The Soloists

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1997

The Soloists
Why? Not even they can tell us.

By Robert Stone

Isabelle Autissier, a 38-year-old French marine biologist and marathon sailor, rides her dismasted, jury-rigged 60-foot racing yacht through the Roaring Forties of the Indian Ocean, hoping to survive the four days it will take the Australian navy to find her and winch her off the dying boat. She's been dismasted twice before on this Cape Town-to-Sydney leg of the BOC Challenge around-the-world race. Now a giant rogue wave staves in her cabin and cripples her steering system. She's close to death, from an actuarial point of view, a lot closer than most people ever get of their own volition. But no one has forced her to lay her life on the line.

How do you feel? someone asks by radio.

"Sad and cold," she says.

It's remarkable the way personality types vary among long-distance solo expeditioners. Yet they all have certain things in common. Like the rest of us, they don't like losing and being cold. But sleep deprivation, hallucinations, stark loneliness, and the looming presence of death seem more acceptable to them than to the rest of us.

Australian sailor Alan Nebauer also dismasted in the fierce Southern Ocean in the 1994-1995 race. Then something tore off his rudder. He survived by rigging sail on a frame fashioned from spinnaker poles.

"Physically, emotionally, mentally, it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he recounted. "A nightmare. I read my Bible all the time to keep myself going."

But why were they there ù Autissier, Nebauer, and like-minded adventurers such as Guy Delage, who swam across the Atlantic in 1995, or B°rge Ousland, who completed the first solo unsupported crossing of Antarctica earlier this year? What was out there for them? Nothing they have ever said for the record has answered that question.

The world admires the skill and courage of solitary sailors and climbers and explorers. Are these qualities, skill and courage, unique to them? Or are skill and courage somehow latent in everyone, awaiting the right set of circumstances for their awakening? Are skill and courage ennobling and transcendent things, positive forces that make the world a better place? Or are they just phenomenology, meaningless qualities, the luck of the draw?

Stephen Crane wrote all his life about courage; it obsessed him. In "The Red Badge of Courage," his young hero Henry Fleming thinks at first that civilization and commerce have removed the possibility of epic struggle from life. But when his terrible ordeal has passed, when he has suffered terror and given way and then taken command of himself, it's different: "He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.... His soul changed."

That just might be what Autissier, Ousland, and the rest were and still are looking for at the lonely margins of the world.

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