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

 


August 10 11141718


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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With My Head in the Stars

Finally I ran smack into it. An invisible, moving rampart. The wall of east winds, head
winds, diversionary and dis-tracting winds, in the literal sense of the term.
For two weeks, from July 31 to August 14, I did nothing but zigzag back and forth across the ocean, advancing with enormous difficulty when the winds abated, glued to my oars for hours just to make a few miles' progress. Then, during the night, with my sea anchors out, I would drift back that same precious distance under the relentless force of the east winds.
Two weeks of growing depression, in which I saw the summer, or what remained of it, inexorably disappear. Often I consciously decided not to check my position, so disgusted was I by the knowledge of what I would most certainly find - that I had lost many degrees of longitude that I had won so dearly only hours or days before.
To reach my goal, I had to create a mental universe wherein my forward progress was king, the only thing that mattered. It was a fragile universe at best: now that I was completely becalmed - two steps forward and two steps back, as it were - the temptation to give up was always with me. I spent hours, days, simply waiting for the wind to shift. To try to overcome my growing despair, I would 
frequently pull in the sea anchor, strap myself in the cock-pit, and row till I dropped, all the while fully aware of how pointless the effort was. But anything that helped me keep alive the notion that I was making progress was good, any-thing that kept me from dwelling on the worst.
I had no news of my family and friends, whose absence I felt more strongly with every passing day. I had the strange impression of being a speleologist, descending deeper and deeper into the darkness, into the night. During my first several days out I had clung to the memories of my col-leagues who had accompanied me to Japan, imagining in exquisite detail everything they might be doing. In my mind I had gone back to France with Bruno and, since I knew what his plans and itinerary were, I went with him to Brit-tany where I knew he had to pick up his car, then accom-panied him as he drove down to southern France. Christopher "served" me for a little longer, since I knew he was staying on in Japan for a week and then joining a mutual friend as navigator on his sailboat. But as time went on, I began to lose them. Solitude closed in around me, real solitude, the kind that disconnects you from the rest of the world.
I'm an old hand at being alone. My experience rowing across the Atlantic had taught me that, when it comes to solitude, the best thing is to dive right in, immerse yourself in it, rather than try to resist it. But at this point things were at a very low ebb. So, any time I took a break I slipped into the cockpit to take a quick look at my ammeter and check the output of my solar panels that were charging my radio batteries. I was obsessed - although I refused to admit it to myself - with the desire for human contact, however superficial, a need so overpowering that it fright-ened me. My little pill of ephemeral happiness. I desper-ately needed those terribly brief radio contacts, which broke off far too soon, leaving me each time plunged even deeper in my solitude.

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Two weeks after leaving Choshi, I picked up some American voices on my radio. I couldn't believe it! Since then no more contacts. I-Lad it been some quirk of the nocturnal air waves? In any ease, just hearing the language of the country of my arrival warmed my heart. Even though I knew in my heart of hearts how far, far off it still was.
The "mystery" was solved on the day when, tuning in to the same frequency, I heard a man saying he planned to spend the weekend in Manila. So my ham radio operator was based in the Philippines. Which immediately gave me a bright idea. Two of my brothers were living there at the time. All I had to do was make contact with this American operator, convince him to telephone one of my brothers and set up a radio appointment with him. That way, I figured, I could perhaps make contact, through him, with my family in France.
"Break!" "Break!"
After a bit of static, the American homed in on my fre-quency. He must have been a bit taken aback to hear me say, "This is Sector, rowboat Sector. I'm rowing across the Pacific. You're my first contact in nine days. I wonder if you could telephone my brother?"
I was dying to exchange a few words with Cornélia, to find out how she was and how the children were doing during their summer vacation. Guillaume, I knew, was tak-ing sailing lessons, and I wanted an update on his progress. I also wanted to talk with Christopher, to give him an update. But as it turned out it would be another several weeks before I got through via radio. For that, I had to hook up with a maritime station that would relay the radio. I call to a telephone network. So far, I hadn't been able to effect that.
All of this brought me back to the telex, which was still giving me fits. Every time I raised the antenna above the cockpit it seemed to suffer from some slight twist or bend inflicted on it. The connection, which was already fragile, seemed to get worse day by day, no matter how carefully I handled it, until one day it snapped altogether. I impro-vised a makeshift substitute, but to no avail. The machine had made up its mind once and for all that it was not going to work, even if I treated it like the Holy Sacrament. With that machine, I went from one disillusionment to another.
Then one evening there appeared on its little screen the following: MESSAGE RECEIVED. Feverishly, I searched the computer's memory bank. Nothing. And then on the screen there flashed: MESSAGE RECEIVED.

