By all accounts Coyote, which was designed by Newport naval architect Rodger Martin, was scintillatingly fast, able to reach a speed of 25 knots. It had a plumb bow, a broad, 19-foot beam and 50% more sail area—4,700 square feet downwind—than Plant's previous round-the-world boat, Duracell. Yet at 21,500 pounds, it was lighter than Duracell by 5,000 pounds, a differential that Plant estimated would enable Coyote to go 12% faster. "Every time I was out on that boat, at some point everyone would just start laughing," said Neri. "It was that fast. It was a radical design, by far the fastest 60-foot monohull ever launched in this country. Everyone involved thought the boat was capable of winning the race."
Plant had never won a round-the-world single-handed race. He had finished first in the 1986-87 BOC Challenge in Class II (boats 40-50 feet in length), sailing Airco Distributor, a yacht he had built in his own backyard. And he was fourth in Class I in the '90-91 BOC race in Duracell. He had proved he had the savvy and endurance to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. In Coyote, Plant wanted to prove he had the stuff to outsail the heavily funded French.
Soon after he left New York Harbor, however, Coyote apparently began giving Plant trouble. He lost all electrical power on or about Oct. 19, his fourth day at sea. This is surmised because Plant made a series of phone calls from the boat on Sunday, Oct. 18, and made no mention of a loss of power. "He left several messages on my answering machine," Stevens said, "and in one of them he said he was having some trouble steering the boat in these seas. It was blowing 35 knots on the nose, and he described it as 'god-awful.' I think he used the word laboring."
No one heard from Plant again until Oct. 21, when he raised a passing freighter, SKS Trader, via his battery-operated 12-volt VHF radio, which has a range of about 14 miles. Plant was almost one third of the way across the Atlantic, 940 miles from New York, 360 miles due south of St. John's, Newfoundland, and some 1,300 miles from the spot where Coyote was eventually found. "I have no power, but I'm working on the problem," Plant told the freighter's Russian captain, who spoke passable English. Plant did not ask the captain for a weather report or the position of any vessels that lay ahead. He ended the transmission with this request: "Tell Helen not to worry." Helen Davis, 43, is Plant's fiancée. That was the last direct communication anyone had with Plant.
Sailing the Coyote without electrical power would be a formidable task. Lacking running lights, Plant would be in constant danger at night of being hit by a tanker. To avert such a disaster, he would have had to stay awake all night and take catnaps during the day. Without weather reports Plant was prey to the terrible whims of nature, and October is hurricane season in the North Atlantic. Without a functioning autopilot, it would be next to impossible for him to sail the boat while sleeping. Coyote was too fast to just lash down the wheel and go below to rest.
But Plant was resourceful. He had sailed through hurricanes before. He had survived capsizing in 45-foot seas in the Indian Ocean during the 1986-87 BOC, when the Airco Distributor was able to right itself. He had repaired a broken mast, fixed a busted generator, repaired a hole in his hull after a collision with another vessel off Cape Town during the '90-91 BOC. And he had had numerous close calls with icebergs.
Plant had practiced wilderness survival skills since he was 14, when he was part of an Outward Bound group in Minnesota. At 18 he became an Outward Bound instructor. Having grown up in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Plant had learned to sail small boats on Lake Minnetonka and later captained larger vessels while delivering yachts in the Great Lakes, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. He was always independent and self-reliant. After dropping out of Colorado Mountain College, Plant had hiked alone through South America, trekking for nine months between Colombia and Patagonia. He loved adventure as much as sailing. As recently as last summer he was making plans to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley with Stevens. "I'm not quite sure where his adventurer's blood came from," his mother, Mary Plant, said from her home in Wayzata. "Ancestral genes, I guess."
Plant was working as a house builder in Newport in 1983 when he saw a film on a round-the-world race that introduced him to what would become his life's work. "I walked out of the theater," he once explained, "and it was like a light switch had gone on. I've never really looked back."
He enjoyed the solitude of single-handed ocean racing. "He hated having people on his boat," recalled Neri. "At first when we didn't hear from him, I told Helen, 'That's probably the good news. It means he's back in his racing mode.' "
It wasn't until Plant was a week overdue at Les Sables d'Olonne that his friends really began to worry. On Nov. 6 the U.S. Coast Guard put out an alert asking vessels in the Atlantic to keep a lookout for Coyote. No sightings were reported. If Plant were truly in trouble, his friends knew, he would have activated his battery-powered Raytheon 406 Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a device which, once every 50 seconds, transmits a coded signal to a network of satellites. A ground station then picks up the satellite signal and relays the information to the nearest control center, in this case to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Suitland, Md. NOAA's computers should then be able to determine two things: the identity of the vessel that sent the distress signal and the exact location of the vessel, provided the satellite has received at least four transmission bursts. NOAA then notifies the U.S. Coast Guard, and a search and rescue mission can be deployed.