Frenchwoman a fine fit for solo circumnavigation


Last spring, the Whitbread Round the World Race drew the interest of hundreds of thousands of people during its stopovers in Baltimore and Annapolis and during the restart at the Bay Bridge.

Among the more than 100 Whitbread sailors in that impressive fleet of racing yachts and their 12-person crews was a small woman from France who, often as not, prefers to race across oceans alone.

These days Isabelle Autissier is competing in another race, the only woman in a fleet of 16 entered in Around Alone, a west-to-east, solo circumnavigation below the great capes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Last weekend, the leaders in the race finished Leg 1, from Charleston, S.C., to Cape Town, South Africa. Autissier, despite sailing one of the older boats in Class I (60 feet), finished second to Mike Golding of Britain (34 days, 18 hours, 54 minutes, 44 seconds).

Golding, Autissier and third-place Marc Thiercelin of France all beat the record time to Cape Town, which was set by Autissier in the 1994-1995 race, then called the BOC Challenge.

Autissier, with a boatload of solo ocean racing experience, is the person to beat in this 31,000-mile endurance race, and Golding's reaction after winning Leg 1 by 2 hours, 40 minutes, summed up the respect the men have for the Frenchwoman.

"I'm over the moon," said Golding, who hours later welcomed Autissier to Cape Town with flowers and a hug last Saturday afternoon. "To be ahead of Isabelle is just great."

After finishing Leg 1, Autissier said her 2-year-old boat, PRB, is slower than the newer Open 60s sailed by Golding, Thiercelin, Josh Hall (Britain) and Giovanni Soldini (Italy).

In electronic mail to race headquarters during the first leg, Autissier estimated a 1 percent deficit in speed, which she said would work out to a deficit of 36 hours during the course of the race.

"[But] it is one thing to have a fast boat and it is the other to win the race," she said. "But it is not an easy game as these guys are very clever with the weather. So they don't make many mistakes."

Among solo ocean racers, Autissier, 41 and single, is becoming legendary. In the past eight years, she has completed 2.5 circumnavigations -- the 1990-1991 BOC Challenge, the last Vendee Globe Race and half of the 1994-1995 BOC Challenge.

In the last BOC Challenge, Autissier won the first leg to Cape Town by more than five days, and then her luck began to change.

Five days after the start of Leg 2, deep into the Roaring 40s of the Southern Ocean, her boat, Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2, was dismasted. Under a jury-rigged mast built of spinnaker poles, she limped into the Kerguelen Islands on the far side of nowhere, and the community of French scientists and her shore crew were able to rig a new mast.

Under way again, speeding across the Southern Ocean toward Sydney, Australia, her boat was making 8 knots under bare poles in 50 knots of wind, when it was rolled by a rogue wave.

"It went right over through 360 degrees," Autissier said. "I fell on the bulkhead, then on the ceiling and back on the other bulkhead. When I opened my eyes, the boat was full of water."

The roll had broken the boat's mast and steering system and put a 15-by-12-foot hole in the hull. Two hours after the knockdown, realizing she could not save the boat, Autissier activated the emergency position indicator radio beacon on board.

Within 24 hours, a Royal Australian Air Force plane located her, but it was three days before she was airlifted to safety in a military rescue directed by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra, Australia.

Almost immediately after her rescue, Autissier began making plans for the current race in a Finot-designed Open 60, a light, fast single-hander built of carbon fiber.

"I can steer the boat with two fingers," Autissier said of PRB."It's a small boat. A bicycle. You don't need many people. Most of the job has been done before [setting sail]."

Solo racing over great distances of ocean, Autissier said, is a matter of careful preparation before the race legs begin and careful decision-making while en route.

"You must always think what will happen six hours, 12 hours, two days ahead," she said. "It is really difficult mentally, and less so physically."

Top-notch furling, reefing and steering systems give the single-hander tremendous mechanical advantage, she said, but "when you are alone and the boat is going 20 knots it is difficult."

On the 7,000-mile race to Cape Town, Autissier was forced to sail without her largest genoa after a forestay fitting broke early in the leg. Still, she managed to slip in and out of the lead until Golding caught the underside of a small low pressure system a few days out of Cape Town and was able to sprint to his two-hour lead.

"That's no big deal, and it's not a big handicap in the context of a round-the-world race," Autissier said. "There are three legs left, and the two in the Southern Ocean are in strong winds, where my slight speed handicap should disappear -- and then we'll be racing again."

Despite it all -- the shipwrecks, the long, lonely weeks at sea when mistakes can lose the lead in a race or a singlehander's life -- Autissier said there is a simple explanation of why she continues to go to sea.

"I like being in charge of my own life," she said.

Race updates

Readers interested in following the Around Alone Race can log on to the Web site at

The restart for Leg 2 to Auckland, New Zealand, is Dec. 5. Ensuing legs take the fleet to Punta del Este, Uruguay, and then back to Charleston, S.C., in May of next year.

Three Americans -- Robin Davie (Charleston), George Stricker (Newport, Ky.) and Brad Van Liew (Los Angeles) -- are entered in Class II for boats to 50 feet.

Van Liew was expected to finish the leg in third place this weekend, while Stricker and Davie (fourth and fifth) are not expected to reach Cape Town until Nov. 17.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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