I felt like tossing the damned thing overboard.

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"TM6 ABO, TMG ABO, this is F'K8CR calling. Come in TM6 ABO...
Eddy, a ham radio operator out of Noumea, had just entered my little world. On a regular basis - and for stretches, every day - he brought me both comfort and valuable weather information. FK8CR, Eddy's call sign, was a very sophisticated setup. He had a fax that received from the satellites the full weather report on the Pacific, which he would pass on to me. Till the end of my trip, Eddy remained a staunch and faithful friend, often sacrificing his weekends to keep me up to date on the movement of storms and cyclones, as well as passing on messages from friends.
But right now I really needed help. I had cut back my rations to one meal a day. Given all my "lost days," days with little or no progress, I knew there was a growing risk that I would run out of food. Increasingly, I was assailed by doubts. The successful outcome of the crossing seemed to me less and less certain.

The minute the vice that held me in its grip slackened a bit and I saw an opening, I took up my oars and rowed steadily, hoping to break the vicious cycle of row and drift. But again the winds would rise, often to gale fury, and drive me back into the cabin for safety, with sea anchors out to mitigate the damage. And there I would huddle like some caged beast as the waves hammered me and the gale winds whistled, waiting for the boat to capsize.
In situations such as that, a living hell, there is no way you can force your mind to take refuge in other thoughts because it, too, is a prisoner of the unpredictable, convul-sive movements of the boat and can focus on nothing else.
I thought of the First World War, of the soldiers burrowed in their trenches, who could tell simply by the whine of the shell what caliber it was. And there I was, hunkered down in my cabin, listening for the roar of the waves, trying to guess which one it would be that would capsize the boat. There were times when this went on for a ten-hour stretch.
As if by chance, at this juncture my first physical prob-lems surfaced. One morning when I woke up, I felt a stab-bing pain behind my left shoulder, in a spot where it was of course impossible for me to rub in any salve. But some-times misfortune has its virtues. The weather was so bad it forced me to keep the sea anchors out and take the day off. I kept to my cabin all day and used the time to clean and disinfect every little cut and bruise I had - an indis-pensable precaution at sea where the slightest scratch or abrasion can quickly get infected. At last I had a moment to take care of myself physically. But from a morale view-point, there was no medicine on board to heal me.

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August 10
Believe it or not, a telex arrived from Cornélia. The machine I had given up on actually funtioned. It was my first news from her since my departure, and I was delighted to get it. But it also left me terribly frustrated. She hadn't given me enough details. She told me that she and the children had gone out to dinner at a restaurant. But what restaurant? Where? Had she driven there? By what route? I wanted the name of the restaurant, what table they had, what the menu was. I was starved for details. Here I lacked everything. Everything that had a smell, a color, a special flavor. Did she have any idea how frustrating it was to be deprived of these tiny, simple parts of life? Could she have any notion of how badly I needed to feel them, touch them, breathe them?
August 11
During the night, tremendous battering by the waves. A low pressure system must have passed through directly above me. The wind suddenly shifted 180 degrees; the sea was raging.
I put out two sea anchors from the bow, which did not prevent Sector from being knocked about like a cork. Inside my watertight cabin I had the feeling, through the "skin" of the hull, that I was being beaten, soundly thrashed, throughout the night.
But the following morning I awoke to a pleasant surprise. A northwest wind had dissipated the nightmare. I pulled myself out of the cabin, my arms and legs stiff and numb. My eyes were wide with disbelief: could the winds really have shifted in my favor?
The bad news was that though the wind was now in the right direction, it was still strong, and the sea was still raging. The idea of leaving my dry lair and getting soaked in the cockpit did not exactly delight me. Yet doing nothing was even worse. I started by pulling in the sea anchors, letting Sector run with the wind, and proceeded to tidy up both the boat and myself, as if it were Sunday morning on a pleasure craft. A dab of grease on any point where rust had begun to appear, then a shave, a bit of fresh water on my face, my hair combed. . . . Feeling much better, I climbed into the cockpit, took up the oars, and rowed for the next nine hours straight, directly northeast.
August 14
Clear blue sky, such as I had very rarely seen since my departure. Yet the barometer was falling rapidly. Did that mean I was finally getting the low pressure system that had been predicted? I realized I had just regained the position I had reached back on July 31. Two weeks of no progress!

