Monsters of the Deep

Some of the most innovative boats ever built prepare for the fiercest race in sailing history

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Totnes, a prim English town nestled down by the River Dart in the County of Devon, is the sort of place given more to speculation about the price of wool than to wild flights of fancy. But residents stumbling home from the pub might be forgiven the impression that the ghost of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg is alive and well on Saint Peter’s Quay. Here, inside a cavernous shed at the Baltic Wharf Boatyard, a team of 25 aerospace engineers, naval architects, and former Indianapolis 500 car designers is completing a passing strange contraption. When the ungodly thing is assembled sometime next month, it will boast twin masts that tower 136 feet over the water; two narrow, 120-foot wave-piercing hulls; an accommodations pod for the crew of five; and a theoretical top speed under sail of almost…50 miles per hour. That’s not a typo. Five-zero. Nearly three times as fast as the fleetest America’s Cup racers. “It looks wacky, like a boat set on razor blades,” admits its skipper, Englishman Pete Goss. “We’re a bit out there, I think.”

A bit out there, indeed. But Goss is working to beat some seriously high-tech competition—including a giant catamaran (shown on these pages) built by billionaire thrill-seeker Steve Fossett. Both men, along with a few other world-class long-distance sailors, are entering the one-year countdown to a sailing race being billed, reasonably, as “the most extreme circumnavigation in the history of sailing.” Conceived in a moment of mad inspiration by French sailor Bruno Peyron after he became, in 1993, the first to sail nonstop around the world in under 80 days, the event is known grandly in France as The Race of the Millennium. To the rest of the world, it’s simply The Race. With stubborn Gallic logic, the start will take place off the Straits of Gibraltar at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2000 (purists insist that’s when the next millennium really begins). And as with every other millennial event, there’s no shortage of treacly BS in the higher concept. (“To conciliate high technology with the environment, sports with culture, competition with dialogue,” proclaims the event’s promotional packet.) But none of that can obscure or diminish the brutish appeal of the core idea: a nonstop, no-rules, no-limits, round-the-world drag race pitting the fastest—and potentially most dangerous— sailboats ever built against the world’s most violent oceans. “When it’s wide open, it’s not always a good test of sailing, because it can become more a test of who’s crazy and who’s not,” observes Michael Carr, a professional marine forecaster. “Skippers will have to ask, ‘How badly do I want to win, and do I care if anyone dies?'”

The race instructions are disarmingly simple: Make a beeline for the southern oceans, keep the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn to port, and then finish. Fastest boat around this track at the bottom of the world wins. But with no design limitations—other than a rule that almost everything on board has to be powered by human muscle alone—the world’s top multihull-design engineers are sketching boats that defy comparison to any existing sailing craft. The Goss Challenger, for example, models itself after a series of high-speed motorized attack craft—known as VSVs, for Very Slender Vessels—that architect Adrian Thompson originally designed for the world’s elite special forces units, including the U.S. Navy SEALs. Instead of pounding into waves, VSVs pierce them, reducing shock loads and allowing higher average speeds. Goss expects the bows of his semi-submersible boat to plunge 14 feet underwater through the swells. To prepare for the experience, he and his crew recently entered a wind tunnel that spat 40-knot gales, driving rain, and five-degree temperatures at them, and topped it off by jumping 15 feet into a freezing pool to simulate a man overboard.

In contrast, Steve Fossett’s PlayStation, a 105-foot catamaran designed specifically for The Race, will simply try to outmuscle the sea with 11,000 square feet of sail. Launched last December in New Zealand, the vessel was barely out of the box before it broke the 24-hour distance record, traveling 580.23 nautical miles (668.19 statute miles) at an average speed of 27.83 mph and reaching top speeds of 41.45 mph. Fossett thinks PlayStation can go even faster; at press time he and his boat (along with Fossett’s former ballooning buddy, Richard Branson) were readying themselves for an attempt at the nine-year-old record for crossing the Atlantic from New York Harbor to the English Channel—six days, 13 hours, three minutes.

All told, 19 challengers are now officially registered for The Race. The vagaries of fund-raising and construction schedules will prevent a number from making it to the starting line. But Fossett and Goss could be joined by up to five new maxi-multihulls (including a secretive French affair, christened Code Zero, that is a few feet longer than PlayStation), several existing deep-ocean multihull racers, and possibly a super 150-foot monohull being designed in the United States. Adrian Thompson, for one, revels in the competition between designers. “It would be boring if all the boats looked the same,” he says. “Only one of us will be proved right.”

