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                 The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records

 


Extracts from the book

Introduction

Good Luck
Ahead of Me...
Rowboat Calling...
With My Head...
And If All This ...
Survival
Typhoons
Indelibly Inscribed
Do You See...
The "Heavenly Bum"
One Second Longer

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Ahead of Me, an Enormous Void...

July 11
0500:
The automobile - with Christopher at the wheel (driving, I should add, with uncharacteristic
restraint) -pulled up at the dock next to Sector. On the way, we had barely exchanged two words.
"It reminds me of the first day of school...."
"That's true. The first day of boarding school." A number of people were waiting for me on the
rock, about thirty in all, among them Commander Blanvillain and several other Frenchmen who 
had come up from Tokyo to witness the departure. Thankfully, there were few photographers or 
cameramen in sight.
And, of course, there was Bruno, bless his heart, who had spent the previous night cleaning the hull 
one last time. The boat was spick-and-span. On the radio antenna waved the French flag and, 
following custom, the Rising Sun.
Everyone seemed to be more or less holding their emo-tions in check, but there was an almost 
palpable tension, which I preferred to cut short.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, but I have many miles to travel before the sun goes down. . .
Before setting off, I had both Christopher and Bruno sign the first page of my log. My intent was to have them both sign the last page on the other side of the ocean, if all went well. Despite all our efforts at self-control, I couldn't help noticing more than a few moist eyes. And we seemed to be beyond words; our glances were eloquent enough.
Oars at the ready. A wave of my hand, a smile I meant to be reassuring, and off I set, at a steady stroke. . . . I stared straight into space, to make sure I didn't see any expressions on the faces of those I was leaving behind, then guided the craft out beyond the boat basin into the gentle waters of the Tone River. The ebb tide bore me swiftly toward the river s mouth. And yet, even with all the help I was getting from the current, with each stroke of the oars I kept thinking, "Good God, this thing is heavy, really heavy - and to think I'm going to have to row it clear across this whole damned ocean!"
After I crossed the last breakwater, I lowered the antenna and removed the flags. Sector was assuming its sailing trim.

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My friends had boarded a fishing boat and were following me at a discreet distance, knowing that I was already alone. At 1700 hours their boat came abreast the Sector, then stopped. I gazed intently at their faces one last time, as if I were filling my memory to the brim, to take with me as much of them as I possibly could, although in my heart of hearts I knew it was an illusion. We waved to each other, but as their boat came about I felt that they, and I, were already far apart.
I passed a few trawlers that were returning to Choshi, but none gave me even the slightest hint of recognition. Word had doubtless not yet reached these local fisherman of the exploit of the mad gal jin (foreigner).
The Condor, a sailboat, which like all those that sailed these waters was more than a trifle squalid, had joined me at the river's mouth. Captain Yagi, the skipper of the Con-dor, had been a stalwart friend and helper throughout my stay in Choshi, and he had invited Mitsuru on board to escort me a dozen or so miles out to sea. One final glance from boat to boat, one final farewell. . . . At long last, the moment of truth had arrived. Strangely, I felt relieved.

The helmsmen of a sailboat who sets out to sea has a tendency to detach himself quickly from his earthbound past. Heading toward the open sea, his mind is already on the distant shores far beyond the horizon toward which he is sailing. Whereas I, a poor rower facing backward, had to measure with each stroke of the oars the pitiful progress I had made - not in nautical miles but only in feet or, at most, yards! But on the day I left, the fog, just as it had done eleven years ago off Cape Cod, came to my assistance; it moved in and cut off any sight of land.

I finally had time to think. I suddenly realized how much I had lived over the past several weeks on nervous energy alone, how much I had acted from day to day simply in response to the constant demands: I had been like an arrow streaking toward its target. I thought of my family, from whom I had now been separated for five weeks. I thought of the phone call I had made the night before to Cornélia. And I thought of Guillaume and Ann as well, and then, as I rowed, I had the odd thought that I was actually moving farther and farther away from them with each stroke of the oars, for the simple reason that Choshi was closer to France than my present position. In fact, it would not be until I had crossed the international dateline, almost in the middle of my voyage, that I would begin moving closer to them. And even then it would be slowly, ever so slowly. .

