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This is the story of the 1996-1997 Vendee Glove, a grueling four-month circumnavigation of the glove in the most dangerous of all waters, the Southern Ocean. Through the eyes and experiences of the fourteen men and two women who began the race, author Derek Lundy harnesses the hurricane-force winds, the six-story ...
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This is the story of the 1996-1997 Vendee Glove, a grueling four-month circumnavigation of the glove in the most dangerous of all waters, the Southern Ocean. Through the eyes and experiences of the fourteen men and two women who began the race, author Derek Lundy harnesses the hurricane-force winds, the six-story waves, the icebergs, Dan the deafening noise in an effort to expose the spirit of the men and women who push themselves to the outer limits of human endeavor - even if it means never returning home.
You'll meet the gallant Brit who spends days beating back against the worst seas to save a fellow racer; the Frenchman who bothers to salvage only a bottle of champagne from his broken and sinking boat; the sailor who comes to love the albatross that trails her for months, naming it Bernard; the veteran who calmly keeps smoking his cigarette as his boat capsizes; and the Canadian who, hours before he disappears forever, dispatches this message:
If you drag things out too long here, you're sure to come to grief.
With the literary touch of Conrad and Saint-Exupery, Derek Lundy elevates a compelling story into an eloquent meditation on danger and an appreciation of danger seeks who embody the best and most eccentric aspects of our human condition.
In the Seas Entrall
The difference between a gale and what has become known as a "survival" storm is that in the former, with winds of force 8, or perhaps 9 (say 30 to 45 knots mean velocity), the skipper and crew retain control and can take the measures which they think best, whereas in a survival gale of force 10 or over, perhaps gusting at hurricane strength, wind and sea become the masters.
—K. Adlard Coles, Heavy Weather Sailing
Until Christmas Day 1996, the race had been a typically robust version of previous Vendée Globe and BOC races. If anything, it had been easier on the competitors than most of the earlier events. None of the collisions with flotsam or ice in this Vendée Globe had put the sailors' lives on the line. It was true that the Southern Ocean had behaved as usual—its chain of low-pressure systems moving relentlessly along the racers' path. Storm- and often hurricane-force wind had piled waves up to heights of fifty or sixty feet. At times, the boats had surfed down wave faces at thirty knots, almost out of control. They had struggled through the dangerous and chaotic cross-seas that followed quick changes in wind direction and had been knocked down often. For several weeks, the skippers endured this trial by wind and cold, ice and breaking waves, skirting the edge of catastrophe as they threaded their way through the great wilderness of the southern seas.
True, it was still a long way to Cape Horn.The greater extent of the Southern Ocean still lay ahead for most of the boats. There was a lot of time left for something to happen. At some point in every one of these races, most often in the Southern Ocean, a sailor's life becomes problematic, hangs by a thread. Sometimes, a life is snuffed out: by inference at first, as contact is suddenly ended; later with certainty, as enough silent time goes by or the searchers find a boat, drifting and unmanned. Some names: Jacques de Roux (1986), Mike Plant (1992), Nigel Burgess (1992), Harry Mitchell (1995)—a few of the ones who have been wiped off the planet. Who knew exactly how? What were the circumstances? An unendurable rogue wave capsizing the boat? Ice? Or a sudden, treacherous slip over the side and into the sea, followed by a final minute or two treading the frigid water, watching the boat (with acceptance? anger? terror?) intermittently visible on the wave crests, surfing farther and farther away, its autopilot functioning perfectly.
There hadn't been any of that yet in this Vendée Globe. But the dragons were certainly there. The "quakin' and shakin'" was about to begin. During the twelve days of Christmas, the race changed utterly.
The strength of the storm was a surprise. Catherine Chabaud, sailing four hundred miles behind Raphaël Dinelli, was getting the weather first as it swept from west to east. She radioed to him and the other sailors ahead of her a description of the strength and direction of the wind in the low-pressure systems that overtook her, one after the other. This time—seven weeks into the race, just before Christmas—she advised Dinelli to expect a low during the night, with the usual quick wind rotation from northwest to southwest, blowing at around forty to forty-five knots, as the cold front crossed over. It was nothing special—a typical Southern Ocean low of moderate intensity.
