In Challenge, expect unexpected

OUTDOORS

November 06, 1994|By PETER BAKER

At the Victoria and Albert docks in Cape Town, South Africa, over the next couple of weeks, competitors in the BOC Challenge will complete preparations for the start of the second leg of the single-handed sailing race around the world, across the Southern Indian Ocean to Sydney, Australia.

The leader in the race is a Frenchwoman, Isabelle Autissier. The top American competitor is Steve Pettengill of Newport, R.I. The fleet, which started from Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 17 with 20 boats, is down to 18.

One British skipper, Mark Gatehouse, retired from the competition 10 days into the race for personal reasons.

A second skipper, Josh Hall, also of England, lost his boat after a collision at sea on Oct. 18.

From the routes of Pettengill and Hall come two stories from the first leg of the BOC, one grounded in seat-of-the-pants sailing and the other constructed with the benefit of state-of-the-art technology.

In mid-October, with Hunter's Child 27 degrees south and 27 degrees west in the South Atlantic, Pettengill stood in fifth place in Class I (boats over 60 feet), more than 800 miles from Autissier, who was equally far south but 20 degrees to the east.

Pettengill, after relying largely on weather forecasts from race headquarters, had decided to make his own predictions based on real-time satellite pictures received on board. The forecasts, Pettengill said, seemed "to be a couple of days behind reality."

He also was plagued by flying fish, which cluttered the deck each morning.

"If these flying fish are going to fly at night, they should have headlights," Pettengill jokingly reported from Hunter's Child on Oct. 17.

But his real problem was finding the westerlies, steady winds blowing toward the east, which he hoped would allow him to cross quickly south of the rest of the fleet and close ground on Autissier.

"I have found the westerlies, finally," Pettengill reported on Oct. 19. "Now I have to make the most of them."

According to satellite positioning fixes, at 3:45 a.m. on the 19th, Pettengill was in fourth place, 12 miles behind Ben Vio of South Africa and Vendee Enterprises of France. Six hours later, Hunter's Child was in second place and pulling away at 8 knots.

Five days later, after two successive days with runs of more than 300 miles, Pettengill had built a 520-mile lead but was having other problems.

"I'm running low on food," reported Pettengill. "I guess it's time to get to shore and grocery store."

Pettengill finished in Cape Town on Oct. 28 and was greeted by his wife, Patty, and 100 schoolchildren in a crowd of 300 who have been receiving periodic reports from Hunter's Child. He was still five days behind Autissier.

"Isabelle is a terrific sailor and Ecureuil PC2 is a fast boat," Pettengill said. "But this is a 27,000-mile race and every sailor knows a lot can happen."

Hall, the English skipper sailing the 60-foot Gartmore Investment Managers, learned something of the risks involved in the BOC. On Leg 1, 500 miles off the coast of Brazil, Hall's yacht collided with an unknown object and began to sink.

While Pettengill was searching for the westerlies well south in the Atlantic, Australian skipper Alan Nebauer and COMSAT Mobile Communications of Clarksburg, Md., were going about the business of saving Hall's life.

In this race, all boats are equipped with COMSAT's satellite communications and tracking equipment.

Early on Oct. 18, after his boat had struck what is believed to have been a cargo container that broke loose from a freighter, Hall had pushed the distress button on his boat's INMARSAT-C system, which sent a signal to the British Coast Guard in England, which notified BOC race officials in Charleston.

Using COMSAT communications equipment, Hall reported severe damage forward on Gartmore and that he had started his engine and electric pumps to try to keep his boat afloat.

Using Sail Track, a COMSAT global positioning satellite system developed especially for the BOC, race organizers began determining the positions of all competitors and within minutes found Nebauer to be the closest, 90 miles to the northwest.

Using a satellite up-link, Nebauer and Hall were notified to change courses toward an intercept point, which was achieved within eight hours. Several other BOC skippers between Hall's position and Charleston also became part of the information and location network during the rescue.

"The COMSAT services were crucial for rescue coordination," said BOC race director Mark Schrader. "We needed reliable, real-time communications that weren't affected by the weather conditions -- not only with Josh and Alan, but with other skippers as well. COMSAT's services provided that."

Said Hall, immediately after he was rescued: "I'm scared, tired and dazed, but OK. Alan picked me up at . . . 13 degrees south, 28 degrees west. When we left the scene, it was still dark, but Gartmore's decks were almost awash.

0 "Before leaving, I opened all the seacocks."

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