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Original Issue

Alone No Longer

After eight months of adventure, the solo circumnavigators in the BOC race have returned, led by Philippe Jeantot

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.

"Two down, nine to go," said Pete Hegeman, the burly commodore of the Goat Island Yacht Club, as Reed crossed the finish line on Altech Voortrekker 24 hours behind Jeantot. Hegeman, as commodore of the host club, was beginning to breathe easy for the first time in many months. "I was convinced we'd lose a few in this race," he said. "We've lost boats, but not a man."

All told, four of the 17 starters dropped out because of equipment failures, and three other boats were lost. The first of the three to go was Tony Lush's Lady Pepperell in November, during the leg between Cape Town and Sydney. His 54-foot ketch was knocked down and then rolled by a rogue wave. "It was sort of a swan dive with a one-third twist," says Lush, sadly.

The next day Lush, who lives in Alachua, Fla., discovered that Lady Pepperell's keel bolts had snapped and that the keel, now held to the hull by only a quarter of an inch of fiber-glass skin, was swaying in a 20-degree arc. When he was told by radio that Francis Stokes, from Moorestown, N.J., on Moonshine, was some 40 miles ahead of him and would heave to and wait, Lush asked for an hour to think things over, even though he was taking on water at the rate of several gallons a minute. "I dearly wanted to keep the boat. But if somebody gets bumped off, it's bad for the racers, bad for their families and bad for the sponsors," he says.

Eight hours later, at sunset, Lush sighted Moonshine. After several attempts a line was passed between the two boats. Lush, who, astonishingly, cannot swim, went overboard and pulled himself along the line the 50 yards to Stokes. That night, after setting Lady Pepperell adrift, presumably to sink, the two men drank half a bottle of Scotch that Lush had carried across with him. Four weeks later, on Christmas Eve, they drank the other half, and on Jan. 5, they reached Sydney Harbor.

Lady Pepperell and Gipsy Moth V both were lost on the second leg. Skoiern III, sailed by Jacques de Roux, a French submarine commander, sank during the Sydney-to-Rio leg.

The fact that de Roux is still alive and home safe in France is almost miraculous. He was pitch-poled in a 55-knot gale amid 70-foot seas some 1,800 miles west of Cape Horn. His mast broke and so did the main hatch cover, so that while the boat was upside down, torrents of water filled the main cabin. By the time the boat righted itself de Roux was hip-deep in water. On top of that, when he tried to cut away the mast, it swung and punched a hole in his hull.

At that point, 11:40, Greenwich Mean Time, Feb. 9, de Roux pushed the emergency button of the Argos satellite tracking system transmitter affixed to his deck. In so doing, he set off a 60-hour search and rescue operation that eventually involved the French, Chilean and American navies, the Australian Coastal Survival Service, the U.S. Naval Numerical Oceanographic Center in Monterey, Calif., the office of Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell and ham radio operators in Portsmouth, R.I., Owaka, New Zealand and Durban, South Africa.

Argos is a French tracking system that uses American-made weather satellites, which orbit the earth every six hours. The satellites collect data, which are then passed to a processing center in Toulouse. De Roux's distress signal and his position were relayed from a passing satellite to Toulouse and from Toulouse by telephone to Newport. At 11:50 G.M.T on Feb. 9, Dunning received the message at home in Newport and went straight to his Goat Island office, where he was met by Hegeman and Jim Roos, one of the men who dreamed up the race and found its sponsor, a manufacturer of industrial gases and health care products based in Great Britain. With Dunning and Roos working the phones and the radio and Hegeman keeping a log, the team notified every government, military and diplomatic agency they thought might be able to help. At the same time the three men monitored weather and position reports that were relayed from Argos to Matthew Johnston, the New Zealand ham, through Allistair Campbell, the South African ham, through Rob Koziomkowski, the Portsmouth ham. Koziomkowski, a disabled Vietnam veteran who has never set foot in a sailboat, had volunteered to serve as radio contact for the BOC racers in the early weeks and had been devoting at least six hours a day to his task for five months.

At 22:30 G.M.T.—or 10 hours and 50 minutes after the first distress signal had been sent—word reached Goat Island from Koziomkowski that Johnston had contacted Broadhead on Perseverance of Medina. Broadhead was 317 miles ahead of de Roux, Johnston said, and was turning back to look for him.

In winds of 25 knots, and 15-foot seas, and as far from land as it is possible to be anywhere on earth, Broadhead set out to find, not a needle in a haystack, but a speck drifting on the world's largest body of water. He was guided by his own calculations and hourly reports relayed from Toulouse and Monterey through Dunning to Koziomkowski and then to Johnston. To make a 60-hour story short, at 19:39 G.M.T., Feb. 11, the log that Hegeman was keeping reads, "Recvd word Per sighted Skoiern!"

Approximately four hours later Skoiern sank. With no way to know whether anyone was looking for him—de Roux had lost the use of his radios in the dismasting—he had bailed two hours out of every three for close to three days to keep his boat afloat. He had also managed to jury-rig a sail, which as Skoiern settled lower and lower in the water, became his only hope of being sighted.

