Clad in rumpled sweatpants and a zippered polo shirt, Isabelle Autissier alighted from the deck of her 60-foot sailing machine PRB onto terra firma in Charleston, S.C. " 'allo! 'allo! I'm back," she said, grinning and embracing friends who had come to greet her.
After four years Autissier, 41, had returned to this venerable Southern city accompanied by her 75-year-old father, Jean, and three of the five shoreside crew members who would see her off on the Around Alone, a 27,000-mile solo-sailing odyssey that began in Charleston last Saturday and will end there in about nine months. In her native France, Autissier is a celebrated sports star, but that's not how she sees herself. "I am not something special," she says. "I am a normal woman, doing what I like."
Normal isn't a term most people would assign to any competitor in the Around Alone, which is as simple as its name: one person per boat, around the globe, keep the frozen continent on your right. Sailors who have completed the race are a rare breed. More people have flown in outer space than have sailed around the world alone.
Autissier, who is single, was one of the few Around Alone veterans—and the only woman—among the 14 competitors who set off from Charleston. As one of the two French entries in the seven-boat marquee division of the race, Class I (boats 51 to 60 feet long), she seeks to maintain a kind of national hegemony: A French boat has won each of the previous four races.
The fourth of five daughters, Autissier grew up in Paris in a sailing family. She made her first solo crossing of the Atlantic at 21, in a 10-meter boat she had built herself. It brought her great satisfaction, she says, but the reason she still competes is that she enjoys it. "It's certainly not to have money," she says. The winner of the Around Alone receives only a silver plate.
In three previous around-the-world attempts, she has never finished trouble-free and never better than seventh in the official standings. Her bid to win the 1990-91 race, then called the BOC Challenge, ended when her 60-foot entry, Ecureuil Poitou-Chrentes, was dismasted in the Indian Ocean. During the '96-97 race, called the Vendee Globe, her hopes for victory evaporated when a rudder broke off in the Indian Ocean. But the episode that most stirs her yearning for redemption occurred four years ago in the '94-95 BOC Challenge, when Autissier nearly tasted triumph, then barely escaped death.
First she grabbed headlines when her gamble on an unconventional Leg I route from Charleston to Cape Town paid off and she arrived in South Africa five days and 1,200 miles ahead of the second-place boat. After the fleet left Cape Town to begin Leg II, through the dangerous latitudes of the Southern Ocean to Sydney, a low-pressure system swept in from the west, and Autissier was one of its victims. In 50-knot winds and savage seas, a shroud supporting her 85-foot mast parted, and the spar toppled. Her boat was crippled, but she waved off assistance from a fellow racer and jury-rigged a spinnaker pole and what was left of her sail to propel her craft at a glacial pace toward the tiny Kerguelen Islands, a remote French outpost in the Indian Ocean.
There Autissier hastily fashioned a replacement rig and got back in the race. A week later, nearly 1,000 miles west of Australia, a huge wave cartwheeled her vessel, leaving it mastless and with a sedan-sized hole in the deck where the cabin had been. "I was inside the boat," she recalled. "I fell on the bulkhead, then on the ceiling, then on the other bulkhead. If I had been on deck, I would have been washed away." After a four-day search, a helicopter from the Australian frigate HMAS Darwin lifted her from her mangled vessel.
Around Alone race director Mark Schrader says of Autissier: "I don't think she's a natural, but she trains and works very hard, and she learns everything she can about a subject or a piece of gear. She doesn't take things for granted. Like most of the people who succeed in this discipline, she's not overly impressed with her ability—not cocky, but confident and very competitive."
Autissier's real strength seems to be equipoise. She balances her intense competitiveness with relaxed, Zen-like concentration. "She is just so calm when it gets dicey out there,," says photographer Billy Black, part of the crew aboard PRB for its delivery to Charleston.