Coyote Lost at Sea: The Story of Mike Plant, America's Daring Solo Circumnavigatorby Julia Plant
"Mike's final 12 days at sea . . . remain a testimony to his almost superhuman ability to drive one of the fastest sailing boats ever built, in extreme conditions, and survive for as long as he did. When the boat was found, it proved that, despite everything, Mike had kept Coyote on course. Or maybe Coyote had kept them both on course, as long as she was able."<
"Mike's final 12 days at sea . . . remain a testimony to his almost superhuman ability to drive one of the fastest sailing boats ever built, in extreme conditions, and survive for as long as he did. When the boat was found, it proved that, despite everything, Mike had kept Coyote on course. Or maybe Coyote had kept them both on course, as long as she was able." -- Julia Plant
Coyote Lost at Sea is the story of Mike Plant, one of the most exciting and daring round-the-world solo sailors of his time. Mike's untamed courage and charismatic personality naturally drew fans and admirers who wondered what kind of risk he would take next. His younger sister, Julia Plant, had been one of those admirers until Mike's flame burned too brightly and she needed to find her own way.
This distant, yet ultimate, love for her brother makes Julia the perfect one to tell his story. She reveals a vivid, raw version of her brother--a boy who spent most of his teen years and twenties getting in trouble with the law, but who later grew up to be a sailing living legend. Her insight into his personality and what made him so fearless helps us understand why Mike would take such a gamble with a boat like Coyote. Her research and interviews with Mike's friends, fellow competitors, and sailing experts paints a clearer picture of Mike's last days with the controversial Coyote, a mystery that has intrigued the world of sailing for two decades.
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Coyote Lost at Sea
The Story of Mike Plant, America's Daring Solo Circumnavigator
By Julia Plant
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 International Marine/McGraw Hill Education
All rights reserved.
South Street Seaport, New York City, October 15, 1992
"'The sea in its own way can tell us how insignificant we are, but in so doing illuminates its own beauty and power in such a way we cannot but marvel at our own existence and the fact that we are part of it."
It was a sweetly warm, fall day on the docks of South Street Seaport in New York City. It was the kind of day that made people lazy. My brother Mike was standing on the pier next to his newest boat, Coyote, giving an interview to a local TV station. He was 41 years old. His hair was still brown, and although it was a little shorter than he'd kept it at other times, it looked as thick and healthy as it had in his twenties. Although he'd worn a beard most of his life, when he raced in the 1989–90 Vendée Globe, the French nonstop race around the world, he shaved before crossing the finish line after being at sea for 120 days. The French newspapers had made a big deal about his boyish good looks, so he kept himself clean shaven after that.
Mike's 5-foot 10-inch frame was lean, slighter than it had ever been since he was a skinny 13-year-old winning sailboat races on Lake Minnetonka. The stress of the preparations for his fourth round-the-world-race had worn him down in one way, but it had toughened him in others. He looked like he was made out of the same stainless steel wire holding Coyote's mast in place.
South Street Seaport is a marine museum on the southern tip of Man-hattan Island. Mike was dividing his time between interviews for local TV stations, pitching for sponsorship in corporate boardrooms, and working on Coyote's electrical system. The interviews were to prove his advertising potential to the as-yet-unsecured sponsorships he was hoping to find in Motorola's Manhattan office. The electrical system—that was just a pain in the ass.
Coyote had been in the water for barely a month, and so far she had performed beautifully. Mike was ebullient after an early sea trial, sailing hard on the 35-knot wind with two reefs in the mainsail, making a steady 13 knots. "We were actually planing to windward," Mike said, beaming. "That's unheard of."
But the complex electrical system frustrated him. He loved sailing because it was self-sustaining: the perfect form of transportation. Now it seemed the success of the boat depended on electrical power. He had a single-sideband radio and its power booster, two autopilots, VHF radio, computers, running lights, cabin lights, bilge pump, radar, an inverter, two 30-amp converters, watermaker, water ballast pump, and a DC power outlet. All electrical. Compared to Mike's first two racing boats, this one had a system only an electrical engineer could understand, and unfortunately, everything was connected to it. Nothing was manual anymore. If the electrical system failed, everything failed.
When Mike began competing as a long-distance, solo sailor in 1986, the sport, and its boats, was less complicated. As a consequence, solo ocean racing appealed to sailors from all backgrounds, recreational to professional. But each major long-distance race led to increasingly sophisticated racing boats, especially in their onboard systems. Competition breeds innovation. By 1992, racing had become so competitive and technical that only seasoned professionals stood a chance. Sailors spent more time below in the cabin, studying computer screens, reading weather reports via satellite, and discussing the weather routing options with their onshore team. Much of the "campaign" happened on land. If they could afford it, the competitors hired personal weather experts who forecasted the high- and low-pressure zones en route, increasing the sailors' chances of avoiding or managing the worst conditions. Boat-to-shore contact had increased so much, Mike told one of his friends, he couldn't even take a crap without someone knowing about it.
