The "Roaring 40s" of the South Atlantic and Indian oceans sprang a trap on three solo sailors in the Globe Challenge around-the-world sailboat race.
The bleak, cold, storm-whipped Southern Ocean capsized one boat, dismasted another and crippled a third with a knockdown near 40 degrees south latitude. All three skippers--Frenchmen Philippe Poupon and Jean Yves Terlain and South African Bertie Reed--are out of the 27,000-nautical-mile non-stop race that began Nov. 26 from the French Atlantic port of Les Sables d'Olonne.
Ten boats remain from the 13-boat field after the halfway mark.
Moroccan-born Titouan Lamazou, aboard Ecureuil d'Aquitaine, has been in the lead since the day after it started.
He was 400 nautical miles ahead of the second boat after more than 14,000 nautical miles and two months of racing.
Behind him pressure is mounting as the boats race across the Indian Ocean in iceberg territory, 1,200 nautical miles south of Australia and 900 nautical miles north of Antarctica.
Poupon, 35, whom the French consider the fastest sailor alive, limped into Cape Town aboard his Fleury Michon with a harrowing tale.
In second place on Dec. 28, Poupon was steering a wide arc around the Cape of Good Hope at 47 degrees south latitude.
The wind was 55 knots and the seas 25 feet, he recalled. He was below when he felt the boat roll to port. In an instant, he was over 120 degrees, with his keel in the air and his main and mizzen masts and sails under water.
Afraid he was trapped below, he waited for the keel to lever the boat erect. It didn't happen.
"I was terrified the boat would turn 'turtle' (upside down)," Poupon told race headquarters by radio afterward.
When he saw that the boat was stabilized but capsized, Poupon set to work to save himself and the boat.
First, he turned on two satellite emergency beacons, alerting race headquarters of trouble. Next, he donned a survival suit and pumped his water ballast tanks empty in the hope that the boat, minus the weight of the ballast, would right itself. No luck.
A South African search and rescue aircraft, alerted by race headquarters, spotted Fleury Michon 1,300 nautical miles southwest of Cape Town 23 hours after the emergency beacons were activated.
Three hours later, Loick Peyron, 29, aboard Lada Poch, in third place 130 nautical miles astern of Fleury Michon when the emergency developed, arrived. Peyron found Fleury Michon broadside to heavy seas and 25-knot wind. Poupon was nowhere in sight.
Peyron blew his boat whistle, and the startled Poupon clambered on deck to find his rescuer slowly circling his stricken craft.
Poupon floated a line to Lada Poch, which towed the bow of the capsized vessel into the wind. The two sailors waited, hoping that without the force of the wind and seas acting on its broadside length, the boat would spring back up. Again, it failed to respond.
Poupon decided to lessen the force holding his boat down by cutting away the mizzen mast. This done, the boat came up. Except for shredded sails, everything appeared to be intact, Peyron reported by radio.
Peyron rejoined the race with a 14-hour 30-minute time allowance for going to Poupon's aid. However, as soon as Peyron put a line on Fleury Michon, Poupon was disqualified. The rules allow no outside assistance.
Fleury Michon was not built as a ketch with an aft--or mizzen--mast. It was designed as a sloop with a single mast. Poupon added the mizzen to give himself a spare upon which to set sail if the other mast was lost. It now appears that the water pressure on the added mast and sail kept Fleury Michon from righting itself and forced Poupon to accept assistance.
The next victim of the "Roaring 40s" was Jean Yves Terlain, aboard UAP 1992.
Terlain, 45, a veteran solo racer, reported the wind was 30 knots and the boat was surfing at speeds up to 15 knots.
"I was down below, and all of a sudden there was a big bang," he said. "I went up on deck and found the mast had fallen in three pieces."
He also found a smashed hatch and damage to the hull, deck and stanchions on the starboard side. Parts of the mast were dragging in the water.
"I cut the shrouds (mast support cables) with a hacksaw. I had to change blades after each shroud was cut. The boat was crossing the waves and one-degree (Celsius) water was hitting me in the face."
A video camera and a satellite navigation antenna also were damaged, Terlain reported.
"I'm going to wait for better weather conditions before setting up a jury rig to head north to Cape Town or elsewhere, working with the direction of the wind," Terlain told race headquarters. "I'll call you later."
For three days, he struggled to erect a jury rig. Race headquarters waited anxiously during this time as Terlain's bright-yellow 60-footer drifted southeast at one to two knots toward Antarctica.
Finally, Terlain reported he had set up a rig using spinnaker poles and the stump of the broken mast.
At this point, Terlain was almost 2,000 nautical miles southeast of Cape Town with the prevailing winds and current coming from the west. With a jury rig it would be hard going to make South Africa, unless a southeaster were to blow through, giving him a downwind run for as long as it lasted. Then the wind would go around to the west, and he could still be short of a safe harbor.
He had two alternatives:
--Reunion Island, a French possession 2,400 nautical miles northeast of his current position. The prevailing winds and current would be marginally helpful in reaching this goal.
--The Kerguelen Islands, also a French possession, uninhabited and lying 2,3000 nautical miles dead downwind and down current from him. With a jury rig and a knot and a half of current assisting him, he could expect to make as many as 130 nautical miles a day and be there in 18 days.
But to the surprise of many, Terlain said he was going to try for South Africa, with the winds and seas abeam. It could take him a month to reach a South African port, if he reaches one at all. It will be hard going. The latest satellite position report showed him to be making only one knot on a heading of 285 degrees.
The third victim of the "Roaring 40s" was South Africa's Bertie Reed.
Aboard his 60-foot Grinaker, Reed radioed that he was withdrawing from the race and heading for Cape Town. A two-time circumnavigator in BOC Challenge solo races, he had been beset by steering problems since the start of the race.
