By Jury-Rigged Mainsail and the Grace of God
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Outside magazine, August 1995
By Jury-Rigged Mainsail and the Grace of God
To make it through the world’s longest, most unforgiving sailing race, you need to be plenty brave, plenty foolish, and pretty handy with a wrench
A small hubbub of horns and shouting went up along the breakwater at Punta del Este, Uruguay, last March as Australian Aalan Nebauer limped his rudderless 50-foot racing sloop over the sunny horizon toward the mouth of the harbor. Punta, a resort town of beautiful palms and pines, usually sits empty this late in the South American calendar, abandoned by the summer hordes that
Nebauer was late. Only a week remained before the April 1 start of the fourth and final race leg as he came into sight on a light sea breeze. He stood alone in his cockpit, waving to the half-dozen shore launches that had come out to meet him and grinding the winches to adjust the sails that, for ten sleepless days and nights, had been his only way to steer.
He raised both his arms and said something to the sky as his boat, Newcastle Australia, slid across the finish line, as the launches towed him to the docks, and as his wife climbed aboard and took him in a long embrace that put a warm ending on the 56 horrific days it had taken him to sail the 7,000 miles from Sydney, Australia, to Punta.
“It was a very bad day for a very long time,” was the way Nebauer put it later that morning before a gathering of reporters, race officials, and the skippers who had preceded him into this last pit stop on the 27,000-mile voyage they had begun the September before. The race had taken them from Charleston, South Carolina, across the Atlantic in hurricane season to Cape Town,
Nebauer had been forced to round the Horn under jury rig after a massive wave struck his boat and carried away the mast. He’d hung sail from an A-frame improvised of spinnaker poles and shambled into the Falkland Islands, where he replaced his mast and sailed off for what he expected to be an easy 1,000-mile push north to Punta. Three days later, something–he didn’t know
“Physically, emotionally, mentally, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “A nightmare. I read my Bible all the time to keep myself going.”
“Do you remember any particular passages?” someone asked.
“Many,” he said, as if it had taken him nearly the whole of the Good Book to survive the demons that wait for those who attempt what is surely one of the last great adventures left in a world that has otherwise been shrunk and tamed by technology. “I’m here by the grace of God only,” he said finally.
Others had not been so blessed. Of the 20 boats that had started the race, seven were gone. Two lay sunk–one in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean–three had quit the race, and two were missing in the wilderness of the Southern Ocean. Minoru Saito, a Japanese sailing the 50-foot Shuten-Doji II, and England’s Harry Mitchell, on the 40-foot
“People who compete in this race are not your typical yachtsmen,” said Arnet Taylor Jr. “They’re not exactly the Hell’s Angels of the water, but something like that. A real interesting cast of characters.”
We were sitting belowdecks on Thursday’s Child. Taylor, the bespectacled, jovial, 45-year-old American skipper, was perched in a seat from an F-16 jet that he had installed at his chart table. Built in 1983, Thursday’s Child was the second-oldest boat in the fleet, and like the others it was empty of the amenities of a
As Taylor put his finger on a map of the world to trace his route and his travails for me, he prefaced his narrative with the wry, understated humor that had filled the many dispatches he had composed at sea and faxed to friends and fellow competitors.
