On Sept. 17, 20 sailors left Charleston, S.C., for Capetown, South Africa, on the first leg of the BOC Challenge, a quadrennial single-handed, around-the-world yacht race. The leader, Isabelle Autissier, a 38-year-old Frenchwoman, reached Capetown early Sunday morning in her boat, Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2, about six days ahead of her closest pursuer. By taking a different tack from the rest of the field, she had built an unprecedented lead of about 1,200 miles on this 6,865-mile leg of a 27,000-mile race that will finish in Charleston sometime in the spring.
A week before Autissier made landfall at Capetown, a drama unfolded about 500 nautical miles off the coast of Brazil. A 60-foot British boat, Gartmore Investment Managers, skippered by 32-year-old Josh Hall, collided with an unknown object and began to sink. Using a sophisticated computer system, Hall was able to send out a distress message with his exact location to race headquarters in Charleston. Alan Nebauer, 31, the skipper of the 50-foot Newcastle Australia, was contacted; he changed course and sailed for more than nine hours before he found and rescued Hall.
SI was able to fax questions two days later to the two sailors through the same computer system that had helped in the rescue. Typing belowdecks on the Newcastle somewhere in the Atlantic, Holland Nebauer wrote a true-life seafaring tale of courage and salvation.
This is their story as it unrolled from the fax machine.
Josh Hall's Account
We had been sailing hard to windward for nigh on five days into surprisingly confused and unsettled seas, which made for an uncomfortable albeit swift dash southward. During this period all the yachts were experiencing the occasional "falling off a wave," whereby the boat flies into the air and crashes down, loosening the fillings of the teeth somewhat. For an hour or so the seas had been particularly awkward, and I was hand-steering to avoid the worst waves. Gartmore is, was, a very strong yacht, and these conditions were her strength so we were powering along at 9.5 to 10 knots, gaining on those ahead and building a gap on those behind.
At around 1830Z [6:30 p.m. Greenwich mean time] on Oct. 17, I steered Gartmore over a wave. We took off, but not badly, and I was expecting a soft landing, but instead there was the most incredible rending sound as the bow came down and the yacht staggered, causing me to fall forward into the wheel.
She picked herself up again and started sailing, but I knew we had hit something badly. I punched the Autohelm 7000 into action and hurried below to investigate. There was a serious hole in the only truly vulnerable spot of the hull—right at the base of the forward bulkhead. The compartment forward was already half filled, and seawater was simply gushing in through the compromised bulkhead and a crack in the bottom of the hull.
I have never felt so scared in all my time at sea, and I desperately tried to organize my thoughts. First priority was a Mayday, and as race headquarters is the hub of a sophisticated satellite communications network that connects it to the fleet, I pressed the two red buttons on the Standard C satellite transceiver. Within a few minutes they would know I was in trouble. At the same time I threw the breaker on the Standard M satellite telephone that COMSAT had given me for the race. It takes about 10 minutes to warm up, and I turned my attention to damage control.
I had been sponsored by ITT Jabsco and provided with some serious electric bilge pumps, which went on automatically. ITT had also supplied the mechanical pump that I used to fill and empty my water ballast tanks, and I had a hose connected to the manifold so that I could use it as a bilge pump. I have since worked out that between all these pumps. I was pumping out around 19,000 liters of water per hour, a sobering thought indeed. Even so, the level of water was slowly but steadily rising. Time to call race control.