You better grab a lifeline and hold on tight when Steve Fossett decides to make another manic bid for glory
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
“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-catamaran—arguably 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 C‡diz. PlayStation—designed by the Newport Beach, California, team of Gino Morrelli and Pete Melvin and launched in 1998—has 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 them—the 110-foot Club Med—set 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 sentence—man overboard—is 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 Vaulx—one of aviation’s most coveted awards—four 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.
Fossett wasn’t much better prepared when he launched himself into the world of high-speed sailing in the early nineties. Despite a total lack of racing experience, he bought a 60-foot racing trimaran (the fastest, most complex machine a sailor could set foot on at the time) and named it Lakota. He spent much of his first race, a double-hander around Britain and Ireland with Scully in 1993, puking over the side. But a year later he pulled up on Lakota to the start of the brutal Route du Rhum, a single-handed race from France to Guadeloupe. “I thought it was completely silly,” Scully says of Fossett’s Route du Rhum plans, as PlayStation knifes downwind at 20-plus knots. “This was a guy who knew little about sailing, his situational awareness on a scale of one to ten was about a two, and he was on the most powerful sailboat in the world.” With the assistance of a 50-page briefing book hastily prepared by sailing vet Ben Wright, Fossett not only survived; he came in fifth.
He grins the following day as he recalls the experience. “I didn’t speak any French, but I understood when the weather briefer kept saying, ‘Force neuf, force neuf,’ ” which meant the fleet was in for hellish storms. I ask if he’d had second thoughts. “Nope,” he shrugs. “I just said, ‘Oh, jeez.’ ” The comment is classic Fossett: no emotion, no drama. He blithely sailed off into a maelstrom and delivered a steady performance as France’s sailing stars faltered around him. That same year Fossett started plans for PlayStation, whose name is a nod to its sponsor at the time, Sony.
Fossett traces his record-breaking addiction back to his ’93 sprint around Ireland with Scully and Thompson, which took just under 45 hours and improved by more than a day a mark that had languished since 1972. “I realized I considered setting a world record more important than winning the annual race,” he says as we duck spray in the cockpit. Whatever the challenge, Fossett insists on being directly involved. He says that the America’s Cup never interested him, because it requires wagering millions of dollars at long odds, and “there is the problem that I like to be the principal. If I’m sailing, I want to be the skipper.”
Ask Fossett to explain his motivation and he is characteristically sphinxlike. Peter Hogg, who sailed across the Pacific with Fossett in 1996, is more bluntly forthcoming. “Steve is looking for acceptance—not in a social sense but through recognition of his sporting accomplishments,” he says, taking a break from Tuesdays with Morrie, a single copy of which at least three of us, looking for off-watch diversion, are trying to read. “He wants to be seen as an equal to his competitors in ballooning, sailing, and flying, not just as a rich fucker who can write checks.”
“EASE! EASE!” Pete Melvin yells from the helm as a 44-knot gust rolls through. In less than 36 hours, we’ve sailed almost 700 miles to the Canary Islands, where Columbus made a four-week pit stop. The Canaries are famous for funneling wind into a raging torrent, and sure enough, the northerly breeze accelerates abruptly, pumping into the thirties. PlayStation takes off like a runaway train. She is hammering across the seas, vibrating, creaking, and slicing the wave tops into fusillades of spray.
We are moving at a speed ordinary sailors can’t even comprehend. I’m frozen in place, mesmerized by the pure joy of sailing PlayStation flat out and the certain knowledge that if a steering cable breaks or the rudders lose their bite, our record bid will come to a violent end, with the boat upside down and people fighting for their lives. Fossett is down below, sleeping. He’s off watch and has seen it all before.
In December 1999, Fossett almost flipped PlayStation end over end during an unsuccessful attempt to break the west-east transatlantic record. There are plenty of adrenaline junkies who would come away from such a close call secretly thrilled, but Fossett isn’t one of them. “Statistically, he’s got a fair chance of killing himself, and that doesn’t bother him,” Hogg says. “But he’s not into it for the risks.” Rather, Fossett’s single greatest strength is his stoic ability to comprehend and manage risk—and that, more than anything else, is what he really loves.
With the Canaries behind us, Fossett puts aside his polite reserve for a moment as we sweep south toward Caribbean latitudes to stay in strong trade winds. He is still wearing his boots and a flotation harness but is down to shorts and a T-shirt in the tropical sun as he keeps an eye on the helmsman.
