America's most renowned single-handed offshore sailor, Michael Plant of Jamestown, R.I., had been lost at sea for 32 days when his 60-foot racing yacht, Coyote, was spotted on Sunday morning—the day that Plant had originally intended to begin a nonstop race around the world. The sighting was made by a Greek-owned tanker, Protank Orinoco, 460 nautical miles north of the Azores, four days after the U.S. Coast Guard had suspended an air search for Plant that had covered some 200,000 square miles. It was one of the broadest rescue missions ever in the North Atlantic. With each passing day the likelihood of finding Plant alive diminished.
When it was spotted, Coyote was capsized, drifting upside down in eight-foot seas. There was no sign of Plant. Coyote's mast, plunging 85 feet into the cold waters, was still rigged with sails. The boat's hull was still intact; its twin rudders, apparently, were operational. The carbon-fiber keel was there. But the 8,400-pound lead keel bulb was missing. Without the bulb, the keel was useless for keeping the boat upright in a strong wind. Coyote, without the weight of the keel bulb, was unable to right itself once it overturned; it became a death trap.
In plain language, the boat broke. The fate of Plant, whose 42nd birthday was last Saturday, was still undetermined as SI went to press Monday night. It is possible no one will ever know. Was he still on board? Had he holed up in one of Coyote's five watertight compartments, in total darkness, somehow staying alive for as long as four weeks by using the boat's hand-held watermaker that turns seawater into freshwater? Was he adrift at sea somewhere in a life raft? Had he been lost forever at sea when the Coyote capsized?
Coast Guard efforts to reach the overturned vessel were impeded by the remote location in which it was found and by heavy seas and low cloud cover. But Plant's family has remained hopeful. "Knowing Michael and the way he's able to think quickly," said his brother, Tom, from his home in Gaithersburg, Md., "we believe he could still be in the boat and have found an air pocket. He would still have food on board, and he could have poked a hole in the hull."
But the U.S. Coast Guard was not so optimistic. "If he's aboard the vessel, we're of the opinion he's no longer alive," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Matt Giltner, who was helping to coordinate the search. "We're looking for a life raft."
Plant had sailed around the world alone three times, so it was with no special concern that he left New York Harbor on Oct. 16 bound for Les Sables d'Olonne, France. That was the starting point of the Vendée Globe Challenge, a nonstop single-handed round-the-world race, in which Plant was expected to be the only American among the 18 entrants. He had sailed in the race before. In 1989-90 he completed the 24,000-mile route in 134 days, and this time around he had hoped to shave at least 25 days off that American record. Top Gun is what the French call Plant, because of his passion for sailing in wild winds and heavy seas.
The registration deadline for the 1992 Vendée was midnight, Oct. 30, in Les Sables d'Olonne, meaning Plant had left himself two weeks to get there from New York, a very fast crossing. It would give him a chance to test the new $650,000 boat, with its lightweight fiberglass-coated foam-core hull, on the open seas under racing conditions. Built by Concordia Custom Yachts, Inc., in South Dartmouth, Mass., Coyote hadn't been launched until Sept. 10, six months behind Plant's original schedule.
"It was a brand-new boat, untested," Tom Plant said, before the capsized yacht was found. "It needed more sea trial. Michael had been harried the last several weeks. He had to put the boat in the water, do a practice run on it [from Newport, R.I., to Norfolk, Va.] and do the whole campaign himself without a sponsor or a crew."
"His biggest problem was he didn't have any money," said Dan Neri, president of Shore Sails, Inc., in Portsmouth, R.I., a friend of Plant's whose firm made the sails for Coyote. "Mike spent the last two weeks running around looking for sponsors. He had about six billion details left to do. Every boat keeps a list of things to buy and do before it leaves port. I asked him how he was doing on the list. He told me, 'It's so long now, I've lost the beginning of it.' When you sail around the world three times by yourself, maybe you treat things a little more lightly than you or I would. To him, sailing across the Atlantic was just a delivery."
But Plant had reason to be apprehensive about the seaworthiness of his boat. Just 2½ weeks before leaving New York, he had pulled the mast out of Coyote in order to have it reinforced; a day sail off Newport in 35-knot winds had revealed an alarming shimmy in one of the mast's sections. "Mike did say he was concerned he hadn't gotten to know the boat," said a friend, David Stevens, a writer who is working on a book about Plant. "He knew better than anyone the ocean's power. He was not an arrogant sailor."