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

 


September 13 14 21 22232627October 236


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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Indelibly Inscribed

September 13
Today is Friday the 13th! I haven't forgotten you, Princess. You can pick whatever restaurant you want, and I'll take you there as soon as I get back.
One day Ann, who was born on Friday the 13th, came home from school in tears. The kids had made fun of her for having such a terrible birthday. "Didn't you know," they said, "that Friday the 13th brings bad luck?" To prove them wrong, I always invited Ann, on this presumably fateful day, to the restaurant of her choice. At first I kept things pretty much under control, since my little Princess was crazy about hamburgers. But it wasn't long before she caught on, and recently she's been making noises about the Tour d'Argent, which, if it isn't Paris's most expensive restaurant, comes pretty close. So much for my low-cost crusade against superstition!
Speaking of superstition, my teakettle occupied a very special spot on my stove and was held in place with an elastic cord in case the boat overturned. Often when I'd put back the kettle, the handle struck the edge of the table and made a sound like a note on the scale. I'd always put out a finger to stop it, a reflex that came down to me from
my mother. When we were growing up, whenever Mother would set a metal plate down on the table - or any kind of metal platter for that matter - she would always inter-rupt the sound by murmuring, "A sailor's drowning." I pre-sume that in her mind the sailor would have drowned had she not intervened with her magic phrase. Over the course of many years, I also have to believe that she has saved from certain death the equivalent of the crew of an aircraft carrier.
As for myself, I'm not superstitious. But you never know... I remember that at the headquarters of Lloyd's of London there is a bell that rings in memory of those who have lost their lives at sea. Considering my present situ-ation, one can never be too careful.

I discovered that my solar panels, which doubtless had been submerged too long because of the number of times Sector had capsized, had ceased functioning. A catastrophe. From a morale viewpoint, it was a veritable disaster to have lost contact with the outside world. From a purely practical viewpoint, losing contact with FK8CR meant that I would no longer be able to track the weather. The worst was, the last time I had heard from FK8CR, it was to learn that another typhoon was heading my way.
I took advantage of a moment of relative calm to try to repair the solar panels. Normally there's nothing you can do to restart them once they've shut down. The metal con-tacts were ruined, completely eroded by the humidity. But I had no choice. I started first with the starboard panels, which had been less exposed to the sea than the portside panels. First I had to take them apart, fiddle with the joints using a copper wire, and, because I had nothing else on board to make the panels watertight again, smother the whole thing with epoxy, which takes hours to dry. To speed up the drying process, I heated up my magic potion in a spoon by holding it over one of my camp stove burners, then rushed outside to apply it. I made several such round trips, covering my repairs with a product that forms a yel-lowish crust as it dries. Poor Bernard! When I think of all the trouble he went to building Sector, making sure the hull and deck were immaculate, and now the whole deck area was a mess, splattered with spots of dried glue! But my mad efforts did bear fruit: one after another the solar panels began to emerge from their deep slumber. Not only did they emerge: soon they were functioning again at a hundred percent capacity!

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September 14
0800: Sector capsizes once again, but this time gently. Another ridiculous day, with the westerly winds pushing me back in the wrong direction.
Every two or three hours I opened the cabin to let in some air. This morning I spent five full hours cooped up inside, until I began having trouble breathing. Even my cigarette lighter wouldn't light because of the lack of ox-ygen. I kept wondering just how long one could remain holed up in the cabin without fainting. I only hoped that before losing consciousness I would somehow be jolted awake. What a great feeling it was whenever I opened the cabin door, especially after the low oxygen had begun to make me drowsy. I was like someone who had not had a drop of water for days and was immersed in a lake of clear blue water. I filled my lungs with air, breathing in deeply again and again, almost giddy.

I have been totaling up the number of times I have cap-sized. The results are hardly encouraging.
I've turned over nineteen times to date, which is bad enough. But it's the progression that is alarming:
o once in July
ofour times in August
o already fourteen times so far in September
In other words, an average of once a day this month! How long can I hold out? Or, more to the point, how many more times will I be able to right Sector without something going wrong? Because it's not as though the more times I go through it the better I get. On the contrary. Each time it happens the effect is cumulative, stretching my nerves ever tighter. I know that in any event I'll come out of this -assuming I do - marked for life.

Before I set out I trained physically, not unlike a boxer preparing for a bout. Not by making any wild statements, not by declaring to the world that my opponent was worth-less and my intention was to knock him out in the early rounds. No, the Pacific is not an opponent you knock out. You have to be prepared to go the full fifteen rounds and hope for a decision.
But at this point in the bout I felt like a boxer who no longer had the strength to fight back, because he was at the point of utter exhaustion. So all he could do was hang in there, protect himself by keeping his guard up, keep on the defensive, bob and weave. To make any headway, I had to fight against myself, against the nagging desire to throw in the sponge. Short of that, all I could do was parry the blows thrown at me, avoiding them as best I could, and when I couldn't, simply take them. Two other handicaps:
loneliness and duration, that is, the endless, ever-slowing passage of time. With these two elements dogging me, the dice were really loaded.

