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Sinking feeling returns; Dramatic effort again saves solo sailor's life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Isabelle Autissier, the 42-year-old French sailor who has experienced the absolutes of success and failure during her years of ocean racing, has been rescued from the desolate reaches of the Southern Ocean -- again.

In the last solo around-the-world race, named the BOC Challenge, in 1994, Autissier was forced to abandon her boat after it was severely damaged in the Southern Ocean far west of Australia. A complex and expensive rescue operation mounted by the Australian military saved her life.

This time, Autissier's 60-foot racer capsized Monday west of Cape Horn, South America, on the third leg of the Around Alone Race, which left Charleston, S.C., in September. She was rescued by Giovanni Soldini of Italy, a fellow competitor who backtracked for 24 hours into heavy winds and 36-foot seas to reach her.

According to Autissier, Soldini, shore crews and race organizers, the basics of the capsize and the rescue were as follows:

At 9: 23 (EST) Monday morning, an emergency beacon registered to Autissier's boat, PRB, was activated. The beacon indicated her position as 55 degrees south and 125.5 degrees west, or about 1,900 miles west of Cape Horn and out of range of rescue aircraft. PRB had been rolled by a rogue wave and knocked down after an apparent autopilot failure, and the boat had quickly inverted.

About three hours later, after polling the fleet by COMSAT e-mail and receiving responses from all competitors except Autissier, race officials sent Soldini to PRB's last known position. At the time, Soldini was about 200 miles northeast of PRB and making 20-plus knots aboard his 60-footer Fila.

An hour later, Soldini transmitted his position and heading to race headquarters in Charleston, S.C., and added: "I am heading for PRB for an hour now. I have 30 knots of wind and I'm not letting up until I have found Isa."

At 9: 47 (EST) Tuesday morning, Soldini reached PRB and took Autissier aboard. He immediately sent a simple message to race headquarters: "This is Fila. I have Isa inboard with me. Isa and I are going back to the race."

After her rescue, Autissier said she had been reaching in 20 to 22 knots of wind with a reef in the main and a genoa up, and all seemed normal -- until the rogue wave overtook the stern. Moments later, PRB's mast and sails were in the water and Autissier was in danger.

"I was totally surprised," she said. "I tried to get into the cockpit but it was too dangerous."

Autissier said she tried to free the sails so the boat would right itself, but PRB continued to roll and she had time only to dive into the cabin and secure the hatch. Over the next two hours, Autissier said, she could hear the mast and rig breaking away as she settled in to wait out a rescue.

The capsize and the rescue are the extremes of desperation and salvation in solo ocean racing, and the details of the events between 9: 23 a.m. Monday and 9: 47 a.m. Tuesday are extraordinary -- the stuff of "Captains Courageous."

"This was a remarkable feat," said race director Mark Schrader. "This guy [Soldini] did not hesitate. He was probably the best-qualified person to send on this mission. He has been in situations where he had to be rescued, so he knew what her state of mind would be and what she was likely to be doing."

As Soldini began his sprint to PRB's position, George Caras of Commander's Weather, which provides forecasts for racers, said Autissier most likely was in dire circumstances, with 35 to 45 knots of wind out of the west-southwest and seas 25 feet or higher. Sea conditions, he said, could be expected to worsen over the next 24 hours.

Mark Rudiger, navigator aboard EF Language in the recent Whitbread Round the World Race, specializes in reading ocean weather systems and has been writing weekly updates for the Around Alone site on the Internet.

Rudiger said Autissier told him in Auckland, New Zealand, before the start of Leg 3 that sailing too far south on the way to Cape Horn would be dangerous.

"So I am surprised to see her so far down there at 55S," Rudiger said. "The trouble with getting down that far south is that when one of these lows [storms] hits you like this, you have to run for your life and try to get up north fast. But if you get damaged, then you're just in for a horrible beating."

To find Autissier, Soldini spent 22 hours sailing a zigzag course across the face of 30- to 35-knot winds and into 30-foot seas.

"There was no question that I would go," Soldini said afterward, adding that eventually the storm front passed and winds dropped off to 25 knots and shifted so he could sail a direct course to PRB's last position.

When Soldini arrived at the waypoint in the early hours of Tuesday morning, visibility was poor because of darkness and high seas.

"I start to get really, really worried. You feel the sea is very big and you feel very stupid," he said, adding that even though he climbed the mast for better visibility, PRB was not in sight.

Pierre Lasnier, the weather router on Soldini's shore team, coordinated the final phase of the rescue. He set up a search zone, creating a grid pattern determined by the emergency signals from the dual beacons aboard PRB.

"I went one mile one way and then one mile back," Soldini said. "Then, just as I was [turning], I saw it -- the keel and then the boat."

After circling Autissier several times and calling her name, Soldini said, he found a hammer below decks and threw it against PRB's hull.

Autissier was taking a nap in an air pocket inside the inverted hull when the hammer awakened her. She emerged through an escape hatch in the transom.

"I just didn't realize Giovanni would come so early," she said, adding she had been awakened from an uneasy sleep. "You can imagine that you do worry when you are in a boat full of water."

Autissier transferred to Fila by getting into her life raft and drifting downwind on a tether until Soldini could bring her aboard Fila. PRB was abandoned.

"It was a huge responsibility for him to find me," Autissier said as she and Soldini shared wine and cheese aboard Fila. "Of course, I'm very sad about my boat. But to be alive is better."

Soldini will be credited for the time off the course during the rescue. Autissier cannot assist Soldini in any way and both must sign affidavits to that effect when they arrive in Punta del Este, Uruguay, at the end of Leg 3.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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