Leading French solo sailor makes reday her Open 60 in Newport, RI. PRB is to have a new fixed mast.
Isabelle Autissier has been through it all many, many times before. She knows that in the final two weeks before the September 26 start of the Around Alone singlehanded race around the world, the demands on her time will be many and varied. Old friends will stop by for quiet farewells.
Local and worldwide media correspondents will be waving microphones and hovering for soundbites. It goes with the territory when you’re the only woman in the fleet and, more importantly, one of the solid pre-race favorites. But it doesn’t make it any easier.
“I don’t know why I have chosen this solo-sailing job,” the native of La Rochelle, France, says, laughing. “Well, it’s because I love the racing. But I don’t like it when I’m the center of attention, when there are lots of people looking at me. I prefer to be on the ocean, at sea.”
Late last week, while working on her Finot-designed Open 60 PRB in a marina here on the shores of Narragansett Bay, Autissier addressed the matter of setting sail in a breeze of huge expectations. “Here I’m perfectly quiet,” she said. “I don’t want to think about pressure. I know I will do my best. If the guys are better, they will be better. The results will take care of themselves. It’s just important for me to know that I did everything I could. Stress is one of the main problems when you are solo sailing on one of these boats. They are huge boats, so you have to really concentrate and take care. If you put more pressure on yourself it’s impossible. It’s already difficult enough. So I am being quiet.”
In fact, Autissier appears rested and ready. She is looking younger than the 42 years of age that she will turn this October 18 on Leg 1 from Charleston to Cape Town. Part of the reason must be the confidence she has in PRB-she has already taken the boat once around the planet by herself (in the last Vendee Globe), and on a crewed voyage from New York to San Francisco in last winter’s Gold Race. “It’s an advantage to know your boat perfectly,” she said. “Of course, the disadvantage is that it’s already a three-year-old boat, and in Around Alone there are many new ones. On paper they will go a little faster. Finot says one- or two-percent, which doesn’t seem like alot. But after 100 days that is one or two days. So it is alot. That means I will have to sail smarter.”
Autissier’s competitors know that those are not idle words. With a masterful display of routing and forecasting, in the last Around Alone she opened up a five-day lead on Leg 1 by playing the prevailing weather systems to perfection. “It’s one of the things I prefer to do on board,” she claims. “It’s like a game. The first leg is the hardest tactically because of high pressure systems in the North and South Atlantic, and the doldrums. It’s easy to gain miles, but it’s also easy to lose them.”
This week, Autissier will complete the final major job ahead of her: stepping a new carbon-fiber mast aboard PRB. She has opted for a conventional set-up with standard spreaders, as opposed to the radical outrigger-equipped spars used by Class I competitors Giovanni Soldini (FILA) and Mike Golding (Team Group 4). “I’m not used to that kind of mast, and it’s too close to the race to try something new,” she said. Autissier will then take a short vacation in France before returning with her 73-year-old father, Jean, to deliver the boat to Charleston in early September. “That will be very good,” she said. Jean taught Isabelle how to sail some 35 years ago. It seems likely that on their voyage south the daughter will show dad some tricks she’s picked up along the way. But when their trip together is over, Isabelle Autissier’s quiet time, at least for awhile, will be over.