Do You See the Coastline?
|Via KMI, the American station that had finally consented to let me utilize its wavelengths, I was able to call my family. What a feeling of euphoria to make contact at last. After each call, my rowing day sped by so much more quickly, my head filled with a thousand little things to ponder. And their letters, which reached me now via satellite, could be read and reread as many times as I liked, giving me the impression at least that my loved ones were not all that far away. They forced me to keep thinking: what time is it for them now? What are they doing? What's the weather like over there?
Cold, but the conditions are fine, with the winds from the west at a bout fifteen knots. Obsessed by my goal of reach-ing the three-quarter mark in the crossing. Each time I attain one of these goals, however, all I can think about is not what has been accomplished but how far I still have to go.
During the evening, a ship passed by, but I wasn't able to make contact with it. Too bad. I wouldn't have minded if one of the crew had tossed a bottle of Scotch in my direction!
|Yesterday evening, just as the sun was going down, the sky turned the color of polished cotton.
0500: Sector capsizes, as usual, then again at 0600. Violently both times, tossing me about in the cabin like a rag doll. Black and blue marks everywhere. My hand
|One of the little joys of the crossing: yesterday I repaired a pipe that was leaking in our Paris apartment. How? Via radio. Cornëlia was on the other end of the line, and I told her which tools to use, then took her through the repair process step by step. This minor but all-important incident made me feel that I was back in contact with the real world.
It took little to entertain me these days. Running through the scene over and over again, I managed to lift my spirits and completely forgot the slave labor I was performing in the cockpit.
|I decided to give myself a few hours off, and instead of getting up at daybreak and heading for the cockpit, I kept to my bunk, hoping time would move more quickly. Every once in a while a big wave would arouse me from my torpor. But after a few hours of presumed rest, I realized that the constant battering of the boat by the waves left me more
tired than I had been when I had begun. As I was pulling myself out of the sleeping bag, there was something about the sound of an oncoming wave I didn't like, and I rushed to the porthole and slammed it shut. Lucky premonition -Sector was again on its back. Reflexes, well-practiced move-ments: the sleeping bag goes into its watertight cover, ma-neuver the ballast tanks, pump working. Even so, some water did get in before the porthole was secured, and my clothes, as well as the sleeping bag, were soaking wet.
Checking, I noted the visible decline of my physical abil-ities. At the start of the trip, I could produce a liter of fresh water using the desalination pump in exactly twelve min-utes. This morning it took me twenty. That translated into a "decline" of over fifty percent.
Despite that, I decided that today I was going to "sac-rifice" five liters of fresh water to wash down my sleeping bags, which were so impregnated with salt that they never dried. In fact, I had baptized them, respectively, the "Salt Mine" and the "Salt Marsh."
I spread both sleeping bags out to dry in the cockpit and, as if to smile on me, the sun made an appearance right on schedule to help dry them out. What a delight it would be to sleep in a clean, dry sleeping bag, without having to don a slicker! To make myself worthy of such unmitigated plea-sure, and since the weather was good, I decided to put in a few nocturnal hours at the oars.
Now the nights are as long as the days. How far still to go? How far? I would give a great deal to know the answer to that question.
In five days the Paris Boat Show would open. I had wanted to reach land in time to fly there and show off Sector.
Again in an effort to escape reality, to turn my thoughts from the present and the burning question of survival, I focused my mind on that nautical event seven thousand miles to the east. I pictured the people there, the vast panoply of boats from all over the world, then focused on my own stand. Actually, now that I thought about it, why shouldn't we put the Captain Cook on display as well? Yes, I would have to mention that to Christopher.
|Page 100 of my logbook, marking the hundredth day of the crossing. Last night was superb. I rowed until dawn.
I was beginning to grow weary of my dehydrated food. I hadn't taken enough sweets on board. I should have brought more chocolate, more whisky.
At dawn, wind
from the south. Huge swells, and very choppy seas. Laborious route
to the northeast. Heading directly toward Vancouver —
or Anchorage. If this
keeps up, I’ll wind up in Alaska. Hellishly hard. Soaking wet
from head to foot. I stop rowing, totally depressed. I hurt all
over. Progress report: ten lousy knots. Morale at its lowest ebb.
to what some people may think, there is nothing masochistic about
a crossing such as mine. Masochism consists of inflicting pain on
oneself in order to derive pleasure from it. In my own case, I do
concoct difficult situations but only in order to derive pleasure
afterward, once the victory has been won. It is true that the more
perils there are, the greater the satisfaction at having overcome
them. I will have climbed a tall mountain, and earned my own
esteem. But pain for pain’s sake has never held any attraction
for me whatsoever.
