The lures of the Southern Ocean are few. Seven-story avalanches of frigid sea. Blinding squalls of snow. Hull-peeling icebergs. There's little sane reason to sail this territory, unless you're a sportsman looking to shatter the round-the-world record — or are assigned to rescuing someone who foolishly thought he could.
By Craig Vetter
Christmas Day in the raging waters of the Southern Ocean, and Raphael Dinelli is hunkered alone in his cabin, hanging on against what will be either baptism or last rites in these cold, violent seas. It's not up to him anymore. He is somewhere near the midpoint of a single-handed around-the-world yacht race called the Vendïe Globe: a 26,000-mile run from Les Sables d'Olonne, France, and back, no stops allowed, you and your boat for more than three months against the worst the open ocean can roil up. And this is the worst. Out of 15 boats in this unlucky race, four will sink in these empty latitudes. Dinelli's will be the first. He is 1,200 miles southwest of Australia, barely a thousand miles north of Antarctica, in the midst of a trashing that his 60-foot sloop, Algimouss, will not survive.
Fifty-knot winds (about 58 miles per hour) have rolled him twice, laid his sails in the water for minutes at a time while 50-foot breakers collapse, burying him again and again in an avalanche of ice water. In a last telex to race headquarters in France he says that the seas are "smoking" as the wind tears the breaking wave tops into driving clouds of mist, that he has all sails down and two sea anchors astern in a vain attempt to slow the terrifying speeds at which he is hurtling down the sheer wave faces. Finally, in the cold, early dark of Christmas night, 1996, a huge breaker sends the 28-year-old Frenchman surfing for the last time. He watches helplessly as his speed reaches 26 knots, braces himself, and then crashes to the ceiling of his cabin as Algimouss slams into the wave trough, somersaults, and settles upside down in the torrent.
Frigid water rushes into the turtled boat through a hole torn in the deck by the shattered mast, which is levering around in the wash. Trapped, with water up to his waist, Dinelli pulls on his immersion suit, gathers survival supplies, and waits as waves roar and crash overhead and fuel from a ruptured tank fills the cabin with a stink that gets him puking. Three hours later, the mast breaks away, the boat comes right, and he scrambles onto the swamped deck. Under pitch-black skies, he sets off his distress beacons, inflates his life raft, and loads it with food and water, only to see the surge tear it loose of its tether and dance it away on the waves. Then, as Algimouss sinks slowly out from under him, he lashes himself to the stub of the mast, faces into the bitter wind to keep himself awake, and thinks about dying, as so many others have died, in the lonely furies of the most treacherous ocean on earth.
Ironically, few people agree about calling the Southern Ocean an ocean in the first place. To cartographers it's the vast, empty seascape where the warm currents of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific meet and converge with the cold waters off Antarctica to sweep unobstructed around the southern ice cap. The name "Southern Ocean" doesn't even appear on many world maps. Nor do the words "Slobbering Jaws of Hell," which is how sailors who have been there describe being chased by mountainous waves and vicious crosscurrents under hurricane-force winds in blinding snow squall and sleet, or making nervous way past fog-shrouded icebergs and around growlers, so-called because the first you hear of the submarine ice plates is the predatory sound they make as they shear off your keel.
The Southern Ocean's hydrology and meteorology are unmatched on the planet. Between 50 and 60 degrees south latitude, open sea necklaces the globe: an unobstructed race of wind and waves that run west to east with an average current of 13 miles per hour. Storms along the way pass building seas on to one another, until the unblocked accumulation of wind speed and wave height reaches the squeeze point, between Cape Horn (at the tip of South America) and the Antarctic Peninsula, with monstrous force. Add in fog and ice in all its forms, and the only surprise in these waters would be smooth, uneventful passage.