What happened instead was unusual and terrifying.
As the low-pressure system began its pass over Dinelli, a warmer high-pressure air mass crowded down from the north. The two systems squeezed together. The cold air of the low slid in under the warmer air of the high and pushed it up. The air already blowing into the center of the low increased in velocity, shooting up and spiraling out higher in the atmosphere. As more air was displaced from the sea's surface, the air pressure there dropped even further. Wind is the flow of air from areas of high to low pressure down the pressure slope, or gradient. It's exactly the same process as water flowing from higher to lower elevations. The steeper the slope, the faster, the air moves, and the stronger the wind. As the low approached, its pressure gradient grew ominously steeper.
When the system overtook Dinelli's position, the wind increased until it was blowing close to hurricane strength—sixty-four knots and over—and gusting to eighty knots. It quickly whipped up the constant swell of the Southern Ocean into huge seas. Dinelli's boat started surfing on waves that grew to between fifty-five and sixty-five feet—like fast-moving, always-toppling six-story concrete buildings. It was apocalyptic sailing.
Dinelli couldn't stay on deck because it was too dangerous. From inside the damp, frigid cabin, trying to make sense of the shape and steepness of the waves, he did his best to direct the onrushing boat by manipulating his autopilot. But control was impossible. Algimouss capsized, violently inverting in a few seconds. The tremendous shock compressed the mast so that it pierced the deck; the boom smashed through one of the large cabin windows and water flowed in. It was Christmas day morning.
Dressed in a survival suit that had got torn in the capsize, Dinelli wedged himself into a corner of his upside-down cabin. Bit by bit, the water displaced the trapped air in the hull. During the capsize, the mast had snapped off a few feet above deck level. The standing rigging held it more or less in place, and it acted as a kind of keel, holding Algimouss stably inverted. After three hours or so, however, wrenched by the boat's furious rolling and pitching, the mast broke away completely. Freed of the resistance of mast and rigging, the three-ton bulb of ballast at the end of the keel regained its leverage, and the boat rolled upright again—sluggishly, because of the weight of water inside. As it did so, Dinelli, mostly underwater, half-swam, half-walked his way off the cabin top and down the sides until he was standing on the floor again. Now he could activate his satellite emergency radio beacons. He hadn't set them off sooner because the signal wouldn't have been able to penetrate the boat's upside-down carbon-fiber hull.
Within a couple of hours of righting itself, the boat had almost completely filled with water. The waves slammed in through the table-sized hole in the deck with such force that they broke the hull's watertight bulkheads. Each Vendée Globe sixty-footer was required to have three of these, dividing the boat's interior into compartments that could be sealed off, limiting the amount of inflowing water. But no material could withstand the force of these seas. Soon the deck was at water level. Each enormous wave seemed determined to sink the boat.
Dinelli climbed onto the deck and tethered himself to the stump of the mast, struggling to stay on his feet as the boat lurched and plunged. The waves crashed over him continuously. His torn survival suit soon filled with water. The hull of Algimouss was completely submerged, its deck barely visible in the foam of breaking seas. Alternately soaked by waves of frigid Southern Ocean water and blasted by a windchill well below zero, Dinelli felt his body temperature begin to drop.
He stood on the deck of his boat for the rest of Christmas Day, through the high-latitude austral summer night, and all the next day, the wind never dropping below gale force. Adrift in the Southern Ocean at almost fifty degrees latitude, twelve hundred miles south of Australia, closer to Antarctica, he was as alone and exposed as any human on earth could possibly be. As the second night approached, the twenty-eight- year-old sailor was exhausted and hypothermic. He knew without any doubt that he would not be able to survive until the next morning. Death was very close.
To understand this story, you have to understand the Southern Ocean and what it means to sail through it in a small sailboat.
The vast sea area of the Southern Ocean is really the extreme southern portion of the Pacific, Indian, and South Atlantic oceans. Its official demarcation is forty degrees south latitude. It includes the latitudes sailors long-ago nicknamed the roaring forties, the furious fifties, and the screaming sixties. It's an area of almost constant high wind and frequent gales, often exceeding hurricane strength. In storms, the waves build and build until they reach almost unimaginable heights. The highest wave ever reliably recorded—120 feet high—was encountered there. The waves of the Southern Ocean roll around the world unimpeded by land. Icebergs and smaller "growlers" drift through the frigid water. Over the centuries, it has been a sailors' graveyard—square-rigger seamen, called the Southern Ocean path to Cape Horn "Dead Men's Road." It embodies what Melville called "that sense of the full awfulness of the sea."