all have the desire — overt or covert — to accomplish some
very difficult task, something that will instill pride in
ourselves. Anyone who thinks that a suicidal tendency is an
element of the picture is totally wrong. If I had ever had the
slightest tendency in that direction, I would have been dead long
ago. It’s not as though there were lack of opportunities. It is,
rather, the opposite tendency at work here, namely the insatiable
will to survive. In the course of this crossing, my survival
instinct was ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times,
stronger than it is in the course of a so-called normal life,
because I want with all my heart and soul to reach my goal.
have not been conditioned or programmed by any techniques of
auto-suggestion. I have programmed myself, focused ever since the
project began on a single objective:
there, reach my goal.
also add an element of pugnaciousness. Not aggressiveness, which I
think is the wrong word. But pugnaciousness, which I think is what
it’s all about. A combative spirit. Without it, I don’t think
there’s a prayer in hell you could ever see it through to the
demoralized, I’m beginning to have a very serious sense of
failure. What I need, and need badly, is a
series of low pressure systems, bringing me winds out of the west,
and I am getting nothing of the sort.
Worse, according to Eddy,
there are no low pressure systems anywhere on the horizon.
was not far off, with everything that implies, starting with
increasingly cold weather. Since I was in the midst of high
pressure systems, I was shrouded in fog, which meant that my solar
panels were no longer charging. My telex was permanently on the
the evening, to add insult to injury, the moon appeared from
behind the clouds — an almost full moon — just as the sun was
so low on the horizon that it could do nothing to help my solar
wind had fallen, and I was rowing under the full moon. I much
preferred the moon — a heavenly body you could gaze upon — to
the blinding sun. And besides, on moonlit nights I got the
impression I was making far faster progress than I could make by
crossed the thousand-mile mark, that is, the point that was only a
thousand miles from shore. The last thousand miles. Winds light
out of the southwest, and I was moving right along the
forty-fourth parallel, at the rate of about a degree of longitude
per day. Twelve days had passed without Sector capsizing.
Quite an exploit! My obsession to get there, to reach land, was
getting out of hand; it was so overwhelming that it kept waking me
up in the middle of the night. I sent Christopher my projected
ETAs, giving him my most optimistic and pessimistic dates. It
would be between November 21 and December 1. The 2 1st: my God,
that was only a little more than three weeks away!
around the moon, a bad sign.
how I had developed an acute sixth sense, a gift of double vision.
Was it perhaps because I had so much time for reflection and
analysis? Or was it possibly that my mind was so much more
receptive? Rid of the normal intrusions of daily life, could my
mind have enlarged and become more perceptive?
There were times,
for example, when for no reason at all I would be thinking of a
friend whom I hadn’t seen in years, and when I talked to
Christopher I was not at all surprised to hear him say that that
very person had just called the office. The most astonishing
aspect of the phenomenon was that it struck me as perfectly
commonplace and normal.
In any case, this
morning I had the distinct feeling that today would be marked by
an encounter. Not only did I have an intuition that I was going to
make contact with a ship, but I knew that it would be a very
specific contact. I was so sure, in fact, that when a freighter
hoved into view on the horizon, I already had my camera, my video,
and my VHF radio right next to me, and the French flag was flying
from the radio antenna!
was the Russian freighter Pskov, out of Vladivostok, headed
for Vancouver. Against all odds, but precisely as I had intuited,
the ship reversed engines and came to a complete halt, to allow me
to pull alongside.
are you doing here?" the captain asked.
going to the United States."
are we. Come on board."
that I was dying to join them, they unfurled a rope ladder down
the side. They were completely taken aback when I politely
declined. They assumed I had just arrived from outer space.
crew took pictures. When they arrived in Vancouver, they were
surprised to be greeted by a reception committee: Christopher,
whom I alerted in Paris via radio, had arranged to have the ship
met, so that the photos could be couriered back to France, where
they appeared the following week on the cover of a weekly news
happy anniversary: I had crossed another time zone and was now on
Pacific Standard Time.
A stroke of bad
luck. Yesterday I lost the larger of
my two sea anchors, its
rope frayed from its swivel.
was a serious blow. More serious than I wanted to admit. Now I
could no longer prevent the southerly storms from pushing me
inexorably northward. Without my sea anchor, my chances of putting
in to San Francisco were virtually nil.
