GOING ONE-ON-ONE WITH THE LONELY SEA : 25 Daring Sailors Will Attempt to Go Around the World--Single-Handedly

There are 25 sailboats from 10 nations and 5 continents rafted together here at the Goat Island Marina dock, awaiting the start of today's BOC Challenge, the world's longest race.

It's a single-handed race around the world--one man aboard each boat.

The United States leads the list with eight boats, followed by France with six, two each for Australia, Finland and South Africa, and one each from Great Britain, Brazil, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

This is the second running of the epic event. In 1982-83, 17 boats started and 10 returned here nine months later. Three boats were lost and four dropped out with equipment problems.

Philippe Jeantot of France won the race in his 56-foot cutter, Credit Agricole. Jeantot, 35, is back with a new 60-foot yacht, Credit Agricole III.

His 159-day circumnavigation set a solo sailing record in the first Challenge but his success in that race may be his undoing in this one.

The best solo sailors in the world have studied his boat and tactics. They have gone to the drafting board with their designers and come up with a dozen challengers that are "awesome," the big cliche on the dock here these days.

"Any one of 10 boats can win this race," said Bertie Reed, 41, of South Africa, who is back with a 60-footer after placing second in the first race.

The race will be run in two classes. Class I is for boats from 50 to 60 feet in length. Class II is for boats 40 to 50 feet. There are 11 boats in Class I and 14 in Class II.

The winning time in Class I is expected to be 150 sailing days, exclusive of time spent in the three stopovers, Cape Town, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. It should take the Class II winner 170 days. All the boats that finish will be back here by early May 1987.

The race is also an adventure that has attracted a number of entrants who have no hope of winning. They either lack the experience or their boats simply do not have the speed.

These are the men who are using the race to fulfill the sailor's dream of circumnavigating the world.

In fact, David White, 41, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who conceived the idea of the race 10 years ago, said: "I've been accused of starting this thing as an excuse to sail around Cape Horn."

Cape Horn is the Everest of sailing, the magic milestone.

In the first race, Dick McBride, 42, of New Zealand, called rounding the Horn at the tip of South America the high point of his life.

A few days later he experienced the low point--running aground in the Falkland Islands. McBride, too, is back with the 60-foot Neptune Express, and blood in his eye.

Reed anchored near the Horn to take on water from a Chilean naval vessel. Francis Stokes, then 56, of Moorestown, N.J., took a self-portrait of himself off the Horn. There's his face, haggard but happy.

Guy Bernardin, 41, of France, almost hit an island, Cape West, very close to the Horn. He came up on deck of his 38-footer just in time to avert disaster.

Recovered from his near miss, Bernardin said: "Passing the Horn was the best day of my life. It was like waiting for Christmas so you could open your presents."

Pretty special stuff, perhaps. It means little if you haven't been reading sailing books since you were 12 and dreaming small boats and big oceans most of your life.

But this time the heavy hitters are in, and if they have any romance in their bones it doesn't show.

White charges down the dock with his perpetual frown. Big, bearded, looking like a Viking about to hit an English beach, he is out to reverse four years of rotten sailing luck and show 'em what Legend Securities, the former Gladiator, can do.

Gladiator was forced out of the first race with gear and structural problems and was holed by a buoy going to the start of the 1984 solo transatlantic race.

Warren Luhrs, a 41-year-old sailboat manufacturer from Florida, tinkers with his 60-foot Thursday's Child. He knows the boat inside and out. He built it and set a solo transatlantic record in it. Observers cluck at its cockpit, open to the ocean astern. They wonder if it is safe. And they wonder about Thursday's Child's weight, at 10 tons the lightest 60-footer entered.

But none of the big boats is really heavy. They average about 12 tons. By contrast, an America's Cup 12-meter boat that's only going to circumnavigate buoys in Perth harbor, weighs twice that much for about the same length.

Three skippers and their boats stand out in Class II.

The first and a favorite of many to win in class is Jacques de Roux. It's not a race anymore for the Frenchman, a former nuclear submarine officer. It's a mission.

Leading his class in the first race, he was dismasted in the Pacific, lost his boat, Skoiern III, and almost lost his life. He's back now with the 50-foot Skoiern V.

De Roux, 50, is quiet, possibly because his English isn't that good. He spends a lot of time at his chart table, studying the route and waiting for the start.

In contrast to the pandemonium of preparation around him, De Roux is ready. He's a sailing machine. Plug him in and he goes.

Richard Konkolski, 42, a defector from his native Czechoslovakia, provides verbal excitement. He always had a near-miss disaster to chronicle to the fleet by radio during the first race.

Once he said he had nearly been asphyxiated by carbon monoxide. There was a hole in the exhaust of his portable gasoline generator, used to recharge batteries. Luckily, he said, it ran out of gas before he, unconscious, had inhaled too much of the deadly vapor.

