Into the Wind

Around Alone:
The story of the world's longest race

Chapter 17

Capsized!

Pushed by 30-mph winds, PRB streaked toward Cape Horn at a lightning pace of 375 miles a day. In the ten days since Leg Three began, Isabelle Autissier had traveled halfway across the empty stretch of water between New Zealand and South America. Surfing down thirty-foot waves, PRB often cut through the froth heeled over on its ear.

She let the autopilot street and ventured out of the cabin only once or twice a day to adjust her sails. She flew as much canvas as PRB could hold in the weather, trying to keep pace with Marc Thiercelin. She took short naps between study sessions with her charts and weather forecasts from her computer. Sometimes she looked out the window, trying to catch a glimpse of sunlight breaking through the clouds and lighting the wind-streaked seas. Squalls kept knocking her boat off course, so she had to keep an eye on her heading.

“In the gusts, the boat shoots off pretty brutally,” she said in a message to the Race Operations Center on February 13. “A little while ago, I was knocked off the chart table bench and landed on my head.”

Autissier was in a good mood. It seemed as if she had finally put her Southern Ocean troubles behind her. She had fixed her mast problems and now, after Golding’s crash, led the race. With her boat cruising through the water like a torpedo, she felt her confidence grow. She plunged farther and farther south, trying to cut the miles she would have to travel.

Because the planet is a sphere, the shortest distance between two points is never the straight line it appears to be on most maps. The shortest route is always a curved line. In nautical terms, this is called the rhumb line or the great circle route. The rhumb line between New Zealand and South America cuts deep into the seas swirling around Antarctica. It is tempting for sailors to shave off miles by sailing below 50 degrees, or even 60 degrees, south latitude. But doing so was risky because of icebergs and small chunks of ice called growlers. Race rules prohibited dropping too close to Antarctica, where icebergs are the size of islands and can snap carbon fiber boats like toothpicks. Autissier was sailing at 55 degrees south, closer to Antarctica than most skippers would dare. She wasn’t alone, though. About 100 miles ahead, Marc Thiercelin had dipped just as far south.

Giovanni Soldini, meanwhile, took a more conservative northerly route, sailing against his reputation as a gambler. He wanted to avoid a low pressure system spinning across 55 degrees south latitude. The way Soldini saw it, his course would pay dividends later. Thiercelin and Autissier would get plastered by a storm, and he could skirt around it, using its wind to slingshot FILA toward Cape Horn. Besides, Soldini knew that if he tore up the boat, his race was over.

“We’ve been going pretty fast in the last forty-eight hours, though I haven’t pushed the boat too hard,” Soldini said in an e-mail to ROC. “This is no time to be taking chances.”

Autissier thought her strategy of staying to the south made more sense. And, for days, the wind remained a steady 22 mph, perfect sailing conditions. But on Sunday, February 14, she saw that the weather would turn.

“One more fast day behind the front, and we’ll be hit by another low, probably a more powerful one,” she said in a message to the ROC. “It’s getting really cold, and the seas are pretty large, but things are all right. Lots of time spent on watch; not much new happening.”

On February 15, a rare burst of sunshine broke through the clouds, melting the snowflakes falling on PRB’s white deck. Already that morning, Autissier had been outside stitching a tear in her mainsail. The canvas felt like ice; she was soaked and her hands were frozen. Back inside the cramped cabin, Autissier put on warm clothes. To dry out her spare boots, she fired up a small heater that her sister had given her.

Autissier thought about jibing the boat and adding a reef to her mainsail, but wanted to wait for the wind to swing to the west. Adjusting course at the wrong time would only be a waste of energy. She sat at her navigation table, where she often slept, and looked at charts. Outside, her autopilot steered PRB through steep swells.

Suddenly the wind shifted, and PRB’s sails whipped from one side of the boat to the other with a violent jerk. The bow plowed into a wave, and the boat turned on its side, slapping the water with a thunderous crack.

Autissier was thrown from her seat, but quickly recovered her footing. She lunged for the cabin hatch, clawing her way toward the boat’s cockpit. With PRB on its side, she knew she had to get outside, ease the mainsail, and jibe. But by the time she opened the hatch, the boat had already rolled past ninety degrees, and the cockpit was almost upside down. She yanked the door shut and turned the handle to lock it. Then, PRB’s deck crashed onto the churning surface of the water.

Velux 5 Oceans

Charleston skipper
Brad Van Liew, one of the main characters from
Into the Wind,
is sailing alone around the world again as part of the 2010-11 Velux 5 Oceans race (the new name of the Around Alone).
To read Brian's stories about Van Liew's quest, go to www.postandcourier.com