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Original Issue


The chronicles of intrepid sailors hold a special fascination for many readers. Columbus' journals, Joshua Slocum's memoirs, Francis Chichester's accounts of his solo voyages, all convey the excitement of hardships overcome, fears conquered, the unknown faced and beaten. On a somewhat more modest scale, though still sharing the adventure of those famous sea stories, is Woman Alone (David McKay Company. Inc., $8.95) by Clare Francis, a 30-year-old Englishwoman who sailed her 38-foot boat, Robertson's Golly, in the 1976 London Observer's Single-handed Transatlantic Race from Plymouth, England to Newport, R.I.

The 5'2" Francis, a ballet dancer and economist by training, a sailor by preference, covered the 3,000 miles in 29 days, finishing 13th. She was the first woman to arrive and broke the women's transatlantic record by three days. The race was a particularly rough one. Of the 125 starters, only 73 finished; five were rescued after their boats sank and two participants were lost at sea.

Accompanied by occasional seals, dolphins, whales and, for a brief period, a stray pigeon, Francis and Robertson's Golly struggle through heavy fog, 35-foot waves, 55-knot winds, dead calms, a near disastrous problem with a damaged self-steering device and a series of events that would shake the hardiest of sailors. She comes up on deck on the morning of the 18th day to discover that Robertson's Golly has just sailed between two enormous icebergs, miraculously missing both. But in spite of these difficulties and collisions with sharp edges on the rolling boat that caused innumerable cuts and bruises, battles with heavy, wet sails and exhaustion (she woke hourly every night to check on the boat's progress). Francis claims that only once during the grueling trip did she use "a very rude word."

Early in her tale Francis asks the standard question: Why go on such a journey? "It was simply a great adventure in which you had to pit your wits and your skill against the sea," she answers. Discovering her great adventure meant "gales that went on forever, wet long Johns, soggy food that was impossible to cook, damp books that fell apart in your hands, and, above all, no one to complain to"—although frequent hallucinations caused her to think her boyfriend was on board—Francis finally asks: Would I go again? "Absolutely and unequivocally not," is her very sensible answer.