Captain James Cook and the crew of the square-rigged Resolution were first to feel the "pinching cold" that descends as you cross the convergence. They had sailed from the Cape of Good Hope in the austral summer of 1773 in search of a great southern continent, which philosophers had postulated since the first century. Working from loose reckonings of Spanish, French, English, and Dutch expeditions that had sailed the upper edges of the deep south, Cook pushed through storm and ice to within 80 miles of Antarctica, though fog kept him from seeing it. But he and his crew did take the first cruel measure of the southern sea: sails froze stiff, rigging turned to iron in the blocks, four inches of snow heaped onto the decks as Resolution skirted pack ice and flat-topped icebergs masquerading as islands. His bare-handed crew shivered and quarreled despite the heavy jackets and extra brandy they were issued. After 15 weeks of fruitless search for the continent, Cook turned north for New Zealand, apologizing in his journal for seeking the respite he and his exhausted crew desperately needed.
Forty years after Cook's death, using the book he had written about his voyages, a slaughterhouse fleet of sealers began hunting southern waters for the oil that lit nineteenth-century Europe and America. They died, predictably, of shipwreck and cold, as did the whalers who followed them a hundred years later, as do — despite radar, satellite communications, and state-of-the-art survival gear — the sailors of today.
When the first single-handed around-the-world race, the Golden Globe, set off from England in 1968, no one knew whether any of the nine small boats and their skippers could survive the drubbing they would take on the great oceans, especially the 4,908 miles between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Only one did: Robin Knox-Johnston, a 29-year-old Brit, was the lone finisher, in 312 days. He still describes his time in the Southern Ocean with reverence. "It's a cold, wet, merciless place," he says. "You have to imagine a 150-foot wave coming toward you with the top 30 feet absolutely vertical and the crest breaking. It's vicious. But when you round Cape Horn, you can look in the mirror and say, 'I've made the toughest voyage possible on the planet.'" Since Knox-Johnston's lonely triumph, just over 100 solo racing sailors have dared the high latitudes in a dash around the world. Three of them have vanished without a trace. Four others have needed rescue to escape the same fate.
In the pitch black of Christmas night, vanishing was more than a possibility for Dinelli. Sitting against his mast between waves, then standing as each one rolled over him, he had no food or water and was half blind from the salt splashing into his eyes. Worse even than his physical tortures were the questions he knew had haunted the last living hours of others in these waters: Had anyone heard his SOS? If they had, could they get to him in this storm? Would he see his family again? And what had ever made him think he was sailor enough to attempt the 40 days it takes to cross the Southern Ocean?
For racing sailors, the temptation to go into these waters at all lies in the fact that the farther south you go, the shorter the distance around the globe. But as with most shortcuts, you pay for it in risk: The deeper into the Southern Ocean you sail, the greater the distance from land, namely Australia, the only country with the money and manpower to save whatever luckless sailors come to grief in this vast sea. It is the most far-flung and punishing rescue duty in the world. And the Aussies, given any chance at all, are very, very good at it.
"Our responsibility covers 29 million square miles," said senior coordinator Michael Jackson-Calway, pointing at the big map on the wall of the Australian Search and Rescue center, in the capital city of Canberra. "That's about one-ninth of the earth's surface...and we often have to go beyond that." Jackson-Calway, a stout 64-year-old man with heavy eyebrows and a wry humor, was whispering so as not to disrupt the tense concentration of the half-dozen men in white shirts and ties hunched into the computer screens that pull the combined intelligence of satellite, radio, telex, fax, and phone into a working picture of trouble at sea. It was only March, and already the board that hangs above the computer warren showed a tally of 92 people saved by the combined rescue net called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, made up of civilians as well as the Australian Defence Forces — the air force and navy. This morning they were trying to add to that total; a 47-foot schooner named Queen Charlotte, sailing from New Zealand with a crew of five, had set off two emergency beacons somewhere near the edge of a cyclone lashing its way across the Coral Sea. As we talked, word came that a search plane had spotted an empty life jacket with an emergency beacon attached — no survivors, no ship's debris.
"Not a good sign," said Jackson-Calway. "But you never know. We go looking for survivors, not bodies. You have to believe somebody is out there alive, or what's the point in going? Unless the bloke is there, you don't want to send your people out to hell and gone, especially in dangerous weather. We've only lost two people ever in our operations. We had a fisherman who leaned over the side to retrieve a body, rolled into the water, and drowned near Tasmania, and an air crew member hit by a piece that flew off the airplane and into the cabin."
