Lisa Suhay
Quin Suhay shows off the copy of the Virginia Pilot newspaper reporting his father being award the world record.

Dad breaks Guinness World Record. But the real reward comes in sons' respect

One dad secures a world record, and in the process, forges a new connection with his sons.

The journey a father takes to gain the respect and admiration of his four sons was a long one for my husband.

Robert Suhay spent 86 hours straight aboard a small, open cockpit dinghy, just inches longer than our minivan, to break a Guinness Book World Record by sailing solo into the teeth of Hurricane Arthur while our boys waited for word of their dad’s survival and success.

Johanna Hessling from the New York offices of the Guinness Book of World Records contacted my husband Monday to report that he had secured the world record. According to her note, “The longest single-handed distance sailed in a dinghy by a male is 283.5 nm (525.04 km, 326.25 miles) achieved by Robert Suhay (USA) at St. Inigoes, Maryland, USA, on 2 July 2014.”

While he didn’t set out to do this, this voyage emerged as a father’s route back to a meaningful relationship with his sons, Zoltan, 20, Ian, 19, Avery, 15 and Quin, age 10. And that’s the real feat my husband accomplished.

Robert works as a newspaper graphic designer, who also organizes free local dinghy sailing races on the weekends, runs, bikes to work, and can build or repair just about anything.

Yet, until this summer, he wasn’t able to get our boys to do much more than roll their eyes each time he suggested they join him in pursuit of one of his hobbies.

Perhaps all they saw was that their father was an often solitary man who relentlessly attacked any task he undertook with the kind of resolve one usually sees in a highly motivated Pit Bull Terrier.

The boys never saw the point in his dedication and resolve. Why bother to sail 10 miles when two is exhausting enough, they often asked me.

Then, two years ago, Robert began his solitary, quixotic quest to break a Guinness Book World Record for long-distance solo sailing and the boys began to see the point. 

The record he chose was the only Laser long-distance one in the book - the longest single-handed unassisted journey in a dinghy by a female is 282.78 nm (523.7 km; 325.41 miles) achieved by Tania Elias Calles Wolf (Mexico) who sailed from Los Cabos Baja California Sur to Bahia de Banderas, Mexico, between 28 February and 3 March 2010. Ms. Calles Wolf, an Olympian in her 20s at the time, sailed unassisted on a Laser Radial single-handed sail boat with a supporting power boat, but no assistance was provided at any time. 

Robert’s first attempt in 2013, aboard an identical Laser dinghy, failed when weather and exhaustion forced him to abandon at Annapolis, Md. The trip didn’t inspire interest or confidence in the boys.

On June 26, two days after his 51st birthday, my husband set sail on his second attempt from Norfolk, Va., to an island north of Baltimore, Md. Our family of six, with two in college, could not afford to pay for a support boat and the kind of expensive tracking equipment used by sailors such as Tania Elias Calles.  Robert only had his smart phone, Magellan eXplorist 510 GPS, a handheld VHF radio, water, and all the endurance sport snacks I could convince him to pack. 

It was about 4 a.m. on June 29th when our son Ian, helping his father pull the boat trailer down to the pre-dawn river, turned from eye-rolling son to respectful fan.

As we watched Robert sail off into the darkness Ian, 19, said quietly, “He’s really doing this. This is real. He could die.”

Hours later, when communications with my spouse abruptly stopped, the other boys were swept-up in the sea change that brought understanding in its wake.

Robert had sent out several images and a tweet or two from his phone before a droplet of water slipped into the protective case while he tweeted, causing the phone to steam cook inside it’s sealed plastic case in the heat. The phone was dead and the VHF radio didn’t have the range to reach us.

Then came the rest of the 86 storm-tossed hours of total communications blackout as Hurricane Arthur moved in and our sons began to root for their dad to make it, not just home, but to his seemingly impossible goal.

We took turns correlating each new position report provided by The US Coast Guard Mid-Atlantic 5th Division and civilian spotters to nautical chart coordinates  –  pinpointing where their father was last seen and posting them to the website I created to record the journey.

The Coast Guard called twice to report that Robert had survived near misses with tug boats when he, in his exhaustion and delirium, sailed into the shipping channel in the dark. 

Since the Coast Guard persuaded him to abandon the final miles of his course due to the hurricane, we have spent months waiting for word from Guinness Book officials in England as they poured over the GPS digital logs and other evidence to determine if he actually made the distance record, not point-to-point, but through all the extra miles he had to put while tacking to survive in the storm.

All four of our sons became invested in the Guinness verdict that we have waited for since July. More important, they all began to invest more time in being with their father.

Quin began running and sailing with Robert.

Ian took up working with him on car repairs.

Avery overcame his fear of heights to work with is dad to make our post-hurricane roof repairs.

Zoltan, who’s away at college, has enjoyed bragging rights from the journey alone, let alone Monday’s world record announcement. He runs and works out with his dad every time he’s home on a break.

At the dinner table last night the boys (except for Zoltan who called for a private chat with him earlier in the day) each made a toast to their dad.

“Pop proved that if you really stick to something you love you can find a way to make something really valuable out of it,” Ian said.

Avery added, “He made Laser sailing more than a common hobby. He’s topnotch, world class, and now maybe more people will be coming to sail in his races on Sundays.”

“He Chuck Norrissed being a dad,” Quin said. “Actually, Chuck Norris doesn’t even have a Guinness World Record. I checked. So Pop just beat Chuck Norris. How cool is that?”

I don’t think being a role model isn’t really about setting or breaking a record, but getting kids on board for the journey so they may be inspired to take one of their own someday.

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