Thursday, December 03, 2009

Taming the Sea Monster

Damian Foxall is steering a sailboat through howling wind on a starless, bone-chilling November night on the North Atlantic. The yacht, Foncia, is an ORMA Open 60 trimaran, the fastest and most sophisticated class of sailboat on the water, a flighty thoroughbred born of computers and carbon fiber and capable of sustained speeds even few powerboats can match. There are nine other three-hulled boats like Foncia nearby, along with 19 traditional monohulls. They're racing from Le Havre, France, to Bahia, Brazil, in the Transat Jacques Vabre, one of the world's most prestigious transatlantic sailing races. Foxall, a lanky Irishman with close-cropped hair and an angular face, hasn't slept in 24 hours, but that's OK; Foncia is in the lead.

At 4 am the wind drops and Foncia slows - a good time to refine course and tack. Foxall gives the helm to his sole crewmate, Armel LeCleach, and crawls into the cockpit. He pulls in the sails and drops the canting mast away from the wind. Suddenly there's a gust, and the massive boat, 60 feet long and 60 feet wide, lifts. Foxall dives toward the mainsheet to release the sail and decelerate. But another gust, 49 knots - just short of hurricane force - knocks the yacht on its side. In an instant, Foncia is upside down and Foxall is underwater, pinned between a winch and the boom beneath a 5-ton boat.

Somehow, Foxall wriggles free, gulps air, and pulls himself aft. LeCleach, marooned on the upturned hull, yanks him aboard. But Foxall's chest and right shoulder are in agony, and he's unable to stand. So LeCleach opens one of the watertight hatches in the hull, drags Foxall inside, and sets off Foncia's distress signal. Continue here.

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