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

 


August 192023242526282931


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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And If All This Were Really Pointless

August 19
This ocean is pitiless, by its size alone. If this were the Atlantic, and I had already covered the same distance, I would already be halfway across. Here, when I look at my map, I'm still so damnably close to Japan....
I try not to count in days any longer but count in weeks, even in months. Alas, when I'm rowing, though, I count in hours, in quarter hours, sometimes in minutes. I have such a double concept of time: one that concerns my crossing, where I count in weeks - the other my day, where I count in minutes.

Glued to my seat, dazed and deadened by this automaton's toil, I tried not to look at my watch too often. In keeping with the rules I had laid down for myself, I allowed myself five minutes respite every hour, every full hour. So I watched the minute hand crawl slowly on its appointed rounds, ever so slowly, as though it were stuck. Time seemed to slow down with every successive stroke of the oars, and the upcoming stroke seemed ever so much harder than the one before. Each minute lasted an hour, each hour a day. Six hours of rowing and only five knots on the speed log wasn't much forward progress. But I felt so much better in the cockpit than bored to death back in the cabin.

I was obsessed by the passing of the season. It was terrible, this sword of Damocles constantly hanging over my head, moving ever closer as the weather conditions worsened and as, inexorably, the storms became more frequent, longer, and more dangerous.
August 20
Ideal weather, after a long period of dull days. The nights were clear, but the days dragged on in endless successions of pale gray, which meant that my telex was out, since the solar panels were generating no electricity. With the sun out again, my batteries were recharging, and I could at long last send some messages.
I heard a number of transmissions on my ham radio wavelengths, from Pacific Net, a network out of Hawaii, and tonight, for the first time, I also picked up a ham radio out of San Jose, California. Now that made me feel as if I were actually closing the gap.

I was in an area of high pressure systems. Foul winds, which created crosscurrents. I needed to move north, into higher latitudes. And there, I knew, bad weather awaited me. What a terrible paradox: go where the bad weather is, because there you can make better progress!

Several transpacific jets, arcing high overhead. Doubtless they were following the jet streams, those tailwinds you pick up at altitudes of between 25,000 and 40,000 feet, which for the pilots meant cutting a good twenty minutes off their flight times. When I thought of that other world, so near and yet so far and different, of those passengers comfortably ensconced in their seats directly over my head, I had a very strange feeling. A combination of envy and indifference.

The Pacific is incredibly empty. In the course of more than a month I only encountered two ships. One was the car carrier Nissan, which looked like an enormous, floating parking lot, filled to capacity with brand-new cars. They are the ugliest boats I've ever seen: only by really examining them closely can you tell which end is the stern and which the bow. The second encounter was a Chinese ship - with which I established brief radio contact - on its way to the Columbia River estuary in Oregon.
What a contrast with the "little" Atlantic, which is so much busier when it comes to traffic. During my earlier trip I had run into a German passenger liner - which I actually boarded, having accepted the captain's invitation for coffee - but I had also crossed paths with a Russian trawler, a Norwegian freighter, the French weather ship France II, a tuna fishing vessel, and a number of others. Here in the Pacific, fellow mariners were scarce as hen's teeth.

I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of sunny days I'd had since I set out. I was voyaging through a lugubrious, monochrome world. And where oh where were the fish? The only signs of animal life to date: a mos-quito, a fly, and a few dolphins who came and took shelter next to my hull. Plus, one suspicious-looking fin and, on another occasion, the back of a whale. The whale's ap-pearance was so brief that by the time I got my camera, in the hope of recording its presence, it was already gone. Then all of a sudden, I saw another whale. Sector cleared the decks for action! The cetacean seemed huge, a full thirty-plus feet from snout to dorsal fin, as far as I could judge from my position. The creature was swimming about one hundred yards directly in front of Sector's bow. Fe-verishly, I got out my camera to record the rare event in this endless seascape. The whale was too far away to get a meaningful picture. I slapped the water with the blade of my oar, since I had always been told that that makes them come. Nothing. The whale was ignoring me completely. Irritated, I took to the oars and tried to overtake it, to no avail: it turned its back and sounded, with a movement of its tail that was both majestic and disdainful. Later - this was unquestionably my day for social calls - a band of dolphins appeared to starboard, and I was delighted to re-ceive them. It reminded me of the times when I used to sail with Cornélia on the Lady Maud, when dolphins would appear by the dozens and play and frolic in the wake of our boat. Their northern Pacific brethren apparently had no desire to waste their time with a playmate as slow and clumsy as Sector. I felt like shouting to them, "Hey, guys! I exist, too, you know!"