The first night out of port, he was hit in the stern by Philippe Jeantot, aboard Credit Agricole, and suffered damage to his wind-vane steering.
In the ensuing weeks, five of six autopilots on board failed, one by one. Then on Dec. 28, near Gough Island in the South Atlantic, Grinaker was knocked down, with the mast to the water.
The knockdown apparently misaligned one of the boat's twin rudders. Reed reported that the mis-alignment made it impossible for the remaining autopilot to steer the boat reliably.
Added to these problems was a damaged boom and a malfunctioning electrical control panel.
On Jan. 8, Reed radioed that he was considering dropping out. The next day he made it official. Eight hundred miles south of Cape Town, he turned toward the port and began hand-steering into a northwesterly blow with reduced sail.
In Cape Town, Poupon said he thought Reed had made the right decision, adding: "Before this race started . . . we all knew that there was a real chance that not one boat would finish--and that could still be the case.
"It's the story of the sea: One just has to accept that with all our technology, the sea often proves it is much greater than we are."
Damage has also changed the order of the fleet. A mainsail problem caused Alain Gautier, 28, in fifth place aboard Generali Concorde and among the leaders since the North Atlantic, to be passed by Jeantot on Credit Agricole.
Jeantot, 37, a two-time winner of this race, has been relentless in closing the gap on Lamazou, whom he beat around the world two years ago by three days. In a week, Jeantot pared the distance between him and the leader from 1,200 nautical miles to 810. He then passed the fourth-place boat, TBS-Charente Maritime, skippered by Pierre Follenfont, 37.
One of the most impressive performances of the race has been that of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, a 44-year-old high school math teacher and father of two children.
Van Den Heede has the least-impressive boat in the race. Compared to the other 60-footers that rate as Mercedes or Rolls-Royces, his is a VW Beetle.
The mast of his boat, 36.15 Met--named after a French radio station that provides weather information--is only 67 feet. The fleet average is 75 feet.
The boat's deck reflects its owner's lack of funds. He has no plastic-enclosed control center with a reclining chair for sleep, as do most of the other skippers. In fact, he doesn't even have a canvas dodger to shelter behind.
He has the bare minimum of winches and gadgets to control the boat, and he steers with a tiller instead of a more expensive wheel.
The stanchions that support the lifelines around the perimeter of the deck are a scant 20 inches high. "Just high enough to trip you overboard," one spectator at the start noted.
And his is the only boat in the fleet without movable water ballast. The other boats have tanks port and starboard into which they can pump tons of water to keep the boat upright while sailing to weather.
All that said, Van Den Heede is challenging Peyron, aboard Lada Poch, for second place.
Van Den Heede was in the center of the 13-boat fleet down the Atlantic and made his move after swinging east. He has stayed to the south of the other boats at 55 degrees and thus closer to the great-circle course, which is the shortest route to Cape Horn, 6,500 nautical miles east of the leaders.
At 20,000 pounds the lightest boat in the fleet, 36.15 Met has been consistently averaging more than 10 knots in the downwind sleigh ride of the Southern Ocean.
Lada Poch, sailing a course 70 nautical miles to the north of Van Den Heede, fell into an almost windless hole in the center of a depression and was slowed under three knots for several hours earlier this month. He was just 49 nautical miles ahead of Van Den Heede at last report.
Mike Plant of Newport, R. I., and Minneapolis has come into his own in the Southern Ocean aboard Duracell.
For the first 24 hours of the race Plant was first. Forty-eight hours later, he was last.
Felled by the flu, Plant lost contact with the race and almost lost control of his boat. He came to his senses staring at the coast of northern Spain, having failed to go far enough west with the rest of the fleet to round Cape Finisterre and head south into the Atlantic.
Gradually, Plant, winner of Class 2 in the 1986-87 solo race, got things back under control and started to move up slowly. He passed Guy Bernardin, aboard Okay, in the South Atlantic.
Plant soon found himself in eighth place and shortly thereafter became seventh after passing Patrice Carpentier, 40, on Nouvel Observator.
Carpentier had been plagued for weeks by a disintegrating boom and finally ran out of material to repair it. He was forced to take down his main and proceed with only headsails.
Plant's Duracell has a tall rig and great downwind speed. The boat has been averaging well over 240 miles a day, and its 10.5-knot average for four days earlier this month was the fastest in the fleet. In those four days he gained 308 miles on Generali Concorde in sixth place.
Plant's elation has been reflected in his communications, such as:
--"We are in the fast lane for the trip across the Southern Ocean.
--"I've buried this (boat) right past the canopy. Top speed to date--a big 27. Not bad for a Minnesota farm boy.
--"Weather is stinky nice--and cold. Same temperature as the inside of a refrigerator. I can tell because the butter is hard as a rock.
--"(It's) not boring, but a little lonely without my neighbors (Grinaker and UAP 1992). Can't believe they both fell on the same night."
With South African Reed, aboard Grinaker, out of the race, Plant is the only non-French competitor left.
Jeantot reported the fleet's first iceberg on Jan. 10, a giant 1,300 feet high and 1,400 feet long trailing hundreds of lesser ice chunks in its lee.
All but two of the boats have radar with which to scan for the larger bergs. But radar is no help in spotting small bergs that float level with the sea's surface and can sink a boat when hit at the speeds the racers are traveling.
To lessen the consequences of such a collision, all the boats were required to have three watertight compartments.
As the fleet heads into the Pacific Ocean, the question now becomes whether Lamazou can hold himself and his boat together for two more months.
Astern, several determined solo sailors are gambling that he can't and that they can.