That was a
disappointment but nothing compared to the realization that, to
the north, the American coast was very inhospitable and the seas,
at this time of year, extremely rough.
appetite was steadily decreasing. I was eating only one meal a
day. My growing lassitude regarding the dehydrated food was
augmented by not being able to keep myself from conjuring up
images of juicy steaks and bright green salads. I had the feeling
I had lost a fair amount of weight, but with my many layers of
clothing I couldn’t swear to it. My guess was that I had lost
somewhere between fifteen and twenty pounds, which was about what
I’d lost during my Atlantic crossing.
dark, a shower of shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of
them lighting up the heavens like a bolt of lightning.
south wind continues unabated. A horrible night, with the stern of
the boat striking the water every two hours like a cannon shot.
The foulest weather imaginable. Driving rain. Thunderous noise.
sequestered in my cabin, writing the above by candlelight, since
there was no more electricity. Battered by the storm. Winter had
set in, and I felt like tossing in the towel. The thought of all
those cheering me on, who wanted me to succeed, helped me to hang
out of "hooch," a homemade eau-de-vie my father had
given me to take on the trip, I’m reduced to using the rubbing
alcohol from my first-aid kit. I needed a little pick-me-up to
restore my flagging spirits and poured some alcohol in my coffee.
Frankly, the brew was undrinkable, but what the hell.
the definition of an alcoholic is somebody who imbibes excessive
quantities of alcohol, then I’m not an alcoholic. But I was
nonetheless beginning to ask myself the question. Directly behind
my number one desire — or, more properly, obsession — to make
landfall in America, was my craving for a good glass of wine in a
real glass; or a gin and tonic, a Scotch, a martini. But above all
I craved the glass of good wine. And if in fact I was a closet
alcoholic, and I set off on this adventure without weighing fully
all the consequences of that possibility (I had only one
five-liter jug of wine left, which I did not dare open), then all
these weeks of forced abstinence should have served as an almost
certain cure. But abstinence had the opposite effect. The longer I
remained on the wagon, the more I dreamed about drinking. From
that I concluded I was incurable. To make matters worse, my
memories seized on various occasions when I had drunk this or that
memorable wine, and I relived those glorious moments in living
color. No alcoholic memory escaped the widening net of my
memories. Ah yes, that cool bottle of beer we savored in the
British port of Falmouth — the only beer in the house, but did
it taste good! And what about that divine bottle of Bordeaux that
the former owner of the Lady Maud had given us, that
English millionaire we just happened to meet when we put into port
at Bënodet in December of 1972. Oh, and that suspect bottle of
Burgundy we drank in Beaune that day in 1981. And that whisky,
that delicious whisky and soda we had on the deck of Lady
Maud in the bay of Bantry twenty years ago.
on to the Place de l’Ecole Militaire in Paris where, on the
terrace of a bistro, we savored a wonderful dark beer.
seemed to remember virtually every drink of note I’d ever had,
and quite a few of little note. Not only the drinks themselves but
the shape of the glasses, the color of the liquid, the reflections
of glass and bottle on the table, the atmosphere of each and every
setting, and, of course, the taste, the exquisite taste. My memory
went so far as to transport me back to my earliest discoveries in
this area back to the family house in Kërantré, where as a
wayward child I used to sneak sips of Cointreau and Benedictine,
alone and in hiding from prying eyes but surrounded by the
disapproving stares of the family ancestors who gazed down at me
severely from their appointed places on the library walls.
Foremost among them, the General seemed to disapprove most
day, having indulged a bit more than usual, having used as my
source of supply my grandmother’s homemade black currant brandy,
which she prized above all others, I was dozing in one of the
easychairs when, in my stupor, I heard her voice behind me,
growling, "Bad boy! Sure as I’m your grandmother, you’ll
end up an alcoholic!"
winds. Heavy swells.
the morning, as I was talking to Christopher on the phone, I
realized that at this point we were not only geographically worlds
apart but worlds apart in our thinking. The subject under
discussion was plane reservations, and
him it was a matter of utmost importance. He wanted to make sure
he booked tickets for all those who wanted to be in the States
when I arrived. Arrived? The thought still seemed so far off to
me. Christopher was living in "Parisian time" while my
time was slowness and perseverance. To pin things down, he wanted
to know exactly when and where I planned to land. I blew my stack,
not realizing that to secure thirty or forty plane tickets for a
single flight was not a given, or at least could not be
accomplished overnight. But what could I tell him? I now knew that
the chances of making landfall in San Francisco were slight, as I
also knew that the final stage of my journey would be difficult
I was doing everything in my power to keep Sector
headed for San Francisco, because that was the place I had
picked to land, whereas the real goal of the voyage had been
simply to make landfall somewhere in North America. At this point
I was 500 miles from Vancouver Island and a good 800 from San
Francisco. It would be ridiculous on my part to keep focusing on a
secondary objective — San Francisco — that was increasingly
inaccessible, especially since I had lost the larger of my two
anchors. The problem was, I was approaching a rugged coast, one of
the most dangerous in the world, where ports are few and far
between. To make matters worse, these ports are generally
protected by barrier reefs that are impossible to cross in bad
weather. The central issue was to bring Sector ashore
safely — and me with it — rather than organizing some
was now fourteen hours long, and yet I slept less and less,
completely obsessed by the desire to reach shore.