“You want to sail around the world–real heroic, right?” he said. “Except that once you’re out there alone, you don’t have a lot of choice. Then it’s just a matter of accepting things as they are and trying to push on with a little style. There are moments out there when it’s blowing stink, however, that test every ounce of humor you have, moments when you would pay dearly to
The first BOC Challenge–named for British Oxygen Corporation, the gas company that sponsored it–sailed from Newport, Rhode Island, at the end of August 1982. Seventeen sailors set out in an attempt to go “around alone,” as American sailor and race organizer David White put it. Only ten of them finished, all having weathered the hardships and breakdowns, disasters and
The boats that had made it through the first three legs of the 1994-1995 BOC were moored gunwale to gunwale along both sides of a long concrete dock just inside the breakwater at Punta. Defending champ Christophe Auguin’s $3 million, state-of-the-art boat, Sceta Calberson, was lashed into the first slip and had been there resting quietly, gleaming
Across the dock from the 60-footers sat the leaders in Class II, boats 50 feet and under. Australian David Adams’s True Blue and Italian Giovanni Soldini’s Kodak floated side by side, which was pretty much where they’d been since the start of the race in what had become the most amazing neck-and-neck battle in the
“The difference in this race is more among the boats than among the skippers,” said Arnie Taylor. “Everybody here is a pretty good sailor. I mean, just to qualify, you have to make a 2,000-mile transatlantic passage, alone, with no engine. That was actually the worst of it for me. I was rushing to get things together; I was under financial pressure. Then I sailed into heavy
Isabelle Autissier, 38 years old, the only woman in the race, was another of France’s top professional racing sailors, also aboard a brand-new yacht, the 60-foot Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2. She had begun sailing at age six, and her competitive credentials included a seventh-place finish in the 1990-1991 BOC and a solo dash around the Horn from New
“She’s amazing,” said David Adams, who had crewed for Autissier in a race from France, around the British Isles, and back. “She leads from the front–first up in the morning, last to bed, works the hardest. There’s no man-woman thing with Isabelle. She knows sailing is more a mental than a physical sport, which means a tough woman can compete with men out there. And Isabelle is
Autissier’s preparation for the ’94-’95 BOC included sleep-deprivation training and a course in meteorology taught by a leading French maritime weatherman. Her campaign cost an estimated $3 million and was by all accounts the best organized in the race. On leg one, all of it came together in a way that left the rest of the fleet wondering if she hadn’t included some kind of
“She hit it just right, and she was the only one to hit it,” said Adams. “She caught a low-pressure system at the upper edge of the calms that the rest of us got stuck in. A lot of us tried to chase her when we saw what she was doing, but it was as if she shut the door, turned off the lights, and took away the wind.”
Autissier sailed into the harbor at Cape Town on Sunday, October 23, five full days ahead of her closest competition. It was the fastest time ever posted for the first leg of the BOC, and the first stage victory ever for a woman.
Adams, who was part of a tightly bunched flotilla of seven boats that straggled into Cape Town some 130 hours behind Autissier, kidded her about what he called “the hiding” she’d given the boys in the race. “The way I figure it,” he told her, “you won the women’s division of leg one.” Other race observers noted Autissier’s shellacking of the field by dubbing stage one “Isabelle
But her luck turned six days after the fleet began leg two, a 6,698-mile roller-coaster ride across the angry latitudes of the Southern and Indian Oceans called the Roaring Forties. Autissier was in the lead, 1,200 miles from Cape Town, when gale-force winds dismasted her boat. Her aftermath dispatch to race headquarters read more like a haiku than an SOS. “Thirty knots of
David Adams, on the boat closest to Autissier, was diverted to offer rescue, although when he arrived, she waved him off. Adams, who had a satellite telephone aboard True Blue, called race headquarters with a report of their rendezvous.
“There was nothing I could do,” he said. “It was pitch black…rough as anything, blowing 35-40 knots…when we found one another. It was just awful to leave her like that, rolling her guts out. She wants to put up a jury rig and go on to the Kerguelen Islands. She’s got a hell of a trip ahead, and I’m worried for her.”
Autissier made a seven-day, jury-rigged crawl toward Kerguelen for repairs and then resumed the run toward Australia. She was gaining on the fleet when, on December 28, 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas rolled her boat 360 degrees and pitched it end over end, tearing the mast and mizzen completely off and leaving a hole the size of a Volkswagen in the deck above the chart table.
With four days to the restart, Giovanni Soldini arrived at the Punta del Este Yacht Club for a computer press conference set up by race sponsors IBM and Compuserve. Race communications director Herb McCormick fielded questions from 50 schools in Europe and the United States whose students had been following the race via daily Compuserve updates.
“Do you like being in such a close race with David Adams?” asked McCormick, reading the question from his computer screen.
Soldini thought for a moment. He had beaten True Blue into Sydney by a narrow margin, only to see his leg-two victory awarded to Adams by virtue of the four-hour allowance that the Autralian had been given for his diversion to Autissier at her first dismasting. And though he had also beaten Adams into Punta, he was still behind by 21 hours.
McCormick typed as Soldini spoke. “Is nice race. Very exciting. But I would prefer much better to be a long way in front.”
In fact, the two men were caught in a virtual drag race; just past the Kerguelen Islands on the way to Sydney, for example, the tall, hard-driving Aussie and the small, garrulous Italian had been so close that they were sailing in sight of each other.
