Of the 15 sailors here preparing to set off for Leg 2 of Around Alone this Saturday, December 5, no one understands the fury that may lie ahead better than Isabelle Autissier. In the 1994-95 event Autissier finished the first leg with a lead of more than five days, an advantage that appeared insurmountable. It seemed that only an act of God could stop her from becoming the first woman sailor to win a solo race around the world. But just six days and 1,200 miles from Cape Town, the mast aboard Autissier’s 60-footer-to say nothing of her skipper’s dreams-snapped and toppled into the uncaring sea. In a now legendary series of events, Autissier fashioned a jury rig and sailed on to remote Kerguelen Island. There, she stepped a replacement mast and set out once again. But later in the same leg, some 850 miles southwest of the wild Australian state of Tasmania, she was rolled and dismasted a second time, and her boat was mortally wounded with a gaping hole in its deck. Autissier was eventually rescued by the Australian Navy. But she wasn’t the only skipper overcome by vicious weather. Current Around Alone competitor Neal Petersen was also the victim of a dismasting; he too rigged an emergency mast, then returned to Cape Town under his own power. But his race was also over.
History shows that bad things happen on Leg 2. In the inaugural 1982-83 race, American Tony Lush’s boat was flipped by huge seas and suffered irreparable keel damage on the second leg. Lush was picked up by fellow Yank Francis Stokes, who took him on to Sydney, Australia. Later, Stokes described the strange waves he discovered on the passage in the so-called Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties between South Africa and Australia: “Down there, I think there is the potential to be capsized at any time. I had heard stories about the Southern Ocean swells being long. But [on Leg 2] the seas were close together and the big ones seemed to come in threes. There was no real pattern. Basically, I feel boats of this size are too small to be sailing way down there.” And maybe Stokes is right. For it was on Leg 2 that French competitor Jacques de Roux perished in the 1986-87 event.
The list goes on and on. It was in the first race that Desmond Hampton ran aground and lost Gipsy Moth V on the final approach to Sydney. The same thing happened to Jean Luc Van den Heede the last time around, but luckily he landed on a sandy beach and his boat was saved. This time the fleet avoids Sydney and for the first time sails on to Auckland, New Zealand. But the Hampton and Van den Heede incidents underscore the need to stay vigilant on the final stretch of the voyage, which will be especially important after the roughly 7,000-mile-long trip across the Southern Ocean, up the Tasman Sea, around the top of North Island, and down the coast to Auckland.
An especially nasty portion of the course exists south of Western Australia. It was here, during the last Vendee Globe solo non-stop race around the world, that three competitors came to grief in appalling conditions and required assistance to be rescued from their crippled boats. As a safety measure for the 1998-99 Around Alone race, skippers must honor a “floating waypoint” located at latitude 46 degrees south and between 105- and 120- degrees east longitude; at any point between these longitudinal coordinates, each competitor must pass north of 46 S or face automatic disqualification. Race officials monitor compliance via satellite through an exclusive system devised by COMSAT Mobile Communications. A second mandatory waypoint, which must also be left to starboard, has been established just north of distant Heard Island. Both waypoints will dissuade skippers from following the shorter, but more risky, great circle route that cuts miles but wanders into the Antarctic ice zone. All things considered, the Around Alone racers will be wearing smiles when Auckland-the outstanding “City of Sails”-at last appears on the horizon.