Jacques de Roux was alone and in trouble. Caught in a storm somewhere between Australia, Antarctica and South America—probably the most isolated section of the planet—the Frenchman was sailing in the 1982-83 BOC Challenge, a singlehanded around-the-world race. As daylight faded, a huge 70-foot wave lifted the 41-foot hull of Skoiern III into the air from behind, driving the bow deep into the green water. It flipped her end over end, snapping the mast and breaking the main hatch cover. When the boat finally righted herself, de Roux was hip-deep in water in the cabin. He couldn't radio for help because his radios were saturated with salt water and the antennae had gone overboard with the mast.
Desperate, de Roux hit the emergency switch on his new and unproved satellite tracking system. With no other recourse, he started bailing for his life as a rescue operation began without his knowing it.
The beige box that de Roux switched on is part of a system called Argos, a name based in part on a 100-eyed creature of Greek mythology that saw all. It was this French tracking system that transmitted a signal from Skoiern III to two American-made weather satellites in the sky above. In turn, these satellites told BOC race headquarters in Newport, R.I., that de Roux was in trouble and what his position was. The system was credited with helping to save de Roux's life.
But safety is only one aspect of yachting that has changed since Argos was introduced in 1979. The organizers of long-distance races are even hopeful that the system's impact will someday be seen on their balance sheets. They think that Argos can make ocean racing more accessible to the public and, perhaps more important, to the press.
In the world of yacht racing, corporate sponsorships are critical. Many boats are named for products or companies, as are the races themselves—the Whitbread Round-The-World is sponsored by a British distiller, and the BOC is put on by The BOC Group, a British conglomerate. Race directors know that increased press coverage will mean more exposure for their sponsors and, thus, more sponsor interest. So it's no surprise that the Argos system is now required on all Whitbread and BOC boats.
Argos is responsible for other changes in ocean racing. Before the system was required, sailors in global marathons were tempted to lie about their locations. "What tends to happen is that a skipper in a favorable wind doesn't want the others to know where he is," says Hugh Marriott, spokesman for the Whitbread race. "There's a great temptation to falsify positions. It's rather like a fisherman who doesn't want to tell the others where he's had a good catch."
This type of rule bending seemed harmless enough—an oceanic game of hide-and-seek. After all, a boat still had to cross the finish line to win. But race organizers became worried about possible serious side effects. Three men died and eight boats were dismasted in the Whitbread's first three runnings, in 73-74, '77-78 and '81-82. What would happen if a boat desperately needed help but nobody really knew where she was?
The answer was Argos. Not only can the system locate the exact position of a boat, its emergency alarm—such as the one de Roux activated—can alert race headquarters in case of trouble.
Futhermore, Argos may have already increased the efficiency of blue-water racing. Because the location of each boat is released to the public, navigators now know where the competition is. There is less gambling with different winds and currents because a failed experiment could put a yacht hundreds of miles behind. As a result, instead of a satisfying long-distance voyage, the Whitbread has intensified into a series of nonstop day races.
Skip Novak, skipper of the 77-foot maxi Drum and a three-time Whitbread veteran, was initially apprehensive about Argos. (In August 1985, Novak was racing off the coast of England with his crew when the boat capsized, trapping several crew members, including rock star Simon Le Bon, inside. Drum was close enough to shore, though, where Argos wasn't needed, and everyone was rescued.) "Previously we'd say, 'O.K., let's try this strategy for a couple of days and see how it works out," says Novak. "We wouldn't have a clue what the opposition was doing. Now we know exactly where everyone is every day, and the race is one long, tactical battle." That may account for the new course record—about a two-day improvement on the old mark—set in this year's Whitbread by the 80-foot maxi UBS Switzerland.