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 hurricaneforce 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.
From approximately the other side of the earth, at about the same latitude north of the equator as the Vendée Globe sailors were south of it, five hundred miles from the North Atlantic Ocean, sliding deeper into the Canadian winter, I followed the race. There was the occasional wire story in the Toronto newspapers. Nothing much on television. The Quebec media, especially the French-language side, provided more coverage because the race originated in France. More important, one of the skippers, Gerry Roufs, was from Quebec. He'd grown up in Montreal and had sailed at the Hudson Yacht Club, just outside the city. He'd been a junior sailing champion-a dinghy prodigy-and had sailed for several years as a member of the Canadian Olympic yachting team.
I was intrigued by the Vendée Globe for a couple of reasons: I'd been an avid-although amateur-sailor myself over the years, and I found it impossible not to be fascinated by the race's audacity-its embrace of the most difficult kind of sailing (single-handed), through the most dangerous waters in the world (the Southern Ocean), in the most extreme form possible (unassisted and non-stop).
I also felt a connection to the race because of Gerry Roufs. He was the first Canadian to have entered the Vendée Globe, and he had a good chance of winning. There was a small but significant affinity between us. Like me, he had trained to be a lawyer, and had then found something different to do with his life, though in his case, something precarious and uncertain, far removed from the affluent safety of the law. After a year, he left his law practice to become a professional sailor, and spent the next twenty years working towards his eventual membership in the single-handed, round-the-world elite.
The traditional sources of information about sailing races-yachting magazines published in Europe, the U.S. and Canada-were always months out of date by the time they were available. The Internet was the real mother-lode. The Vendée Globe organizers had set up a Web site. It contained good background information about the race, the sailors and the boats. The best part was the stream of bulletins posted by headquarters each day during the race, sometimes as many as five or six in a twenty-four-hour period. They were all in French, although a truncated English summary, often in an endearingly eccentric translation, was issued once a day or so. Periodically, the skippers themselves would send a few paragraphs about their daily experience from their boats via _satellite fax, e-mail or single-sideband radio, and there were regular reports of latitude-longitude positions for each boat. Like several other competitors, Roufs set up his own Web site as well, on which he posted intermittent journal entries, in both French and English, describing his activities.
Each day, I could read about the homely details of life on board these swiftest of ocean racers, the weather each boat was going through, its progress-through Biscay, the horse latitudes, the doldrums, the long swing around the South Atlantic High, and then to the southeast, below the Cape of Good Hope, and into the roaring forties of the Southern Ocean. It was an electronic feast of information.
"The sea is as near as we come to another world," wrote the poet Anne Stevenson. She called it "the planet ocean." As the Vendée Globe boats made their hard, hazardous journey through the outlandish sea, I watched them from the haven of the planet earth.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Beara Inc., excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited