With land just memory, misery has no company


December 06, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Yesterday at noon, a fleet of 15 yachts and 15 sailors left Cape Town, South Africa, for Auckland, New Zealand, some 6,900 nautical miles east across the Southern Ocean, an insanely violent and desolate expanse of the globe.

Five of the skippers in the Around Alone race have raced these waters before, solo. For the other 10, it will be a dangerous baptism.

"There's the potential of ice, which you really can't predict," said Mike Golding, the British skipper who won the first leg in Class I (60-footers). "The berg that can sink your boat would not be visible because they are semi-submerged."

There also is the danger of capsizing in the high winds and heavy seas, said Jean-Paul Mouligne, the French skipper who won the first leg in class II (40 to 50 feet), and always the possibility of severe personal injury.

In Class II, Viktor Yazykov of Russia and Robin Davie of Charleston, S.C., know first-hand the dangers of racing across oceans alone in small boats.

On Leg 1 from Charleston to Cape Town, Yazykov performed surgery on his injured right elbow, experienced chemical poisoning and delirium and came close to being dismasted.

Davie lost his autopilot, alternator, ballast pump and rudder and limped into Cape Town after a 58-day journey.

"I suppose you could say it was adventurous, wasn't it?" said Davie, at 47 a former merchant navy officer. "It was one of those adventures that you don't plan on."

Having passed the Doldrums south of the Equator, said Davie, he was making gains on the other boats in Class II when the rudder broke.

"And it would happen at night," he said. "There was a bit of a squall coming through, 25- to 30-knot winds, and we were moving pretty fast. Just like that the boat rounded up, head into the wind and sea. It was about 2 in the morning, pitch black and lashing down with rain."

Davie said he hove to and checked the steering system, found nothing wrong inside the boat and put off further work until daylight.

"I went down [below deck] and had a cup of tea -- that's the good English thing to do," said Davie, who grew up in England before moving to South Carolina recently. "Eventually, we could conclude only that the rudder just wasn't there. That really cheeses you off. It was the pits at the time."

Davie, unable to replace the missing rudder, steered the boat with the sails, setting and resetting them often, and by streaming heavy lines behind the boat to create drag and turning force.

"It really was 24 hours a day on deck with very little sleep to try to make this happen. Physically it was nothing short of bloody awful," said Davie, who was dismasted 2,500 miles from Cape Horn in the BOC Challenge four years ago.

"Losing the rudder would make losing the rig at Cape Horn look like a Sunday afternoon picnic."

When Davie, who is sailing in his third solo race around the world, limped into Cape Town 10 days before the start of Leg 2, he had been on short food rations for weeks and was physically and mentally exhausted.

"It was an experience I never wish to repeat," he said. "But I certainly wouldn't have missed it for the world."

For Yazykov, a 50-year-old boat builder, Leg 2 might seem a cakewalk compared to his 50-day ordeal on Leg 1.

"I have never had a journey like this," said Yazykov, who was able to qualify for the race only after donations of equipment and services by competitors, boaters and businesses.

"After I started, I burnt myself with boiling water. The second day at sea, I was eating an orange and I broke a tooth," said Yazykov, who later poisoned himself by inadvertently adding the moisture-absorbing packets of silica to his freeze-dried foods.

"I usually eat lots of soup, and you find the same sachets with spices that you mix up," he said. "I couldn't eat or sleep or do anything for a couple of days and I just got crazy."

But his most serious problem began on the way to Charleston, when he severely bruised his elbow while working in the cabin. Later, he re-injured it while working ashore on the mast, and eventually went to sea Oct. 1 with a padded brace covering the injury.

During a stormy night Nov. 8, a piece of rigging supporting the mast on Yazykov's 40-footer broke, and over the next five hours he estimated he climbed the mast a half-dozen times to make repairs.

The extreme stress caused his elbow to swell dangerously, and Yazykov said it was then he realized he might have to lance the abscess. Two days later, with a flashlight strapped to his head and e-mail instructions from Dr. Dan Carlin of the World Clinic, he cut it open with the sharp edge of a mirror.

"For about a half an hour I did not know what to do. Have been sitting on the bloody cabin floor almost completely naked, all covered with blood, with my right arm lashed up and watching as my life, drop by drop, is leaving me," Yazykov wrote in an e-mail, asking Carlin for instructions on how to save his arm, which had lost all color and feeling after the abscess was lanced.

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