Solo sailor loses the race, gains following

Navy town touched by Dalton's doggedness

May 16, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

NORFOLK, Va. -- He is a competitive sailor without a race. The fleet has come, gone and crossed the finish line in Spain.

There is a winner, but it's not Graham Dalton. He sits at a dock here, waiting for his boat to be repaired so he can begin the final leg of the Velux Five Oceans, a solo around-the-world race that is, perhaps, the most grueling sailing competition in the world.

There is nothing left for the 54-year-old salt to prove, except to himself. He has taken on the worst possible conditions, seen his boat torn to shreds and has been battered physically and mentally.

Yet, he presses on.

"It'll snow at the equator before I give up," he says matter-of-factly. "I will sail to Spain. No one can take that away from me."

Race organizers have labeled him DNS - sailing shorthand for Did Not Start - for the final leg from Norfolk to Spain. Whatever he does from here will not count, except to himself.

Dalton's motivation is written right on the bow of his 50-foot boat for all the world to see: A Southern Man AGD. The boat is named for his son and best friend, Anthony Graham Dalton, who died of cancer at 22, just four days before Christmas 2005. It was Tony who convinced his father to take another crack at the race after a dismasting forced him to withdraw in 2002.

But, Dalton says, a solo circumnavigation isn't the kind of race you do for somebody else. "You have to do it for yourself."

Dalton is the living embodiment of the old saying, "If he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all."

When someone mentions that to him, he pauses briefly for a dry laugh.

"I can't cry about it. It is what it is, and I have to make the best of it," he says in a New Zealand accent that is without bluster or pity. "You don't beat yourself up, you go forward. I can't do anything about the decision of the race organizers. What I can do something about is how I react to that."

This city with a strong Navy presence has adopted him and helped him "to the point of embarrassment," Dalton says. Retired fighter pilots and SEALS have put him up and taken him to dinner. People stop by the waterfront to see if he needs anything. Engineers from BAE Industries rebuilt his rudders, and divers conducted an inspection of the boat's bottom for free.

"People know his story and he's grabbed their hearts," says Jim Dixon, the Norfolk race coordinator.

His fellow Velux sailors, many of them at home now, also feel his pain. The race that started with eight competitors finished with half that many.

The legendary Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, 68, the first person to sail around the world nonstop and one of the four finishers, marveled at Dalton's courage: "My problems pale into insignificance compared with his."

Dalton is amused by the attention he's getting, and chalks it up to the "Ulysses factor" - people being drawn to incredible suffering and perseverance.

"The biggest surprise - and I don't really chase media, I'm over that - is the interest in me, bearing in mind the fact that I'm a loser, really."

Problems mount

He arrived here April 25, six months after raising his sails in Bilbao, Spain, on the first leg of the race to Fremantle, Australia. Despite some early weather and equipment problems, he was in the thick of the race.

Then on Christmas Eve, everything began crashing. A storm he thought would pass about 150 miles behind his boat enveloped him. Winds of 45 knots forced him to drop the main sail. The howling continued to 60 knots, then 80 knots. Seas rose to 60 feet, taller than Dalton's boat is long.

"I've seen a few storms at sea. I've been rolled down at Cape Horn before," he says. "I was thinking, `I've been to the well once too often. I don't think we're coming back from this one.'

"I called home and in the day and age we live in, I got an answerphone and I had to leave a message for [wife] Robbie: `You know you might not hear from me again. I think this might be it.'"

Then, Dalton says, he wondered what it would feel like to have his lungs fill with cold water.

"Christmas Day, I was just happy to be alive. It was a good present. I hope to never see another day like that again."

On land, Robbie Dalton was battling a force that threatened to take her down. Diagnosed with breast cancer while her husband was at sea, she told him she would be away for three days and out of cell phone contact, then had a mastectomy before he reached Fremantle.

"Graham was off the coast of South Africa and too close to Cape Horn for my liking. If I'd told him that I was about to have a mastectomy, then I know that he would have felt that he had to pull out, go into Cape Town, come home and that would mean the end of his chance of ever completing the race," she told the New Zealand Press Association. "So I decided that Tony had been through a hell of a lot worse than I was facing and I decided that I would do it myself."

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