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August 23
A close call - no, a hair's breadth from death. I had been standing on the deck trying to screw back in the upper part of the antenna when it broke off at the point part way up where it screws into the base, causing me to lose my bal-ance. I did not have my safety harness on, and almost fell overboard. I grabbed hold for dear life, and came out of the fall with no more than a black-and-blue bruise and an awful scare. The boat was drifting rapidly; had I fallen, there would have been no way I could ever have caught up with it.
One bad reflex, and it could have been all over.
August 24
A terrible day.
This morning, at 0630, while I was still in the cabin, a huge wave hit Sector broadside and capsized IT.
For an hour I had worked to right the boat, without success. I tried every combination I could think of: empty-ing and filling the various ballast tanks, shifting my weight from one side of the hull to the other. . nothing worked.
I was sweating like a pig, and I also knew I was running out of air. I had more and more trouble breathing, and I could feel my heart beating crazily, uncontrollably. It was a downward cycle: the more upset I became, the harder it was to breathe and the faster my heart beat. I unhooked the speedometer screw, to create a tiny opening in the hull above me and, I hoped, let in a little air.

Water trickled in and I could feel a tiny bit of air as well, but not enough to do me much good. The atmosphere in the cabin was still stifling. I had no other choice but to leave the cabin. It was a desperate move, because once the cabin was flooded I had no idea whether I would ever be able to turn the craft back over from the outside. I ran through the exercise in my mind, over and over again. I prepared to send up my distress signal, which was strapped to my thigh. To emerge from the cabin backward would be especially difficult, since I would end up in the cockpit of a capsized boat that was being battered by the waves, a boat bobbing about in every direction. Even the very thought terrified me. But I was more frustrated at the thought of being trapped in the cabin. ...
A miracle. About 0815, the boat finally turned back over. I had been in the capsized cabin for an 
hour and forty-five minutes. For the next two hours I lay on my bunk in a state of complete 
collapse, trying to get my wits about me again but incapable of doing anything whatsoever.

I set off rowing. The ocean was still raging, and I managed to ride the waves at speeds of up to twelve knots. It was sheer folly - and very dangerous - to row in this weather, but I was overcome with an irresistible need to banish the terrible claustrophobia I had gone through earlier in the day.
Suddenly the boat capsized again. I was caught in the cockpit, all tangled up in my safety harness. I fought like a tiger to get loose. As the boat bobbed about, I was able to get my head out of water, on one side or the other, and breathe in a lungful or two of air, then go under again. I had also swallowed a great deal of water. The boat was bouncing about, and I was being struck every time it moved. A nightmare. In the midst of the welter of white water and foam, I kept struggling to unbuckle my safety harness. But I could feel my strength fading, second by second. I could see the end. Then, just as I was about to give up, I managed to wrench myself free. I was near the end of my strength. I knew I still had to drag myself to the stern post, holding on to the rigging. . . . Sector was drifting at high speed. If my fingers ever lost their grip, there was no way I would ever get back to the boat. Hanging on to the rudder, I hoisted myself up onto the hull with the last bit of energy I could muster. There, straddling the hull, which was as slippery as it was unstable, I managed to make my way to the middle. 
The anchor rope, attached to the deck beneath me, was floating in the waves, and I latched on to it with my toes, pulled it in with all my remaining strength, and finally managed to turn Sector back over again. Except that now it was right on top of me. I didn't have the strength to climb back on board. I kept hold of the anchor rope, meanwhile trying to fill my lungs with air and my body, I hoped, with renewed strength. I hoisted one foot into the cockpit, then a full leg, then the rest of me. I collapsed there, unable to move, and threw up.

