Think the life of a top solo sailor is a little crazy? Right you are.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, Fall 1998

Race Boat Around Planet Alone. Set Record. Lose Boat. Almost Die. Repeat.
Think the life of a top solo sailor is a little crazy? Right you are.
By Francine Prose

Isabelle Autissier seems to be missing the imagination for disaster that inspires the rest of us to daydream a series of dire futures for ourselves, however improbable. Though she describes herself as being neither religious nor superstitious, she regards her vocation — racing a 60-foot yacht 27,000 miles around the world, alone — as an almost mystical fact of nature; she cannot explain her motives any more than artists or scientists can verbalize, or understand, the compulsion to do the work they do.

In September, four years after she nearly perished in the Southern Ocean in her last around-the-world race, Autissier, with a new yacht, the PRB, will compete once again in the sport's premier event, Around Alone, against 17 other solo distance sailors. As usual, she is the only woman in a sea of men.

At 41, Autissier is a striking Frenchwoman, with a handsome, weathered face, dark curly hair, and eyes that are a startling, translucent bottle-green. Women and men who have sailed with and against her all emphatically admire Autissier, but they also make her sound both more and less than human. "She's a very concentrated person, and very professional. She's always thinking about the next move," says Katie Pettibone, who sailed two legs of the 32,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Race with Autissier last May aboard the EF Education. "She's a huge star over there [in France], and you'd never know it."

Autissier sailed the Whitbread in part for fun and in part to promote the upcoming solo race. In doing so, the veteran single-hander was clearly out of her element. The EF Education had a crew of 12 and finished dead last; Autissier never finishes last. In May 1994, sailing with a crew of three, she shaved an impressive two weeks off the previous record for the passage from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn (last winter, another team beat her record by a day). And her victory in the first leg of the 1994-1995 Around Alone (then called the BOC Challenge) — arriving in Cape Town from Charleston, South Carolina, five days ahead of her nearest competitor — marked the first time a woman had ever won any phase of the round-the-world competition. More impressive, she set a new stage record.

"It's good fun to sail with a crew. You can speak and laugh. You can learn from the others," says Autissier. "And when I go to sleep, I can sleep — I know that if something is happening they can wake me up, or that they will manage. But you're also responsible for the crew. You can put them in a good or bad position — so maybe you take less risks. When you are alone and really confident about your decision, whether it's right or not, you do it."

For the estimated seven months of Around Alone, Autissier will check the boat each day at dawn and then eat a breakfast of dry cereal and tea. (The PRB has no refrigeration, a tiny sink, and only a small gas burner on which to cook meals.) There are constant small repairs and constant decisions to be made, which means that Autissier can sleep in naps that last, at maximum, an hour-and-a-half. Because of this, she has worked with sleep scientists who monitored her with electrodes to determine the ideal rhythms of sleep and wakefulness that allow her to perform most effectively. It's a masochistic and monastic routine that seems to agree with her. "You have so few opportunities in modern life to be alone for a long time," she says.

Autissier, who is single and has no children, is not antisocial; she comes from a family of five girls, and those who have sailed with her say she's funny, with a dry wit. ("The first problem when you are going around the world," she observes, "is to arrive.") But she has an almost mechanistic belief in systems — meteorology, ocean currents, her body's own biorhythms. Pettibone remembers that Autissier was fascinated by the complicated system of masts on the EF Education. "I think she likes anything that's complex. She understands the weather, the different oceans. Isabelle is really good at keeping the whole ocean as a giant picture in her head." And that, says Pettibone, is "the mark of a great, great ocean sailor. Because it is extremely difficult, with all the changing weather patterns, to understand what to do and when." Autissier agrees, but she puts it a different way. "The physical part is five percent," she says. "It's better to be a thoughtful meteorologist than Rambo."

Viewed in this light, it makes perfect sense that a woman could sail around the world as well as a man. As David Adams, an Australian singled-handed racer, says, "She's not as strong as we are; she can't change the sails as quickly. But she makes up for any physical shortcomings by pushing herself at a level as high as the best blokes." As a skipper, he says, "She has a very high threshold for pain."

This he witnessed firsthand. When the mast of her boat, the Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2, snapped in a storm 1,200 miles from Cape Town in the 1994-1995 race, Adams, sailing the True Blue, was diverted by race officials to rescue her. "The situation was very difficult," she remembers. "The weather was bad, and I had no mast. The only thing I was thinking about was to do a jury-rig as fast as possible and to go somewhere to get a new mast. For me, the experience was so extraordinary. It was just at dawn. It was really misty, and David Adams came out of the mist. But I could not leave my boat. I could not have said, 'Stop and I'll come on board.' There was no way. He said, 'Can I do something?' And I said, 'No, thank you! Go away!'" Indeed, by the standards of Autissier's system, it would have been impossible for her to have gone with Adams and abandoned her wounded yacht.

Then, three-and-a-half weeks later, after she'd repaired the mast at a French research station on Kerguelen Island, it snapped off for good during a wild Southern Ocean storm — 60-knot winds and 30-foot waves. The boat did a 360, and when it righted itself, a giant hole opened up in the deck. "You only panic when you can do nothing. So you have to do things, to concentrate," Autissier says. "People have been in a worse position than mine."

She was more than 1,500 miles south of Australia, and "the sea was rough and the boat was filling, the pumps and the electricity were out. I had to get rid of the water with a bucket. I made a tent above the hole using the sail." On December 28, Autissier deployed her emergency radio beacon. After two hours of frantic and — as she was swiftly realizing — futile activity, she knew she had to be rescued. Nineteen hours after race officials first heard the signal, she was spotted by an Australian Air Force plane. But the plane wasn't equipped to rescue her; its crew threw her flares and retreated. It took another two and a half days for an Australian Air Force helicopter to locate Autissier and pluck her from the sinking ship. "She showed a great deal of courage," says Adams. "When you get into a situation like that, life becomes pretty basic. It breaks down to what am I going to do in the next minute, the next second? Other people have given up and died. But she's a fighter, and she kept on."

Being female — that is to say, something of a novelty act — has certainly brought Autissier attention, some of it unwelcome. "Many people focus on me more because I am a woman," she says. "Even if I never wanted to prove anything, I am forced to do it. If a woman is in the race, the public wants that woman to win, because it's an exception. Or to lose ... or disappear. They want something to happen."

Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti

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