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The Deep End of the Sea

5 minute read
Robert F. Howe

For more than 20 hours, Giovanni Soldini had pushed due south, his face stung by frigid squalls and his 60-ft. sailboat pummeled by the ferocious waves of the southern Pacific, 1,900 miles west of the tip of South America. “I’m soaked and frozen,” the 32-year-old Italian wrote in a Feb. 16 e-mail to his Milan-based racing team. Desperately trying to interpret computerized weather charts, he was also troubled. He was still 18 miles from the spot where a satellite tracking system said Isabelle Autissier, 42, his French rival in the Around Alone solo global race, had capsized. “The problem is that these positions aren’t precise, and it won’t be easy to see Isabelle’s boat. Visibility is always poor, and in any case I’ll need some luck.”

Soldini’s good fortune–and Autissier’s–held. Two and a half hours later, Soldini peered through the predawn gloom and spied the white upturned hull of Autissier’s boat, the PRB, being pounded by waves the size of a four-story building. Twice he steered as close as he dared, but, he says, “I couldn’t see her anywhere.” Calling out her name and getting no answer, he feared the worst. On his third pass, he hurled a hammer at the hull. It landed with a sharp crack. Moments later, an escape hatch in the stern opened and out crawled a weary Autissier. Yelling “Super!” she set a raft in the water, Soldini tossed her a rope, and she pulled herself close enough to climb aboard. Reporting in, Soldini said he was warming her spirits with wine and cheese, and Autissier, arguably France’s most popular female sports figure, assured fans she was “on an Italian cruise now, and not unhappy about that.”

As high adventure, last week’s daring rescue on the desolate seas between New Zealand and Cape Horn cribbed a page from Melville. But coming just two months after 80-knot winds mauled a regatta sailing from Sydney to Tasmania and left six dead, Autissier’s narrow escape rekindled concerns about the safety of open-seas racing. The Around Alone follows a 27,000-mile, four-stop route that begins and ends in Charleston, S.C. (see map). Two of the 87 competitors in its five quadrennial races have been lost at sea, and only 42 have completed the treacherous eight-month marathon.

Autissier first dreamed of circumnavigating the globe alone when she was a girl growing up in the coastal town of LaRochelle. In 1987 she finished third in her first cross-Atlantic solo race. Her dream came true in 1991, when she became the first woman ever to complete the Around Alone challenge. But even that huge triumph was not without trial. Rough seas and high winds claimed her mast as she neared Australia. With a makeshift rig, she was able to reach port and make repairs. She finished the race, but her boat came in seventh out of 18.

Though she held a remarkable five-day lead after the first leg of the Around Alone in 1994, Autissier was lucky just to survive that race. Not long after setting out from Cape Town, she lost a mast to heavy seas and limped to the remote Kerguelen Islands, where she had arranged for a new mast. But about 1,000 miles south of Australia, in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, her boat was overcome by a monumental wave and rolled a full 360[degrees]. Its rigging and even a chunk of its deck were stripped off. Had Autissier not been belowdecks, she would have been swept overboard. The Australian air force watched over her for four days until a navy frigate arrived to pluck a weeping Autissier from the water.

It looked as if Autissier might fare better this year. Despite early damage to her keel, mast and rudder, she had claimed the lead as the remaining 11 boats set out for Cape Horn and Uruguay. Hoping to gain time, Autissier opted for a southern route through what navigators call the Screaming 50s because of the violence of the seas. But one day as she was studying weather maps below, the autopilot misread the wind. The boat veered sharply and rolled over so quickly that Autissier barely had time to seal the cabin. “Everything was a wreck,” she later told TIME via satellite. “The compartment was full of oil and diesel, and water was everywhere.” Still, she dared not risk abandoning ship for a raft on the open sea. “That boat was my only survival,” she said. “If it went down, I went down.”

Realizing the boat was lost, she activated a radio beacon that relayed her position from a satellite to Charleston. That far from land or shipping lanes, her only hope was that one of her competitors might save her. Told he was in the best position to reach her, Soldini, who lost a close friend in a race just last year, changed course immediately.

A veteran of near disasters, Autissier claims she’s never felt in serious danger. In fact, she was sleeping soundly when Soldini’s hammer caromed off the hull of her boat. Still, she is well aware that lethal dangers are never far off. In these same southern Pacific waters in 1997, she broke off from another round-the-world race to search for a French-Canadian yachtsman who had been swamped by rough seas. He was never found. “We race boats, but we’re not out to flirt with death,” says Autissier. “If one of us doesn’t come back, we’ve all lost.”

–Reported by Timothy Roche/Pensacola, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Greg Burke/Rome and Elizabeth Love/Santiago

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