The Southern Ocean contains that point on earth that is farthest from any land. It's about 1,660 miles equidistant from Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers' last refuge, and Cape Dart on Antarctica. Many of the Vendée Globe boats sail close by it, or even, by chance, right through it, as they make for Cape Horn. Only a few astronauts have ever been farther from land than a person on a vessel at that position. But that doesn't begin to describe the remoteness of this part of the planet. Some sailors call a large area of the Southern Ocean "the hole." It's too far away for even long-range aircraft to get to—assuming they want to return to land. On maps made when large chunks of territory had still not been penetrated by Europeans, cartographers would label the vast, unknown spaces "Hic sunt dracones"—"Here are dragons." This confident prophecy of unpredictable and fearsome dangers still applies to the Southern Ocean.
It's difficult for us to grasp the idea that parts of our planet remain in an almost primordial state of wildness and isolation. There are only a few places left on earth where merely getting across them is an achievement: Antarctica, whether on foot or snowmobile; the Sahara off its beaten and braided tracks; the Southern Ocean in a sailboat. The wildernesses of ice or sand or water are terrible places where nature retains power over humans to terrify and to diminish—a power it had everywhere until very recently in our history.
Two round-the-world races for single-handed sailors take competitors through the heart of the Southern Ocean. The Around Alone race (formerly the BOC Challenge) takes place in four separate legs. The boats make three scheduled stops along the way and can also take unscheduled refuge, without disqualification, to make repairs or find replacements for broken gear. In the Vendée Globe, however, the competitors must sail nonstop and completely unassisted. It is the most extreme of long-distance sailing races. According to the disarmingly simple rules, the race was created "to answer the needs of sailors eager to reach their uttermost limits." There are no complex handicaps or arcane racing rules like those in shorter competitions. In the Vendée Globe, the winner is the first to cross the finish line—one person, one boat, first home.
For the competing skippers, the Southern Ocean is the heart of the matter. It makes up almost half of the total race distance of twenty-seven thousand miles and requires six to eight weeks of formidable effort to get through—if nothing goes wrong. The other sections of the race pose their own challenges and involve real dangers, but most are manageable. When they sail into the Southern Ocean, the sailors enter a realm of contingency: wind and sea conditions there can destroy even the best boat and the skipper unlucky enough to encounter them. The racers often find themselves in survival conditions—overpowering wind and sea become the master, and the sailor can only hang on and hope for the best. The race is really divided into three parts: the Atlantic, the Southern Ocean, the Atlantic. That middle section is the killer.
"After that, it's a holiday," said one Vendée Globe skipper, Christophe Auguin.
* * *
In the Southern Ocean, the fragile lines that connect the sailor to humanity are stretched to the limit. Sometimes they break. The sailors in these races depend for help on their connections with one another far more than on any remote and uncertain source of aid from land. Some skippers have been lifted almost literally out of the sea by fellow racers. Most wouldn't have survived long enough to be picked up by diverted ships or to be reprieved by lifesaving equipment dropped from planes—if they happened to be within reach of them. And in some races, a boat and sailor have just disappeared without word or trace.
Yet the racers are tied into the worldwide network of satellite and computer communication. Onboard computers coordinate satellite-based navigation, communication, and weather-forecasting systems. They can fax, e-mail, talk on long- or short-range radios, get detailed weatherfax charts whenever they want. Even in the Southern Ocean, where weather forecasts are sketchy and unreliable, the sailors can often see the weather that's on its way to clobber them. Sometimes, they can even avoid the worst of it.
