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                 The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records

 


October 912141517182227282931 • November 134791112 


Extracts from the book

Introduction

Good Luck
Ahead of Me...
Rowboat Calling...
With My Head...
And If All This ...
Survival
Typhoons
Indelibly Inscribed
Do You See...
The "Heavenly Bum"
One Second Longer

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Do You See the Coastline?

October 9
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!
October 12
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 injured, too.
October 14
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.

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October 15
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.

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October 17
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.
October 18

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.

Contrary 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.

We 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.

I 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:

get there, reach my goal.

I 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 bitter end.

Completely 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.

Winter 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 blink.

In 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 panels.

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October 22
The 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 day.
October 27
I 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!
October 28
Ring around the moon, a bad sign.
October 29
Strange 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!

It 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.

"What are you doing here?" the captain asked.

"I’m going to the United States."

"So are we. Come on board."

Convinced 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.

The 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 magazine.

Another happy anniversary: I had crossed another time zone and was now on Pacific Standard Time.

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October 31

A stroke of bad luck. Yesterday I lost the larger of my two sea anchors, its rope frayed from its swivel.

It 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.

My 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.

After dark, a shower of shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of them lighting up the heavens like a bolt of lightning.

November 1

The 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.
I was 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 on.

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November 3

Completely 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.

If 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.

Then on to the Place de l’Ecole Militaire in Paris where, on the terrace of a bistro, we savored a wonderful dark beer.

I 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 heartily.

One 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!"

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November 4

Gusting winds. Heavy swells.

In 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

for 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 and painful.

Now 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 wonderful ceremony.

Night was now fourteen hours long, and yet I slept less and less, completely obsessed by the desire to reach shore.

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November 7

Everything 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, 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.

The 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:

"God, his hands must have really been tiny when he started!"

It 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:

"I still remember those hands of yours, poor fellow, when you pulled in at Brest. They were twice their normal size!"

At 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.

As 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.

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November 9

Last night, an abrupt return to reality: Sector capsized twice. It hadn’t happened to me for three weeks.
The 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.

Not 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.

November 11

Four months! A terrible night.

The 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!

Gold. Very cold.

I 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 sleep..,

Radio conversation with a journalist, who asked me, "How far are you now from the coast?"

"More than 400 miles."

"Ah, so you can see the coastline?" No comment.

November 12

I 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.

Trying 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.

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© 1983-2001 Ocean Rowing Society 


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