The Liquid Gates of Hell

The brutal Southern Ocean has seen more races this year than ever before. Here's why.

Jan 6, 2001
Outside Magazine

Heavy weather: Skip Novak pilots Innovation Explorer around the South Pole on his way to second place in The Race.    Photo: Skip Navak/Site Newport

THE SOUTHERN Ocean has long been the sailor's obsession. Its first true promoter, 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook, could hardly fail to be inspired by its wrath. Through the years the tempestuous body of water became infamous for treating mercilessly the ships and men who dared venture into it, a place associated more with survival than sport. In the 1960s, the first proposals to race sailboats through this nether region of marauding weather bombs and tumbling liquid mountains were derided by many as invitations to a mass drowning. Yet today the Southern Ocean is racing's most hallowed passage, luring sailors with the promise of wild surfing runs, dramatic seascapes, and uncommon isolation. "It's just the best sailing you can do anywhere on the planet," says Paul Cayard, an America's Cup sailor and inshore racer who got his first taste of the stormy seas during the 1997­1998 Whitbread Round the World Race. "Doing a complete round-the-world race with all the Southern Ocean parts is the ultimate test of seamanship."

Modern navigation and weather-forecasting technology, along with lightning-quick boat designs, have tempered the raw fear of sailors, who still max out the adrenaline. So it should come as no surprise that the watery proving ground south of the 40th parallel is currently in the midst of the greatest sustained racing assault in history.
It began last November as 24 Vendée Globe racers set out to solo from France nonstop around the world in high-powered 50- to 60-foot monohulls; 19 would go on to slug it out over the more than 7,800 miles of heaving water between the Cape of Good Hope and the treacherous sentinel of Cape Horn. On the eve of the new year, six fully crewed maxi-catamarans of The Race left Barcelona to lap up their wakes at mind-boggling speeds that topped out at more than 45 miles per hour. And this September, seven or more monohulls of the Volvo Ocean Race (née Whitbread) will depart Southampton, England,to trace roughly the same route. "In 1968 we did not know it was possible," says Britain's Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in that year became the first sailor ever to circumnavigate via the Southern Ocean without stopping for assistance (it took him 313 days). "Nowadays the pressure is from very close competition," says Knox-Johnston. "The sailors these days are the sharp end of a team, like a racing-car driver."

Unfortunately, sailors on the sharp end still die. In the 1996­1997 Vendée Globe, Canadian Gerry Roufs was swallowed by the seas on the approach to Cape Horn, while three of his rivals were lucky to escape overturned boats with their lives. So far this year the only casualties have been shattered records. On February 10, Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux, a 35-year-old French sailor, triumphed over the largest and most competitive Vendée fleet in four runnings with a circumnavigation that took just 93 days, 4 hours, and beat the previous monohull record by almost two weeks. Just one day later, Britain's Ellen MacArthur, a 25-year-oldwunderkind sailing her first Vendée, posted the second-fastest time in history. Then, on March 3, Club Med, a 110-foot catamaran co-skippered by Kiwi Grant Dalton (with six round-the-world races to his credit) won the inaugural edition of The Race in just 62 days, seven hours, almost nine days faster than any previous nonstop circumnavigation.

Speed, in fact, has become a legitimate Southern Ocean danger. American skipper Cam Lewis, a notorious hard-charger, got religion 19 days into The Race when his maxi-cat Team Adventure speared a wave at around 30 knots. The impact smacked the big boat to a sudden stop, inflicting severe neck and back injuries on two crewmen (uninjured co-navigator Larry Rosenfeld later compared the experience to a bus crash). The Team Adventure crew made repairs in Cape Town and eventually completed the circumnavigation--20 days, 12 hours behind Club Med. Yves Parlier, a 40-year-old Vendée Globe competitor, received a similar lesson in prudent seamanship, but countered with the sort of heroic gesture that the Southern Ocean seems to inspire. Pushing too hard while trying to retake the lead from Desjoyeaux, Parlier's mast crumpled to the deck when a squall hit his Aquitaine Innovations off Australia. At the time, Parlier had 7,000 miles of Southern Ocean in front of him, and 14,500 miles to the finish in France. Instead of withdrawing, Parlier coolly jury-rigged a 60-foot mast and sailed on, fishing and eating seaweed to ward off starvation during a circumnavigation that eventually kept him at sea more than 126 days. "What Yves has done is bigger than the race," said Philippe Jeantot, founder of the Vendée. "For me he has reached back to the original spirit of the race, which was adventure." 

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