1730: I'm completely exhausted, and very demoral-ized… . I know that wisdom and common sense are both telling me to throw in the towel. I also know that I can't bring myself to take that step until lam compelled to. And when that happens, will I still have time to make the choice? I am well aware that earlier today I was at death's door.

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August 25
Ate almost nothing yesterday or all day today. Last night I didn't sleep a wink, still under the effect of the day's traumatic events. Found myself gasping for breath a num-ber of times. I had battened down everything for obvious reasons, and when I had trouble breathing I took a quick tour outside and the problem ceased immediately. Prob-ably the foul air of the cabin.
A feeling of not being able to breathe. The first time the boat capsized was more traumatizing than the second, when I had to do something, and do it fast. But yesterday morning, when I'd suddenly found myself imprisoned un-derneath the boat, caught in my safety harness, almost asphyxiated, my heart pounding uncontrollably, I was like an animal caught in a trap.
The greatest danger was to feel sorry for yourself: a mo-ment of weakness. It was not even a question of being tempted to give up, of sending up the distress signal and being picked up by a ship, but a matter of letting yourself die, of saying to yourself: "It's just too hard, I've capsized one more time, one time too many. I'm giving up and letting go." Stupidly. Because at some given moment it would be easier to throw in the towel than continue fighting.
In 1980, when I rowed across the Atlantic, there were three of us who were making the solo attempt. The other two didn't make it. Disappeared. I think I know when and how that happened, the storm that did them in. That kind of depression, of complete distress, with your boat over-turned and righted with God-knows-what difficulty, then overturned again: you feel you just can't cope anymore. Obviously, those are the times when your adventure - and you yourself - are at greatest risk.
The second time I capsized, there was a partial sun, and that helped. Had the same thing happened at night, I don't know what might have happened.

I have experienced those moments of depression, those periods of discouragement when your 
morale gets shaky, and all your thoughts are negative. There were times when I was so tired and 
disgusted that I began to cry. I had the impression that what I was doing was ridiculous. 
Normally, I'm the kind of person who reacts positively to serious situations. But when I emerged 
from those nightmarish hours, knowing perfectly well that in the days and weeks to come there 
would very likely be situations even worse, even more unbearable, the thought crossed my mind: 
"And what if all this were really pointless? 
What if I were nothing but a clown, a seafaring buffoon, the way there are land-lubber clowns and 
buffoons everywhere, then what's the point of all this, what is this madness to survive all about?" 
The answers, or what seemed to be the answers, to those questions would only become clear at 
the end of my trip. Because I would have stayed the course, given my all, body and soul, to 
accomplish my goal: to have rowed across that ocean, having done it in my mind a hundred 
times, maybe a thousand, both before and during my crossing. I had the bit between my teeth, 
and I was gripping it, harder and harder.
One evening, picking up a French Radio broadcast, I learned that a typhoon had hit Bangladesh and devastated it. The human toll was in the dozens, maybe even hundreds. And only a few short weeks earlier that ravaged land had already suffered the death of thousands of its people. That day I made the following entry in my log:

Isn't it an incredible luxury to have undertaken this cross-ing? I gave up all the modern comforts I could have en-joyed, of my own free will, put my life at risk when so many others around the world are battling fiercely simply to survive, to find enough to eat one more day. I under-stand that some might view my endeavor as the epitome of self-indulgence, even indecency. But who knows, even in an area as impoverished and ravaged as Bangladesh, whether there aren't some youngsters who are dreaming of one day accomplishing some extraordinary - and per-haps "useless"- exploit.