But the race may carve a fine line between winning form and disaster. Crews will risk mechanical failure, capsizing, and pitchpoling, in which the boat’s bow digs deep into the back of a wave and somersaults. (“Our insurance policy is a pair of fire axes to cut the main sheets,” deadpans Goss.) Skippers will be tempted to try a shortcut through the high latitudes surrounding Antarctica—a region notorious for ice and foul weather. “It’s going to be fairly easy to get these boats in trouble,” predicts Bob Rice, a meteorologist who has helped route round-the-world racers to record finishes. “The odds are quite high that they will see ’60/60’—60-knot winds and 60-foot seas.”

To enjoy the privilege of facing these conditions, an entrant must sail one of four designated transoceanic passages and post a time that comes within 125 percent of the record existing in December 1998. So in the coming year, everyone from the crews to the governments that might have to rescue them will get a realistic preview of this madness. And once The Race kicks off, in addition to television coverage, up to ten remote cameras aboard each boat will enable World Wide Web users to experience the ordeal live. Offshore yacht designer Robert Perry believes that will make for a pretty mesmerizing, if potentially gruesome, contest. “These vessels generate such gargantuan loads that when the shit hits the fan, it is a lot of shit hitting a huge fan,” he explains. “They are probably about as unsafe a boat as you could possibly go to sea in. But this is an extreme sport—so asking how safe the vessels are is just not relevant.”


Blinded by the Light

A new survey reveals that in America’s national parks, darkness no longer descends upon the land

Midnight in Yellowstone National Park. A sequined sky provides God’s own scrim for an all-you-can-stare night show. Meteors flare, the Milky Way glows, and geysers shoot up like silvery, vaporous ghosts. That is, except at the park’s main attraction, Old Faithful, where the pumped-up lumens of more than a dozen halide parking-lot lights create a brittle mile-wide glare that obliterates the heavens’ mysterious and beautiful backdrop. In the faux glow, even the moon itself vanishes.

Lovers of darkness call this light pollution, and although it’s been wrecking night skies for decades, only recently have environmentalists started worrying about its effects in pristine areas. Last March, the National Parks and Conservation Association, a private watchdog group, released the results of its first analysis of light pollution. Conclusion: Glare emitted by towns up to 150 miles away obscures the stars above two-thirds of the 189 American parks surveyed—a long-distance phenomenon called “skyfog.”

While the effects of this newly recognized pollution can be a real mood-killer for tourists, the impact on park denizens can literally be lethal. In Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park, endangered dark-rumped petrels become so disoriented by streetlights that they dash themselves against the windshields of passing cars. In National Capital Region Park, night-blooming water lilies wilt under the 24-hour, dirty-orange wattage of Washington, D.C. And every summer at Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore, hundreds of sea turtle hatchlings shake the eggshells from their eyes and scuttle toward the distant lights of beachfront bars. Cut off from the ocean, most are picked off by hungry birds or toasted by the sun.

Fortunately, there are signs of a more enlightened approach. Congress is now debating a national parks appropriations bill that includes a bribe-the-bad-guys provision. The proposal would create a pot of money to pay businesses outside of parks to turn off or shield their most egregiously bright bulbs. Meanwhile, the forces of darkness seem to be gaining the upper hand in Yellowstone. This spring, park administrators plan to install lower-wattage bulbs in the parking lot near Old Faithful. Few other parks, however, have similar plans in the works. “With light pollution, we’re at the same stage of awareness we were with air pollution 40 years ago,” notes Dave Simon, NPCA’s southwest regional director. “It’s not viewed as a crisis yet. But if we don’t protect our dark skies, they’ll literally fade away.”

Troubled Waters

“Al Gore wasted $7 million worth of water during a drought,” growls Steve Duprey, chairman of New Hampshire’s Republican Party. “He should pay back every penny!” Welcome to the most frivolous campaign scandal (so far) of the upcoming election season: Floodgate. The ruckus began on July 22, when the ever-sporty VP showed up for a canoe trip along the Connecticut River near Cornish, New Hampshire, to publicize an $800,000 federal grant for riparian conservation. Despite the drought, the river was running high—thanks to a decision by officials at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to reschedule the dam release of 500 million gallons of water (a normal release for that time of year) several hours before Gore’s launch. State Republicans immediately declared the allegedly squandered water an “illegal campaign contribution.” While the FEC investigates, the VP’s office seems unfazed: “This was an official visit, not a campaign stop,” says Gore spokesman Roger Salazar. “There’s no issue.”


To Hell With El Cap, Check Out That Retaining Wall!

California’s highway engineers set an intriguing new challenge for rock climbers

It’s in the low nineties and well past noon, and Todd Presho is lurching alongside a highway retaining wall in a cherry picker near San Francisco, feverishly molding a vertical section of freshly sprayed “Shotcrete” before it solidifies in the California sun. The veteran mason is grappling with an unusual challenge: to hand-sculpt a rock face that is visually appealing, structurally robust, and physically impossible for renegade climbers to scale. “I take great care in creating overhangs instead of ledges, and I always space the handholds and footholds far apart,” says Presho, describing his technique. “But you see climbers driving by and they’re just foaming at the mouth, waiting for us to get out of here.”