Where were those little squeaking sounds coming from? From the computer? My quartz watch? I was in the cabin having lunch when I first heard the strange, high-pitched noises. I checked the computer, listened to my watch, checked all the equipment - nothing out of the ordinary. Looking further, I discovered that a school of dolphins, probably a hundred or so, were frolicking not far off, and as they swam and dove their high-pitched cries were re-verberating underwater and bouncing off my hull.

* * *

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My boils were not causing me too much trouble. In fact, to date I had not had much to complain about as far as my health was concerned. I had kept in fairly close radio contact with Dr. Chauve, whose task it was to advise me on any health problems I encountered. But I knew myself well enough to know that the poor man would have had a serious problem fulfilling his role of medical guardian angel, be-cause when I do have a health problem of any sort, I prefer not to mention it, or if I do, it will be only in passing. Even when, later on in the crossing, I would break two ribs and a finger, I could see no point in dwelling on it. Of course, it was painful, but I also knew it was not life-threatening, that it was something I could cope with. As long as I was able to keep on rowing, nothing else mattered to me. To make lengthy notations in my log or over the radio about my health would only have worried my family and friends unnecessarily and also have provided me with ready ex-cuses for giving up if my mind began to crack or my resolve began to weaken.
August 17
Two weeks behind in my game plan. I had to increase my daily rowing schedule.
Under normal conditions, that is, when the weather was not bad enough to keep me from rowing, my day began at first light. Up at 0600. I gulp down my breakfast, a high-energy concoction of dried fruit and cereal washed down with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee. I take a quick look outside. At dawn or dusk the color of the sky can give me a pretty good idea what to expect over the next few hours. A technicolor dawn is a bad sign; on the other hand, a brilliant sundown bodes well. After heating up the coffee, I set it down in the cockpit. This is a none too subtle way of forcing myself to leave the relative comfort of the cabin, since I have a tendency to go where the coffee is. . . "Here in the cockpit," I keep telling myself, "is where the action is." And so my day begins.
I row from 0630 to 0930 without pause. Then I take a break to have a cup of coffee or a bowl of hot soup, and it's back to the grind for another couple of hours, roughly till noon. I take a midday break of an hour and a half or two hours - in good French fashion - for lunch, to check my position with sextant and charts, and, upon occasion, to smoke a small cigar. From 1400 to 1600 hours, back to the cockpit and another two hours' steady rowing. A further short break, then a third stint at the oars till 2000. When-ever I'm forced to put out the sea anchors and stay inside - whether for a few hours or in some cases for several days in a row - I make up for it by extending those "normal" hours and rowing late into the night.
If I kept religiously to that schedule, that golden rule, it was because I knew that if I were to let up, stray from it for even a few extra minutes, I ran the danger of growing more lax every day and, finally, giving up.

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When I had a good day - and you can translate that quite simply into a day when I made good forward progress - my morale was high and my appetite good. Aside from my canned goods, I fed myself essentially on the dried con-centrate that so impressed the Japanese customs officials. It's not as bad as it sounds: when you add some water and heat it up, it's really quite palatable. The advantages of the concentrate: it's extremely nourishing, therefore keeps your weight up; no problem of preservation; reasonably good taste. The disadvantage: after several weeks at sea, it all begins to taste the same. But I told myself that if I had steak every day for four months I'd probably get tired of it, too. Not completely convincing!
Speaking of steak, the dried steaks I had on board re-quired, after the water had been added, being cooked in a frying pan, for which you needed a bit of cooking fat. Shortly before my departure, I discovered in a store that specialized in camping equipment a kind of fat concentrate, which unfortunately I had not had the time to test. It looked like the tiny soap pellets you see in swanky bathrooms, more for decorative than practical purposes. In the frying pan the melted substance looked like ordinary cooking fat. But caveat eater: when it cools, the ersatz matter quickly reverts to its original consistency, which means that unless you eat your steak with considerable speed, you find your jaws slowing with each bite as the waxlike substance takes command. Fortunately, I had brought along with me a num-ber of canned goods, identical to those I had on board the Captain Cook, to supplement my nourishing but weari-some concentrates. Among them was tuna fish packed in olive oil. I guarded the olive oil preciously: it made all the difference in cooking my steaks!
A key element for my survival were the desalination pumps. Eleven years ago when I crossed the Atlantic, there were no such pumps; I had to carry with me no less than three hundred liters of liquid, including water and wine. The liquid weighed more than the boat itself. For the Pacific, I would have had to take on at least five hundred liters. Fortunately, over the intervening years, compact pumps were invented, whereby seawater could be turned into drinking water using a system of filters. Some pumps, which have been tested aboard sailing ships around the world, are electric and can purify considerable quantities of water a day. Other models, intended primarily for lifeboats, are manually operated.
My pump weighed a scant eight-and-a-half pounds, and in twelve minutes I could produce about a liter of water. Since I consumed no more than a liter and a half a day, that pump more than sufficed my needs, but for safety's sake I had another, identical model on board, plus an ad-ditional pump, which worked on a slightly different prin-ciple. A submersible pump, it utilized the pressure of the water itself to operate the piston forcing water into the filter. Since its output was less than that of the other two, I used it rarely, but just having it on board provided me with a certain comfort.

