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There's a World of Danger Awaiting Solo Sailor : Pitchpoling and Broaching Are Scary, but Don't Bother to Wear a Life Jacket

August 30, 1986|DAN BYRNE

Here are the chief risks faced by the solo sailors in the BOC Challenge: COLLISION

Being run down by a merchant ship is an ever-present hazard.

Sailboats are hard to spot at night. The merchant ship's radar is usually scanning 25 miles ahead. A sailboat's blip is easy to miss at that distance, and once inside that 25-mile radar radius, a sailboat can be run down without the merchantman's crew even knowing it hit something.

Other collision risks include whales, which have been known to sink sailboats in retaliation for rude bumps; boxcar-sized steel containers that have fallen off merchant vessels and float level with the ocean's surface; icebergs, and huge trees borne out to sea by rivers such as the Amazon.

BROACHING

This occurs when a sailboat is thrown sideways to the thrust of the waves.

It is hard to describe the scale of the waves in the Southern Ocean, the waters of the Indian Ocean south of Australia. Photographs tend to flatten them. Aerial views fail to show their true height.

The great waves of the roaring forties and furious fifties of south latitude can be near-mountains with quarter-mile-long slopes. They are benign if that slope is 30 degrees or less. Any steeper and they are dangerous.

A sailboat appears at the crest of such a watery cliff and starts down. The wind is driving the 60-foot boat at 12 knots or more. Just past the crest, gravity contributes its force and the boat starts to careen down the slope at a perilous speed. The knotmeter pegs at 20, but the boat continues accelerating.

It begins to sound like a runaway freight car--a metallic thing that is vibrating and screaming from mechanical stress on all its parts and rigging.

It is then that a broach is likely. The boat loses its directional stability. Now it is broadside to the wave, which, if it breaks then, will roll the boat. Or the boat slides broadside into the bottom of the trough and is rolled there--90 degrees, 130, 180. It is upside down, its mast pointing straight down at the ocean floor 2,500 fathoms below. Tremendous forces try to snap the mast.

Finally, the keel, weighing five tons or more, levers the boat upright. If the sailor is lucky, his mast isn't broken.

France's Jacques de Roux was not lucky.

In the first race, his Skoiern III broached, rolled and came back up with the mast down and banging against the side of his aluminum boat. A foot-long slice was cut into the hull below the waterline. The boat was doomed.

De Roux was taken off his sinking boat three days later by another competitor. He had bailed three out of every four hours for those three days.

De Roux was below when he rolled. Fellow Frenchman Guy Bernardin, aboard his boat, Ratso, was above in the cockpit when he was knocked upside down in the Southern Ocean. Unlike De Roux, he was incredibly lucky.

"I wrapped my arms around the winch when I saw it going over," Guy said.

Then he felt the force of the solid water hit him. "It pulled me away from the winch like I was a baby. Then I was under water. I couldn't see anything."

As Bernardin flailed his arms, his hand closed on a running backstay, a cable that helps support the mast.

The boat came back right side up. Bernardin found himself hanging from the stay, several feet above the cockpit. He let go and dropped into the cockpit and safety.

Had his hand missed the backstay, Bernardin's disappearance would have remained a mystery forever. "Overdue. Presumed lost." The sailor's terse epitaph.

PITCHPOLING

A pitchpole occurs in the same circumstance as a broach. The boat careens down the face of a huge wave. But instead of turning broadside to, it buries its bow in the opposite wall of water in the trough. The boat then cartwheels, or pitchpoles, end over end.

In the Indian Ocean in the first race, American Tony Lush experienced a combination roll and pitchpole, which he described as a sort of a "half gainer." The force of the violent episode broke the keel loose on his boat, Lady Pepperell, and forced him to conclude that he had to abandon ship.

At this juncture, Lush threw up. Abandoning ship, even with Francis Stokes sailing to his aid, meant that he would have to secure a line around himself, jump into the water and be pulled to Stokes' boat. The prospect sickened him. Lush can't swim.

RUNNING AGROUND

For thousands of years, the lee shore, into which the wind is blowing, has been one of sailing's greatest hazards. It proved to be so for the solo sailors in the 1982-83 around-the-world race.

First, Britain's Desmond Hampton in Gypsy Moth V and the closest challenger to Phillipe Jeantot for the race lead, fell asleep while his 56-foot ketch was being steered by windvane. The wind shifted, and the vane steering, dependent solely on wind direction for the course, shifted Gypsy Moth's heading, carrying it in to shore.

Hampton awoke when his boat hit rocky Gabo Island off the south coast of Australia.

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