Sunreef ambassador; Photo: Sunreef Yachts

Born in Johannesburg on July 16, 1966, Mike Horn grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, climbing, cycling and fishing, while also excelling at sports including rugby, cricket, athletics and tennis. After school, Horn did two years of military service with the South African Special Forces and studied Science of Human Movement at the University of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province. After moving to Switzerland, he specialised in extreme sports including abseiling, climbing, hydrospeed, canyoning and rafting, leading to a career as a professional adventurer. In early 2023, he began the four-year ‘What’s Left’ expedition, which includes the Arctic, Amazon, Antarctica, Patagonia, Australian desert, New Zealand, northern Canada, Alaska and Asia.

Horn has since completed over two-dozen circumnavigations and carved out a career in exploring extreme environments, with the Sunreef ambassador now focused on raising awareness of climate change and the importance of sustainable technologies.

After you moved from inland South Africa to landlocked Switzerland, what led to you becoming a sailor?

I left South Africa when I was 24. Due to apartheid, South Africans could only travel to Israel, England and Switzerland. I ended up in Switzerland and quickly got known as this guy willing to try everything in the world of extreme sport – jumping out of planes, kayaking down waterfalls and so on. This was the way I wanted to live my life.

A few years later, Laurent Bourgnon, a Swiss-French sailor based in France, was competing on an Orma 60 trimaran called Primagaz. (On Primagaz, Bourgnon won the single-handed Route du Rhum in 1994 and 1998, the two-handed Transat Jacques-Vabre in 1997 and the Orma Championship grand prix circuit in 1998.) One day, he called me and said, ‘I need a crew member, one that knows nothing about sailing but is a good executor of orders’. I said, ‘That’s me. I’ll be there’.

I got onto the train and went all the way to La Trinité-sur-Mer in Brittany and he took me out sailing just before the racing season. Straightaway, I fell in love with sailing and that was really my introduction to the sea.

Horn in Iceland during the ongoing What’s Left expedition; Photo: Lucas David

I was never really introduced to sailing. I was born in Johannesburg, far from the coast, so closer to the lions. I understood elephants and snakes better than boats. For me, to float, you build a raft and you go down a river – that’s what I knew about!

When I was younger, I wasn’t that interested in sailing because I’d rather climb mountains and do more land-based stuff because it was more affordable. So, I was thankful Laurent gave me the opportunity to be on one of the world’s fastest boats, to be able to winch, move sails around and participate as a crew member, racing and getting this boat across the Atlantic and Indian oceans and so on. It was what I was looking for as an adventurous spirit.

I loved the Grand Prix season, sailing in those regattas, and spent a second season with him. I was never involved in steering the boat or trimming the sails. I was the guy to climb the mast and pull the sails out of the hatch. I was a deck hand, nothing more.

What was your next sailing adventure?

For one reason or another, I wasn’t known in the world of sailing as a sailor. I was just an adventurer, climbing mountains and known for my 1997 solo traverse of South America where I riverboarded down the Amazon. (Horn hiked from the Pacific Ocean to the source of the Amazon in the Peruvian Andes before riverboarding down the 7,000km river to the Atlantic Ocean.)

In 1997, Horn traversed South America, descending 7,000km down the Amazon river; Photo: MikeHorn.com

Then in October 1998, Robert Miller called me. He had a boat called Mari-Cha III, a 44.7m ketch, and wanted to break the world record for crossing the Atlantic from New York to Lizard Point in England.

He said, ‘I’m looking for somebody like you who’s willing to do anything. I want to break the record, so can you help me?’ I said, ‘Yes. When do you want me to be there?’

He said, ‘Okay, you’ve got one hour to get to the airport, get on the next flight and we’re leaving as soon as you arrive in New York’.

I jumped on the plane, got into New York and somebody escorted me through the airport and took me to Mari-Cha III. As soon as I got on the boat and dropped my bags, we let go of the mooring lines. We sailed underneath the bridge and the clock started!

I had been on one of the world’s fastest multihulls and was then on one of the world’s fastest monohulls, not being a sailor but just a guy they could trust. I would do the jobs others didn’t want to. Maybe I was a little naïve and didn’t have the knowledge, but I was willing to help the owners reach their goal. And with Robert Miller, we broke the Atlantic record (setting a record of 8 days, 23hrs, 59mins).

What led to your Latitude Zero expedition, your solo journey around the equator without motorised transport from June 2, 1999, to October 27, 2000?

After Mari-Cha III, I arrived back home in Switzerland and became frustrated with working on sailing boats but not really understanding what sailing really means. I wanted to steer, set the sails and so on.

Horn’s Latitude Zero solo journey around the equator lasted from June 1999 to October 2000; Photo: MikeHorn.com

That’s when I asked Laurent [Bourgnon] to suggest a boat he thought would be good for Latitude Zero, which was the first circumnavigation along the equator, never leaving the line. The plan was to walk through the Amazon jungle, walk the continents, and sail the oceans, to do a non-motorised circumnavigation.

