Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Southern Ocean

Christmas Day in the raging waters of the Southern Ocean, and Raphael Dinelli is hunkered alone in his cabin, hanging on against what will be either baptism or last rites in these cold, violent seas. It's not up to him anymore. He is somewhere near the midpoint of a single-handed around-the-world yacht race called the Vendïe Globe: a 26,000-mile run from Les Sables d'Olonne, France, and back, no stops allowed, you and your boat for more than three months against the worst the open ocean can roil up. And this is the worst. Out of 15 boats in this unlucky race, four will sink in these empty latitudes. Dinelli's will be the first. He is 1,200 miles southwest of Australia, barely a thousand miles north of Antarctica, in the midst of a trashing that his 60-foot sloop, Algimouss, will not survive.

Fifty-knot winds (about 58 miles per hour) have rolled him twice, laid his sails in the water for minutes at a time while 50-foot breakers collapse, burying him again and again in an avalanche of ice water. In a last telex to race headquarters in France he says that the seas are "smoking" as the wind tears the breaking wave tops into driving clouds of mist, that he has all sails down and two sea anchors astern in a vain attempt to slow the terrifying speeds at which he is hurtling down the sheer wave faces. Finally, in the cold, early dark of Christmas night, 1996, a huge breaker sends the 28-year-old Frenchman surfing for the last time. He watches helplessly as his speed reaches 26 knots, braces himself, and then crashes to the ceiling of his cabin as Algimouss slams into the wave trough, somersaults, and settles upside down in the torrent.

Frigid water rushes into the turtled boat through a hole torn in the deck by the shattered mast, which is levering around in the wash. Trapped, with water up to his waist, Dinelli pulls on his immersion suit, gathers survival supplies, and waits as waves roar and crash overhead and fuel from a ruptured tank fills the cabin with a stink that gets him puking. Three hours later, the mast breaks away, the boat comes right, and he scrambles onto the swamped deck. Under pitch-black skies, he sets off his distress beacons, inflates his life raft, and loads it with food and water, only to see the surge tear it loose of its tether and dance it away on the waves. Then, as Algimouss sinks slowly out from under him, he lashes himself to the stub of the mast, faces into the bitter wind to keep himself awake, and thinks about dying, as so many others have died, in the lonely furies of the most treacherous ocean on earth.

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