Sailing: Down and Out on the Indian Ocean

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Sailing: Down and Out on the Indian Ocean

Wicked waves end Isabelle Autissier's run in the BOC Challenge
By Dan Dickison

For French sailor Isabelle Autissier, December started badly and then really tanked. Three days after Christmas, the woman who just two months before had opened a commanding lead in the BOC Challenge -- a 27,000-mile around-the-world solo yacht race and one of the most grueling events in any sport -- found herself not just out of contention, but in danger of losing her life.

Huddled in the cold, dark confines of her wrecked Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2, the 39-year-old mariner was helplessly adrift after an enormous wave on the storm-frothed Indian Ocean sent the 60-foot yacht into a 360-degree roll. Autissier, who had avoided injury by wedging herself into a small passageway, emerged to find her masts broken and the cabin top shorn away, leaving a Renault-size hole in the deck that flooded part of the boat with icy seawater. Though she'd recovered from a dismasting earlier in the month, this time she could only radio for help. Four days later, a grateful Autissier was rescued by helicopter and taken aboard an Australian Navy frigate.

"It's the first time I have to leave my boat... It's pretty difficult," Autissier said, clearly shaken. "I spent all these three years...preparing this boat, and after the first leg everything seemed so wonderful for me. Then, voilà -- that's it." At press time, efforts to salvage Ecureuil were underway.

Before trouble hit, Autissier had ruled the race with a five-day lead amassed through one of the greatest solo performances in marathon yacht-racing history. On the first of the BOC's four legs -- from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cape Town, South Africa -- she gambled on a risky easterly course that paid off. While the rest of the fleet chugged south through the equatorial doldrums, Autissier's detour landed her 1,200 miles ahead of her nearest rival.

During the second leg, to Sydney, Australia, however, Autissier saw her dream crumble quickly. On December 2, five days out of Cape Town, the first in a series of brutal storm systems slammed the fleet. Ecureuil's 86-foot, carbon-fiber mainmast snapped after a shroud broke. Autissier jury-rigged a mast from her spinnaker pole and made tracks for tiny Kerguelen Island, midway across the Indian Ocean. There, supporters helped her put up a replacement mast, and she rejoined the race. She still had an outside chance to come back -- until the ocean slammed her again.

The sea victimized other competitors as well. A rough survey of the carnage counts four broken booms, another dismasting, two broken rudders, one grounding, and two abandonments. An exception was defending champion Christophe Auguin, a Frenchman who set a new record for the second leg in his boat, Sceta Calberson, and grabbed the overall lead. Second place belonged to American Steve Pettengill, who essentially willed a wounded Hunter's Child across the Indian Ocean, recording a half-dozen knockdowns and sailing nine days without a boom. By this month, the leaders should have reached the final layover in Punta del Este, Uruguay, before heading out to a late-April finish in Charleston.

Though not as ferocious as the ocean, the journalists who mobbed Autissier in Adelaide chewed her pretty hard about the reported, but unconfirmed, $1 million tab for her rescue. What did she think? And would she race again? "Yes, I'll race again," Autissier replied. "And do you want me to write you a check now?"

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