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September 21
Typhoon Luke had made its presence felt. As I was using the sextant to chart my position, just outside the cabin door, I was almost swept overboard by a giant wave. Even if my safety harness had saved me, the notion that the boat would have capsized with the cabin door open sent chills up my spine.
I looked back at my log for the day and found noted there: For God's sake, be more careful!
In bad weather - that is, more and more frequently - my every movement and gesture had to be thought out in ad-vance, examined, and reflected on; strict rules had to be meticulously followed. Acting on the realistic principle that Sector could capsize at any moment, I knew that I would have time only to make one, almost reflexive, movement and maybe not even that. To take just one example, in preparing my dehydrated food I always had to close the porthole before I lit the burner. Then I had to keep my finger on the gas button while the water was heating, so that at the slightest alert I could turn off the flame. As soon as the water was boiling, I put back the stove, then aired out the cabin briefly, for at this point it would be completely steamed up. Then back to the kettle, whose boiling con-tents always presented a considerable danger. Sometimes it took me a full fifteen minutes just to prepare a cup of coffee.

By now I had become maniacal when it came to being neat. Everything on board was so perfectly in order that I could have lived in my cabin with my eyes closed without any problem. Tirelessly, I would sponge the ceiling to wipe off the condensation that had accumulated, or I would sponge the bottom of the boat, to reduce the amount of water that would inevitably gather there as well. The con-stant dampness in the cabin made living there almost un-bearable.

Today I learned via radio from Christopher that Frëdéric Guérin, who had set out to break my record for rowing across the Atlantic, had given up, becalmed off the coast of Ireland. He had fallen increasingly behind my own sched-ule, and as the gap increased he must have decided there was no hope of ever catching up. Had he had his share of bad luck, including, I suspected, not being able to take full advantage of the Gulf Stream? It was true that in 1980 I had benefited from a summer during which there had been an unusual number of low pressure systems.
By the time Guërin gave up, his radio was on the blink. The news depressed me, for I had been following his prog-ress from the Pacific with great interest. Now, with him gone, I felt even more alone than ever.
September 22
I realized that I was only halfway across. For a long time
I had been looking forward to this day as a time of cele-bration, a moment of great accomplishment. Now that I
had reached it, I actually felt depressed. I had the sense that I had already been out here for a lifetime, and the 
notion that I was only halfway there, that the stretch ahead was as long as the one behind, struck me as beyond both my ability and my strength.
Starting then, I decided that not only would I cross off the days on the little calendar at the back of my log as they occurred in the future, but I would go back and furiously cross off the days in the past, one at a time. This was a curious attempt to wipe them out, to forget them com-pletely, as though they had never occurred.

Because this was a red-letter day, I couldn't help mentally calculating how long it was going to take me from here on out. If the second half of the trip took as long as the first, then I should reach the American coast on December 5. But if I subtracted the fourteen days in August when head-winds had kept me from making any progress at all, then I ought to be there on November 21. I did my best to convince myself that the earlier date was the realistic one but even that seemed so far off. Besides, I knew that Oc-tober and November were much more difficult months than July and August. Could I really hold out?
Meanwhile, back to the grind. I took up my oars again and rowed, rowed, rowed.

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September 23
For the first time I managed to make contact with an Amer-ican radio-communication station, KMI. For weeks I had been trying to contact the station, without success, so I took this to be a major breakthrough. In any case, it was tangible proof of progress. What was more, it meant that I would henceforth be able to contact my family, via KMI, by telephone. The only problem was, the KMI technician informed me, that in order to put my call through I would have to set up an account with the station. How in the world did he expect me to set out up an account when I was still thousands of miles away? In trying to explain my situation, I lost many precious amp-hours of electricity. I persisted. I ranted and raved. All I got in return was: "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry!" In the end I was so upset that I burst into tears. I was furious at the whole world. What in the hell was Christopher doing back in Paris?
Fortunately, I was still in regular contact with Eddy, which enabled me to pass on the information about my billing problem with KMI and ask if he could help me out, way over there on the other side of the world. He was only too happy to oblige.
Speaking of Eddy, I had never set eyes on him, yet his voice was as familiar to me as those of my family and closest friends. I would search for him on the wavelengths, and even when the static was at its worst and I could barely hear a thing, I would always immediately recognize his voice.
In the course of our conversations, I discovered little by little what his life was like and conjured up in my mind both what he looked like and what kind of person he was. I realized, too, that he was now spending much more of his leisure time collecting weather data specifically for me and that our radio rendezvous were taking place at hours of the day that must have been impossible for him.
The mere sound of his voice had become for me even more precious than the information he was passing on. I tried to tell him as much, but the words just wouldn't come out right, and I wasn't sure he ever got the message. If not, I hope he does when he reads this book.
September 26
Sector capsizes not once but twice. Always the same sce-nario, but more and moreviolentI continued to have nightmares. Last night it was the bulk-head of the cabin cracking. That was my constant terror, for Sector's hull, as indicated, only maintained its rigidity thanks to two thin layers of carbon that held the foam tight. The first time it cracked, this composite material would become as fragile as an eggshell with a slight crack in it.
From then on, I slept with my distress signal beneath my head, on the bunk, fearing I would awake some night to find the cabin filled with water and the boat in pieces. As the voyage wore on, that distress signal moved increas-ingly closer to me, until it had become my pillow, always immediately at the ready. It was a defense mechanism on my part, but I also knew, whenever I really thought about it, that it was a fairly useless means of protection. What in the world would I do with a distress signal as I clung to one of the pieces of the boat? Assuming I did manage to send off the signal, by the time any passing ship had re-sponded and come looking for me, I would have long since slipped into my watery grave.