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On the far horizon a few ships were crossing my bow. But the chances of my colliding with a cargo ship anytime dur-ing the trip were practically nil. The Pacific is so vast and the ocean traffic so relatively light that I had little concern that I might encounter a tanker or container ship. Even if I did, and it were to bear straight down on me at full speed, its mighty bow wave would doubtless only toss me aside like an oversized cork.
I also knew that a boat such as mine, which sat so low in the water, would become invisible as soon as it ran into swells of any size. I therefore set up my spear fishing gear in a socket meant to house the telex antenna, on top of which I fixed a honeycombed aluminum cylinder, the pur-pose of which was to accentuate my echo on any radar screen. I also had on board a minireceiver that would de-tect, for a radius of two or three miles, radar signals em-anating from any nearby vessel.
Nonetheless, during the several days when I was still not far from the shipping lanes of eastern Japan, I had to keep a close lookout for vessels that were not picked up by my receiver. As I would have to do once I reached the coastal waters of the United States.

For the moment, I was keeping an eye on the speed log built into the dashboard, which kept track of both my speed and the nautical miles rowed. I was maintaining a steady pace of seventeen strokes a minute, which was propelling me forward at the rate of 1.8 knots an hour. About the speed of someone walking.

I took a break for lunch. Then I made the first entry in my canvas-covered logbook, which would be the public record of this trip:

1330: Alone at last. Quite moved. I'm trying to picture what Christopher and Bruno are up to. Thoughts that still link me with the world of the living, which will soon blur and disappear. Ahead of me, an enormous void.

Evening. An unhappy surprise. Just after having covered my first fifteen nautical miles - a pretty good day - the wind veered from northeast to east. The weather report had promised the opposite. The problem was, if the wind rose, and kept up, it could easily push me back to my point of departure. A humiliating thought.
I'd been rowing for twelve hours, and the predeparture tensions still weighed heavily on me. Given the cumulative fatigue of the past few weeks, it was essential that I get some rest. I set out my big sea anchor, a plastic-covered canvas cone just under three feet in diameter, whose job it was to keep me from drifting backward.

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Lying on my bunk in the watertight cabin, I felt as if I were inside some infernal machine whose goal it was to knock me out. For what was happening was that each time a wave came by and lifted the boat, the anchor rope would grow taut and the boat would be yanked backward. Then, when the boat dropped into the wave's trough, its hull would slam down on the surface of the water, taking a terrible beating. The only comparison I can think of out of my own experience was being perched on top of a truck rumbling down a bumpy, rutted road somewhere in Africa.
Needless to say, it was impossible to sleep.

* *
No boat is perfect. It's always a five-footed beast, and this was especially true of mine. It had to be both light and solid, capable of performing in good weather and foul, nar-row-beamed and low enough in the water to facilitate row-ing, without ballast yet conceived in such a way that it could right itself in the event it capsized. It required in the stern a watertight cabin to house me and in the bow an area, also watertight, large enough to stock six months' worth of provisions. All that without turning into a mari-time monster that would be impossible to maneuver.

The conception of an oceangoing rowboat represents, to my mind, despite its deceptive simplicity, a minor miracle of nautical engineering.
What I would have loved to have done was to conceive of, then build, the Sector from the first sketch to the final piece of equipment - which is what I did for the Captain Cook. But the time frame was against me, so I was obliged to call upon a naval architect, Jean Barret. The advantage of an architect over an artisan like myself is the computer. Every single measurement of the model used to create the mold of the boat is entered onto a computer program. In turn, the builder is supplied with a laser printout based on that model, which enables him to form, rapidly and with great precision, the actual hull and deck.
When I received the plans for Sector, I was surprised to see that the bottom of the boat was quite flat. My good old Captain Cook had been constructed with a classic, V--shaped hull, similar to the whaling boats of the nineteenth century, which, as far as I was concerned, were as close to perfect as a rowboat can get. Maybe I'm just too much of a traditionalist. Today's naval architects are obviously used to designing light sailboats for the purpose of attaining high speeds, which justifies their flat bottoms. Nonetheless, in my case I remained skeptical.

The knocking about I suffered that night only tended to confirm my intuition: the farther I progressed in my cross-ing, the more I saw that the flat bottom is not only a source of discomfort, it also slows the progress of the boat each time the sea is rough; instead of slicing through the waves, the prow is lifted by the wave, then slapped back down into the water.
For the moment, however, all that was idle speculation. Sector was what it was, and would have to suffice till I got to the other side.

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July 12
Up at 0330 hours. An inauspicious start for my second day at sea: the damned easterly wind was still blowing, and the waves were so choppy that I had to row full tilt just to inch ahead a ridiculous few feet. Before long I noticed that even that slight forward progress had slowed to a standstill. Forced to fall back on my wits, I anchored to a fishing buoy I happened to spot along my route. That windfall, however, turned out to be short-lived; a few hours later a fishing boat came by to pick up its catch, leaving me, the parasite, high and dry.

At nightfall, I shifted the sea anchor to the stern post, so that I would be less battered by the waves. Yet my second night at sea was incredibly rough. The east wind intensified: 
there were a series of violent storms, with lightning and torrential rain. I remained locked tight in my cabin, pre-ferring to run the risk of snapping the sea anchor rather than drift back toward shore.
At first light, another unpleasant surprise: I could see the coast, less than five miles away! So close that I could clearly see the headlights of cars. I hauled in the sea anchor and started rowing, but at best I was staying put, merely compensating for the easterly drift. Sooner or later, I knew, I would run out of gas and be forced back on shore.
As it grew lighter, the shoreline loomed large and near, and I gazed at it in cold fury, as though it were my mortal enemy. My hands locked on the oars… I had the feeling that the swells were getting bigger here, a sure sign that I was in coastal waters. I began to row like one possessed, furious at the notion that this voyage might shortly come to an ignominious end. I cursed myself for having slept for several hours, but without that precious rest how would I have survived?
And then, at about 1000 hours, the heavens took pity on me: there was a break in the clouds, and the winds abated as quickly as they had come up. Little by little the shoreline receded and at length disappeared into the fog. Late in the afternoon, the sounding line placed beneath the hull informed me that the water temperature was rising very rapidly. Between 1500 and 1900 hours, it rose from 18 to 25 degrees centigrade (about 64 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit). That, I knew, was a most propitious sign, because it meant I had picked up the Kuroshio, the warm current that originates in the southern part of the Japanese archi-pelago and dissipates in the colder waters of the northern Pacific. It is the Asian equivalent of the Gulf Stream, which had played its part in helping me across the Atlantic a decade earlier. Contrary to popular belief, these two warm streams are not like two broad rectilinear boulevards but rather resemble two huge snakes that undulate across hundreds of ocean miles. The Kuroshio, at the spot where I was navigating, flows from the southwest to the northeast at about three knots an hour, which is extremely fast for an ocean current. I knew that I would only have its blessed "tailwaters" for ten days or so, but while I was with it I wanted to use it to the best of my ability: it literally qua-drupled my daily speed. Because of its meandering course, however, on several occasions I rowed beyond its uncertain boundaries and had to pick it up again to benefit a bit longer from its beneficent flow.