Presho’s project is part of an innovative program that began in California in 1995 when a group of aesthetically sensitive highway engineers adopted the radical notion that cement retaining buttresses needn’t necessarily look like a Left Coast version of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, however, it turns out that lining roadways with artful slabs of faux granite can be a recipe for mishap: Rock hounds tend to see these walls as outdoor extensions of their local gyms. In 1995, a group of climbers got stuck halfway up a sculpted wall north of Los Angeles and had to be plucked to safety by the local fire department.

Enter Presho, an artificial rock sculptor who has designed waterfalls, building complexes, and aquatic tanks for whales in Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico, Hawaii, South Africa, and the south of France. Presho got involved with unscalable walls in 1991 while constructing an escape-proof open-air gorilla enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. To date, he has crafted nearly 200,000 square feet of unclimbable retaining walls for the California highway department (this month he will complete a stretch along California 128 through Sonoma’s wine country). Meanwhile, transportation departments in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada are contemplating similar schemes.

All of which surely comes as good news to motorists who will no longer have to drive through mind-numbing, monolithic freeway corridors. But it seems only a matter of time before the rock-climbing community begins to interpret these structures as irresistible challenges. “The fact that they are supposedly ‘unclimbable’ makes them much more appealing,” muses Alain Robert, the French climber known as Spiderman who recently pulled off the first free ascent of Chicago’s 1,450-foot Sears Tower. “The danger of the cars and the noise wouldn’t put me off if I liked the line,” he adds. “I’d sure like to try and see if it’s possible.”


Breathe Deep, Breathe High

Climbers go hypoxic over a development that could revolutionize mountaineering

“It’s an enticing technology,” says Eric Simonson, leader of the recent Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition to Mount Everest. “If someone figured out how to make one of these things, I’d be happy to climb with it.” Simonson is talking about rebreathers, the portable respiratory devices that extend the duration of an oxygen cylinder by a factor of ten. First invented by British engineer Henry Albert Fluess in 1879 to combat noxious gases in coal mines, rebreathers enable users to recirculate their gas supply by chemically filtering out exhaled carbon dioxide.

The units’ efficiency and light weight have made them favorites of cave divers, Navy SEALs, and astronauts for more than four decades. The concept, however, has never been effectively applied to high-altitude climbing because moisture tends to freeze inside the valves in extreme cold. But Richard Vann, director of applied research at the Center for Environmental Physiology and Hyperbaric Medicine at Duke University, is convinced the problem can be solved based on his experience designing rebreathers for medical technicians.

Vann’s team wants to breathe new life into the technology by developing a removable carbon dioxide scrubber. It could take them at least a year to build their prototype—relatively rapid progress, considering that climbers have been anticipating this moment since 1953, when Sir John Hunt, a British colonel, first tested rebreathers during that year’s British Expedition to Mount Everest. Hunt’s group climbed nearly twice as fast as others using open-circuit systems, which waste gas and cause horrendous sore throats from bone-dry compressed oxygen. But when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited using open-circuit oxygen systems, Hunt’s rebreathers failed to catch on.

Although Vann’s project has a long way to go, the news is already generating excitement among climbers and medical experts. “It would open the world of extreme altitude to the general mountaineer,” says Dr. Peter Hackett, an authority on high-altitude medicine,”much like the advent of scuba opened the underwater world to the general swimmer.”


Mountain Biking America’s Backbone in a 19-Day Blur

Was it the masochism or the miles? Either way, John Stamstad proves—yet again—that he is one badass rider.

When mountain-biking sensation John Stamstad set out last August to treat himself to a grueling dose of backcountry speed-biking on the remote 2,465-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, he knew he was in for some extraordinary discomfort. Surprisingly, however, his biggest source of torment came not from his blistering 135-mile-a-day pace. Nor the endless number of lung-searing climbs he had to endure. Nor the bleary-eyed fatigue that set in sometime after the 13th day. No, Stamstad’s biggest problems centered on the resident insect life. “Giant clouds of mosquitoes chased me when I stopped to fix flats,” he groans. “I had to jog and patch at the same time.”

Stamstad, 34, is a three-time winner of Alaska’s 320-mile Iditasport Extreme race (not to be confused with its predecessor, the 160-mile Iditabike race—which, by the way, he won four times). We last profiled him in these pages in 1996 (“That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger”), and as his Great Divide odyssey makes clear, he’s as impressive as ever: He managed to polish off the journey from northern Montana to the Mexico border in a mere 18 days and five hours. “Normal people take 70 days to do the ride,” says Kevin Condit, spokesman for the Adventure Cycling Association, which finished putting together the route in the spring of 1998 after four years of negotiating access, splicing maps, and meticulously patching together a network of existing single-track, BLM trails, and Forest Service roads.

