"LET'S GO: CODE GREEN," the e-mail reads. Multimillionaire Steve Fossett is out to break the east-west transatlantic sailing record, and the terse message is confirmation that I'll be going along for the ride. In today's world, color codes usually refer to terrorism threat levels. In Fossett's, they set the clock. Code Red means there's no decent weather window imminent. Code Yellow means something might be brewing five days out. Code Green means get your ass to the boat. This same e-mail is being read from Europe to California by a small cadre of elite sailors always eager to show their chops on PlayStation, Fossett's $5 million, 125-foot maxi-catamaranarguably the world's fastest sailboat. I've raced enough to convince our 59-year-old skipper that I can crank winches and avoid mortal injury on a boat that can reach 45 miles per hour and where breakage can slice a man in two. With little more than a pair of seaboots, two pairs of socks, and a set of thermals, I scramble for the airport, headed for southern Spain.
Fossett's mammoth toy dominates the waterfront at the Puerto Sherry Marina, a vast yachting facility near Cdiz. PlayStationdesigned by the Newport Beach, California, team of Gino Morrelli and Pete Melvin and launched in 1998has been carving up European waters for more than a year, and has set five world speed records since October 2001, when it obliterated the mark from New York to the English Channel, in four days and 17 hours (a 2,925-mile sprint that lopped almost 44 hours off the prior time). Now Fossett wants to crown himself King of the Atlantic by claiming the record going the other way. The east-west course, a slower and warmer trade-wind run, traces the 3,884-mile route Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain to the New World, making landfall at San Salvador, Bahamas. It took Columbus six weeks; we plan to sail it in ten days. There are only four other multihulls on the planet capable of such speed. In June 2000, one of themthe 110-foot Club Medset the current Columbus Route record of ten days, 14 hours, and 53 minutes, a record Fossett plans to smash.
FOSSETT ARRIVES at the boat 12 hours before our expected midnight departure. For a man who's all about speed and endurance, he is distinctly non-streamlined, with a moon-shaped face and a pronounced paunch set over thick, powerful legs. In his pre-sail briefing for the 12-person crew, he is diffident and almost awkward, but firm about what it will take to succeed. "We need maximum-efficiency downwind driving, and we need to avoid boat-handling mistakes that will cost us time," he says, stressing that he doesn't want to see the windward hull lifted high out of the water. "We are not allowed to flip this boat. If we do, people will be killed." Anyone lucky enough to be safe inside the upturned hull, he continues, should grab a knife, find the escape hatch, and start hacking at the trampoline between the hulls to free any crew members drowning underneath.
The other possible death sentenceman overboardis discussed next. Dave Scully, the 47-year-old who manages PlayStation, understands the unfavorable math involving a catamaran that sails a mile every two minutes. "The first rule about man overboard," he says, "is 'Don't fall overboard.' " By the time the crew could turn the boat around, anyone in the water would be miles behind, a small head on an endless sea. Fossett, who likes to stick a number on everything, believes the odds of retrieval are about 50 percent.
Scully, an American who spends most of his time at sea, is a world-class sailor who raced solo around the globe in the 1994-95 BOC Challenge. Fossett turned to him for sailing advice more than ten years ago, and the two have campaigned together ever since. A few other Play-Station vets are on hand: designer Pete Melvin, 41, a former Olympic sailor; Peter Hogg, 59, a wry New Zealander who's lived in the States since the sixties and who can be relied upon to produce porridge or tea in hurricane conditions; and Brian Thompson, 41, a laid-back and highly skilled English multihuller who has sailed with Fossett since helping him and Scully set a record for circumnavigating Ireland, in 1993. The rest of the crew is composed of mostly English professional sailors, one South African, and Miki, a feisty Finn, the sole woman on board. These sailors race boats all over the world in exchange for airfare, expenses, and whatever per diem they can squeeze out of sponsors and wealthy owners.
To avoid light winds, our strategy will be to sail a longer, more southerly route than Club Med's. "Let's go main!" Fossett calls as PlayStation motors across smooth water just off the marina, under the warm glow of a near-full moon. Twenty minutes later, someone grunts, "She's home," and five of us drop off the winch handles, gulping air as the head of the massive sail is locked into the mast, 140 feet above. We unfurl the headsail and streak across the World Sailing Speed Record Council's start line 42 seconds after the stroke of midnight. Fossett is planted happily at the helm of his superboat, gunning for another triumph over time and distance.
UNTIL ABOUT TEN years ago, Fossett, who grew up in Garden Grove, California, was an anonymous plodder on the endurance-sport circuit, a man who trained for five years to complete the Iditarod dogsled race (which he did in 1992) and who required four attempts to swim the English Channel. (He finally succeeded in 1985, in 22 hours and change, earning an award for the slowest time of the year and a hypothermic trip to the hospital.) But in 1990, after making a fortune working as an options trader on the Chicago exchange, Fossett plugged into a new game, dedicating his time and millions to a life of breaking records in ballooning, sailing, flying, and gliding. Since then, Fossett, who has been married to his wife, Peggy, for 35 years and has no children, has been on a nonstop bender, racking up more than 30 world records at a carnivorous pace that keeps him in the air or on the water more than 200 days a year. He was named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2001 and is only the second person to win the Prix de la Vaulxone of aviation's most coveted awardsfour times. Fossett is best known as the first human to solo a balloon around the globe nonstop, a feat he knocked off in July 2002. If there were a world record for setting world records, he would probably hold that, too.
Our first night at sea, I'm lying in one of four bunks in PlayStation's port hull. My feet are oriented toward the bows so I don't risk a broken neck if we hit a whale or a semisubmerged container. We've been divided into three four-man watches. The rotation is four hours on, four hours on standby, and four hours off. I'm due on deck at 0400. Water roars past my head just outside the hull skin. I remember too late that smart multihull sailors pack earplugs.