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The Nation

Renowned Sailor Who Tempted Fate Is Missing

May 10, 2003|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

Frank Guernsey's wife asked him why he planned to sail a tiny sloop around Cape Horn -- the turbulent passage between South America and Antarctica -- and the veteran skipper likened the challenge to climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks.

When she asked why he refused to pack a long-distance radio, a life raft or the satellite signal beacon she had bought him, the answer was much harder to accept. "He told me he didn't want to endanger any other people's lives by trying to save him," Mary Guernsey said.

To a friend, Frank Guernsey was even more blunt. "Why prolong the agony?" he said.

Today, Guernsey's family is experiencing the agony. It has been seven months since they last received word from the Redondo Beach adventurer.

Last Oct. 8, Guernsey packed up his 22 1/2-foot Pearson Electra sailboat, dubbed "MF," slipped out of Redondo's King Harbor and began the 10,000-mile journey to Cape Town, South Africa.

Guernsey, a 61-year-old insurance salesman, created a second life for himself as a revered figure in the world of solo sailing. He has logged trips to Hawaii, Japan and Tahiti. He had sailed around the horn once before in a slightly larger boat named "Cestus" -- an experience that left him scarred and emaciated. He chronicled that harrowing voyage in a book, "Racing the Ice to Cape Horn," a favorite among sailors.

If he succeeds in this latest bid, he would be the first solo sailor to complete the punishing journey in such a small craft.

"There's no record of anyone ever attempting a trip quite like this before," said Ted Jones, commodore of the Joshua Slocum Society International, a sailing group named for the first man to sail around the globe alone. "When you consider the size of the boat, the age of the man and the route he's taking, you realize that what's being done is very rare."

Guernsey was to have landed in Cape Town more than a month ago -- about the same time his provisions were due to run out. The only communication from Guernsey since his departure was a postcard he sent to his wife from Catalina Island on the second day of the voyage. To Mary Guernsey's alarm, the mariner wrote that he was already feeling tired.

Now, Mary Guernsey and friends are trying to enlist the U.S. Coast Guard and the South African government in an effort to locate the "MF," an abbreviation for Mary and Frank.

But officials say there is nothing they can do. Without the aid of a homing beacon, satellite telephone or radio, a rescue mission is impossible.

"He could be anywhere between Redondo Beach and Cape Town. We're talking about an area that covers more than a million square miles of sea. We don't even know which ocean he's in," said Coast Guard Lt. Mark Pototschnik, a rescue coordinator in Alameda. "It's impossible for us to do any kind of search at this point."

Many in the King Harbor boating community who were accustomed to seeing Guernsey toil on his boat and prepare meticulously for the voyage believe the notion was insane to start with. They shake their head over news of his apparent disappearance.

"I told him he had rocks in his head," said slip mate Bill McDade. "Now I'm inclined to think he's lost at sea. I hate to think that, but he's long overdue."

But those closest to Guernsey say he possesses the resilience, nerve and resourcefulness of a world explorer.

At the Redondo Beach Yacht Club, where Guernsey for years has held court over cocktails and grilled steaks, members have listened in rapt attention to his accounts of raging storms, crushing fatigue and chilling fear. They compare him, in all seriousness, to Christopher Columbus or Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. They still believe he will return to King Harbor.

"If anyone could do it, it would be Frank Guernsey," said Cy Zoerner, a Manhattan Beach solo sailor and writer who co-wrote the book about Guernsey's 1995 voyage around the horn. "I wouldn't be shocked if he showed up yet."

Even Pototschnik, the Coast Guard official, believes Guernsey may still be alive, but struggling.

"I definitely wouldn't count him out," said Pototschnik, who never met Guernsey but has read his book. "He's very experienced and very resourceful. I've read about what he's done in the past and it's incredible. It just blew me away."

He said that while such cases are rare, sailors who have missed their destination have turned up more than a month later somewhere else, surviving on rainwater, fish and sea birds.

Guernsey himself confided to one friend that he believed he had a better than 20% chance of surviving the trip -- odds he considered "sporting."

His plan was to sail nonstop, passing west of Easter Island, around Cape Horn, through the frozen Drake Passage, into the South Atlantic, north of Elephant Island and into powerful currents that would carry him on to the Cape of Good Hope. Or, if he miscalculated, he could be swept along by currents toward Australia, and slowly starve as his provisions ran out.

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