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August 26
A dragonfly in the cockpit! Where in the world could it
have come from? It looked to me completely groggy. Maybe
a storm had driven it skyward from somewhere on the
Kamchatka peninsula and flung it miles and miles through
the heavens till it found me here in the middle of the ocean.
I picked it up, but when I tried to feed it a little sugary
water, it got scared and flew off.

1630: The boat has capsized again.
The wave was violent enough to snap off the radio an-tenna. I was able to right the craft in five minutes, without too much difficulty. I fashioned a makeshift antenna so as not to miss my evening session with my ham radio pal.
Very faint contact with Eddy - FK8C - but nonethe-less enough for him to read me two messages, one from Cornëlia, the other from Guillaume. For the last several days my solar panels were not recharging my batteries , or at best ever so slightly. It pained me to think that these were perhaps their last messages.
That night, despite the heavy sea, I filled my ballast tanks to the top, and put the sea anchors out, to prevent Sector from being swallowed up by the waves.
The boat was being picked up by the terrifying swells and lifted for what seemed the equivalent of several stories high in the space of five to ten seconds. Then it was hurled forward by the wave, descending into the trough at the speed of madness. If it took a real nosedive, there was a good chance it would do a somersault. I bunked down with my head facing the stern, to minimize the risk of having it banged against the compartment bulkhead. This time I got through the night without breaking anything. But, I kept thinking, how long before my luck ran out?
August 28
Another capsizing this morning. But with no real problems. So that makes five.
August 29
Evening. Tonight I succeeded in making telephone contact with my parents in Kérantré, thanks to the intermediary of a Japanese maritime station. The connection was poor, full of static and echoes, but I did manage to exchange a few words with my father and also with Guillaume, who just happened to be there. They couldn't believe their ears. To boot, all that took place during a beautiful night, filled with the soft glow of the moon.

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August 31
Superb day, sun virtually throughout, good session of rowing, naked for several hours.... If only winter never came, and if I weren't such a poor wretched creature out here in the middle of the Pacific, life would be a bowl of cherries!
I found a fish in the cockpit, a good twelve inches long. Perfectly edible. I served it for lunch. And besides, it was Friday.
In the early stages of the crossing, a few fish had swum along beside me, using my hull as a moving shelter. During the Atlantic crossing, they had been my personal reserve, a refrigerator into which I could dip virtually at will. 
But here in the Pacific they very quickly spurned my com-pany, doubtless heading for warmer waters.
This fish, fallen like manna from heaven, would be my only catch of the entire crossing. I had already lost all my fishing gear, which had been stored in the cockpit in a sea chest whose lock had broken during one of the times the boat had turned over. In any event, I had a feeling that the equipment would not have done me much good: these waters were apparently lifeless.

On this ocean, where I encountered so few signs of life, the traces of my fellow man were nonetheless very much in evidence. Pollution was visible everywhere. I am not referring to those signs of terrible and perhaps irremediable pollution, such as the oil spills from the gigantic tankers, but of a rampant ordinary pollution that revealed itself in countless little ways: plastic bags, Styrofoam packing, et cetera.
Every twenty minutes or so I would come upon some sort or another of debris, which, considering my limited horizon, suggests the magnitude of the problem: I could only imagine the mountain it would all make were it gath-ered together and piled up. Worse, I knew that most of this detritus was indestructible, and that each year a new batch was added to that of the previous year. What irony, when you think that these were not even the waste products of human consumption but merely the packing material in which they had come! To be sure, this petty pollution did not have the same devastating effect on the environment that the oil spills did, but it still was a terrible feeling for me to find this in the midst of what should have been the great pristine sea. I felt a little like a mountain climber who finally reaches the top of Mount Everest only to discover a bevy of beer cans. None of that diminished the difficulty of my task, but it did slightly tarnish the dream.

The only point of interest of this situation: I began to sift through the garbage, looking for something useful. This morning I fished out a large parallelepiped of plastic, which, once it was securely fastened to the deck, might help me right the boat when next it capsized.
I also fished out a buoy. Clinging to it was a tiny crab, which reminded me of the Little Prince on his planet. I invited the crab on board and offered it a bit of dehydrated rice, which it seemed to enjoy immensely.