To achieve his time, Stamstad barreled along the spine of the Rockies with little more than a sleeping bag and some water, purchasing junk food at the occasional grocery store and logging a measly four or five hours of sleep each night. This month, he contemplates continuing his extended affair with jaw-dropping endurance quests by riding across Africa for the Travel Channel. “I’ll have to miss 24 Hours of Moab,” the soon-to-be cable star concedes. “But I’d just like something a bit more adventurous.”


The world’s longest continuous off-road bike route begins in Port of Roosville, Montana, and ends at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association offers detailed maps of the entire Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (they’ll set you back $37.50 if you’re an ACA member, $55.50 for a nonmember), plus advice on campsites and bike shops along the way. Riders who are appalled by the notion of adopting Stamstad’s approach and are looking for a guided trek can sign on to ACA’s annual 75-day, end-to-end tour, which wheels out of Port of Roosville in mid-June ($2,800 per person). Trips ranging from six to ten days along choice segments of the trail are also in the works for summer 2000. For more information, contact the ACA at 800-755-2453.


From the Highway Strip to the Scent Strip

An olfactory approach to saving America’s endangered ocelots

“We’re not hosting a cologne competition. This is a serious scientific experiment!” says Dallas Zoo research curator Cynthia Bennett when asked about her new weapon in the fight to save the endangered ocelot from extinction: Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Bennett is part of a research team looking for enticing smells to lure the country’s remaining 100-odd ocelots—which inhabit brush country in south Texas—away from roads and into safer habitat.

Last January, she and her colleagues exposed three of the zoo’s resident felines to putrid rat and bobcat excrement. While the ocelots responded with some mildly enthusiastic sniffing, nothing triggered a frenzy of rubbing, rolling, and drooling like a spritz of Obsession (the cologne belonged to the boyfriend of one of the zoo technicians). This month, Bennett will be testing a handful of rival fragrances to isolate the scent her discriminating ocelots like best. She also hopes to hear from Calvin Klein, which has yet to respond to her letter requesting assistance. “I dunno,” speculates Bennett. “Maybe they didn’t like being studied alongside rat feces.”


Collision Coverage Not Included

Soulful or stupid? Whatever. The retro sport of asphalt longboarding is poised for a revival.

When Dave Frissyn tells people he’s going “longboarding,” most folks assume he’s heading off in search of some clean peelers on the California coast. But in fact, he never leaves the big-mountain backcountry around Lake Tahoe. Frissyn, who is currently punching the clock as a security guard in Squaw Valley, spends his free time ripping down steep highway chutes on a 52-inch skateboard, sculpting graceful, sweeping arcs at get-out-of-my-way speeds. Unlike street luge or rollerblading, longboarding offers no brakes—a handicap that makes for some serious road rash in the event Frissyn, 27, encounters a patch of loose gravel, an oil slick, or a road-hogging lumber truck. (Two years ago, he developed a scab running the length of his entire body after trying to dodge a dog.) “If you let it get beyond 25 miles per hour on a mountain pass,” he says, “you’re history.”

Frissyn is part of a scene that flourished briefly in the seventies, died out in the eighties, and now seems poised to follow lava lamps and polyester into a colorful resurgence—albeit with a few new twists. Exposure is one: NBC’s Gravity Games featured longboarding in its debut broadcast in September. But the sport’s most ardent devotees seem to prefer that it remain comfortably hidden in the shadows. Reason: They practice their craft on moonlit nights or at dawn in places like Wyoming’s Teton Pass, the volcanoes of Hawaii, and the Northern Sierra—thus adding subversive hipness to a disdain for formal rules and skin-flaying hazards. Not everyone is impressed, however. “That doesn’t even have to be illegal,” a state trooper recently barked before ordering Frissyn off a highway south of Lake Tahoe. “It’s just plain stupid.”


In our September feature on the competitive miseries of the U.S. Rowing Team’s Selection Camp in Princeton, New Jersey, all eyes were focused on the battle for the coveted number-five “engine room” seat in the first heavyweight eight between two top oarsmen: Michael Wherley, veteran of two previous championship boats, and big Jake Wetzel, a Canadian newcomer. After four weeks of deliberate equivocation that kept tension—and effort—high, coach Mike Teti made his selections as August’s World Championships in St. Catharines, Ontario, approached: The last open spot in the nation’s premier boat went to Wherley, while Wetzel was assigned to stroke the American four. The results were impressive. Both boats won gold medals—the four rather handily and the eight in a thrilling come-from-behind finish over a strong British crew. But none of the rowers can afford to rest his oars. Competition has already begun for seats on next summer’s Olympic eight, and the relentless Teti plans on building his boats from scratch. “We’ll start again,” he declares. “This year, everyone is gunning for us.”