Yet when a rescuer dies trying to save a sailor who, some would argue, shouldn't be out there in the first place, the question arises: Does absolutely anyone who strands himself in the Southern Ocean really deserve a risky and expensive rescue? Under the International Safety of Life at Sea treaty, Australia is responsible only for the rescue of merchant ships lost in its waters. New Zealand patrols its own sliver of ocean, while Chile and Argentina cover the waters around Cape Horn. By law, no one is responsible for yachts or other pleasure craft that are lost in the Southern Ocean, but under the moral code of the sea, all countries make their best efforts to save every boat in trouble. And it is Australia, the largest, most southerly nation with the resources to mount long-range rescues, that carries the brunt of the burden.
"The situation has always been that everyone will always offer assistance to fellow seafarers," says Knox-Johnston, now 58 years old. "Those rules have been broken very, very rarely, perhaps only in times of war. It is an issue of morality. If you want to stop people from running risks, you've got to stop mountaineering immediately, because far more people are killed in mountaineering than in yachting. We are risk-takers; it's our nature. To turn around and say you must not take risks is basically to deny the human spirit."
"There is a pride in what we do at sea," said Jackson-Calway, "and the air force and the navy go to extreme lengths to keep our reputation."
Jackson-Calway, a 15-year veteran at AMSA and a mariner himself who tends to describe cataclysmic weather with a sailor's understatement, called the storms that caught the Vendïe Globe "absolutely shocking." Then he added, "Not that shocking weather is unknown down there."
Raphael Dinelli had spent a night and a day in the pounding waves by the time he heard, and then saw, a plane: a long-range P-3C Orion called in by a radio operator at Australian Search and Rescue. After a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Perth through evil weather, the Orion had been working a careful search pattern 500 feet above the water in low visibility made worse by salt spray that encrusted the windows. "Sometimes we have to fly back up into the storm to let the rain wash the windshield," says Alex Jackson, an Orion pilot, "then go back down for another look."
Once they'd spotted Dinelli, the plane made a first pass to drop smoke by which to mark his location and then turned back to drop an air/sea rescue kit (two rafts connected by a long line dropped upwind so it encircles the stricken boat). Dinelli caught one of the rafts and climbed up into it, ten minutes before Algimouss sank.
Twelve hours later, guided by a second Orion, English racer Pete Goss, who had turned back to sail his Aqua Quorum 105 miles against the weather, 48 hours without sleep, took Dinelli aboard and made course to drop him in Tasmania. The Frenchman was exhausted, cold, and hungry but grateful for what had been a textbook rescue, the equivalent of finding a cricket in a wind-whipped field of wheat.
The name "Southern Ocean" doesn't even appear on many world maps. Nor do the words "Slobbering Jaws of Hell," which is how sailors who've been there describe it.
Celebrations at AMSA didn't last long. Before Goss could deliver Dinelli ashore, the Southern Ocean swallowed two more boats at the back of the pack in one gulp: Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore, only 40 miles from each other, were rolled on the same night, in the same storm, perhaps by the same 70-foot wave. Both were left upside down, 180 miles farther south than Dinelli, too far behind for any of the other boats in the Vendïe Globe to help. They were a full month behind Christophe Augin, the Frenchman who was about to sail out of the Southern Ocean around Cape Horn and go on to win this race as he had two previous around-the-world challenges. With no chance of rendezvous with other racers, Bullimore and Dubois bobbed helplessly, trapped aboard their stricken boats in murderous weather, 1,400 nautical miles from anyone who could get them out of the water. If anyone could find them.
January 5, late at night: Dubois goes down. The quiet 29-year-old Frenchman is below when his 60-foot Pour Amnesty International is dismasted in a violent 360-degree roll, which sets off one of his distress beacons. Two more rolls the next morning leave him hull-up, and Dubois waits two hours for the boat to right itself. When it doesn't, he puts on his immersion suit, sets off another distress beacon, deploys his life raft, and swims out from under the boat to watch, like Dinelli, as the raft rips loose and scuds away with the beacon aboard. With no way back into the shelter of the upended boat, he pulls himself onto the hull and ties himself to the rudder.
