LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France — The words Everest and ultimate are often used to describe races such as the Globe Challenge solo around-the-world nonstop race. It's the Everest of sailing. Or it's the ultimate challenge.
This Globe Challenge nonstop race around the world is more than a metaphor or a superlative. This isn't extra innings. This isn't overtime, sudden death or otherwise.
This is four months alone, depending utterly on your skill, stamina, commitment and the reliability of a boat and equipment that cost up to a million dollars--all you had and all you could beg or borrow.
This is going topside in the darkest night you've ever seen, in a howling gale, hanging on with one hand and hauling down a drum-tight mainsail before it drags the boat over.
Then its going up an hour later to hoist every scrap of sail the rig will hold because the near-hurricane you were in an hour ago has died to a whimper.
You have no choice. You can't rest. You can't coast along for a few hours of reduced sail. You can't because the other guy is sailing his heart out and he'll beat you if you let up.
Anxiety will be the constant companion of the racers, knotted stomachs commonplace.
There will be much to be anxious about. For example:
--The mast. Without this towering spar, as high as a seven-story building on some boats, the race is over. The mast is held up by a web of stays, shrouds and shackles. The failure of any of them could ring the mast down.
--The boom. Almost as important as the mast is the boom to which the foot of the mainsail is attached. Without the boom, the main can't be set and the boat's driving force to windward is crippled. Booms break when the boat rolls and the boom end drags in the water.
--The rudder. The most vulnerable attachment to the hull, the rudder can break. Or the control cables from the wheel can break, or the pulleys that guide the cables can pull out of the hull. The rules require tillers to operate rudders should the steering linkage fail. In the event of total rudder failure, the race rules specify that some alternative means of steering be available. How well such alternatives would work is questionable.
--The keel. On 60-foot, high-tech racers, the keel is always worrisome. A boat weighing 26,000 pounds will have half its weight--6.5 tons--in its keel. The lead ballast is attached to a member that is 10 feet deep in the water. That weight is constantly trying to lever itself loose from the hull. Keels fall off. Or they break their keel bolts and cause water to flood into the hull.
--Icebergs. Fog and icebergs go together in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean. Most racers are equipped with radar and would probably spot the big bergs. But the smaller bergs can easily leave a hole in the boat if hit. The rules require each boat to have three water-tight compartments. A flooded compartment, however, would effectively put a boat out of the race and send it to port.
--Illness or injury. A doctor warned one solo racer, "Just don't break a leg." Besides a totally incapacitating broken leg, a host of ills threatens a solo sailor. Two sailors in recent ocean solo races almost lost their lives from infections. One was saved by another racer who changed course to deliver antibiotics to the stricken sailor. Another was knocked unconscious in a fall from the cockpit through the hatch to the cabin floor. Still another caught himself slipping into unconsciousness after failing to notice that a diesel generator was not venting its exhaust.
--Running aground. In the vast empty reaches of the southern Pacific or Indian oceans, a sailor could sleep for a week without risk of hitting anything. Then at the approach to land comes the lee shore--the coast that the wind is blowing toward. Two boats were blown off course and aground in solo around-the-world races when their skippers fell asleep. One of the boats was lost.
--Roll-overs. In the last BOC Challenge race around the world, hardly a boat did not experience a knockdown with the mast in the water. Some were rolled over completely, as was American Mike Plant, a competitor in this Globe Challenge. The great risk of a roll-over is a dismasting. The same is true of pitch-poling--the boat vaulting end over end--in which dismasting is almost a certainty.
--Equipment failures. One of the most critical pieces of equipment on a solo racing boat is its autopilot. The autopilot makes it all possible. It gives the skipper freedom to sleep, to plot his course, make radio communication, cook, eat and make repairs. If the autopilot fails, the racer's prospects plummet.
And so it goes. Worries about wind, too much or too little; radio failure; electrical generation failure, collision with merchant ships in crowded shipping lanes.
And worries about the other guy. The one just ahead or the one just behind--and gaining.
Here is a list of entrants (all are French unless noted otherwise and all the boats are 60 feet in length):
Patrice Carpentier will sail the sloop Nouvel Obserbateur.
Jean-Francois Coste will sail the ketch Cacharel.
Pierre Follenfant will sail the sloop TBS-Charente Maritime.
Alain Gautier will sail the sloop Generali Concorde.
Philippe Jeantot will sail the sloop Credit Agricole VI.
Titouan Lamazou will sail the sloop Ecureuil D'Aquitaine.
Loick Peyron will sail the sloop Lada-Poch.
Mike Plant, United States, will sail the sloop Duracell.
Philippe Poupon will sail the ketch Fleury Michon.
Bertie Reed, South Africa, will sail the sloop Grinaker.
Jean Yves Terlain will sail the sloop UAP 1992.
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede will sail the yawl 36.15 Met.
A possible 13th entrant would be Guy Bernardin, a naturalized American unofficially reported to be sailing as a French entrant.