Alain Colas is
missing at sea. An intensive search has been conducted by planes and ships
across a vast wedge of the North Atlantic. His last official radio contact was
with a French radio station on the afternoon of Nov. 16, from a location
thought to be north and west of the Azores. Colas was barely 35, yet he was
already a man whose life contained the stuff of legend. He was one—some say No.
1—of a breed so unique that most folks can only approximate in dreams what he
did in real life. He was a single-handed ocean sailor, one of the few who make
blue-water voyages alone, relying on the wind for power, their wits for
company. And even among these extraordinary few, Colas stood apart, exuding an
aura of isolation. There was a hint of the fever of obsession about him,
although he tended to keep it under precise control.
No man ever looked
more like a sailor than Colas. He had black, curly hair and he affected the
thick muttonchop sideburns of a 19th-century mariner. His face was seamed with
sun-squint lines and he walked with a limp, the result of a sailing accident.
The limp gave him an Ahab-like mystique.
Colas spoke with
disdain about life in modern cities; indeed, years ago he had fled Paris for
the South Seas. He was married to a beautiful Tahitian who gave him a daughter
four years ago and twin sons last summer.
Colas, who had
turned 35 on Sept. 16, had traveled 130,000 miles under sail, five times around
the planet, when he was lost at sea. For some 50,000 of those miles—close to
two years, in total time—he was alone, including two transatlantic races from
Plymouth, England to Newport, R.I. Colas won the 1972 race, sailing the
3,000-plus miles in a record 20 days, 13 hours and 15 minutes, which sliced
nearly six full days off the previous best time. Colas' Pen Duick IV was first
among the 55 boats entered that year, and in 1976, the next running of the
event, he was third out of 125 starters. On this occasion he was at the helm of
the controversial Club Méditerranée, the 236-foot four-masted schooner which he
designed. It was, and is, the largest sailing ship to be built since before
World War I, and he sailed it alone across the Atlantic in one of the worst
seasons of storms in memory. In another of his celebrated single-handed
voyages, Colas circumnavigated the globe in 168 days, 57 days better than the
record set by Sir Francis Chichester in Gipsy Moth III.
In early November
Colas was off once more; when last seen he was alone again at the helm of the
trusty old trimaran Manureva he had twice sailed around the world. This time he
was heading across the treacherous Atlantic on a race of 4,000-odd miles,
starting at Saint-Malo on the north coast of France; his destination was
Pointe-à-Pitre on Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.
Although Colas was
alone on his boat, he wasn't exactly alone on that reach of ocean. No fewer
than 37 other solitary sailors had left Brittany with him on the morning of
Nov. 5 in a new transatlantic race for single-handers called La Route du Rhum.
The name comes from the course: roughly the reverse of the route sailed by
clippers and schooners whose holds were loaded with barrels of rum. It is
something of an upstart event in that the British have pretty much held the
franchise for such races with the London Observer's 18-year-old
Plymouth-Newport event. The French also trod on yachting tradition by offering
money as a reward—$45,000 for first prize and lesser sums for other places. The
winner of the Plymouth-Newport race receives a 12-inch silver plate.
The Rum Race is
about half again as long as Plymouth-Newport, and while the starting field for
the inaugural event was mainly French, it also attracted such world-class
sailing loners as Chay Blyth of Great Britain, Michael Birch of Canada and
Philip Weld of the U.S. The most optimistic entrants predicted that the winner
would complete the race in three weeks. But Colas was more meditative about the
course. He thought that the mean and unpredictable weather in the Atlantic in
November, plus the tough windward tack into the prevailing westerlies during
the first third of the race, would mean no one could reach Guadeloupe in less
than 25 days—or not until Nov. 30.
Sailing the ocean
alone is a romantic notion. It sounds like simplicity itself, a mere matter of
a brave man with a strong hand on the tiller and a sharp eye on the stars
putting canvas to wind. Single-handed ocean sailing has the ring of an ultimate
reduction of life's complexities, an escape to personal purity, a consummate
this isn't quite the case. Adventure and romance are there, certainly, but the
single-handed sailor is far from being a free child of nature. One may view him
as a man who should express himself in poetry, but to whom, in fact, the jargon
of modern technology is more suitable. The single-handed ocean racer is almost
as much a product of the space age as an astronaut is.
A month before the
race, Colas was in Brittany, supervising the overhaul of the Manureva. The name
is Tahitian; it translates into L'Oiseau du Voyage in French, The Bird of
Travel in English. Parts of the boat were scattered about a cluttered machine
shop near Saint-Malo. Colas watched intently through a welding mask as a
mechanic blazed away at a section of the rudder. Colas said something in
French, removed the mask and switched to English. "This has come to be like
auto racing," he said, "so technical and so much demand for precision
to the last detail. We are very close to airplane techniques in design, shaping
the surfaces to put up the least resistance. Turn an airplane upside-down and
you have a boat, you see?" He looked around at the disarray of the machine
shop, then sighed. "The race itself is almost a minor point. It is the
preparation that rates first, the attention to each technicality."