The 57-year-old Englishman Bullimore, meanwhile, has sailed into the tempest after two days on a flat sea under blue skies that had allowed him to relax, dry his clothes, and fix himself some decent meals as his Exide Challenger shambled along at ten or 12 knots before the wind. On the evening of the fifth he smells the weather turning and then feels his ears pop as he watches his barometer plummet. After that, the winds start to blow. By the time they reach 60 knots, Bullimore has his boat stripped to bare poles and everything below tucked tightly away. He is braced in his cabin having a cup of tea when the massive wave rolls him with a force that tears his keel off and spins the boat bottom-side-up, leaving him on the ceiling of his cabin, listening to the underwater slap of the rigging as it whips his hull in the bucking waves.
January 6, 3:30 p.m.: An Orion, requested by Jackson-Calway late the previous night, arrives in the area and, despite the grim weather, spots Dubois clinging like a rat on a plank to Amnesty's hull. It drops two sets of rafts, and when the second pair seems on course to reach him, it flies off to look for Bullimore. When it reaches its fuel limit without finding Challenger, it turns for home on a course that takes them back over Dubois, whom it expects to see in one of the rafts it's deployed. Instead, he's still hugging the rudder: His keel is catching the wind and sailing his upturned hull too fast for the drifting rescue kits to overtake him. The anguished Orion crew, with no more rafts to drop and no fuel left to stay, turns back to Perth.
Dubois slips into despair as he watches the plane disappear, but the situation gets worse. When one of the rafts catches a gust and drifts closer, he leaps into the water and swims for it. He gets hold of a line and pulls himself into what would be the safety of the tented inflatable if a breaker didn't crash over him, exploding it. Now he is in the freezing water, too far from his boat to swim back, clutching a shard of raft. It's only a matter of time now, he thinks; maybe he should just unzip his thermal suit and let it end quickly.
January 6, 7:14 p.m.: A second Orion arrives and quickly finds Dubois. "He was, at that moment, the luckiest man on earth," says Jackson, the pilot. "It's hard enough to spot an upturned boat in seas like that, but a head bobbing in the water is just impossible. If he hadn't kept hold of that bright orange piece of raft, we never would have seen him again."
The Orion drops another set of rafts, watches Dubois climb in, and buzzes off to search again for Challenger. Two hours later, they find it: upside down, churning in the waves, no sign of a survivor. The plane drops a positioning buoy and flies back to find Dubois in the water yet again, next to the upturned raft from which the relentless waves have thrown him. It is now 9:50 p.m. and Dubois has been in the water for more than 24 hours. The Orion circles as Dubois struggles to right the raft, and then, with fuel critical and Dubois still in the water, has no choice but to turn north for the long flight home, leaving the sailor behind for a second time.
"It really shook the pilots up when they had to leave him like that," said Jackson-Calway. "We had another Orion on the way, but it was going to be 12 or 13 hours before it got there. And the navy had dispatched the guided missile frigate Adelaide from Fremantle, but in 30-foot seas with 70-knot winds that trip was going to take more than two days. So we had a bad morning of it. We didn't know if Dubois was in or out of the raft, or whether Bullimore was alive or dead."
January 7, 4:45 p.m.: A third Orion arrives and spots Dubois, amazingly enough, safely aboard the life raft. The crew drops a radio that almost hits him on the head; he tells the crew he is cold but otherwise all right, with food and water enough to wait for the Adelaide.
January 8, morning: Four more Orion flights arrive, one after another. The earliest drops listening devices, called sonobuoys, in the water near Bullimore's yacht but hears no signs of life. Deteriorating weather forces the afternoon flight to retreat before it can relocate Challenger. The evening flight finds Bullimore's boat, drops more sonobuoys, hears nothing. Then the last flight of the day detects a weak emergency signal coming from Challenger's forward compartment and hears, via sonobuoy, a tapping that lasts for 90 seconds, then stops, then takes up again for 50 seconds. There is no code in the tapping, but it seems too regular to be the sound of rigging slapping the hull.
