The sea will tell: Fate conspires against sailor Plant's equipment, skill not enough

November 29, 1992|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

Among solo sailors who race across oceans, a passage of the North Atlantic is considered a short hop, a walk in the park when compared with the riotous expanse of the lower Indian Ocean or the South Pacific. After three solo races around the world, Mike Plant of Jamestown, R.I., certainly had made his share of passages on both the calm and wild sides of life.

Last Wednesday, five weeks out of New York and 23 days overdue in Les Sables d'Olonne on the coast of Bordeaux, France, Plant was missing at sea and presumed dead.

In reconstructing the last voyage of Mike Plant, the mural of his passage is blurry, but the portrait of the sailor is clear.

In spirit, Plant was a 19th century man, an explorer of the natural world and of himself, a discoverer.

In the small fraternity of solo ocean racers, Plant stood somewhat alone. He built his first round-the-world racer with his own hands. While sailors from other countries were backed by $2 million campaigns, Plant scrimped to get by. Plant was America's most successful solo racer. The French, who idolize such men, called him Top Gun.

Before taking up solo ocean racing in the mid-1980s, Plant had built homes, taught at an Outward Bound school, raced kayaks, taught skiing and hiked 12,000 miles alone through South America. He was engaged to Helen Davis, an artist, but returning to port had not always been the best of times for him.

Rather, he once told Sail magazine: "For me, the best part comes when I pull the sails up and head for the open sea."

On Oct. 16, apparently short on time and perhaps lacking in preparation, Plant had begun the 15-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, a 3,200-nautical-mile shakedown for his 60-foot racing sloop, Coyote.

An ocean passage on a new, high-tech boat could be no more difficult than sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia, with a 4-foot gash in the bow and the bilge pumps running all the way.

Plant was widely recognized as a man with a bent toward another age, but his boat this time around was a 20th century marvel, as close to state-of-the-art as a $600,000 construction budget could make it.

Launched in mid-September, almost a half-year behind schedule, at Concordia Custom Yachts in Massachusetts, Coyote was low, wide of beam and deep, stabilized by an 8,400-pound bulb at the end of a 14-foot keel and movable water ballast. It could carry more than 4,500 square feet of sail and weighed only 10.5 tons.

The navigation and communications center was served by three computers, and the electrical power for communications, radar and piloting was provided by two generators and a bank of batteries. Plant's needs were served by a single bunk, a toilet and a one-burner stove.

The hull itself was separated into five watertight compartments accessed through three airtight doors.

Coyote apparently was seaworthy, fast and, a member of its design team said, as maneuverable as a 14-foot dinghy. On an early October trip from Block Island to Cape May in winds to 35 knots, Coyote had averaged 16 knots and topped out at 24.

In all but chaotic conditions, Coyote could have been considered fail-safe -- unless there was a breakdown among the multitude of parts that made up the whole.

A week ago, a day after Plant's 42nd birthday, Coyote was found by a merchant ship, Protank Orinoco, 500 miles north of the Azores. The boat had capsized. The keel bulb was missing. A search by French divers in midweek determined the mast had been broken off several feet from the deck. The life raft was attached to the cockpit, partially inflated. Plant was not aboard.

A respect for the water

Plant was a hard-core sailor, dedicated to pressing his boat. But, friends and associates said, he was not apt to press himself or his boat to the point of damaging either.

"Water is water," Plant said during an interview with The Sun after the 1986-87 BOC Round the World Race. "It doesn't matter whether you are in the Great Lakes in a 14-foot boat in 8-foot seas, or in the Southern Ocean in a 60-footer with 50-footers and 60-knot winds.

"You respect it in either situation and sail as fast as you can."

What happened to Coyote and Plant, who was on his way to race a fourth time around the world in the Vendee Globe Challenge? This much is known of the time between his departure and last Sunday:

* Plant's course from New York to France would have carried him east and northeast along a great circle route with the prevailing westerlies, a wind pattern that usually blows from south to northwest at an average of about 25 knots.

* Plant planned to complete his trip by Oct. 30, which calculates to an average speed of just under 9 knots, or roughly 215 miles per day.

* On Oct. 21, Plant reported to a passing merchant ship that he had lost electrical power two days earlier but would continue to France while trying to make repairs. The merchant ship's position was along the southern edge of the Grand Banks, 2,200 miles west of France.

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