Conquering fear -- and Earth's oceans


May 16, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

J. P. Mouligne and Mike Garside are an odd couple in an odd sport, a pair of solo yacht racers who have chased one another across the oceans of the world to finish first and second last week in Class II of the Around Alone race.

"It was incredible," Mouligne said Thursday after arriving in Charleston, S.C., to win his class in near-record time. "It is an incredible race and an incredible experience."

The stories behind the Frenchman and the Briton, the former carnival knife thrower and the former special forces officer, are intriguing as well.

At 43, Mouligne spent the past 10 years and all his savings on his race campaign and in his professional debut, won three of four legs and finished second to Garside on the last leg to Charleston.

At 54, Garside retired from his publishing company, stepped aboard a racing boat last Sept. 26 for the first time in 18 years and learned to sail again as he raced around the world.

"From the moment this boat was put into the water, it became my greatest hell," Garside said at the news conference after finishing Leg 4. "I've been pushed very, very hard all the way.

"[But] I have found as the race has gone on that I have changed my view from one of absolutely hating sailing because of the fear and because of the loneliness to gradually getting back to being -- to use an American term -- pretty mellow.

"I have come back to being at one with the sea."

But it wasn't easy, even for a man who took a one-week sailing course in 1979 and "put my long-suffering family aboard and sailed around the world."

First, he said, there was the business of sailing a super, high-tech 50-foot racer, and second there was an almost uncontrollable fear of storms and drowning.

"Before the race, I really didn't know if I was going to come back alive," said Garside, a retired member of the British Special Air Service. "I'm not as wildly brave as I was. Thunder and lightning at sea, it just scares the pants off me."

To help deal with his fears, Garside listened to self-hypnosis tapes made especially for him by a hypno-therapist.

Garside learned to sail Magellan-Alpha, his Groupe Finot Open 50, as he went along, improving leg by leg, until it all came together during the last layover in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

The two keys to Garside's winning performance on Leg 4 were a lesson by Class I winner Giovanni Soldini, who after 20,000 miles of racing taught the Briton how to use his water ballast system, and tactics culled from monitoring Mouligne's critiques on the Internet.

"Every time he wrote that I'd made some mistake, I would write it down and make sure I did exactly the opposite the next time," said Garside, who traded barbs and confidences in radio messages and e-mails with Mouligne and American Brad van Liew throughout the race.

Van Liew's yacht, Balance Bar, was dismasted on the final leg.

"Mike did a better job tactically on this leg," Mouligne said after sailing Cray Valley across the finish line. "He deserved to win this leg."

But Mouligne, whose previous ocean sailing experience consisted of five Atlantic crossings, was easily the best sailor in the fleet.

Mouligne's overall winning time was 132 days, 4 hours, 3 minutes and 9 seconds. Mouligne fell short of David Adams' record set in the 1994-1995 race by 24 hours.

On Leg 1 to Cape Town, South Africa, Mouligne ran out of food three days before he finished and still beat the leg record for Class II by two days.

On Leg 2 to Auckland, New Zealand, Mouligne finished fourth overall, 12 hours behind the second- and third-place Class I boats and six days ahead of Garside, who finished second in Class II.

Mouligne easily won Leg 3 to Punta del Este, Uruguay, but on the last leg back to Charleston, the bottom dropped out.

"First I started with a bad weather option by going too far east," Mouligne said early in the leg. "When I realized my mistake I maneuvered all night in winds that were going from 0 to 20 knots in seconds and shifting 40 or 50 degrees."

By morning he still was 55 miles behind Garside and the mainsail on Cray Valley was badly torn at the tack and "quickly approaching the point of no return."

Heavy weather had hammered Mouligne's boat, knocking his berth off the cabin wall and forcing him to sleep at the navigation station.

Compounding his problems was a badly infected knee, which Mouligne treated after transmitting photographs of the injury to the Around Alone website, where fleet doctor Dan Carlin made a diagnosis.

"The doctor's diagnosis was a strep infection," Mouligne said, "a dangerous condition at home but a potentially deadly one at sea."

Two weeks into the leg, fighting further sail problems and the strep infection, Mouligne battled Garside through the Doldrums, a band of violent squalls and flat calm near the Equator. Garside's lead dwindled from 230 to 68 miles over a three-day period.

"We are engaged in a battle of slowness, with shifty winds mixed with flat calm and squalls," Mouligne wrote in an e-mail. "This is the worst part of the trip, but also for me the chance to come back."

But Garside, learning tactics through the Internet and calming his fears with self-hypnosis, was -- for one leg, at least -- uncatchable.

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