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When Philippe Jeantot, a handsome young Frenchman with a drooping mustache, sailed out of an early morning fog and into the harbor at Newport on Monday, May 9, aboard Credit Agricole, he became the newest member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs, the fraternity of single-handed circumnavigators of the earth. The founding member was Joshua Slocum in 1898. Slocum was a 45-year-old Boston sailing master thrown out of work by the age of steam, and his vessel was a converted oyster boat called Spray. Slocum stopped in dozens of ports along the way and finished in three years. Jeantot, formerly a professional deep sea diver, was racing for a $25,000 prize in the BOC Challenge around-the-world race. He sailed from Newport on Aug. 28, 1982, in a fleet of 16 boats (a 17th would depart 11 days later); he laid over in three designated ports en route—Cape Town, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro—and he finished after 159 days, 2 hours and 26 minutes of actual sailing, eclipsing the fastest previous time by almost 10 days. Another Frenchman, the late Alain Coles, had set that mark in a 60-foot trimaran named Manureva in 1973-74.
Jeantot, a 31-year-old bachelor from Quimper in Brittany, made up his mind to sail around the world when he was 15 while reading Bernard Moitessier's La Longue Route, an account of a 1968 circumnavigation. Jeantot taught himself to sail in the waters near his home, but in order to make a living he became a professional diver, part of a team that made a world-record dive of 150 meters in 1977. But sailing remained his obsession. Between 1977 and '80 he made four transatlantic crossings on his own in a 42-foot steel-hulled vessel that a Newport observer called "a sea slug if there ever was one." But last August, as soon as the dockhounds in Rhode Island got a look at his new Credit Agricole, an aluminum-hulled cutter named for his sponsor, one of France's largest banks, they knew he was a sailor to be reckoned with. The boat was 56 feet long, the maximum length the rules allowed, and, at 22,000 pounds, light for its length. Long plus light equals fast in a sailboat. Built into its hull was a ballast system that allowed Jeantot to pump 313 gallons—or 2,607 pounds—of seawater into tanks on either side as the need arose, the equivalent of having a crew of 15 large men on the rail when Credit Agricole was heeled over. Ranged around the rim of the cockpit were 11 winches, and on the control panel at the interior steering station was all the sophisticated electronic equipment that's standard these days on oceangoing racers.
Perhaps most crucial to Jeantot's success, however, was a red fire bell wired to a computer, which in turn was connected to his automatic steering system. Jeantot could set his computer for a certain heading at a certain wind speed and then slide into his quarterberth for an hour's sleep, secure in the knowledge that should his boat's speed increase dramatically or the wind direction change sharply, an alarm loud enough to wake the ghost of Captain Ahab would call him on deck to reef a sail or alter his course.
Other racers, sailing without such gear, suffered dearly for its lack. For example, Desmond Hampton of England, one of the most experienced navigators in the BOC fleet, went below on Gipsy Moth V for an hour's nap off the coast of southeast Australia on Dec. 17. Exhausted from 24 hours of steering a course through the oil rigs in the Bass Strait, Hampton overslept, and his boat, a 56-foot ketch built in 1971 by the late Sir Francis Chichester, ran aground on the rocks of Gabo Island. Gipsy Moth V wedged itself in the rocks, and soon all that was salvageable of Chichester's last boat were its masts and lead keel.
Exhaustion, darkness and the Southern Ocean, an unbroken belt of eastward-rushing water that circles the bottom of the world, are the eternal adversaries of solo circumnavigators. Exhaustion causes errors in judgment and an inability to deal with sudden crisis. Darkness, especially when one is sailing in shipping lanes, near coastlines or amid icebergs, requires periods of wakefulness that in human beings are finite. And as for the Southern Ocean, which dominated the second and third legs of the race for a total of 14,700 miles, no amount of reading about what it has done to others, about its savage gales and its mountainous, unrelenting waves, can quite prepare a sailor for its power.
"The waves can reach as high as 120 feet," says Robin Knox-Johnston, the chairman of the BOC event and the winner and sole finisher of the only previous around-the-world race ever held. "And much more dangerous, they can develop into flat vertical walls. They look rather like the shops on one side of London's Oxford Street coming toward you."
In such seas, 56 feet is a very small boat. Richard Broadhead, an Englishman who placed third in the BOC standings, recalls looking down from the crest of such a wave as his 52-foot Perseverance of Medina was about to begin its plunge into the trough far below and seeing a whale at the bottom. All Broadhead could do under the circumstances was close his eyes and, later, write in his log, "Very, very close."
In the absence of whales, the danger in planing down the face of a wave at 18 to 20 knots lies in the distinct possibility of pitch-poling, stern over bowsprit, or being knocked down by a rogue wave that hits broadside. A sailboat will eventually right itself—though Paul Rodgers of England must have wondered whether this was really true when his Spirit of Pentax continued its upside-down surfing for 125 yards—but severe damage to the mast, the rudder or the keel is likely.
During the third leg of the race, in the Pacific between Australia and South America, surrounded by dense fog, invisible icebergs and huge seas, Credit Agricole suffered a knockdown in the middle of the night. Its mast was underwater, its keel was in the air, and Jeantot, below at the time, was pelted by his gear, which came flying out of the cabin's cupboards. Not till three days later, when the weather had moderated sufficiently, was Jeantot able to inspect the damage done to the rudder. He did so, incidentally, by donning his diving gear, securing himself to a safety harness and going overboard in 35° water.
Single-handers are a strange breed, even by sailing's tolerant standards. "There are no two even vaguely alike," says Peter Dunning, manager of the Goat Island Marina in Newport and the sailing director for the race. "They are millionaires and they are people who have mortgaged their whole lives to do this. A complete spectrum. But they have one thing in common: There's not a phony among them. They have all done something." The walls of Dunning's office are decorated with photos of single-handed heroes, among them, Colas; Chichester, who set out alone around the world on Gipsy Moth IV at the age of 64; and Phil Weld, the 68-year-old retired newspaper publisher from Connecticut who won the 1980 OSTAR (Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race) from Plymouth, England to Newport. Some, like Bertie Reed, a South African naval warrant officer, were in Newport again for the BOC race. Others, like Colas, had since sailed out to sea and had never been heard from again.