Before the TV crew arrived on the South Street Seaport dock, Mike had called Rick Viggiano at Pro-Tech Marine to complain about the functioning of Coyote's electrical system. He wasn't getting enough power from the batteries to charge the equipment quickly enough. So as Mike stood in front of Coyote giving the interview, the electrician was seen in the background scurrying around topsides and then disappearing down below, swearing a lot. It didn't matter if Mike could hear the reporter, he already knew the questions. They were always the same.
"So, how long do you think it will take?"
"Um, I'm hoping to break a hundred."
"Will that be a record? Around the world in a hundred days?"
"Yep. Something like that."
"How many times have you sailed around the world?"
"Three times. This will be the fourth."
"I guess you really like being by yourself. What do you do with all that time?"
"I'm so busy, I don't have time to think. Competing changes the whole thing, because you're always trying to get the maximum out of your boat."
"So, is three times round the world some kind of record?"
"What's this guy doing behind you?"
"Oh, him. He's just ripping out all the electrics."
"But you're leaving tomorrow, right?"
"Will it be working by the time you push off?"
"Tell us, what do you have left to get yourself ready for this cross-Atlantic trip?"
"You want to see my to-do list?"
The reporter laughs. "You have one?"
"Sure, but I only have the end of it. It's so long, I lost the beginning." Mike pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. Without looking up, he said, "According to this, I need to buy an alarm clock."
"Hey, maybe I could do that for you."
"Do you think you could? That would be great."
Northern Mid-Atlantic November 22–25, 1992
As soon as it was light enough, the French tug Malabar left the harbor of Les Sables d'Olonne in southwestern France, heading northwest, looking for the hull of Coyote. For a long time they saw nothing, which wasn't surprising since the weather was so bad only the unlucky would be out on a night like this: a choppy sea with steep waves, almost no visibility, driving rain, dark skies, and winds whipping to 40 knots. The French Coast Guard had waited two days for the weather to clear or at least improve since the sighting of the black hull (with its occasional glimpse of white topsides) from the air before risking the lives of their rescue divers. News stations in France, England, Australia, and the United States had played again and again the minute or two video shot from a plane of the overturned hull. The hull was tiny and only visible because its color stuck out against the dark-blue sea rippled by white caps. Was the sailor still on board, huddled beside one of the bulkheads, near death from hypothermia and dehydration? Could he have survived for almost three weeks in the north Atlantic when the water temperature hovered at 50 degrees Farenheit?
They were looking for Mike Plant, the American sailor who had risen to hero status in France, a country where around-the-world solo-racing sailors are as admired as star quarterbacks were in the States. The U.S. Coast Guard had begun its search about two weeks earlier, but they were looking a long way from where Coyote was eventually sighted about four hundred miles north of the Azores and almost three-quarters of the way across the Atlantic from New York City to France.
For five days, six U.S. search planes had covered over one hundred thousand square nautical miles, finding nothing. The Coast Guard called off the search. Then on November 22, one day after what would have been the skipper's forty-second birthday, M/V Protank Orinoco, a 750-foot tanker, sited the 60-foot hull of Coyote, at the time the fastest monohull built in the U.S., floating upside down. Her knife-shaped keel stuck straight up in the air, and everyone who knew the boat knew right away what was missing. The keel was normally held down in the water (thereby keeping the boat upright) by an 8,400-pound, 112-inch long, lead bulb, and it was only too easy to see that the bulb was gone. Without the bulb on the bottom of the keel, the boat would remain turtle, completely upside- down—a sailor's worst nightmare.
The Royal Air Force sent out a plane that night to conduct a flare search, and another tanker was diverted to try to determine if anyone was inside the hull of the boat. No one was sighted on top of the overturned Coyote hull. However, prompted by the insistence of the sailor's family, friends, and fans that the boat be boarded, the French Coast Guard sent out the naval tug Malabar, which could get close enough to send in divers.
As 15-foot waves crashed against the hull of the tug, rescue divers, squinting against the spray, their noses numb, pulled their masks down and jumped. They left one world to be swallowed up by another, much larger, darker, and restless. Their movements were ridiculously small and insignificant compared to the waves that carried them many feet up only to drop them down hard into the surrounding slop. Rescues like this could easily take the life of the rescuer.