“The funny thing is that the two of them are as different as chalk and cheese,” Australian Phil Lee, Adams’s shore crew boss, told me. “David’s 41 years old, big and strong, runs, bikes, swims to stay in shape, won’t even touch alcohol the week before a race, switches to decaf coffee. Giovanni’s this little guy, 29 years old, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and no
Soldini’s Kodak was, in fact, the most stripped-down boat in the fleet. Built for around $300,000 with the help of recovering drug addicts near Soldini’s hometown of Milan, it had a main cabin so bare that it looked unfinished. Huge bolt-heads protruded through the flooring planks, beneath which were his wine cellar and tobacco stores. There was no
“It fits me,” he had told me during a belowdecks tour. “Is very different than True Blue, no? Like David and me. He is very English, very serious. I am very Italian.” He laughed and gestured toward the immaculate, fully equipped, $500,000 boat in the slip beside him. “Still, we have very close race, we push each other, take many risks.”
In the middle of the second leg, Adams nearly rode the risks to his death. On December 7, with Soldini ahead by 40 miles, the two of them were savaged in a series of storms that sent seven-story waves breaking over their boats on winds that reached 70 knots. “You have no idea how frightening it is to look around and see a breaking 60-foot wave chasing you,” said Adams, who–in
Soldini, who had hunkered belowdecks during the storm, couldn’t believe it when word of Adams’s position, and the near-drowning it had cost him, came across Kodak’s fax. “What a shit,” replied Soldini in a message to race headquarters. “He got 100 miles ahead yesterday. But he’s mad! He never stops steering outside. I won’t do it. I don’t want to
For 45 minutes Soldini fielded questions over the computer, until finally a Pennsylvania grammar-school student asked if he planned to race in the next BOC.
“It depends,” said the Italian. “The hardest part of the race for me, very hard, was finding the money to get to the start. I lived poor for four years and I will not do that again. If I find good sponsor, OK. If not, I get a gun and go into a bank.”
On March 5, as the sailors in Punta scrambled with final refittings and provisioning, word came that missing sailor Minoru Saito had been spotted by a freighter just east of the Strait of Magellan. He was sailing slowly toward the Falklands, unable to raise his mainsail or reactivate his broken radio and autopilot, but otherwise he was fine. There was still no sign of Harry
At 70, Mitchell was the oldest sailor in the race. Described as a buccaneer at heart, a pirate born out of his time, Mitchell had worked long and hard after a dream he’d carried for most of his life: to put on the gold earring that had been symbolic of a passage around Cape Horn since the days of Portuguese square riggers. He tried first in the 1986-1987 BOC but made it only as
Despite his dogged spirits, the first two legs of the race took a toll that delivered Mitchell into Sydney exhausted and sick with the flu. “I do these races for the afterwards rather than the during,” he liked to say. Shortly before the start of leg three, Mitchell collapsed aboard his boat and checked into a hotel, refusing to see a doctor. On January 30, still weak and a day
On February 2, David Scully reported that the wind was “blowing dogs off chains” and said that he had lost several on-deck instruments to the frigid gusts. David Adams described conditions as “appalling, atrocious, bloody awful. I’ll bet there’s lots of people getting into strife.” He ended his dispatch with a sentiment that was being shared in messages around the fleet: “I
In fact, Nigel Rowe, a BOC executive turned competitor, had already decided it was time to go home. Rowe had been forced back to Australia shortly after the Sydney start when his headsail was ripped to shreds by heavy winds. The prospect of following the fleet into the violent weather they were reporting was too much. “For me, sailing is a hobby to be enjoyed, not a way of life
As the leaders of the pack dropped south, seeking the short route around the small end of the globe, Christophe Auguin reported that he had lost his radar and was forced to stay in his cockpit to keep 24-hour eyeball watch for icebergs and the more dangerous underwater ice chunks called growlers. The next day, Jean Luc Van den Heede spotted the first berg: four miles long, two
The back of the fleet, meanwhile, was getting the worst of the weather. Mitchell, Saito, Arnie Taylor, and British sailor Robin Davie had been relentlessly pounded by a series of monumental storms. Then, on March 2, as an icy wind blew at nearly 70 knots, Saito went out of contact and Mitchell activated his emergency beacon. A Chilean freighter was diverted to his position and
“I was in radio contact with him two days before he went missing,” said Davie, a good friend of Mitchell’s and the last person to talk with him. “He was in great spirits, sailing well despite a couple of heavy knockdowns. I’d already lost my mast and was sailing under jury rig when his beacon went off. It would have taken me ten days to get back to his position.” Davie paused,
“There are times out there when you feel like loose change in the wash,” said David Scully as we sailed out of Punta’s harbor for an afternoon shakedown cruise. We were aboard Coyote, an open-ocean racing boat with a tragic reputation. It had been built by sailor Mike Plant, who in the fall of 1992 was lost in the Atlantic when the keel bulb broke
“Helen was keen to see the boat race again,” said Scully, a former America’s Cup and multihull racer who had grown up in Illinois and was now living in France. “I was keen to do the BOC, and rebuilding Coyote was my only chance at getting any kind of boat in the race, let alone a yacht of this potential.”