Another time he reported heaving to in the Falkland Islands to repair a broken headstay, which could cost a mast. Later he told of discovering that he had been dragging two fishing nets for hours off the Brazilian coast. "I couldn't understand why I was going so slow," he said.

It's easy to laugh at Konkolski's exuberance. However, competitors who fail to take him seriously do so at their own risk. No entrant is more experienced, determined or better able to turn adversity to advantage.

His drawback is his 44-foot boat, formerly Nike III and now called Declaration of Independence. It's design is dated and at 15 tons it is heavy.

Mark Schrader, 39, aboard his Valiant 47 Lone Star--it was built in Texas--is the third contestant to watch in Class II. In 1982-83, although not in the BOC race, he circumnavigated alone in 199 days, Seattle to Seattle, in his 40-foot Valiant Resourceful. Schrader has the experience and the boat to win in class.

Veterans of the first BOC agree that the hardest part of the race is getting to the starting line.

In all, 57 sailors, two of them women, put up $500 apiece to be listed as provisional entrants this time.

Some backed out because of lack of commitment. One or two stared at a chart of the world, saw all that water and lost their nerve.

But most gave up because of a lack of money or the time it takes away from business and family. This isn't a hike through the Rockies with a nylon knapsack full of freeze-dried. Or a bike trip through Europe.

The cost includes a $350,000 boat, at least two years out of a life and a very anxious spouse for those who have one, or are able to keep one.

Sponsorship is the answer but it is hard to come by. Sponsors want winners. Consequently, all 11 boats in Class I--the fast class--are sponsored, but only three boats in Class II are.

The French have the best luck in finding sponsorship because the French media give solo sailing heavy coverage.

"That's because the French will put anything on Page 1 that they can beat the British at," one race observer said. Hence, Philippe Jeantot is a national hero.

When it came time for coming up with the rest of the entry fee--$2,000 for unsponsored boats, $4,500 for sponsored, except that BOC repeaters got in at half price--the entry list shrank to 35 boats. And the women were out.

The last woman to go was Claire Marty, 30, a Paris nurse, who had a boat but no more money. She sold the boat to John Biddlecombe, 41, of Australia after he wrecked his 60-footer on a Tonga reef while on his 2,000-mile qualifying sail.

Besides Biddlecombe's reef disaster, there were other pre-start problems.

Hal Roth, 58, of Mount Dorset, Me., an author of half a dozen books on cruising, was in Fort Lauderdale getting ready for his qualifying sail to the Azores when he got word that Florida tax collectors wanted to impose a heavy levy on his boat on the ground that it had been manufactured there.

Roth contended that the boat had been built in Santa Cruz, Calif., and was merely in transit, but he didn't wait to argue the point. He jumped aboard his 50-foot American Flag and set sail, just ahead of the tax man.

Michael Plant, 34, of Jamestown, R.I., sailed into the Azores aboard his red, 50-foot Airco Distributor and was promptly arrested in a murder investigation.

It seems a crazed sailor had killed someone before Plant's arrival and escaped aboard a red boat. Plant spent more than five weeks in jail before that got straightened out.

While he was doing his qualifying sail, Mark Schrader found himself in a gale off Cape Hatteras with a U.S. Navy ship hovering nearby, determined to rescue him. Schrader assured the Navy skipper that although it was a little bumpy in the 45-knot blow, he was in no danger.

It turned out that the Navy was responding to an SOS from another sailboat that had lost its steering and was in grave danger. That crew was later found and rescued.

Safety is an obsession with racers and race committee alike. The rules contain a lengthy list of requirements governing vessel soundness and equipment.

The boats have automatically inflatable life rafts, emergency radio beacons, VHF radios in waterproof containers, survival suits, strobe lights, emergency rations and water. All are for use in the event the boat has to be abandoned--the sailor's absolute last resort.

The rule is you don't leave the boat until water is up to your chin. Boats are far easier to spot at sea than life rafts.

Each racer will have a satellite tracking device on board. Called Argos, the French-run system will track all the boats and report their positions daily. The Argos transponder has an emergency signal that can be activated. It saved Jacques de Roux's life in the first race.

The boats also have two watertight bulkheads to keep them afloat if they are holed. The BOC race is the only offshore sailing event that requires such bulkheads.

If the first race is a guide, as many as 10 boats won't make it back to Newport. Some will be lost. Some will withdraw. But again, it is fervently hoped, no lives will be lost.

Says Jeantot: "The ocean is a giant stadium where everyone duels with invisible competitors.

"This is a race against yourself. You may not have the fastest boat, but if you do the best you can, for yourself, then you have done all you can."

Robin Knox-Johnston, the race chairman and the first person to sail around the world alone and nonstop, puts it simply: "To finish is to win."

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