ILWACO, Wash. — Every day at 4:30 GMT from August to November, Fred Boehme waited patiently, anxiously at his home in Hawaii for a staccato, French-accented voice to crackle across his ham radio at 14.313 MHz.
"This is Tango Mike 6 Alpha Bravo Oscar," the voice called out. "How do you read me?"
And nearly every day, relieved and amazed, Boehme would call back, "Hello Gerard, we read you! How's it going?"
The response was always "Fine!" Boehme says, but he knew that laconic answer hid pain and hope as vast as the seven seas.
For his correspondent was Gerard d'Aboville, the first man ever to attempt to row solo across the north Pacific Ocean. And each day the 46-year-old Breton reported back, he was 40 or more miles closer to his extraordinary goal. It was a journey of unspeakable courage across 6,300 miles of high seas, typhoons, wildly varying winds, a capricious current and total loneliness.
"It is an enormous undertaking," said veteran San Francisco yachtsman Doug Miller a day before D'Aboville's arrival on U.S. shores, "somewhere between foolish and heroic."
Rowing 10 to 14 hours a day in swells as tall as four-story buildings, D'Aboville capsized 38 times, swallowed gallons of saltwater, lost two anchors and a set of oars, broke a rib and repeatedly smashed his face until it bled. Yet still he rowed. And rowed. And rowed.
When finally he landed he declared: "If I had known it would be like this when I started I would never have started."
D'Aboville's heroism captured the French imagination during the past summer and autumn. Most countryside towns in France are divided by rivers, many of which have slalom gates for the pleasure and competition of popular canoe and kayak clubs.
Every major French TV and radio network, magazine and newspaper sent reporters and photographers to cover his landing near Astoria, Ore., last Thursday, 134 days after he started. One network and a photo agency paid up to 2 million francs, or $350,000, for the exclusive right to first film his approach to land. Their competitors meanwhile devised elaborate and expensive plans to scoop them.
"The news is so bad in France right now, with our gloomy economy, strikes all the time, and violence, that it's just the tonic for us to have a made-in-France success story," said Jerome Godefroy, the U.S. correspondent for Radio-Televison Luxembourg.
"It's such a pure event. You start in one place, and either you finish or you don't. No points for trying."
Balding, pale, a little stooped, D'Aboville is hardly the image of a world-class athlete. He began his journey July 11 at age 45 at Choshi, Japan--a fishing village on a peninsula that juts due east from Tokyo toward North America.
By coincidence, it was 11 years almost to the day that he had begun a similar journey: In 1980, he became the first man to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland U.S. to the mainland of Europe. His crossing from Cape Cod to Ouessant, France, in 72 days has not been equaled, though one man tried and failed as D'Aboville was himself rowing across the Pacific.
That transatlantic journey made him the toast of France. A former army paratrooper, he was hailed as the new Lindbergh and awarded the government's prized Chevalier du Merit du Legion d'Honneur. He gave hundreds of lectures and wrote a book.
The professional adventurer swore to friends that he would never again do such a thing, but soon his life became more unsatisfying, perhaps even boring. He designed motorboats for a race down the Niger River in Africa; made a record solo catamaran crossing of the China Sea from Hong Kong to Manila; navigated a car in the Paris-Dakar desert off-road race, and organized a short-lived series of catamaran races in the Philippines.
"I got the feeling he didn't know where to be exactly; this life was difficult for him," said a friend, French radio journalist Gerard Fusil. "He didn't have enough money, even though he is from an old and noble family. But he didn't want to have a job like everyone else."
Then D'Aboville hit on the idea of a transpacific crossing.
"I think he finally decided that before he got too old he wanted to do something even more incredible than the Atlantic" Fusil said. "He wanted a new start in life."
Still, the Atlantic barely prepared him for a jaunt of this magnitude. Potential sponsors sensed it. One after another turned him down until Sector, an Italian manufacturer of sport watches, decided that his goal perfectly matched its new marketing slogan: "No Limits."
They underwrote the project to the tune of $1 million--a risk that seemed foolhardy, according to a marketing executive at the firm who declined to be named. The Pacific is not only twice as wide as the Atlantic, but its currents are harder to catch and the storms far more rude.
And D'Aboville was planning to do it the hard way.