In the past, Mike had often asked his friends and family, some more than others, to bail him out of the messes he had gotten into. One of the more notable was the time he was desperate to get out of a Portuguese prison, thereby allowing him and his new boat, Airco, to make it to the starting line in time to compete in his first round-the-world, singlehanded sailing race, the 1986–87 BOC. Getting him out of that mess involved his family and even public officials, but once it was over Mike didn't dwell on it. He was on to the next challenge. Mike could be frustrating and difficult, and concern over him had been a constant undercurrent in my life. This time, though, no one could bail him out.
Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, the 1950s
"I'm a sensitive person. Maybe growing up blind had something to do with it."
Mike's first name was frank, after our dad, but he was never called Frank. To avoid confusion, my parents agreed to call him by his middle name, Michael. Born in 1950, Mike was the third of five children, all of us born in the post–World War II era, and demographically anyway, forever baby boomers. My sister, Linda, came first in 1947, my oldest brother, Hugh, followed in 1949, then Mike; I was born in 1953, and finally my younger brother, Tom, in 1957.
Much of what we did or didn't do was a result of my dad's wishes, beginning with our move to Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. We had been living in an old house in an established middle- to upper-middle class enclave called Kenwood on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. In June, 1959, shortly before my younger brother, Tom, would turn 2, I was 5, and Mike 8, we moved to the lake.
Lake Minnetonka is the largest lake in the Twin Cities area. It lies about 15 miles west of Minneapolis and is home to several towns. We moved to one of those towns, Deephaven, which is on the eastern edge of the lake. Everyone from the area called it "the lake" not because it was the only one, but because it was the largest one close to Minneapolis. In Minnesota, everyone took for granted that a lake, stream, pond, river, or swamp was within walking distance—that's still more or less true today.
My parents built our new house on a quarter acre of land that bordered the lake at one end, a swamp at the other, and with a stream connecting the two. A basic two-story wooden house, it had four identical bedrooms upstairs, all facing the lake and connected by a long hallway. We four older kids had our own bedrooms, and the seven of us shared two upstairs bathrooms. My much younger brother, Tom, had a small room downstairs next to my parents' bedroom.
The lake lapped at the edge of our front yard, a yard so low to the shoreline that extra soil had been brought in to make the foundation. In 1965, a tornado touched down across the bay and caused a tidal wave that would have swamped our house if the surrounding yard had not been raised.
From the air, Lake Minnetonka looks like a giant ink-blot—a collection of bays of different shapes and sizes, with islands big enough to get lost on and channels connecting the bays just wide enough for two motorboats to pass. Once home to Native Americans, the land surrounding the lake is a mixture of public and privately owned. The shore is sandy, and except for areas where the muddy bottom swallows your feet, the bottom of the lake is sandy too.
Part of the mystique of the lake comes from its many wooded islands with names like Bug, Big, Spirit, and Ghost, which are for the most part public and begging to be explored. The lake is big enough to support three yacht clubs. The coolest of the three—to us anyway, because it was the biggest and had the best sailors—was the Minnetonka Yacht Club and sits to this day on its own island, less than a quarter mile from our house.
My family was well-to-do, but because of the location of our house, we belonged to two different economic neighborhoods. On one side of us sat Northome, a small but exclusive group of homes, and on the other side a middle-class neighborhood that was part of the larger town called Deephaven. We were not only physically in between these two worlds, we were also situated pretty much economically between them too. Typically the kids in Northome went to private schools; the kids from Deephaven went to local public schools. We lived on U-shaped St. Louis Bay, named for the summer tourists who traveled west from St. Louis at the turn of the century to escape the Missouri heat. Our house sat at the bottom of the U, with the public (town) docks and swimming beach on our left and Northome on our right.
Mike found his footing on the Deephaven side of our house, and many of his good friends grew up there. In the summer of 1959, our first on Lake Minnetonka, Mike was a skinny 8-year-old known in the neighborhood as the kid with Coke-bottle glasses. Because Mike wore contacts as an adult, few but his closest friends knew he was legally blind. Even with glasses or contacts, his vision could never be 20/20.
Mike's blindness never stopped him from doing pretty much as he pleased. Like other boys of the time, he wore shorts that hung down to his knees and short- sleeved, button-up cotton shirts, usually light blue or green with an innocuous pattern. He spent all his daylight hours—and later, many nighttime ones—outdoors on the lake, in the lake, or on its shores and docks.
Lake Minnetonka, covering over twenty miles, seemed infinite to us kids. Our family always had a boat of some kind, and at one time or another our fleet included an aluminum dinghy with a 5-horsepower engine; a wooden dinghy, originally our mom's, with a 10-horsepower outboard; an X boat (a fast, sailing dinghy indigenous to the area); and a small fiberglass boat that had a 50- horsepower engine referred to as the "inboard/outboard."
