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Southern Spars

Around Alone fleet north east from Tasmania to the top of NZ

by Brian Hancock on 6 Jan 2003
Class 1 leader Bernard Stamm continues to eat up the miles as he sails across the Tasman. His 24 hours average has dropped below 300 miles for the first time in days as Bobst Group Armor lux feels the edges of the high pressure system that is dominating the Tasman Sea.

Bernard is managing to skirt around the south side of the high and is enjoying clear skies and light winds from the south.

The wind direction is not allowing him to sail a direct course for Cape Reianga on the northern tip of New Zealand. He has been forced to gybe as the winds get lighter. Behind him Thierry Dubois on Solidaires is also enjoying the fair conditions and despite losing a few miles between polls, he is still within striking distance of Stamm.

Both sailors know that once land gets involved in an ocean race anything can happen. It’s a long sail down the coast of New Zealand with local conditions bound to throw a few curve balls their way.

Bernard has given a tentative ETA of Thursday and if he continues at the rate he’s sailing, it looks like a good estimate with Dubois a day later if nothing happens weather wise. The beautiful town of Tauranga is already gearing up for their arrival.

With the rest of the fleet stretched out across the Tasman and south of Australia, it’s a good time to pick up on a story left dangling before Christmas (Dec 21 to be precise).

The story of Isabelle Autissier in the 1994 race. Autissier was dismasted early in the leg from Cape Town to Sydney (the old race course) after having had a commanding lead at the end of the first leg.

Under jury rig she sailed her yacht Ecureuil Potiou Charentes II to the Kerguelen Islands where she rigged a spare aluminum mast for the rest of the passage to Australia. Determined to remain in the race Isabelle set off in pursuit of the fleet, but her bad luck was not over.

She was down below in an aft passageway when she heard the wave that nailed her. Fortunately she was not sitting in her usual spot at the navigation station because the wave not only creamed the boat, it took the cabin top off leaving a massive, gaping hole.

Had Isabelle been on her computer, or even in her bunk, she would likely have been washed overboard. In that instant her race was over. The spare mast was gone and in any case there would be no way she could have continued with such a large hole in the boat.

The problem was that she was sailing well south of Australia making rescue difficult, if not impossible. Her emergency signal was picked up by race operations and the Australian Coast Guard, and a rescue effort was undertaken. It was not going to be easy.

Finding a small yacht in the middle of the Southern Ocean was not a simple assignment, but the Australian Navy was more than up to the task. They flew out towards Isabelle’s last know position and located the yacht on their first attempt.

They we able to make VHF contact with her, but unfortunately that was all they could do. Isabelle would have to wait for a ship that was steaming her way to pick her up. 'Don’t worry,' she told the pilot. 'I have plenty of food on board, some good pate even. I can wait to be rescued.' With that the plane flew back to land leaving Autissier bobbing around on a merciless sea.

Three days later the ship steamed to within helicopter range and the plucky sailor was plucked from her boat. It was the end of what had been a magnificent race around the world for Autissier.

She looked down on her stricken yacht and realized how vulnerable she had been. There was a large outcry from some of the Australian public who resented the expense of the rescue. Isabelle was nonplussed. 'What, my life is not worth a million dollars?' she asked.

Certainly the rescue had cost some money, but as many others pointed out, Australia could not have bought a better PR exercise and the rescue was a perfect training exercise for the navy anyway.

Still it opened up a healthy debate among the sailing public, and the general public, as to the responsibilities of the skippers and the rescue organizations. It’s a debate that will continue without any firm resolution.

For this race the Australian navy requested that the fleet be kept closer to land so that if they were dispatched for a rescue, they could manage it without great difficulty and expense. For my part I believe that we need people like Isabelle and Bernard Stamm and the rest of these Around Alone skippers.

We need people that will push the boundaries of society (in a healthy way) and test themselves against the elements. It’s the kind of spirit that pushes humanity forward. Should one of them falter, the rest of us should rally around and rescue them.

Civilized societies spend billions on others in need, much of it self inflicted need. Around alone skippers are an inspiration to the rest of us and their efforts should be recognized and rewarded.

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