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September 27
Typhoon Mireille heading my way, to the north of me and moving east.
To the west, extremely heavy seas. Yet the typhoon got no closer than 600 miles from my present position. I could imagine the havoc the storm must have wrought for any-thing directly in its path. Here the waves were very long
and well over thirty feet high - great moving hills, the sure sign of a distant storm, a furious one.

For the last several days I had been intrigued by the flight of the birds overhead. No longer were their movements irregular, first going in one direction then another. Now they all seemed to be flying in the same direction - south. At first the phenomenon was barely perceptible, but today it was much more marked.
At first I'd thought the birds were simply heading away from the storm to the north, but now I had to face the irrefutable evidence: what I was seeing was their autumnal migration. They were flying south by the hundreds toward the trade winds, fleeing these latitudes that would shortly become infernal.
And then they were gone, these final companions. A dark sky, short days. Summer was gone.
October 2
I am approaching 160 degrees longitude east, and my
arrival lies at 140 degrees longitude. My next objective:
155 degrees 30 minutes, at which point I will have covered
two thirds of my route, a threshhold I look forward to with
great anticipation.
At night I did my best to protect myself from the en-croaching cold. I slept with all my clothes on, wrapped in my slicker inside my drenched sleeping bag. After a while my body warmed up, that is, everything except my feet, which were always frozen. The period just before daybreak was especially bad. Even when the weather was good enough, I found it impossible to sleep.

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October 3
Around 0800, Sector hits a wave prow first and flips over, with the porthole open.
By some miracle, I was able to shut the porthole im-mediately. I had my hand on it when the wave struck. By now Sector had become an extension of myself; I had de-veloped a sixth sense about it, sensing exactly what the next minute, even the next second, would bring.


Lord, but the weeks were long and painful to endure! The moon had reappeared, and I took advantage of it to row during the night; the days were now so short.
Rowing smoothly, steadily, like a robot, the body works in a banal, monotonous, stupid effort. A body that the mind has deserted. No longer any need for the mind. It was off somewhere else, doing its own thing. .
It was incredible how much I found myself dwelling on those days back on dry land that had passed me by and how much I regretted having missed them. First the spring, of which I had seen nothing because I had been so focused on getting Sector ready for the trip. I should have stocked up on all the springtime buds, all those first fragile leaves that unfurl on the trees. Then there was the summer, which this voyage had stolen from me, a summer, I was sure, that had to be the most beautiful one since God created earth, a summer filled with the sound of the crickets on the dark-ening air and the smell of new-mown hay, the fullness of nature that, having reached its peak, takes a momentary rest before the solstice. And now this voyage was stealing autumn from me, too: autumn with its wisps of fog lying low over the lakes and ponds, with its odor of apples and fires in the fireplace.

I was famished for tastes, for colors, for odors. Especially odors, which evoke, better than any other trigger mecha-nism, reminiscences of a particular place. As I rowed I hummed various songs to myself. There was Dutronc's song about the urban garden, with its wonderful ozone deep down beneath the ground, in other words, the Metro. Yes, even the smell of Paris, that mixture of dust and electricity that floats over the subway platforms, was a source of nos-talgia. I also hummed country-and-western songs over and over again, where I knew the tunes but not the words, hummed them obsessively. One obsessed me especially, and I hummed it for months, without ever knowing either the words or the title. Only later did I learn that it was Alan Jackson's "Here in the Real World."
Other, more ancient songs also filled my head, such as those we sang aboard the Lady Maud, songs filled with a mixture of oakum, coal tar, and varnish.