Laurent told me that the US company Corsair Marine had a 28ft trimaran. He said it was an amazing vessel made for coastal navigation, not for the open sea, but that it had speed, so if we chose the right weather window, we’d get across the Atlantic before running into bad weather.

I didn’t have money to buy the vessel, so one day a journalist wrote an article that I had a dream of walking and sailing around the equator, and it fascinated some investors and sponsors. I then got a call from a wealthy guy, a multibillionaire who I didn’t know, but who loved sailing and had helped Laurent Bourgnon, Franck Cammas, Bernard Stamm, Stève Ravussin, Ellen MacArthur and so on.

He asked if I could come down to Lausanne and meet with him and we had a pizza. I really enjoyed his energy, but we didn’t speak about anything financial or what I needed or anything like that. When I was at home, he called me and said, ‘Listen, I want to help you. What do you need?’

I told him I needed a boat and he bought me my first boat, a Corsair F-28, a foldable trimaran designed by Farrier in Australia. It was built in the US then put into a container and sent to Gabon in Africa, the starting point of Latitude Zero. But I had no time to sail the vessel.

The first time I took the boat out of the container and got onto the vessel was the first time I had ever found myself alone on a boat! I didn’t have time to learn because I had to spend time in the Amazon jungle to get the training to survive the land crossing. For me, the sailing was just crossing a little bit of water in-between Africa and Brazil.

Latitude Zero included sailing a 28ft Corsair trimaran across the Atlantic and Pacific; Photo: Sebastian Devenish / MikeHorn.com

I didn’t see the water as an obstacle, but I saw crossing the Amazon jungle as an obstacle, knowing what snakes can kill me, what I could eat, how I’m going to survive, because that’s where I need to stay alive, not on the ocean. In a way, getting on the boat without thinking of the storms and the dangers made it easier to learn.

When I was flying paragliders, I understood wind and how it works, and how a boat gets sucked and not blown in those things. I know those things because it’s part of my life, but to be able to properly trim a sail and really know at what heading you must steer comes with time and explanation. I had a book and read about the angles of sailing and stuff, and that’s how I crossed the Atlantic Ocean!

At the same time, I had Iridium satellite telephone service so in case I really needed some information, I could call up Laurent Bourgnon, Stève Ravussin, Franck Cammas, Bernard Stamm or whoever, to help me and give me a solution. So, I had an online course when there was no online and that helped me cross the oceans.

How was it crossing the Pacific by yourself?

The Atlantic gave me a little bit of experience but then the Pacific Ocean gave me more experience. To cross the Pacific, I spent three months on the equator. I was catching rain water and fishing, and had flying fish jump into the nets of the trimaran. I have photos of me drying all the fish and squid, and I’ve got this big beard like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. It looks like I’m completely lost.

In late 2020, Horn and Corsair marked the 20th anniversary of Latitude Zero; Photo: Corsair

I even had a cargo ship stop when the Scottish captain saw me and contacted me. After hearing my story, he arranged for a huge bucket containing a whole roast beef, lots of food, water, beer and a bottle of whisky. I was drooling as the bucket was lowered, but as I came close, the front of my boat knocked the lid off and the bucket fell into the sea, filled up with water and sank. I was devasted!

I had the taste of the food in my mouth before I had it in my hand, which gave me an important lesson about expectation, what you can and can’t control. I was so disappointed, but this was created by imagination and assumption. From that day, I said I can only depend on myself. I’ll do what I can do and not depend on anybody else. Solo exploration meant I needed the knowledge, I needed to be strong, I need to overcome my problems and not rely on others.

By the time I finished Latitude Zero, I had experience of sailing and really enjoyed it. Then I wanted to explore the polar regions.

(Horn’s expeditions included Arktos, a 20,000km solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle from August 2002-October 2004 without using an engine or dogs pulling sledges, and a 60-day ‘Arctic night’ winter expedition to the North Pole with Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland from late January to late March 2006.)

From 2002-04, Horn completed Arktos, a 20,000km solo, non-motorised circumnavigation via the Arctic Circle; Photo: MikeHorn.com

I also built a 35m aluminium sailboat, Pangaea, which launched in Brazil in 2007. I’ve now sailed around the world 27 times.

You used the boat for the Pangaea expedition (2008-12) that covered 100,000nm and 63 countries and involved 100 young explorers. You also used the boat for Pole2Pole (May 2016-December 2019), a circumnavigation of the globe via the South and North Poles. This year, you began the four-year ‘What’s Left’ campaign. What are you hoping to achieve?

I fight for the environment. I’ve seen the planet change over three decades of exploration. I take a simple example. In 2006, I did the first winter expedition to the North Pole and when I arrived at the North Pole, I measured the ice and it was 2.58m thick.

In late 2019 (as part of Pole2Pole), Borge and I did the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. When I measured the ice, it was 8cm thick. So, what happened to the 2.50m of ice that disappeared in 14 years? That made me realise that, wow, things are happening much quicker here than anywhere else in the world.

