Storm, ice, calm, rain ­– all in a day’s work

July 2006

By Dodge Morgan

The British solo sailor Pete Goss and I recently traded signed copies of our circumnavigation books. Pete’s 1996 sail as a competitor in the Vendee Globe non-stop race was a dramatically different challenge than was my solo, non-stop sail 20 years ago because it was flagged by an astounding rescue at sea. Pete abandoned the race to beat 160 miles back into the raging Southern Ocean to save the life of a French competitor, Raphael Dinelli, whose boat had broken up and sank. Pete was somehow able to locate Dinelli’s life raft on that wide ocean and pull the near-dead sailor aboard his 50-foot vessel. His is a heroic story of courage and compassion as much as it is of sailing competence and risk defiance.

I just passed the twentieth anniversary of my successful circumnavigation. Mine was not in the context of a racing fleet and, depending on which records one chooses, was either the third or the twelfth solo non-stop circumnavigation. It broke 13 records, all now obliterated by sailors in race competitions. An ironic comparison of Goss’s sail and mine is that, although he sailed with a racing fleet and I was totally alone, the fact of the fleet was not a relative safety advantage to him but was the very cause for his immense rescue trial at sea.

But we both faced the Southern Ocean alone. The pilot charts show an average wind speed in the Roaring Forties of 25 knots. But his is like the joke that the average human being has one tit and one ball because down there it blows a gale or not at all. Here is a taste of Southern Ocean sailing from my long-ago journal.

“Now the storm rages over us, mocking my recent rage at the calms. This will surely raise the average of Southern Ocean wind speed for us. We are at 50 degrees south latitude, 130 degrees west longitude on day 95. The rain is horizontal and the drops sting. The air temperature is 40 degrees. The seas are 50 feet, broadside to us and wear a blanket of scudding spindrift like driven snow. I am busy just holding on. The barometer dives to 28.5 inches of mercury. Promise is knocked down more than 60 degrees at least once every 10 minutes. Winds are over 70. The cockpit is awash and the deck only occasionally visible through breaking waves, spray and spume. I wear three thick layers of clothing under a heavyweight foul weather suit, insulated knee-high boots and heavy wool mittens. I learn by radio that a 50-mile-long iceberg is reported ahead and to the south of us making way east at several knots and proving that even an iceberg can sail downwind. The only ice we see comes from the sky in the form of hail and snow, at night with skim ice forming on deck. After three days of this weather, the storm begins to abate, backing off to 55 knots of wind. As it does, the sky opens up around big, puffy cumulus clouds and there is some sun. Oh, God, how the sun heals. The storm leaves behind a 6-hour vacuum of calm on still-huge seas and my spirits nosedive. But I calculate that at the height of the storm Promise delivered a 176-mile run, noon to noon, and did it under bare pole, not a shred of sail on.”

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.