Their navigation and safety equipment is sophisticated and powerful, and their systems are backed up as if they were on Apollo flights to the moon. The boats' cabins look like electronics stores. The skippers are in constant contact with race headquarters in France or the United States. The race directors, in turn, always know where each boat is, within a few miles or less—a constant radio signal (from an ARGOS transmitter) is broadcast from each boat to satellite receivers. When trouble comes—if a boat's rolled over by a Southern Ocean graybeard, dismasted, and waterlogged—the hypothermic and exhausted sailor can activate emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), which notify the satellites. The EPIRBs were the most revolutionary devices the boats carried, and they have changed dramatically the odds of rescue when a sailor gets into serious trouble. They are small and portable—one of the newer ones, for example, is the size of a large flashlight and weighs less than three pounds—and there are several different types. They were the devices the sailors hoped never to use, although in this race, they were destined to be used with some regularity. When an EPIRB is activated, race headquarters and marine-rescue centers know within a few minutes that the dragons have struck. Search-and-rescue operations begin right away.
But getting help to a boat's exact-known location can take days. If none of the other competitors can reach the spot, it may be impossible to get to an injured boat for a week or more—until a dispatched warship or diverted freighter can struggle through. Cargo ships make their regular way across the Southern Ocean—tankers, bulk cargo or container ships bound both ways round the Horn—but they stick to narrow routes and are few and far between. And sometimes these big ships can't search properly because even they may be endangered by making search maneuvers in heavy seas.
In any event, an EPIRB has to be on the sea surface for the transmission to work. It won't penetrate hull material or several feet of water. If the boat stays upside down—as Dinelli's did—the sailor must find a way of floating the beacon out of the cabin to the surface while still keeping it attached to the boat. The newest and most accurate EPIRBs have a battery life of thirty-six to seventy-two hours or so, depending on the temperature. The colder it is, the shorter their operating time. After they quit, the boat's position becomes a matter of drift analysis—guesswork based on the vagaries of wind and wave action.
In early January 1997, thirteen Vendée Globe solo sailors were strung out across six thousand miles of the Southern Ocean, stretching from south of Australia almost to Cape Horn. The sailors had already been at sea for more than two months. Of the sixteen starters, only ten were still officially in the race. Three more kept sailing but had been disqualified for stopping in one port or another along the way to make repairs to their boats—strictly prohibited by the race rules. Dinelli had been sailing as an unofficial entrant because he hadn't had time to make the two-thousand-mile sail required to qualify for the Vendée Globe. Two racers had withdrawn soon after the start on November 3 of the previous year because of damage suffered in a storm in the Bay of Biscay.
Deep in the Southern Ocean, the skippers had lived for weeks in wet foul-weather gear in cold cabins dripping with condensation or wet with seawater that found a way in. The widely spaced boats were dealing with various weather conditions, none of them pleasant. At best, some were running uncomfortably, but not dangerously, before the gale-force depressions that travel unceasingly across the high southern latitudes. For other boats, there wasn't enough wind to enable them to handle the sea conditions—big seas persist for some time after the weather that created them has moderated. The boats were faltering in waves that struck anarchically from all directions without the governing discipline of strong wind.
Other skippers found themselves in particularly severe low-pressure systems—storms that made our Virgin Islands "yachtsman's gale" seem like the briefest and most benign of squalls. They were struggling to control their boats as they surfed at breakneck speeds of twenty-five knots or more down waves like steep hills in winds of near-hurricane strength.
In just those conditions, during the night of January 4, two of the sixty-foot-long Vendée Globe boats capsized. They were sailing fourteen hundred miles southwest of the Australian Cape Leeuwin at about fifty-one degrees south latitude—just inside the border of the furious fifties. The boats were within forty miles of each other, near the back of the strung-out fleet.
Aboard Exide Challenger (a sophisticated ketch—a two-masted rig), Tony Bullimore heard a loud bang. He could hear it even over the shrill tumult of his boat's rush through the storm. The carbon-fiber keel, fatally fatigued by the boat's unending motion, had suddenly snapped off, plunging down to the ocean floor—in this sea area, the relatively shallow southeast Indian Ridge, five hundred fathoms down. Suddenly deprived of its four and a half tons of ballast, the now top-heavy boat flipped over with shocking speed—two or three seconds. Just before it happened, the fifty-seven-year-old Bullimore had been standing wedged in his cabin, drinking a mug of tea he'd managed to brew up on his gimballed one-burner stove and smoking one of his roll-your-own cigarettes. As the boat flipped, he rolled around with it and found himself standing on the cabin top, which was now the floor.
