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Adventure: Alone against the current

Solo skippers brave harrowing conditions for the world-spanning Vendée Globe sailing race

The Southern Ocean lies in the latitudes south of Africa, South America, and Australia. Winds swirl around Antarctica unimpeded by land, creating some of the harshest weather conditions on earth. Historically, sailors have done everything possible to avoid passing through this chaotic expanse of ocean. Rounding South America, European explorers and traders were able to pass through the Straits of Magellan south of Chile, a route which largely avoided contact with the Southern Ocean. There is no such passage when rounding Africa, thus the Cape of Good Hope gets its name from the fact that once a ship reaches the cape, it begins plotting its course eastward rather than south, and her battle with the Southern Ocean is coming to an end.

On November 9, the 30 boats participating in the latest edition of the Vendée Globe around the world sailing race left the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne to begin their journey southward. The race is the only non-stop, solo, round-the-world sailing race currently active, and only the second in history. To make the fastest time, the sailors – referred to as “skippers”– plot their course right through the heart of the Southern Ocean, making it one of the most extreme tests of courage and endurance the sporting world has to offer. More people have orbited the earth and summitted Everest than have completed a solo, non-stop circumnavigation.

The only precursor to the Vendée Globe, the infamous Sunday Times Golden Globe of 1969, was a complete disaster. Two entrants committed suicide, one went insane, and only one finished. The resources available to the Golden Globe racers were far from sufficient, and technology at the time left them basically out of contact with the rest of the world.

In the intervening 20 years between the Golden Globe and the first Vendée Globe in 1989, off-shore sailing evolved beyond recognition. The Open 60 class sailed by the skippers (so named because they are all 60 feet in length) dwarf the boats sailed in the Golden Globe by 20 feet, and cost millions of dollars to build. Resembling giant surfboards, they have massive torpedo-shaped counterweights attached to their keels which allow for extreme sail areas and 90 foot masts. They are some of the fastest, lightest single-hulls ever built, and are far better equipped to handle the southern seas than the small pleasure yachts sailed by the skippers of the Golden Globe. Hi-tech communication systems reduce the psychological problems of spending three months alone at sea, while satellite weather charts and emergency signals reduce some of the journey’s risk.

Despite these advances, the Vendée Globe is still a constant trial for the skippers. Rarely do more than half the entrants finish. Sailing a 60-foot racing boat alone is impressive enough – doing so in the Southern Ocean is unreal. During calm stretches, the skippers work themselves into a routine of five hours of sleep a day, taken in one- or two-hour power naps; in the gales of the Southern Ocean, skippers often go for days with no sleep at all. Life onboard the boats is harsh. Sailors famously cut their toothbrushes in half to save weight, and after the first couple weeks only freeze-dried food is eaten. The deck of a conventional boat protrudes over the waterline at the bow, while the bow of an Open 60 is straight up-and-down so as to slice through the water. This means that the bow of the boats shovel waves on board, and skippers must wear wet-suits and mountain-climbing harnesses on deck to withstand the constant assault of tons of water washing over the deck.

The danger for a solo sailor in such conditions is immense, especially since the latitudes that the Vendée Globe skippers sail in are far out of reach of coast guard organizations. Since its inception in 1989, three skippers have died during the race – including Canadian Gerry Roufs in 1996. Skippers who run into trouble must fend for themselves. In the past, sailors have been forced to perform un-anesthetised surgery on themselves, right capsized boats from within the submerged cockpit, and construct makeshift masts when the original has been lost to the seas. Sailors who find themselves in more dire straits have to depend on their fellow racers for rescue. In the 1996 edition, skipper Pete Goss won a Legion d’Honneur for his daring rescue of the Italian racer Raphael Dinelli. When Dinelli capsized, Goss turned his boat around and sailed into hurricane-force headwinds for two days to reach him. Because of the size of an Open 60 and the incredible force of Southern Ocean winds, Goss sailed several hundred miles to Dinelli’s rescue but was only able to make one pass to pick up the stranded sailor, who had been clinging to a tiny life raft for two days. The two sailors popped the bottle of champagne that Dinelli had salvaged from his boat, and Dinelli faxed a marriage proposal to his girlfriend in France. Goss went on to set a British speed record for solo circumnavigation in the same race.

Gerry Roufs was lost in the same storm – a few months after the race ended, his Open 60 was found sailing itself off the coast of South America. This year, for the first time since 1996, another Canadian is participating, although he has already experienced the curse of the Canadians. Derek Hatfield encountered electrical problems during a freak storm right after the start that knocked several other competitors permanently out of the race, and was forced to return to Les Sables d/’Olonne to complete repairs. He has set sail again, thousands of nautical miles behind the leaders. For Hatfield, however, this is not a problem; like many other skippers in the race he never had a real chance of winning. Hatfield’s stated goals for this year’s race are to finish it, and do so leaving a zero-carbon imprint by using wind and water energy to power his electrical systems.

This underdog situation might seem humiliating in other sports; not so in off-shore sailing. Although winning is an incredible achievement, all participants are celebrated simply for sailing. This ideology is the legacy of legendary French sailor Bernard Moitessier, who abandoned the 1969 Golden Globe with victory within his grasp to continue sailing around the world. Moitessier explained this self-disqualification in a note he threw onto the deck of a tanker once he reached the Indian Ocean: “My intention is to continue the voyage, still non-stop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe. Please do not think I am trying to break a record. ‘Record’ is a very stupid word at sea. I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” The Golden Globe’s winner, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, has somewhat faded into obscurity, while Moitessier was mentioned over and over again in the months before the race, and many skippers sail with his autobiography on board. To face the challenges of the Vendée Globe, one must be a sailor before a racer.

As I write this, Derek Hatfield is a few hundred miles off the Moroccan coast, making good speed and trying to close the gap with the rest of the racers, although he is again having problems with electrical systems. The leaders are entering the doldrums, a weather system in the middle of the Atlantic that is famous for its lack of wind, and must be crossed to reach the south. By mid-December, however, all the racers will be in the Southern Ocean. For the millions following the race, and presumably even more so for the skippers themselves, the doldrums are like the pause at the tip of a roller coaster. Humans have yet to perfect the art of Southern Ocean sailing, and any skipper who makes it out with his boat in one piece will owe a great deal to luck.

Despite the danger, the Vendée Globe continues to grow in popularity, both in terms of audience and participants. This year’s edition has half again as many skippers as ever before. A testament to the maniacal devotion to sailing that is the mark of any Vendée Globe sailor, Dinelli is competing this year, currently holding 22nd place. Since his 1996 rescue, he has not missed a single race.