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That evening, the weather grew cooler and the winds shifted to the north, virtually 180 degrees from the direc-tion of the current. This kind of situation gives rise to rough and very unpredictable seas. It also gave rise to a spectac-ular show that I can describe only as unreal: as the waves broke against each other, their crests shone with an in-candescent brightness. The ocean, as though electrified, was putting on a fantastic show of nautical fireworks. What was causing the phenomenon were millions of tiny living organisms that filled the waters and, like marine fireflies, made them luminescent.
I put out the sea anchor, to stabilize the boat and make sure it was heading in the right direction, and let it run with the tide. I retired to my cabin, pleased with the thought that throughout the night I would be making north-easterly progress. No sooner had I stretched out on the bunk, however, than the old routine, dating back to my voyage on the Captain Cook, resurfaced. Golden rules, to be always and utterly followed. Basic rule: never bunk down for the night without having checked the deck and the bow posts to make sure that everything is shipshape in case the boat should capsize during the night. Are the two pairs of oars that are stowed inside, in the cockpit, properly fas-tened, as well as the pair on deck? Are the sea chests in the cockpit all closed tight?
I had checked and double-checked everything a dozen times before coming aft into the cabin, but still I was plagued by a nagging doubt. I got dressed and went back out to check everything again. The nets that held my pro-visions in place were all correctly fastened, but I made them even more taut.
I did not like the looks of the sea. In the event the boat did capsize, any shifting of the foodstuffs could make it impossible to right the boat according to plan. To make the craft lighter, Sector was constructed without a keel and without any fixed ballast. I knew that there was a good possibility the boat would capsize a number of times in the course of the crossing, so I had provided for that contin-gency by having a system of ballast tanks built in to remedy the situation. A small manual pump was installed right next to my bunk, which I could use to fill with seawater - or empty - whatever ballast tanks I needed: this would right the boat.
I had to be able to take in seawater through either the hull or the deck when the boat was overturned, because I had to be in a position to transfer weight from one ballast tank to another and simultaneously let air into or out of the tank being emptied or filled. Bruno had spent days on end figuring out this brain-twister and making sure the solution worked. Such a system had to be fitted into a relatively small space, be a hundred percent trustworthy, and be maneuverable with your eyes closed in a capsized boat that has taken on water.
In fact, the sea trials we underwent back in France had left me with mixed feelings on this score. We had used a crane to turn the boat over. I was strapped inside the watertight cabin, in a cramped position that I can only describe as at best uncomfortable, and when I started pumping to shift the ballast in such a way that the boat should have righted itself, nothing happened! For the life of me, I couldn't get the damn thing to turn over. Bruno had to dive in and manually help turn the craft right-side up. When I asked him whether it had been hard for him to do, his reply was only partially reassuring. He said it wasn't easy, but doable. It occurred to me to remind him that out in the Pacific I wouldn't have any Bruno around to dive in and give me a hand, but I refrained.

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 Still, the experiment had left me pensive. I would ob-viously have preferred that Sector right itself after capsiz-ing, and the shifting ballast method seemed to me less than perfect. I had told myself that my roughly 350 pounds of provisions on board, which would be stowed low on the boat, should help matters. I also rationalized that the sea trial had taken place under the worst conditions possible -that is, in the boat basin where the waters were absolutely calm. If in the course of the crossing the boat did capsize -and I had to assume it would - the movement of the waves would actually help me get it right-side up. I would not, after all, be rowing across some quiet little pond.
As I left the boat at the end of the sea trial, I felt everyone was watching me like a hawk, waiting to see my reaction. I put on my best self-confident smile. But I noted that no one said a word.

Unbearable heat. I retreated into the cabin, leaving the porthole between the cockpit and cabin open to let in a little air. A veritable sauna. Most of the time I lay in the cabin half-stretched out on the short bunk, with my shoul-ders hunched up to save space, in a crouching position or somewhere in between. Someone seeing me there would think I was practicing to be a contortionist. In the long run, it was exhausting. Not exactly what you would call a gentle little nest, but today the tightness of the living quar-ters was nothing compared to the withering heat.
I dozed off, knocked out by the tropical heat, but not really able to fall asleep because the boat was jumping about like a bucking bronco. I had the sea anchor out at the stern, and when the waves stretched the anchor rope tight, the stern would slap the water and the whole boat would shake and resonate like an oversize drum.
The open porthole let in a little air but not really enough to cool things off. I was tempted to open the door, but in this weather it was out of the question.

2300: Without warning, the boat suddenly capsized. About
50 liters of water flooded the cabin. A real shambles. AU
sorts of objects floating. A feeling of fear and distress.
Water poured into the cabin before I had had a chance to close the porthole. I struggled in the darkness and dis-array: the cabin was still filled with loose objects that I had not had a chance to stow properly since my departure, including some landlubber clothes I had meant to leave behind, some fresh food I had bought the night before I left, a sleeping bag. All I could think of was that I now knew - locked upside down in the boat - how dirty clothes must feel inside a washing machine.

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