Think the life of a top solo sailor is a little crazy? Right you are.
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Out Front, Fall 1998
Isabelle Autissier seems to be missing the imagination for disaster that inspires the rest of us to daydream a series of dire futures for ourselves, however improbable. Though she describes herself as being neither religious nor
In September, four years after she nearly perished in the Southern Ocean in her last around-the-world race, Autissier, with a new yacht, the PRB, will compete once again in the sport’s premier event, Around Alone, against 17 other solo distance sailors. As usual, she is the only woman in a sea of men.
At 41, Autissier is a striking Frenchwoman, with a handsome, weathered face, dark curly hair, and eyes that are a startling, translucent bottle-green. Women and men who have sailed with and against her all emphatically admire Autissier, but they also make her sound both more and less than human. “She’s a very concentrated person, and very professional. She’s always thinking
Autissier sailed the Whitbread in part for fun and in part to promote the upcoming solo race. In doing so, the veteran single-hander was clearly out of her element. The EF Education had a crew of 12 and finished dead last; Autissier never finishes last. In May 1994, sailing with a crew of three, she shaved an impressive two weeks off the previous record for the passage from New
“It’s good fun to sail with a crew. You can speak and laugh. You can learn from the others,” says Autissier. “And when I go to sleep, I can sleep — I know that if something is happening they can wake me up, or that they will manage. But you’re also responsible for the crew. You can put them in a good or bad position — so maybe you take less risks. When you are alone
For the estimated seven months of Around Alone, Autissier will check the boat each day at dawn and then eat a breakfast of dry cereal and tea. (The PRB has no refrigeration, a tiny sink, and only a small gas burner on which to cook meals.) There are constant small repairs and constant decisions to be made, which means that Autissier can sleep in
Autissier, who is single and has no children, is not antisocial; she comes from a family of five girls, and those who have sailed with her say she’s funny, with a dry wit. (“The first problem when you are going around the world,” she observes, “is to arrive.”) But she has an almost mechanistic belief in systems — meteorology, ocean currents, her body’s own biorhythms.
Viewed in this light, it makes perfect sense that a woman could sail around the world as well as a man. As David Adams, an Australian singled-handed racer, says, “She’s not as strong as we are; she can’t change the sails as quickly. But she makes up for any physical shortcomings by pushing herself at a level as high as the best blokes.” As a skipper, he says, “She has a very
This he witnessed firsthand. When the mast of her boat, the Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2, snapped in a storm 1,200 miles from Cape Town in the 1994-1995 race, Adams, sailing the True Blue, was diverted by race officials to rescue her. “The situation was very difficult,” she remembers. “The weather was bad, and I had no
Then, three-and-a-half weeks later, after she’d repaired the mast at a French research station on Kerguelen Island, it snapped off for good during a wild Southern Ocean storm — 60-knot winds and 30-foot waves. The boat did a 360, and when it righted itself, a giant hole opened up in the deck. “You only panic when you can do nothing. So you have to do things, to
She was more than 1,500 miles south of Australia, and “the sea was rough and the boat was filling, the pumps and the electricity were out. I had to get rid of the water with a bucket. I made a tent above the hole using the sail.” On December 28, Autissier deployed her emergency radio beacon. After two hours of frantic and — as she was swiftly realizing — futile
Being female — that is to say, something of a novelty act — has certainly brought Autissier attention, some of it unwelcome. “Many people focus on me more because I am a woman,” she says. “Even if I never wanted to prove anything, I am forced to do it. If a woman is in the race, the public wants that woman to win, because it’s an exception. Or to lose … or
Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti