Godforsaken Sea is the hair-raising account of the world’s most demanding, dangerous, and deadly sailing race—following the field of the 1996–1997 Vendée Globe through a grueling four-month circumnavigation of the earth, most of it through the terror of the Southern Ocean.
Among the sixteen sailors are the gallant Brit who spends days beating back against the worst seas to save a fellow sailor; 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 sailor who calmly smokes a 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.
Bringing to life hurricane-force winds, six-story waves, icebergs, and deafening noise—and blending maritime history, ocean science, and literary allusions—this true story lays bare the spirit of the men and women who push themselves to the outer limits of human endeavor—even if it means never returning home.
“Explores how and why humans feel drawn to the extreme risks and almost inevitable disasters that single-handedly sailing the Southern Ocean entails. . . . Mr. Lundy not only makes stirring narrative drama but also draws the lineaments of an archetypal hero, a human driven by fear, addicted to adrenaline, in need of the edge.” —The New York Times
“Godforsaken Sea is one of the best books ever written about sailing. . . . Lundy’s knowledge of sea lore and history is rich, his pace perfect, his intelligence full of energy. He differentiates each sailor with a novelist’s touch.” —Time
|Publisher:||Workman Publishing Company, Inc.|
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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 twentyeight-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. Searchand-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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Godforsaken Sea"
Copyright © 1998 Derek Lundy.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsAuthor's Note
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