The abruptness of the event astonished him. He looked down through the big cabin windows, which were now acting as the bottom of the hull, and saw seawater rushing past, like a fast-flowing river under his feet. The howl of the wind passing at seventy knots around the boat's two masts and rigging had stopped. In fact, it was almost quiet—although the boat was still rocking and rolling.
His mug of tea had disappeared, but he still had his cigarette in hand. He stood on the inside cabin top of his upside-down boat, took a few draws on the cigarette, and phlegmatically considered the situation. There wasn't much he could do, he thought. He went through the pluses and minuses of his position, trying to think through how he could survive. He had to try to get an EPIRB signal out to the world. Maybe he could use his tools to cut a hole in the hull. He became aware of the boat's heavy boom, mixed up with the tangle of mast and rigging below the boat. Swinging around in the underwater turbulence, it was tapping on one of the big cabin windows.
Suddenly, in one violent lurch, the boom smashed the window. The sea roared in like Niagara Falls. The electric lights, which had stayed on since the capsize, now went dead. Within seconds, the dark cabin filled with water whose temperature was close to zero degrees Celsius, leaving only a few feet of air near the top, which was really the cabin floor. Bullimore quickly became very cold. He waded through the chest-high water, found his survival suit, stripped off his foul-weather gear—which only protected him from rain, spray, and the occasional breaking wave—and managed to pull the suit on over his cold and sodden underclothes. The insulated waterproof survival suit was designed to stave off hypothermia, but it was a model that left his hands and feet exposed, and all he could do was stuff his already frozen feet back into his soaked seaboots.
His food and drinking water were gone, except for some chocolate and several tiny sachets of water—a cup or so. Like most of the equipment in the cabin, his food and water had been sucked out through the smashed window by the powerful vacuum of departing waves.
There was no need now to cut a hole in the hull to release an EPIRB signal; the boom had done it for him. He activated one of his ARGOS-type EPIRBs and tied it to a piece of line. (The ARGOS position transmitter became an EPIRB when switched to alarm mode.) Plunging down into the freezing water in the cabin, he pushed it through the broken window and floated it up to what he hoped was the surface of the sea, but it could easily have become entangled in the mess of rigging and debris outside. Bullimore wasn't sure that his distress transmission was in fact getting out.
Whether Exide Challenger would stay afloat depended on his watertight bulkheads, in particular on the forward bulkhead, which was keeping water out of the boat's bow section. In case they didn't hold, he needed his life raft, which was secured in the cockpit. Several times, his eyes and ears seared by the cold, he dove down and through the companionway hatch to cut it free. But it was too bulky to move, pinned against the bottom of the inverted cockpit by its own buoyancy. On his last dive, the hatch was caught by a surge of wave water and slammed shut on his hand. It chopped off his left index finger at the lower knuckle. In the icy water, the stub soon stopped bleeding and the cold numbed the fiery pain.
Bullimore crawled onto a narrow shelf high up under his new ceiling, where it was relatively dry for now. But the water was rising and it soon began to wash over him periodically in this last refuge. He felt desperately cold and tired. He knew that the Australians were his best hope for rescue, but it would take them at least four or five days to get to him. That is, if the EPIRB had made it to the surface—if its signal was getting through to anyone at all.
First, Thierry Dubois's Pour Amnesty International was dismasted. In wind that never fell below sixty-five knots (hurricane force) and in fifty-five- to sixty-foot-high seas, the boat capsized. It righted immediately, but its mast had buckled and broken into three pieces. Waves repeatedly smashed the two mast sections in the water up against the hull, threatening to hole it. Dubois had to use a hacksaw to cut through the rigging and free the remains of the mast from the boat. While he was below getting warm, getting his breath back, his boat was rolled again through 360 degrees by a huge, steep wave. Still Dubois did not activate an EPIRB. Instead, he jury-rigged (improvise from broken or spare material on board) a mast and a sail. In the tradition of the self-sufficient mariner, he was determined to reach an Australian port under his own power.
The following day, as he slept below, exhausted, and at almost the same time as Bullimore's capsize, another big wave turned the boat over. This time, it stayed upside down, drifting haphazardly among the long, wild Southern Ocean rollers. Now he set off his emergency beacon.
After two hours or so, the boat showed no sign of righting itself. In spite of its keel's weight, and even without the countervailing underwater resistance of its mast, Dubois's boat seemed comfortably stable upside down. Dressed in his survival suit, he squeezed through a small escape hatch in the transom (the vertical, or near-vertical, part of the stern). After several attempts at crawling up onto the slick, curved surface of the overturned hull, he managed to take advantage of a wave that washed him up onto it. He clung to one of the boat's two long, narrow rudders. The wind was still blowing at more than fifty knots. Enormous Southern Ocean seas, as high as the boat was long, towered over the exposed man and machine. The closest fellow racer was twelve hundred miles to the east and couldn't possibly sail back that far against gale-force winds and seas. At the tail end of the fleet, Dubois and Bullimore were particularly isolated. An Australian ship or a passing freighter were their only chances.
As he tried to balance himself on the overturned hull's rolling, slippery surface, in the extreme windchill of the storm-force winds, the waves periodically inundating him, Dubois believed that his life was over. The only uncertainty was how many hours, perhaps minutes, he had left.
In about 1805, Adm. Sir Francis Beaufort, of the British Royal Navy, drew up a scale that related wind strength to sea conditions. The navy adopted the Beaufort Wind Scale as part of its standard navigational repertoire in 1830. In modified form, it has since become a tool used almost universally by mariners. Its descriptions of wild weather are terse and clinical, but they provide a handy scale of relativity for appreciating what wind does to the sea. The sixty-five- to seventy-knot winds that Bullimore and Dubois experienced were just above the sixty-four-knot (seventy-three miles, or one hundred eighteen kilometers, per hour) threshold of force 12—hurricane force, the highest category on the scale. At sea, wrote Beaufort, "air filled with foam; sea completely white with driving spray; visibility greatly reduced." Sea state is described as "phenomenal," with mean wave heights of more than forty-four feet. Of the wind's effects as observed on land, the admiral noted, "Very rarely experienced on land; usually accompanied by widespread damage."
An adult human finds it very difficult to walk into a seventy-knot wind. It can blow over the unwary pedestrian. While one is facing the wind, breathing is difficult. At sea, water driven by a wind of that velocity is painful and can damage an unprotected eye. In hurricane-force winds, sailors must often wear diver's face masks or goggles. On deck, the sailor must crawl from one handhold to the next.
If the wind seems bent on manslaughter, the waves generated by hurricane-force winds in the Southern Ocean are homicidal. That day, Bullimore and Dubois (and Dinelli ten days earlier) had fought seas that were the height of a five-story building, with some as much as 50 percent higher than that—almost an eight-story building. But there's more to it than the height of the waves. Wave energy moves through water surprisingly fast. The speed at which a wave travels depends on its length—the distance between wave crests. The greater the length, the faster the wave. For example, waves whose crests are ten yards apart will move at eight knots; those one hundred yards apart, at twenty-five knots. But the Southern Ocean waves, with literally all the space in the world to form and build, are very long—the crests often two hundred yards apart or more. A wave of that length will travel at close to thirty-five knots.
To get an idea of the stresses that Bullimore and Dubois, and their boats, experienced, nonsailors might try to visualize a never-ending series of five- or six-story buildings, with sloping sides of various angles and with occasional buildings half as high again, moving toward them at about forty miles an hour. Some of the time, the top one or two stories of the buildings will collapse on top of them. The concussive effect of seawater isn't much different from that of concrete. Add the isolation and the noise—the boom and roar of the waves, the deafening, unearthly, unnerving scream of wind around the obstructions of mast and rigging—and the picture should become clearer.
To understand the Southern Ocean, you also have to understand Cape Horn.
In form and function, it serves the mundane purpose of capes everywhere: a promontory, or headland, dividing one body of water from another. But the Horn is unique. It's very far south, at fifty-seven degrees latitude. To go around it, vessels must plunge down, deep into the Southern Ocean. From Cape Horn, Antarctica is only six hundred miles away. Untrammeled in their progression around the globe, the Southern Ocean lows get squeezed together in the bellows of the Drake Passage between the Horn and Antarctica. Sometimes the systems get more complicated, and therefore more hazardous, as they meet the local weather coming off the nearby land masses. Williwaws sweep down the alpine valleys and far out to sea. The bottom comes up very quickly on the lip of the continental shelf. Waves shorten and steepen in the shallower water.
Cape Horn is the real, and certainly the psychological, turning point of any voyage or race through the Southern Ocean. Actually a high rocky island just off the tip of the continent, it has a singular and mythological weight for sailors as a symbol of pain, hardship, and death. In the days of the square-riggers, ships would sometimes spend weeks trying to round it from east to west, against the prevailing wind, seas, and current. Bligh's Bounty struggled to round the Horn for twenty-nine days before giving up and running off to the east. It eventually reached the South Pacific by way of the Indian Ocean and through the narrow straits off southeast Asia. Bligh's crew, with cruel and unconscious hypocrisy, never forgave him either for the hardships and terrors of that month or for turning tail at the end of it.
In Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana describes his ship's ordeal in the frigid southern winter of 1836, as it tried to round the Horn from west to east with a cargo of California hides. This was supposed to be the easy way round, with its following winds. But it took them two weeks in head winds, uncharacteristic calms, and easterly gales. They were often blocked by ice fields. When they finally reached it, the Horn was a dismal and desolate sight, Dana wrote. But it was also a welcome vision to the frozen and exhausted crew. It was a signal that they might finally "bid defiance to the Southern Ocean."
My great-grandfather saw the Horn once as the grain-carrying square-rigger on which he was an able seaman surged past it on the way to Liverpool. He told my grandmother only that it looked to him like a small jagged mound in the sea, and that he hated and feared it.
For the pathologically adventurous sailor, rounding the Horn is the height of achievement, although doing it may be a short-lived triumph —exactly because it means so much. The Argentine single-hander Vito Dumas sailed from Chile to Buenos Aires in 1934 and was welcomed as a hero. But Dumas's mind was not with the adoring crowds. His great moment had come and gone, he wrote later. All he could hope for was that somewhere, "at another distant point in the sea, I could find another Cape Horn."
Its ambiguous attractions are still potent. In 1985, father and son David and Daniel Hays sailed around Cape Horn in the smallest boat that any Americans had ever sailed there—an English-designed twenty-five-footer. They were lifelong sailors for whom the Horn was "the big one." In My Old Man and the Sea, David, the father, describes sailing as "an incontrovertible act of truth." Because the water had given him that gift, he thought he owed something back. To repay it, he had to take from the sea, not just the summertime pleasures of the coast, but all that it would give. And that, without question, was the Horn. When they rounded the cape months later, in a gale, of course, father and son thought simultaneously of the only possible toast for their finger each of Kahlúa: "To the men who died here."
For sailors, Cape Horn has become a comprehensive metaphor—it's their Waterloo, Ithaca, Jerusalem, all bound together. Bernard Moitessier, the long-distance solitary sailor and romantic—and one of the forefathers of single-handed sailing—wrote: "A sailor's geography is not always that of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape, with a latitude and longitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both a very simple and an extremely complicated whole of rocks, currents, breaking seas and huge waves, fair winds and gales, joys and fears, fatigue, dreams, painful hands, empty stomachs, wonderful moments, and suffering."
The Vendée Globe sailors look ahead to Cape Horn as a marker of their return to the world, to civilization. Christophe Auguin, a few days away from rounding the Horn in the Vendée Globe, exclaimed how much he was yearning for "la sortie d'enfer"—the exit from hell.
On January 6, two days after Bullimore and Dubois had capsized, Gerry Roufs sent one of his regular e-mail transmissions to his Web site. He described the hurricane he had had to contend with a week earlier. Not just a Southern Ocean storm with hurricane-force wind, but an actual cyclonic storm, "Fergus" had veered off the usual paths of South Pacific cyclones and ripped its way south past fifty-five degrees latitude. In the usual Southern Ocean storms out of the west, it's easy for the Vendée Globe boats to adopt storm tactics—running off before the wind and keeping their sterns directly into the waves—as they race east toward Cape Horn. But caught in an area where Fergus's circling winds were blowing from the south, Roufs had had to turn Groupe LG2's tail to the ferocious seas and head off course to the north until the storm passed over. He was still sailing second in the race, but his forced diversion had lost him a lot of ground on the leader, Christophe Auguin.