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One of my brilliant, energy-saving ideas when the boat was being rigged was to utilize the movement of the rowing seat to activate the desalination pumps as I rowed. Though it was my idea, it was Bruno who had the technical ability to translate it into reality by installing a simple mechanism under the seat linking pump and seat. But once again harsh reality took its toll: in order to activate the pump, I found I had to row at a pace faster than I was comfortable with, and on the long run it wore me out. Another factor was that on bad days, when I couldn't row at all, the system was useless. So I quickly reverted to the hand-pump.

Though in crossing the Atlantic I had taken on board a fair amount of wine - as any Frenchman worthy of the name would have done - I did so on the reasonably sound theory that the more wine I took the less water would be needed, since liter for liter they weighed the same. But with my de-salination pumps, I had had a real battle with my conscience:
one liter of wine was roughly two pounds' additional weight.
After wrestling with my soul, I did include twelve liters of wine among my provisions, judging that minimal quantity absolutely essential to my morale. A half-glass of wine with every meal made all the difference in the world, especially when it was consumed in a proper wine glass, another slight indulgence. I coddled that goblet as though it were the family jewels, but despite all my efforts I ultimately lost it to the elements. The victim of one of the many times the boat capsized, it shattered into a thousand pieces.
August 18
This morning, a sobering realization. I have only covered one fourth of my route! And it has taken me 38 days... . At that rate, the whole crossing will take a little more than five months... . All of which leaves me pensive, and my morale sagging. I will have to consider rationing my food even further.

At 0500 I climbed into the cockpit, took up the oars, and tried to head northwest. Compass. Speed log. Always the same old story. The same metronome like cadence. The shoulder, the arm, the hand, the oar form one single, ho-mogenous member, perfectly adapted to its function. My nerves begin at the tip of the blades. In the heavy swells and crosscurrents, those members control the strokes: lift and lose a stroke to keep the oar from breaking, correct the angle of the oar striking the water, pull a trifle harder on the starboard oar to correct the bow's heading by three or four degrees.
The body functions like a machine and the mind like a calculator. Averages . . . number of days . keeping ac-counts. I constantly tried to estimate my time of crossing, reassessing and recalculating, examining all the probabil-ities, forever extrapolating. On good days, I tried to make forty nautical miles, which is one degree of longitude. That was my point of reference. My mind was filled with figures; figures filled my notebooks, columns of figures that a strong gust of wind could wipe out in a second.
For hours on end as I rowed, I would concentrate on my secret calculations. My projections were that, at best, I would reach land between November 10 and 15. At worst, December 15.

The moment I most looked forward to every day was when I plotted my exact position. My instruments told me pre-cisely where I was in relation to the stars and the satellites. I found a certain fascination, almost a giddiness, in meas-uring my infinitesimal progress thanks to these cosmic bea-cons. My feet were firmly planted in my miniscule cockpit, but through the lens of my sextant, my head was in the stars, and the scope of my mind expanded then to universal dimensions.
And yet, what did my mind really focus on, sometimes to the point of obsession: things of human dimension -sounds, smells, familiar places.
What a paradox!
My penury helped me to rediscover the importance of everything one no longer sees, because I was so close to it.

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