Savoring the taste of danger Survival: Crew members of Chessie Racing, taking part in the Whitbread Round the World Race, respect the power of the ocean while relishing the thrill of pushing themselves and their craft to the edge.


December 11, 1997|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FREMANTLE, Australia -- In 1903 an intrepid photographer hauled a cumbersome box camera way up the fore topmast stay aboard the English clipper Garthsnaid as it ran like a scared hound before a howling Southern Ocean gale.

When the photographer tripped the shutter, his plate-glass negative captured a moment of pure terror that still provokes an involuntary shiver of fear among armchair sailors.

Looking down aft through the maze of rigging, one can see men clinging pitifully to the outer edge of a yard wildly canted toward the boiling caldron of the sea.

Behind the ship, looming like a vast black mountain, is the mother of all waves, a sheer wall of water that rises up, up and up to dwarf the mizzen and make the struggling helmsmen look like Lilliputians.

Whatever else they did, men at the helm knew that they must never, ever look back. That way lay death.

The men who sailed the beautiful Baltimore clippers in the second half of the 19th century knew those killer seas only too well. Now, the crew of Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race, knows their terror, too. Strange thing is, these guys seem to love every hair-raising minute of it.

Screaming down the sheer face of a 40-foot breaking sea at 26 knots, roaring up the back of the next wave, bursting through and zooming down again and again for days and nights on end may seem like the ultimate nightmare to most sailors, but to the Whitbread sailors and the Chessie crew in particular, this is the greatest adrenalin rush any sailor can have.

When they heard that the British boat, Silk Cut, had established a mono-hull world speed record by sailing an astonishing 449.1 nautical miles in 24 hours, their reaction was a collective "Yahoo!"

Now they are busy trying to figure how to smash the 500 nautical-mile barrier. They actually feel sorry that most sailors will never experience anything like it.

When Chessie Racing made it into Fremantle after its 18-day passage from Cape Town, South Africa, co-skipper Mark Fischer of Baltimore was exhausted, but also exhilarated by the ordeal.

"Out there," he says, "you learn the hard way about the awesome power of the sea. You have to give it lots of respect or pay the price. You see pretty quickly that the ocean is a whole lot bigger and badder and better than you are.

"Out there, you catch a glimpse of something which is really beyond comprehension. You catch a glimpse of your own insignificance in the face of all that power, all that energy in the wind and the waves.

"Your adrenalin is pumping all the time, and the guys are all jazzed up," he says. "You are very cold, especially the tips of the fingers and feet."

Trucking toward the West Australian coast, Chessie Racing's watch captain, Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, provides a glimpse of the way in which one man's ultimate threshold becomes another's joy ride.

"There was heavy cloud cover," he reports, "which caused the evening to be very dark on deck.

"There is no other feeling in the world like hurtling along at 20 to 25 knots of boat speed into inky blackness, with the only light we can see being the five instrument readouts that are like alien eyes glowing red which hang from the back of the mast below the gooseneck.

"This image would fit comfortably into any George Lucas film, which I'm sure will be the closest thing to outer space that I will ever experience," he adds. "These readouts are our lifeline to reality when sailing with no horizon on these pitch-black nights.

"Since we are bundled head to toe, including goggles and our high-collared foulies [foul-weather gear], it's hard to feel the wind, and the readouts are our only reference. We might as well be blindfolded behind the wheel of a runaway truck without them.

"The helmsman and trimmer are sailing by the feel in the seat of their pants alone," Spanhake continues. "The whole crew is silent as we enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be down here in the Southern Ocean sailing at high speed for days on end.

"Even though I've been down here twice before, it hasn't been like this, at speeds like this, in boats that fly like this."

German psychologist Michael Stadler pointed out that to nonsailors it appears that yachtsmen invest ridiculous amounts of time and money to indulge in an activity for which they would demand hardship and danger pay if they were engaged in it professionally.

"Even 100 years ago, an experienced professional seaman would have considered anyone taking his life in his hands voluntarily, without economic compulsion and for purely sporting reasons, to be weak in the head," he says.

"It is without doubt a phenomenon of this century that some people react against a sheltered, predictable and monotonous urban lifestyle. So, they seek adventure and, to a certain extent, danger."

By the time the experienced Whitbread sailors met the kind of survival conditions they experienced in the "Roaring Forties" latitudes of the Southern Ocean, they had coped with hundreds of lesser situations.

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