"It's one thing to settle down comfortably to a series of depressions that move around between the 40s and 50s," he wrote. "But how do you avoid a strong depression coming from the north and whose centre falls smack-dab right on top of you? And then it's practically Noah's Ark. Fierce storm, sea very dangerous that could easily capsize the boat.... I had to fly before 55 to 62 knot winds. For landlubbers: at this stage, children under 12 would fly away!"
In a storm like Fergus, "the race's importance takes second place. You could say it's a question of survival," he said.
He had heard about the other sailors' distress signals. It made him think again about how dangerous the Southern Ocean was. The longer you were there, the greater the chances of disaster. It was at once beautiful and terrifying.
"But I've been here long enough.... At an average speed of ten knots, the Horn ought to appear on the horizon in a week and a half or less.... As for the boat, it's my best friend because it's my ticket out of here.... The only thing that bothers me is that a breaker filled the cockpit and washed away my two buckets even though they were secure."
Roufs's boat was no different from the other racing machines, loaded down with technology but with rudimentary accommodation. He had lost his toilet and his sink in one cruel blow.
The day after this message, Roufs and the Frenchwoman Isabelle Autissier (the other woman in the race besides Catherine Chabaud), sailing about thirty miles apart, were overtaken by an extreme storm, this time just an intense version of the usual Southern Ocean low-pressure system. It developed very quickly, the wind rising from thirty-five to seventy knots in three hours or so. Because the wind had not had time to stretch out the forty- to fifty-foot-high waves, they were relatively steep and close together, particularly dangerous seas for small boats. For Autissier, the most impressive thing was that she couldn't distinguish the waves from the sky or clouds.
"The air was full of sea and the clouds were so close to the sea that everything was gray," she told me. "It was like a huge gray mass—white and gray because of the waves. It was very terrible, terrifying."
During the course of the day, Autissier's boat was knocked down (flattened by a wave so that the mast was horizontal to the water) six times. Twice, the top of her eighty-foot mast was driven beneath the water's surface. On one of those occasions, Autissier broke one of her fingers as she was flung against the cabin top of the almost upside-down boat.
It was during this severe storm, thirty hours after he sent his e-mail, that the ARGOS radio position beacon on Roufs's boat suddenly stopped transmitting. One second it was beeping away, relaying his constantly changing position. The next second, there was complete silence. Perhaps it was only the ARGOS itself. Roufs might not notice that it had shut down. He was far out in the Southern Ocean—in the hole. No shore-based plane or ship could reach his position. Only other vessels at sea might be within striking distance of him if something had in fact gone wrong.
The following day, Autissier, who was still sailing close to Roufs, reported that she had not been able to make radio contact with him. It might only be that his electrical system had failed and that he was continuing to sail along, out of contact with the world. But winds in the area were hurricane strength. Autissier herself was struggling to survive. Roufs's boat remained silent. No EPIRB signals from Groupe LG2 had been received by any of the monitoring satellites. Nevertheless, at race headquarters in Rennes, in Brittany, a worried Philippe Jeantot, the Vendée Globe director, ordered a search operation for Roufs to begin.
The Vendee Globe 1996-97
1 In the Seas Entrall
2 A Solitude Supreme
3 The Baths of All the Western Stars
4 Sea Dark, Sky Crying
5 To the Great South
6 A New Machine
7 The Tiger Heart
8 A Spectacle for the Gods
9 A Zone Unknown
10 Remotest and Most Savage Seas
11 The Wounded Surgeon
12 The Sombre Season
Posted January 2, 2000
Although I don't race sail boats and I've never been on a boat with land out of sight, this book makes it feel as if the intensity of five story breaking waves is directly over your head. I couldn't put it down from the moment I started. Ironically, I read it at the beach with the sound of the sea in my ears and the taste of saltwater in my mouth.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 26, 2012
No text was provided for this review.