In the course of the afternoon, I put a message in a bottle and set it adrift. During the Atlantic crossing, I had dropped three empty rum bottles into the sea, each with the same message. I'd never received a reply to my communication efforts in the Atlantic, so I hoped this time the results might be different. In my message I promised the person who found and returned it a reward of $100. Much to my surprise, I had not one but two responses. At the end of my trip, the large-circulation French photo magazine Paris-Match pub-lished a picture I had taken of the message before I cast it into the sea. On the photo was my home address. A short time later, I received from Venezuela a copy of my message written on lined paper. Pretty smart. Another clever kid from Africa also sent me a letter claiming the reward: all he had done was cut out the picture from Paris-Match and pin it to his letter. I sent it back to him with a photograph of a hundred dollar bill. One good photo deserves another!

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When my trip was over, I received some four thousand letters. Most of them, to my astonishment, and in contrast to the letters I received after my Atlantic crossing, simply said thank you rather than ''congratulations'' or ''bravo", which was the most frequent message of those earlier let-ters. The first time I read a letter that began by thanking me, I thought it was an exception. But after the tenth, then the hundredth, I began to wonder. Thanks for what? When I set out from Choshi, my goal had not been altruistic. I'm not a guru by any manner of means. I have no message to deliver. No light to shine upon the world. And yet, as I read on, day after day, I realized that despite myself I had given hope to all kinds of people: prisoners, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the homeless. I had touched the lives of people who, for whatever reason, were depressed and dis-couraged. And, I also saw, I had brought a ray of hope and sunshine into the lives of the aged, those who so often were, as I had been, distressingly alone.
Here is an extract of one letter, from a man doing time:
For 134 days you gave me, and a lot of the guys in here, I am sure, an incredible boost in morale. I have to tell you, when the news came through that you had landed, I blub-bered like a baby. I saw you live, on TV. I couldn't believe your strength, your courage. You had a dream and made it happen, and for us, the unfortunate victims of the judicial system, it was as though you had made our dreams come true, too.
When you said to that television reporter, "We're not all idiots," I laughed. And, believe me, in prison we don't laugh a lot.

Then there was the owner of a little store in our neigh-borhood who saw Cornëlia one day in late autumn, not long before the end of my trip, and said to her: "You know, you're lucky to find me still in business. Things were so slow, I was having such a hard time making ends meet, that I'd just about decided to give up and close the shop. And then, day after day, I started following the radio reports of your husband's progress. What he's doing is incredible. Do you know what - if I'm still open, it's because of him. He gave me courage. I said to myself, if he can make it, so can I . So I held on. My confidence came back. And today I have the absolute conviction that I am going to make it. And he will, too, I'm sure of it."

Throughout my trip there were a hundred times when I couldn't refrain from telling myself: this whole thing is pointless. Well, I was wrong. "This whole thing" did serve a purpose. The simple fact that an ordinary man, endowed with normal physical capabilities, outfitted with simple means, should make an effort to push himself to the limits of his ability - and maybe well beyond - seemed to in-spire a great many people, giving them renewed courage and energy to do the same. I had succeeded; why shouldn't they?

The discovery that people were identifying with me did raise some questions of conscience in my mind. You have to be very careful in situations where people look at you as some kind of role model. Too many public adventures have dubious motives, too many causes are subverted and undermined. But when I think back (and I do think back, every day since I've landed, and doubtless will do so for the next ten years), when each stroke of the oars has found its place in my mind, when all that happened has been decanted, pondered, sifted through - if, then, I will have proved that you can fulfill your personal goals by digging deep into your own inner resources, that is already some-thing.

The other side of that coin, of course, is that if I'd failed, those who had put their hope and trust in me might have become discouraged, too. But, judging by the enormous amount of interest my exploit aroused even before my de-parture, and certainly before the outcome was known, I told myself that the very act of trying, of daring, even if the exploit had failed, could well have positive repercus-sions.

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