I thought or did was merely a pretense for figuring out where I
was in relation to my arrival. I had seventeen cigarettes left; I
would smoke one a day, hoping that I would have enough to last me
till I landed. I took out a tank of bottled gas, telling myself
that it was certain to be the last, or next to last. Well, maybe
two more. The one thing I refused to do was count the strokes of
my oars; that would have been sheer torture.
memories... In September 1980, on the train that was bringing a
friend to the Brittany port of Brest as part of the welcoming
committee to celebrate the triumphant conclusion of my Atlantic
crossing, the friend turned to a journalist sitting next to him
and said, "From what I just heard on the radio, apparently
Gerard’s hands have doubled in size.
next day newspaper headlines blared: HIS HANDS ARE TWICE THEIR
SIZE! As soon as I landed, everyone rushed to see what my hands
looked like. Their comments were varied, but this one made me
chuckle for a long time afterward:
his hands must have really been tiny when he started!"
took them a long time to realize that my hands were just like
anyone else’s. But the initial impression is always what counts.
A decade later, scarcely a week went by without somebody stopping
me to say:
still remember those hands of yours, poor fellow, when you pulled
in at Brest. They were twice their normal size!"
Choshi, before I departed, a Japanese journalist insisted on
taking a photograph of my hands. What he should have photographed
were my buttocks. That’s the part of my anatomy that suffered
most during the crossing.
for my hands, they did fine. Hardly any blisters and very few
calluses. In other words, experience proves that as a person grows
older his hands harden and his buttocks soften.
Last night, an
abrupt return to reality: Sector
capsized twice. It hadn’t
happened to me for three weeks.
first time it was as if I were being given a gentle reminder. It
was the least threatening capsize since I’d set out. A
three-hundred-and-sixty degree revolution in the space of a few
seconds. I was fast asleep when it happened. When I woke up I wasn’t
even sure the boat had actually capsized until I checked and found
a number of objects not in their usual place. In other words, it
was a real sweetheart as capsizes go. And yet, two hours later I
was out in the cockpit battening down the oars, not wearing my
safety harness, although the winds were high, and if the same
thing had happened then — that is, if the boat had turned over
and righted itself immediately — it would have sailed away
leaving me in its wake. Fault me for not buckling up, but after
going through a full somersault, you tend to think that lightning
won’t strike again right away.
true. Just before dawn Sector turned over
again. I had done my best to distribute the weight throughout the
trip, so that one side or the other was not too heavy, yet at this
point my starboard stern was considerably heavier than the port
and I had all I could do, battling waves and wind, to turn over.
Twenty minutes passed with no apparent progress, till finally it
rolled back over. By then, I was so tired I couldn’t even
remember what I was supposed to do next.
months! A terrible night.
boat capsized at about 2000 hours. Took me about 10—15 minutes
to get it righted. I had just taken a leak and was about to empty
my "chamber pot" overboard, through the open porthole.
One can only imagine what might have happened jf I had taken my
leak a minute later!
rowed under a bright moon tonight, and it was comforting to think
that I might be able to enjoy the moon’s company till the end of
my trip. Very heavy westerly swells, waves up to twenty-five feet,
though not unpleasant, since they were not breaking. But my nerves
were still raw, and for all intents and purposes I could no longer
conversation with a journalist, who asked me, "How far are
you now from the coast?"
than 400 miles."
so you can see the coastline?" No comment.
informed Christopher that I was aiming for the Columbia River and
landfall somewhere between November 21 and 23.
Somehow frightening to
have reached a fixed time
and place of arrival, with no hard knowledge of the weather
conditions. Final straight line. Frightening, too, to think that
even this close to land anything might still happen, especially if
there are squalls close to shore.
to be careful, but just too exhausted, I hadn’t realized that I
had become crotchety, emptied out, worn down like an old man. It
was high time this ordeal come to an end.