“The one thing I have done in life that I really have a natural talent for is options trading,” he says. “I was probably the most profitable trader in Chicago, and five times more profitable than the best of up to 100 traders I hired. I don’t gamble at all. I won’t so much as put a nickel in a slot machine, because it’s no fun when I know the odds are stacked against me. My whole trading experience was based on getting the odds in my favor.”
And that’s exactly how he executes his adventures. It took Fossett six tries to balloon solo around the world; in his fifth attempt, with only the South Atlantic crossing between him and success, he deliberately crashed in southern Brazil because he didn’t like his chances of surviving the weather ahead. He climbed the highest peaks on six continents and then gave up on Everest after two attempts because he had trouble staying healthy at high altitude and he couldn’t stand sitting around in camp. Fossett tells me he has felt truly close to death only once—in 1998, when his balloon ruptured at 29,000 feet over Australia’s Coral Sea. And even as it plummeted from the sky, Fossett calmly kept doing what he does best: massaging the odds. He ran the burners to provide what little lift they could give and in the minute before impact cut away six external tanks to lighten the basket. Fossett estimates that this slowed his fall to the barely survivable velocity of 40 feet a second; though he was briefly knocked unconscious, he lived to climb into his life raft and await rescue. “The only reason I made it,” he says, “is that I kept fighting to solve the problem.”
WE’RE FIVE DAYS in and running about 30 miles behind Club Med’s prior record, but flying fish are now our foremost preoccupation. They get spooked into flight by the bows, squirting out of the sea and juking through the air. If they are not diced by the trampoline netting, leaving eyeballs and other body parts scattered around the deck, they sometimes whiz through the cockpit airspace at 50 knots. Even a three-incher could put an eye out, but there is mostly laughter whenever the telltale thwap, followed by an eruption of expletives, signals a direct hit.
Fossett is out of the firing line. When he is not eating, sleeping, or on watch, he is often on the satellite phone in the navigation area working out details for his next project: an assault on the altitude record for glider flight. “Faster, farther, higher,” he proclaims cheerfully when I sit down next to him and ask him what he’s up to. “I see myself as an aviator in the coming years,” he adds. In the meantime, there are a few sailing records left on his hit list, such as the 24-hour distance record of 694 nautical miles. Fossett may even take a shot at sailing PlayStation single-handed in a bid for the solo 24-hour distance record. The idea of a lone sailor trying to keep the world’s most powerful maxi-cat under control has me picturing Fossett strapped to the wheel, a madman rocketing toward glory or oblivion. It’s just the sort of absurd challenge he lives for.
By day eight, our southern route has paid off. We’ve worked our way to a 350-mile lead over Club Med’s run. I’m standing with Pete Melvin in the leeward cockpit when there is an almighty bang. Melvin barely glances up before shouting, “Mainsheet’s parted!” Sure enough, the massive boom is scything toward the shrouds that help hold up the mast. It is jerked to a halt by safety lines, and Melvin and I freeze for a beat until we are sure they will hold. Fossett is on the helm. Without a word, he steers deep downwind to slow the big cat and punches an emergency buzzer to summon all hands. “Let’s go,” Scully calls, orchestrating a jury rig to handle the sail while he splices in a new mainsheet. We’re back up to speed in half an hour.
A day later, we finally round the southwest tip of San Salvador. The dying breeze brings a whiff of sand and beach scrub that is beautifully pungent after days of nothing but salt air. Fossett is on the helm, just as he was at the start. A small boat bobs in the distance, waiting to record our time. We cross the finish in silence. Fossett pumps his fist once, there’s some handshaking, and it’s over.
Fossett gives up the wheel and heads below. “How does it feel to have a world record?” he asks me as he goes.
I follow him down and find him hunched over a calculator at the nav table, his blunt fingers stabbing the buttons. He confirms the time with Brian Thompson: nine days, 13 hours, 30 minutes, and 18 seconds, more than a day faster than Club Med. Then he works out the average speed: 16.92 knots, or almost 20 miles per hour. Fossett shuffles through the papers strewn across the chart table and digs out a list of speed-sailing records he has compiled. The list shows the major ocean-passage records in descending order of average speed. Our 16.92 makes this the ninth-fastest record passage on any ocean ever. Fossett turns to show me the sheet. The name Steve Fossett is all over it. “That makes ten of the 13 fastest sailing records,” he says.
I ask Fossett if he can imagine ever retiring from his relentless record chase. He just looks at me funny, as if he can’t quite comprehend the question.