January 9, 7:15 a.m.: In 12-foot seas and 35-knot winds, Adelaide launches a Seahawk helicopter, which plucks Dubois aboard and flies him to the ship. The big war ship then turns toward the sinking hump of Bullimore's hull to find out what is left under it after 90 hours in the cold sea. If anything.
"We thought he was probably dead," said Richard Moth, the veteran Orion pilot who arrived to guide Adelaide the last few miles to Challenger. "We dropped smoke on the water, then circled as Adelaide launched an inflatable into the swell. We watched it come alongside, saw the crew looking for a place to cut into the boat without sinking it. Then one of them knocked on the hull, and all of a sudden someone yelled over the radio, 'He's alive!' We saw this head pop up out of the water near the stern and a great shout went up through the plane, the crew started bouncing off the walls, there were tears. I've never seen anything like it...a Houdini act. I've been flying search and rescue for eight years, and seeing him bob up in the waves like that was absolutely the most incredible moment in my whole career."
Nearly four days before, shortly after Bullimore had rolled, as waves pitched and tossed the upside-down yacht, something had broken loose and blown out the windows that ringed his submerged cabin roof. From then on, he had lived in a rhythm of fill and flush that turned the cabin into something like a huge commode: Water rushed in as he rode down the back of the waves and then, as he rode up the next face, drained with such force that it sucked nearly everything — food, water, toolbox, flashlights, even a segment of the chart table — through the breech and out to sea.
"It's a merciless place," says Knox-Johnston. "But when you round Cape Horn, you can look in the mirror and say, 'I've made the toughest voyage possible on the planet.'"
Now a frogman from the inflatable jumped in, swam hard to Bullimore, and held him afloat till the raft could reach him. The Englishman kissed the chief officer as the four crewmen dragged him aboard and wrapped him in a space blanket. Then, despite exhaustion and frostbite, he began talking. He kept talking as they loaded him into a wire basket and winched him aboard the mother ship, kept talking as they rushed him to the sick bay, where doctors examined him while he lay on a gurney. Bullimore was not only alive, but impossible to shut up.
"I never thought I'd be here — it's a miracle," he said as cameras rolled and medics tried to keep him from sitting up. There was gray stubble over dark frostbite streaks on his face. He'd lost part of a little finger when a hatch slammed on it, and his frostbitten hands were swollen and bandaged. His voice was hoarse, but his South London accent was still peppery as he jabbered to his rapt audience.
"I've been in some situations in me life — in the middle of the Atlantic on a life raft 20 years ago, then on a boat that caught fire — but this was the hardest. When you think that after I turned over it was pitch dark down there, and me being sloshed around like a Ping-Pong ball in a washing machine. I had no torches, because when the windows broke the water was coming in and out at a colossal rate, like Niagara Falls upside down, sucking everything out, just amazing. I found myself a little hidey hole high enough to keep me out of the water, and I strung some ropes into a net, lashed myself in, and just curled up, wondering if I'd ever see my wife again, telling myself I'd had a good life, done most of the things I'd wanted to do, thinking that I'd probably just prepared my grave."
In his first trapped hours he had tried several times to deploy his life raft. It was lashed to the bottom side of the upturned deck, which meant working underwater to get at it. "I had to dive out the entranceway and up into the cockpit to reach it," he said, "and I had only about a minute each time because I smoke and my breath isn't very good and I just couldn't get the bugger loose. After every try it took about two hours in my little bolt-hole to warm up." His hands and feet suffered the worst of the cold, Bullimore said; he had neglected to bring the gloves and shoes for his immersion suit.
He prayed constantly, he said, and survived on a few bits of chocolate and some small packets of water out of an emergency grab bag. When the packaged water ran out, he used a small hand-pumped saltwater converter. "It took about a thousand pumps to make a cup," he said. In fact, the pumping of his water maker was the tapping picked up by the sonobuoys the day before he was rescued.
Two hours later, Bullimore was up and about the ship on frostbitten feet, thanking the crew, telling his story to the captain, taking congratulatory ship-to-shore calls, and entertaining the first in a series of interview and endorsement offers. Dubois, by contrast, did his best to stay clear of the reporters and cameramen swarming the two for details. He seemed embarrassed by the publicity that was characterizing their survival as heroic.