Scully filled the ballast tanks with water as the powerful boat, with its wide beam and huge mainsail, heeled over in the stiff breeze. The sponsors and other passengers on board grabbed at winches and cleats to hold themselves steady as the boat pounded upwind. “In big waves, the noise is deafening,” said Scully as Coyote rode up the face of a
A mile out of the harbor, Scully asked me if I wanted to drive, and for the next 20 minutes I stood at the huge wheel with salty spray blowing over the bow into my face, trying to imagine what it would be like at this helm in hurricane-force winds, on waves taller than the mast, a thousand miles from land, alone. Even as a fantasy, it gave me the willies.
“Not to take the romance out of it,” said Scully, “but quite aside from the sailing and racing, there are days when I feel like a maintenance man trying to figure out how to fix what’s broken.”
As a Zodiac towed us the last half-mile to the dock, Scully pointed to the rest of the fleet. “There they are,” he said. “The brave, the broke, the absolutely destitute.”
Of all the BOC skippers, none fit that sardonic description better than 27-year-old Neal Petersen, who had sailed bravely for as long as he could and had landed in Punta depressed, nearly destitute, out of the race he had worked so long and so hard to be a part of. Petersen, a black South African, had designed and built his 40-foot Protect Our
“When I crossed the start line, the efforts of several hundred people over five years suddenly peaked,” he said. “There were people who said I’d never make it, but at last I was out there doing what I always believed I’d do.”
Three days out of Charleston, however, his forestay broke, forcing him to stop for repairs in Bermuda and putting him well behind the fleet. Sixty-four days later, he sailed into Cape Town’s Table Bay to a hometown-hero’s welcome. Fireboats sent water plumes into the air. More than a thousand people lined the docks: old friends, teachers, the student body from the high school
“I lost it,” said Petersen, remembering his reception. “After all the years of struggle, all the times I’d gone hungry, at that moment I wouldn’t have been anybody else in the world for any amount of money.”
Despite the jubilance of his arrival, Petersen’s stop in Cape Town quickly became a scramble after corporate sponsorship that did not come through. He began the second leg four days late, tired and disappointed, and a week later was caught in a gale that knocked him down and snapped his mast. He returned to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, under jury rig and withdrew from the
After refitting, Petersen and his girlfriend, Gwen Wilkinson, sailed Protect Our Sealife on a direct route across the South Atlantic to Punta, where he decided to do the final leg of the race unofficially. The red patchwork boat, plastered with decals from Petersen’s many small sponsors, now sat, like a soapbox derby racer in the pits at
Sceta Calberson was computer-designed in 1993 by the renowned French marine architect Jean Marie Finot, and everything about it had the look and feel of a flying machine. Even at rest, its thin stem and wide beam seemed to sit lightly on the water. The cabin roof was a low, aerodynamic pod necklaced with 12 small windows that gave the pilot a
“I am very at ease with my boat,” said Auguin as we sat for lunch at a harborside restaurant. “It came out exactly as I imagined when we did the first computer design. It is strong, fast, and safe.”