The thought that continually plagued Broadhead, de Roux and everyone else involved in the ordeal was the possibility—even the probability—that Broadhead could be on top of de Roux and still not see him. In fact, that happened. Broadhead, certain that he was in the right place but still unable to see de Roux, went below to radio Johnston, to say he feared he might have sailed past Skoiern. As Broadhead spoke he did pass de Roux, who, having spotted Perseverance, was shooting off parachute flares only 50 yards away and thinking God knows what desperate thoughts. When Broadhead climbed back on deck he saw something white on the horizon. In the first instant he took it to be an iceberg, but happily it was de Roux's jury-rigged sail. Broadhead took de Roux on board and then sailed off for the nearest land, French Polynesia.

"Finding him once was impossible. Finding him twice was a miracle," said Hegeman, patting his log fondly, many weeks later.

Of the four legs of the 27,500 nautical-mile BOC Challenge, the first and last were the easiest, if sailing alone for 7,100 and 5,300 miles, respectively, can ever be called easy. For the first leg, Newport to Cape Town, three routes were practicable. One was a sort of backward S to the roaring forties. Another was south and east to the northwest corner of Africa, and then south along the African coastline. The third was a risky but more direct line to the southeast. That was the route only Jeantot chose. He arrived in Cape Town after 47 days with a huge seven-day lead over the next boat, Reed's Voortrekker.

Although Jeantot never relinquished his lead after Cape Town, he was chased the entire way by Reed, who closed the gap to two days on the second and third legs and to one day on the last, though his boat was outclassed. "She's the fastest and prettiest 50-footer," Reed said of Voortrekker, "but she's also the most uncomfortable. You can't make a racing machine into something comfy, so you live with it."

Reed is known and admired in South Africa for his toughness. He's a hero there, both because his countrymen, who often feel cut off from the world's approval, take their nation's sporting triumphs seriously and because Reed himself is so clearly a likable fellow. Even in the midst of disappointment and physical exhaustion as he arrived in Newport, his good nature surfaced quickly. When the boat that towed him from the finish line to the dock at Goat Island Marina parked him just ahead of Jeantot's Credit Agricole, Reed said, "I'm very honored you're putting me here. It's the only time he's been on my stern."

Reed earned his reputation for toughness in the 1980 OSTAR when, with 2,000 miles to go, he came down off a wave onto something hard, which stove in his hull on the port side. Using his bosun's chair as a patch, and his spinnaker pole as a brace, Reed sailed on, pumping all the while, and finished 18th out of 19. "He's made of epoxy and push," said an admirer in Newport.

Richard Konkolski, a 39-year-old Czech, was the third to reach Newport (finishing seventh in the standings), three days behind Reed. Konkolski's odyssey had begun approximately two years earlier when he began moving his worldly goods, auto trunkload by trunkload, across the Czech border from his home in Bohumin to the port of Szczecin, Poland, where he was allowed to keep his boat, Nike III. Konkolski enjoyed the rare privilege, for a Czech, of unhampered travel because he, too, was a national sports hero, a veteran of 51,500 miles of single-handed sailing, including one previous circumnavigation. Konkolski feared the Czech authorities might suddenly decide to rescind his permission to sail in the BOC race. Come that day, he and his family would be ready.

The day came one week before his scheduled departure for Newport. His travel permit was lifted, but by that time the guards at the Polish border were so accustomed to his comings and goings that they waved him through with only a glance at the still valid papers of his wife and 12-year-old son. The Konkolskis have asked for political asylum, which now is under consideration by the State Department.

The French, too, take their single-handed sailing very seriously. When Jeantot crossed the finish line in Newport an army of French television and news people was on hand to meet him. Hardly had he showered before the Credit Agricole p.r. people, who kept the non-French press at bay with the expert application of sharp French elbows, had whipped Jeantot off to New York for appearances on The CBS Morning News and Nightline.

Thus, the winner missed both the barbecue that the Goat Island Yacht Club held in his honor and the arrival of Reed the next day, but nobody minded much. The Goat Islanders have come to understand that single-handers dance to their own special music. Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor who inspired the 15-year-old Jeantot's obsession with sailing around the world, was a contestant in the 1968 race that was won by Knox-Johnston. Moitessier reached Cape Horn in that race, but instead of turning north for England and the finish, he kept going, half way around again, winding up his 10-month voyage in Tahiti. In La Langue Route, he wrote, "God, how good it is to live like an animal, to be caressed by a tepid and soft wind! How good it is to contemplate the Southern Cross, each night a little nearer the horizon. To sleep like a drunkard, to fill your stomach and belch with pleasure, to spread out in the sun till you are almost stupefied.... I am at peace."

Moitessier's perceptions were those of a poet. Chichester was a simpler man, but probably he spoke for all single-handed voyagers when he wrote, in 1967, "This sort of venture that I am now on is a way of life for me. I am a poor thing, incomplete, unfulfilled without it."

Soon after his arrival, when someone asked Jeantot if he had any wishes for the others still at sea, he said, "I hope they get good wind." Then he added, "You know, when you go ashore and you take a shower and all the water comes down, you think of your friends, washing just their faces with a little bit of water, and you wish them to have the same things you have right now—a good steak, a good bed, a good shower."


The good days were very, very good—and clear enough for Jeantot to shoot the sun—but the bad days were terrifying.


Reed chased Jeantot across oceans, and though he closed the gap, he never caught up.


Konkolski and wife Mikki will sail off to a new life.


Gipsy Moth V suffered a sad fate off Australia.


De Roux was all smiles as he sailed from Newport; things turned grim off Cape Horn.


The hero: Broadhead at first thought he'd sighted an iceberg, but it was de Roux.


Koziomkowski was an important link in a radio chain that stretched around the world.