This morning, no stomach even for breakfast. Utter wear-iness. I was dreaming of a cup of coffee and a croissant on the quiet, sun-drenched terrace of a bistro. I saw myself sitting there, reading my paper in the warm sun, watching the world go by. Everything I had never found the time to do in life now struck me as the epitome of happiness. Sim-ply to know that that terrace existed, that it was awaiting me, even if it was a possibility I would never take advantage of, even if it was nothing but a mirage, was enough to fill me with happiness.

  UP 

I told myself that when I got back, in the not too distant future, I would regale myself and my senses, that I would
fill my eyes and ears with sights and sounds, would fill my lungs with air, would touch and taste till I had had my fill. But I knew I could never get enough, and the detailed list of all the senses' satisfactions crowded my head.
Then I was overwhelmed with a desire to go to a village, a little village far inland where you can't see the sea, where people didn't even know the sea existed. I told myself I would make sure never to tell them about it!

A message from my brother Norbert revealed to what de-gree my family and close friends, in their desire to send me comfort and reassurance, had no clue, no notion, of what I was feeling. Departing from my customary reserve, I sent off a long telex in which I tried to clarify things.

DABOVIL 63L234F
SINGAPORE TELECOM
REFERENCE NO. 081083

Kindly forward to Norbert d'Aboville, who "would like to make sure I have a modicum of pleasure during my voyage."

Dear Norbert,
There I was, yesterday morning, at the end of a perfect night. Perfect weather, almost a full moon, clear sky, a few stars that seemed to be resisting the lunar incandescence. The mild breeze gently propelling the boat forward almost made me forget I was rowing. I was thinking about your message, asking me whether I had achieved a sense of being ''on top of things now.''

At the risk of disappointing you, I have to say that there is no way for me ever to feel on top of things
The problem is, every minute, every second, all I can think about is making it, getting there, achieving my goal. My mind focuses - far too lucidly, I might add - on all the risks that stand in my way, all the obstacles that threaten to wipe out in a moment the extraordinary amount of time and effort and personal sacrifice I have put into this undertaking. I am affected, indelibly affected, by what I have just been through. While it is said that with the passage of time the most painful memories have a way of turning into positive memories, these will never change; they were, and will always remain, terrible and terrifying.
I'll never forget the many times the boat capsized, es-pecially the one when it turned a complete somersault, throwing me against the bulkhead. Then, with my frayed nerves stretched to the breaking point, I kept waiting for the final blow, the blow that would end it all, and let out a primal scream, like some wild beast. Nor will I ever forget those other times when I battled for my life, feeling my strength waning minute by minute. And the taste of sea-water in my mouth, in my lungs. The taste of death. And all that alone, alone, alone.

  UP 

So in order to find a few moments of relative pleasure such as that night I just described, my only recourse is to get away from this boat, from this crossing, from this ocean. I try to tell myself that I am somewhere else, that I am walking in the desert, without any set goal, preferably with-out any goal at all; or else I imagine myself at the rudder of some other boat, on some other sea.
But the illusion is brief, and you have to watch out for its counterpart, the danger of letting go and feeling sorry for yourself or your situation, for if I were to let that feeling in, even for a moment, it would be like opening the gates of the fortress to your worst enemy. So I only allow myself rare moments when I picture myself elsewhere, in some wonderful never-never land, because the awakening is not only rude but dangerous.
So you think there will be an arrival? You believe it's really going to happen?
Ah, that arrival, so dreamed of, so longed for. True, the joy will be commensurate with the expectation, but also what a terrible feeling of "I've already been there." You want your happiness not to end, you want to set a little aside for tomorrow and the day after, but there's no way you can; it's the liqueur of absolute happiness, but all you have is a drop, one tiny drop, the effect of which is immediate. You see this happiness in the full knowledge that, by the very act of experiencing it, it has already been lived, it belongs to the past, and that each of these marvelous moments is already no more than a memory, as though there were no present between this future so long and so ardently awaited that I am living through now - and will live through until I get there - and the past, which will be the rest of my life after I do arrive . . . And you are there, looking at the crowd. They think it's the beginning of something. But you know it's already over.
So is there an "after"?
After - that is, after the successful completion of your daring adventure - there is a whirlwind, a touch of glory or what passes for glory, which does not last long (right after your act, don't forget the clowns come on). There is even relative material comfort. Vanity and self-interest, these plea-sures are base; they inevitably enter into the calculations.
Let's talk only about the satisfactions.

So what remains?
Nothing, that's what. And that's life. Provided it lasts.

GERARD, ON BOARD SECTOR.
LATITUDE 41 DEGREES 18 MINUTES NORTH
LONGITUDE 159 DEGREES, 31 DEGREES WEST.
October 6
During the night, the wind veers suddenly to the west, the waves turn choppy. Giant sprays of white foam on either side of the cockpit.
A new kind of somersault: a complete back flip. I find myself flattened on the ceiling of the cabin, then bounced back onto my bunk.

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© 1983-2001 Ocean Rowing Society 


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