Two days later, Adelaide sailed into Fremantle harbor, amid a flotilla of small boats, to a welcoming crowd of thousands, including an international posse of reporters. Dubois and Bullimore, in gray jumpsuits that identified them as honorary crew members, waved their way down the gangway to a dockside podium as a military band played "Waltzing Matilda." The Frenchman spoke first. He praised AMSA for its skill and courage in the most southerly rescue ever attempted. "If you want to speak of heroes," he said, "Australia has a lot of heroes, and I have met some of them. We are not heroes, Tony and me."
Bullimore stepped to the microphone, limping slightly from the frostbite on his feet. He wore a baseball cap with a "7" on it — the Australian television channel that had paid him $100,000 for exclusive rights to film his reunion with his wife. There would soon be talk of a movie (Kevin Costner's interest was rumored), books (Saved and Rescue in the Southern Ocean would be published within eight months), and offers from the companies that made his survival suit, the chocolate he ate, the water he drank, and the tea that was his first request aboard Adelaide. The offers, it was said, totaled something around a million dollars.
"Thank you, Australia," Bullimore said over the PA, "for giving me back my life."
Rescuing Dubois and Bullimore, amsa estimated, cost roughly one million dollars. But as congratulatory telegrams flew in from around the world, as the press played out the drama in a way that focused on Aussie pluck, little public outcry arose.
"It annoys me in a sense," said David Adams, the Aussie winner of the 1994 BOC Challenge (who himself nearly vanished on that race's southern leg), of Bullimore's windfall. "You've got to realize, this guy was stone motherless last in the race. Augin was on his way to breaking the around-the-world record, 105 days, a brilliant campaign. And Bullimore's the legend. You have to give him credit, though. He may not be much of a sailor, but he is a survivor."
Adams was called in by the Australian Royal Navy for debriefings in which Dinelli, Dubois, and Bullimore described their ordeals and discussed setting limits on how far south future racers could sail. "Limits don't make any sense," he said. "You can draw an imaginary line at 50 degrees and say you can't go south of that, but it won't make the races any safer. The weather on the Southern Ocean doesn't know any limits. It can be terrible at 40 south. The racers know that below 50 degrees Defense Forces don't have much time to spend looking for them. If they want to cut the odds of rescue it ought to be up to them. And no matter what, you have to get around Cape Horn, and when you get down there, chances of rescue are very slight. As Gerry Roufs proved."
Roufs, an experienced Canadian sailor, was in second place in the Vendïe Globe, still some 10 days behind Augin, when he dropped out of contact, just before Dubois and Bullimore rode triumphantly into Fremantle. He was nearing Cape Horn in heavy seas and 70-knot winds, in the last stretch of the Southern Ocean, 2,600 miles west of Chile, well out of Australian reach. Officials alerted commercial vessels to watch for him and initiated satellite searches. But no sign of him or his boat was ever found.
"If you get in trouble in the southern Ocean, you want to do it in Australian waters," said Jackson-Calway as he walked through the Canberra headquarters. Then he added, "Not that there are ever any guarantees out there."
Moments later, the reason for the qualifier he'd tacked onto his boast came clear as the phone rang on the desk of an AMSA public relations spokesman. It was Denise Bradley, mother of Cadelia, an 18-year-old Aussie who had answered an ad for crew and then flown to New Zealand to sail aboard Queen Charlotte for what she had told her family would be the adventure of her life. The spokesman told her mother that search planes had reported better weather and visibility in the Coral Sea, but since the sighting of empty life jackets nothing new had turned up. These waters, off the east coast of Australia, weren't nearly as distant, cold, and lonely as the Southern Ocean, but they were about to defeat the best efforts of the wide Aussie rescue net. Shortly after he hung up the phone, word came back from the crew of an Orion. Pieces of the yacht — epitaph wreckage — had been spotted: no life raft, no survivors.
Craig Vetter, a longtime contributing editor of Outside, is working on a book about his father, who died in the 1945 battle for Okinawa.
Map by Dave Stevenson