Auguin, tanned and bearded, was just back from a two-week vacation in France and Bolivia, one of the perks of having arrived in Punta so early. His friendly manner tends to mask the strategic savvy and daring that have brought him to the fore in this ultimate of individual sports. He smiles easily, talks quietly with his hands, and aside from sailing the seas, his greatest love
Auguin began racing small boats when he was seven years old and became obsessed with the French tradition of single-handed racing. “Alain Girabault sailed around the world alone in 1880,” he said, using his hands to trace a large globe in the air. “It took him three years–a very nice adventure, I think. He wrote a book which I read when I was little, and it made me dream. Then
One of Sceta’s shore crew joined us, spoke to Auguin in French about the small adjustments the boat was undergoing for the last leg, and then made his way across the yacht club parking lot to the large cargo container that had been flown to each of the stops to serve as tool shed and spare-parts depot. None of the other teams had anything like it,
“I am ready for the final leg…I think,” he said, with the sort of optimism that is always tinged for these sailors by the notion that the wind and the sea that gave you the lead can take it away. “In the Atlantic you can have two, three days without wind, so even with four days’ advantage it is dangerous for me with Steve Pettengill and Jean Luc Van den Heede and David Scully
Three days before the start of the last leg, a southeasterly gale called a sudestada moved into Punta; the palms along the shoreline began to dance, the sea turned wild, and the harbor was closed to all boat traffic.
By Saturday morning the back edge of the rainy front was still whipping the winds into gusts of 40 miles per hour. Race officials postponed the restart, giving the skippers an extra day to fuss and worry over their boats.
All of the sailors expected the last 5,800 miles–the equivalent of nearly two transatlantic crossings–to be relatively easy. Much of the journey would keep them within sight of the South American coast, and the winds, though variable, were expected to be weak over long stretches, prompting all of the racers to strip their boats of as much weight as possible.
In fact, the joke around the docks that Saturday was that Steve Pettengill, the fiercely competitive American who was in second place, had gone so far as to cut his toothbrush in half to lighten his load.
“Yeah, I did that,” he said as we talked about what he thought was maybe a 50-50 chance of catching Auguin. “It was mostly an incentive to my crew to get rid of anything we didn’t absolutely need, and it worked. We peeled off about 600 pounds. Even so, Sceta’s a half a ton lighter.”
Pettengill’s boat, Hunter’s Child, was at the high end of American racing design and technology: a $500,000 red and white craft fitted with experimental keel, rigging, and mast features that its sponsor, Hunter Marine, hopes to incorporate onto its line of racing yachts. And in Pettengill the company had perhaps the perfect test pilot. Born in
In Punta, Pettengill stayed away from the sponsor parties and late-night bull sessions that had attracted most of the other skippers. Forty-four years old, with a receding hairline and a bushy mustache, he was up and in the gym early every morning to keep himself in the physical shape that had helped him survive the capsizing of a trimaran off Cape Horn in 1990. This last trip
When I asked Pettengill if the first 21,000 miles of this race had been the adventure he’d hoped for, he answered like the matter-of-fact professional that he was. “This is my job,” he said. “I mean, the sailing’s been great, but it’s the business of the whole thing that’s been the most exciting. We sat down over three years ago with a flat piece of paper and brought it to
At noon on Sunday, the beautiful three-masted schooner Miranda, asail at the southern edge of the harbor, fired its cannon to start the final stretch. Under blue skies, on a stiff breeze, 11 boats took off as if they had been released from a bottle. A large crowd watched as they sailed to the end of the Punta peninsula and continued north along the
As Sceta Calberson again skated away from the fleet, Giovanni Soldini overtook David Adams and was 50 miles ahead when his forestay broke, forcing him to land in Brazil for repairs, a three-hour delay that would end the long, knot-for-knot sprint that he and his Australian rival had run with each other for more than three-quarters of the way around
Meanwhile, the battle for second place in Class I had turned sweaty. As David Scully and Jean Luc Van den Heede rode light winds west toward Charleston, Pettengill, in a risky strategic move, turned east, looking for the stiffer breezes that would let him cut them off in the final stretch.
Four days out of Charleston, on an excruciatingly light breeze, Scully sat at his computer and let the poetry of his long voyage overcome the suspense of who would finish in second place. “Two knots, three knots, the ocean is immense at three knots of speed,” he wrote. “We are now crossing tracks we made at our departure seven months ago. Hunter’s
Four days later, on Sunday, April 30, Steve Pettengill sailed across the finish line to take second place by half a toothbrush, seven hours ahead of Scully and eight hours ahead of Van den Heede. Christophe Auguin had already been in port for three days.
And on May 16, with Minoro Saito 1,500 miles from the finish, still plugging, the rest of the skippers who had brought their boats safely back to land gathered at race headquarters in Charleston to toast Harry Mitchell with a quote of his own. “Don’t waste time,” they remembered him saying. “Make the best of what you may before you turn into clay.”
Craig Vetter, a contributing editor of Outside, wrote about ice climber Marc Twight in the February issue.