Obviously precocious in some ways, Mike was 11 when he built and launched his first boat on the lakeshore in front of our house. It was flat-bottomed, about 6 feet long, with a single sheet of plywood that covered the front half of the boat and left the rest an open cockpit. He painted it red—a color he would use twenty some years later for Airco—and hung a black Mercury 2.5-horsepower engine on the wood that acted as the boat's stern. It wasn't fancy, but it did the job, or so Mike assumed.
Mike got in the boat, and with one hand on the throttle and the other on the deck, he headed out for deeper waters. He drove the length of the bay, less than a quarter of a mile, took a right through the narrow channel between the point of Northome and the island that was home to the Minnetonka Yacht Club, and hit what we called "the main lake." He called this boat a hydroplane, because it was meant to skim across the top of the water, waves included. He figured it was light and fast enough that it would fly from the top of one wave to the next. But Mike got a lesson in boat design that day. As the boat entered the big bay and hit its first real wave, she plowed through it instead of over it, and the wave essentially sunk the boat. Mike bailed her out, brought her home, and waited twenty-four years to build another one.
A builder at heart, Mike had built other structures before the boat. He constructed a wooden bridge over the creek that ran alongside our house, and then he built a three-story tree house that hung over the lake and equipped it with a tire swing.
Excerpted from Coyote Lost at Sea by Julia Plant. Copyright © 2013 by International Marine/McGraw Hill Education. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Julia Plant, the younger sister of Mike, has written a play that was produced both in the United States and abroad; she lectures widely in her chosen field of art history.
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”People say you go out there to beat the ocean, like some macho thing. You don’t beat anything, you just live with it. It’s a rhythm.” Mike Plant died crossing the Atlantic in November of 1992 on a new racing yacht commissioned to compete in the Vendée Globe Challenge, a race of solo circumnavigation of the world. The race was a relatively new one in which the participants leave from France and essentially circle Antarctica, no stops allowed. Plant had done it before, in 1989-90, but this time he’d intended to win. He was a fierce competitor and a man who presented a face of unshakeable, and perhaps unwarranted, confidence to the world. But he answered to the "the sun, the rain, and the wind." The story of prior races and the creation of Coyote, the 60-foot single-hulled sailing vessel Plant commissioned for speed is riveting and revealing. Despite our imagining the sometimes grim realities of solo sailing around the world in the cold weather of the southern seas, we are not likely to be prepared for the difficulties of designing and building a completely new-style racing vessel in a matter of months. In cringe-producing detail Julia Plant describes and underscores these difficulties and shows us how it might be possible for a new racing ship to break apart in heavy seas. Undaunted by the difficulties of attempting to design a completely new racing vessel from scratch with little funding, Mike Plant went with his instincts. He wanted to beat the French, who were leaders in this type of sailing, and who designed ships that often sacrificed safety for speed. The only requirement was that the boat be 60 feet or less in length and monohull. So he helped design Coyote, described here by sailing journalist Herb McCormick: Coyote was an extreme design with exaggerated dimensions. At 60 feet overall, she sported a plumb bow, a startling-looking 19-foot beam, and twin rudders. Her hull was a broad, Airex-cored, shallow dish with a displacement of only 21,500 pounds—5,000 pounds lighter than Duracell [an earlier boat].With upwind and downwind sail areas of 2,600 and 4,700 square feet respectively, she carried an impressive power plant…It was a ton of sail even for an experienced solo sailor.” This was the thing: Mike Plant wasn’t all that experienced a solo sailor, at least at distances like these. The only way to get experience at solo circumnavigation, however, is to do it. He’d done it a three times before, but really, he was just confident of his ability to troubleshoot his way out of difficulties. And he usually succeeded. Mike Plant grew up in Minnesota along the banks of Lake Minnetonka, near Minneapolis. He was competitive and physically gifted from an early age, leading him to accept challenges good sense might have rejected. Julia Plant characterizes her older brother Mike as special in many ways, but especially in his outsized appetite for adventures of his own making. He was considered a troublemaker early on and battled alcohol addiction his whole life. But he seemed to find his passion in battling the elements on the ocean, where in his thirties he took to ocean racing, specifically solo circumnavigation. His career was short. Five years later, he was dead. Julia Plant takes some time at the beginning of this book to share her early reminiscences of Mike, three years her senior. In retrospect this section is helpful to give one a fuller picture of the man, and how his decision-making process worked. No one could possibly dispute his courage and drive, considering his willingness to take on such an adventure. We might question his preparedness. None of us can know everything, and certainly hindsight gives us insights Mike couldn’t possibly have had. In the end, we must simply take the man for what he dared to do. “It’s [solo circumnavigation] sort of like driving around Canada in the winter for 30,000 miles naked. If your car stops, you freeze to death.”
Excellent writing loved that she was so honest in sharing the family dynamics very important to telling the story