Then you come back into this world where they don’t understand the impact these massive, gas-guzzling boats have on the planet. And although the supply is there, how can you want to buy a vessel like that, just because you can? And I think there’s a big educational factor that’s missing when we buy yachts. Why can’t you make the fastest ‘eco’ yacht with the lowest impact?

Horn with Borge Ousland during the 2006 ‘Arctic night’ winter expedition; Photo: MikeHorn.com

It’s a pastime, not a working tool. You use a yacht in your free time. And if you have money to buy something that burns thousands of litres an hour and can travel at 42 knots to go from one point to another, how do you feel about yourself at the end of the day?

Some people say they can afford it and do other things to compensate; if they compensate, that’s great. But if they don’t, it’s a direct insult towards people really trying to help, like with Sunreef building its Eco yachts.

I feel the new generation is busy changing that. My generation were petrol heads. We were born thinking we had an abundance of fuel and always wanted bigger, better and faster. But now it’s not about bigger, better and faster but how we can get to our destinations a bit slower, more efficiently and with less impact on the environment.

As the mindset changes across generations, I believe gas-guzzling yachts will eventually be phased out and a move made toward more sustainable vessels. But what other power sources can fill these needs?

How have you become involved in researching such technology?

It was quite interesting because after the North Pole crossing when I said that the ice thickness had gone from 2.58m to 8cm, I jumped in a Peugeot-factory vehicle and did a stupid thing called the Dakar Rally, a 12,000km rally through the desert.

Pangaea had a refit at Sunreef ahead of the What’s Left expedition; Photo: MikeHorn.com

You’ve got a 600hp car, you burn 800 litres of fuel a day and you think you’ve got the biggest balls in the world driving at speeds of 180kmh through the desert, but you’re an idiot. You’re just polluting and racing. It was the adventure that pulled me into that.

A lot of the people who follow what I do started criticising me, saying, ‘You’re the biggest hypocrite in the world’ and ‘You say the ice is melting and then you’re jumping in a car and burning 800 litres of fuel a day’. That really made me think, so I needed to do something.

I started doing research on building a hydrogen rally vehicle that can compete against combustion engine fuel. After 2½ years, I came up with a fuel cell that burns hydrogen that we can integrate into a vehicle to not only compete but to win against fossil fuels. So, those solutions can replace the combustion engine.

For people willing to buy a big, fast yacht that consumes thousands of litres an hour, the moment you can offer them a yacht that consumes nothing, they’ll buy it. We’re getting to the stage where we can propose alternative power sources for these vessels. And then it’s in the construction of the vessel, the resin we use, and the hydrogen is used for power to be able to live in a sustainable manner.

Horn also sailed Pangaea on the original Pangaea expedition (2008-12) and Pole2Pole (2016-2019); Photo: MikeHorn.com

Now, after 14 months, I have a startup that has developed a product that can motorise a cargo ship using hydrogen. The infrastructure for hydrogen supply is not here now but it should develop. It should be simple as all these vessels come to a port where you need one hydrogen fuelling station and you can fill all the yachts. It’s an ideal environment to start applying these new technologies.

How did you become aware of Sunreef’s Eco series and green technology, and become an ambassador for its Explorer series?

Back when I built Pangaea, I started looking into a Swiss company building flexible solar panels. I had these stuck onto my mast, sails and all flat surfaces exposed to the sun, but they weren’t producing enough power – they hardly ran the lights! I carried a lot of weight for very little return. Then we thought, wind is good, so we put in wind turbines as well in 2008.

I started to look at hydrogen solutions to generate power on the vessel and looked to see if I could use solar panels to create hydrogen or use electrolysis to generate hydrogen on board, to be 100 per cent self-sufficient. There was no solution in 2008, then we moved into 2009, 2010 and nobody wanted to invest after the economic crisis. The market was just not ready.

Then I focused less on alternative energy sources and instead on what impact we were having on nature. The moment you can see the planet’s warming up and the oceans are 1.5 degrees warmer than ever before, we’ve got to find out why. Part of it is fossil fuel being burned, carbon being sent up into the air, people flying in planes and cargo ships cruising around.

The problem gets addressed because our life is threatened through climate change, which helps lead to changing our motorisation and that’s how we eventually got people interested in integrating solar panels.

Horn (right) with Francis Lapp, founder and President of Sunreef Yachts; Photo: Sunreef Yachts

I met [Sunreef founder] Francis Lapp after I started developing the hydrogen fuel cell. I told him that we had to look at hydrogen and that I was developing a fuel cell for the heavy-duty cargo ship industry. It wasn’t exactly for a Sunreef, but I was sure there was somebody who could create a fuel cell to offer 300-400kW of power for a catamaran. Then we had to look at how to store the hydrogen in liquid form or in compressed gas.

For some reason or another, he doesn’t want to think about business. He just wants to think of the progress in what he does. He said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s try it.’ So, he’s willing to take risks, willing to learn and that inspires all the other companies. And that’s why I’m an ambassador for Sunreef because he’s the guy who really wants to do something positive and make yachting more sustainable.


This article was first published on yachtstyle.co

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