Billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett believes that the unendangered life is not worth living. A Chicago options trader by profession, Fossett thinks of leisure as swimming the English Channel or competing in an Ironman triathlon or racking up world records. He has set more than two dozen of the last, 10 of which he still holds, in sports from sailing to flying jet aircraft. But the record he coveted most-being on the first team to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon—eluded his grasp earlier this year.
In December 1998 Fossett and fellow billionaire Richard Branson had started in Morocco and were more than halfway around the world (having navigated a change in their course to avoid an incident with the Chinese government, which warned them to stay out of China's air space) when they were forced by an unexpected weather front to ditch into the open sea off Hawaii. Barely a month later, a rival team completed the historic feat.
Today Fossett is back in the record hunt with a 105-foot catamaran called PlayStation, arguably the world's fastest oceangoing sailboat and the first of a new generation of hi-tech multihulls that will push sailing speeds into territory previously reserved for fast ocean liners. Fossett's goal for his $5 million sailing machine is to smash all three of the most coveted marks in ocean sailing: the 24-hour distance record, the transatlantic crossing mark and the round-the-world record (for what is appropriately called the Jules Verne Trophy).
Fossett and PlayStation, launched in New Zealand last December with operating costs subsidized by Sony, have already attained the first record. In March, Fossett took the ultralight, ultrastrong carbon-fiber boat out into South Pacific swells for its first offshore run and shattered the 24-hour record of 540 nautical miles by rocketing 580 nautical miles at an average speed of 24 knots. Now Fossett has PlayStation deployed in New York harbor, waiting for a favorable weather window to launch an assault on the Atlantic crossing record, which stands at six days, 13 hours, three minutes and 32 seconds.
To set the transatlantic record Fossett and PlayStation will have to travel almost 3,000 nautical miles from Ambrose Light, off New York Harbor, to the Lizard, a landmark on the coast of Cornwall in England, at an average speed of about 20 knots. That means PlayStation needs to stay in the breeze. "It's a very powerful boat, more powerful than any multihull that's ever been built," says Fossett. During her 24-hour record run, PlayStation hit speeds of more than 35 knots, and Fossett and her designers believe that in the right conditions she could top out at about 45.
That sort of speed in a sailboat requires size and power. PlayStation's twin hulls are 105 feet long, and her mast stands almost 148 feet above the water. Her enormous 5,300-square-foot mainsail weighs almost a ton, and depending on conditions PlayStation can throw up more than 11,000 square feet of sail. The resulting loads on the boat's structure and lines are stupefying. The tension on the headstay—which anchors the soaring mast—can reach 30 tons. The load on the mainsheet, which controls the mainsail, spikes to 15 tons or more. Under sail, every line is bar-tight, and a blown fitting or parted line can easily kill someone. (During the 24-hour record run, Ben Wright, who co-manages the boat for Fossett, lost most of a little finger while trying to reduce sail to help keep PlayStation under control.) For record-setting purposes, PlayStation's rig and sail controls must be powered by human muscle. "Given current technology, PlayStation is at the limits of human capability," says Pete Melvin of Morrelli & Melvin, which designed the boat.
After the transatlantic attempt Fossett plans to launch PlayStation on its Jules Verne bid in February. The time to beat is 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and eight seconds. Melvin and his partner, Gino Morrelli, have done everything they can to design a boat that will survive the terrific pounding PlayStation will receive. "The loads are the great unknown," says Melvin. "There are no books which tell you how to build boat like this."
That left Melvin and Morrelli trying to assess their brainchild with computer simulations that were designed, in essence, to break the boat. One scenario launched PlayStation off a wave, crashing down entirely on one hull. (The bows deflected about 10 feet out of alignment.) Another brought the big cat to a shuddering stop by accelerating it off one wave and burying the bows 40 feet into the next—"the equivalent of a train wreck," Melvin says with a grin.
But bits and bytes can't entirely capture the caprice of the world's oceans, particularly the tumultuous seas of the North Atlantic or the wild southern oceans. In tacit recognition of the dangers PlayStation is built with a series of watertight compartments to minimize the chance of sinking after a collision, and it's equipped with immersion suits and other gear to allow the crew to survive for a couple of weeks (barring hypothermia) after a capsize or dismasting. Veteran weather-router Bob Rice, who has made a career of guiding racing sailboats around the world's oceans, predicts that PlayStation will experience seas at least 30 to 40 feet in height when she goes for the Jules Verne Trophy. "When you are in the southern oceans, you spend as much time trying to slow the boat down as you do trying to make it go fast," Rice says. "And any boat that has escape hatches so you can live in it upside down is something I wouldn't want to be on."
Fossett and his crew know the score, which is why they are on board. "I consider this to be a very dangerous boat," Fossett told his crew as they set out on a training run for the transatlantic attempt. That means being aware of where the danger zones are if a fitting breaks; sleeping feet forward in case of a sudden thrust caused by one big wave crashing into another or by a collision with a floating container or a whale (to avoid a broken neck); and, perhaps most important, staying on board a boat whose speed might take it miles before it can be turned around. "If we lose a man over the side, we have about a 50-50 chance of getting him back," Fossett says.