Beyond the Limit : Personal Demons, Doubts and Fatigue Confront Sailor on Treacherous Voyage


Frank Guernsey noticed the gunboat as a dot on the horizon. Before long, it was circling the sailor like a shark moving in for the kill.

The boat flew no flags and its crew, which remained out of sight, made no attempt to contact Guernsey, nor did it respond to his calls on the radio.

All Guernsey could make out were the gun turrets on the deck.

Alone in his 24-foot sailboat, he was understandably alarmed. He hadn’t seen another boat for weeks. He hadn’t seen any other people for months.


Having left Redondo Beach King Harbor late last September, he had made it safely--though not without incident--to Cape Horn, a notoriously stormy region that has torn apart many a larger boat, on Dec. 31.

The rest of his trip to Argentina’s Mar de Plata would be clear sailing.

Or so Guernsey thought.

Was the gunboat a modern-day pirate ship, out to plunder this apparently lost soul?

Guernsey tried repeatedly to contact the vessel on his radio.

“Where’s the camaraderie?” Guernsey asked, his voice coming in clearly on his videotape of the incident. “I don’t want no trouble.”

Reduced nearly to skin and bones during his long journey, battered and bruised by fierce storms that walloped him before he reached “the Horn” at the southern tip of South America, Guernsey stood with a shotgun in one hand and a flare gun in the other.

Finally, however, the mysterious ship, and those on it, having apparently only moved in to get a closer look, began to pull away.

“I guess it’s not going to be the gunfight at the OK Corral,” Guernsey said.

And he kept on talking, to the birds, to himself; missing his wife, Mary; missing the booze he had polished off only a few days ago and the ketchup he had used up months ago.

“Ketchup,” he said the other day from his Redondo Beach apartment, recalling the highlights and lowlights of the marathon of a solo sailing trip he recently completed. “I didn’t have the ketchup. I really missed the ketchup.”


Guernsey was no stranger to sailing alone. He had made it to Lahaina, Maui, in 27 days; to Papeete, Tahiti, in 47 days, and to Aburatsubo, Japan, in 87 days.

But his latest journey, in a 24-foot fiberglass sailboat, bordered on the ridiculous: 128 days and 15,000 miles on the water, beginning at King Harbor on Sept. 23, 1994, and culminating with his being towed into Punta del Este, Uruguay, a total wreck of a man, on Jan. 28, 1995. He may not have been the first to round Cape Horn by himself, but he is believed to be the first to willingly sail for so many days without making landfall.

“If I hadn’t done those other trips, this trip . . . I couldn’t have made it,” Guernsey said, still a little shaky. “I shouldn’t have made it anyway. This trip shouldn’t have been done. I’ve done four, each time I went further. This time I went too far.”

Perhaps, but at least he made it back. He was 30 pounds lighter--having dropped from 170 to 140 pounds--and had a mending gash on his head and three broken ribs, but he was back in one piece.

Twice he survived days-long storms with 70-knot winds that relentlessly hammered his small motorless boat, Cestus.

Had it not been for his automatic steering device, which maintained the course Guernsey set, allowing him to leave the tiller and secure himself inside the small cabin, he probably would not have made it.


In one incident, Guernsey, 53, was pitched from his berth and nearly knocked unconscious.

“For three days I was stranded in one place with currents running in all directions. It was the worst storm possible, right here,” he said, pointing to an area on his chart somewhere deep in the South Pacific. “But it wasn’t. Down here (farther down on the chart) it was the ultimate storm. I bumped my head and blood was shooting out. I had a lot of problems. The boat pitched me out of the quarter berth and I hit my head on a pointed edge.”

The rib injury--he was nearly impaled on a piece of steel equipment--occurred during yet another storm.

“There were times the ocean was so big . . . it hits you like a hammer,” Guernsey said. “And in a small boat you wonder how it’s going to hold together.”

His boat shouldn’t have held together in 70-knot winds, experts say.

“No boat that size is built to make that kind of a trip,” said Scott Thomas, manager at King Harbor Marine Center, which helped Guernsey outfit his craft. “It shouldn’t have held together in those winds.”

Why then did Guernsey attempt such a voyage?

Guernsey, an insurance salesman, didn’t have an answer, other than that he decided to do it five years ago and felt compelled to follow through with his “commitment.”

“He likes to live life on the edge,” said Mary, who added that she is on edge throughout her husband’s every trip.


Frank Guernsey recalled his departure.

“I was basically almost sick,” he said. “I drove to the harbor, said to my wife, ‘Here’s the keys, I love you.’ We kissed and I walked down to the boat by myself. I put the sails up and left for Catalina. (At Avalon) I go ashore, as I always do, buy the provisions I need, come back and get the boat squared away, come back to town that night for a great dinner by myself, very sad.

“I went back to the boat and left the next day. The last land I saw was the first day out. I saw San Clemente Island. I left Sept. 23 from Avalon, I saw San Clemente Island and I didn’t see land again until the end of the year, Dec. 31. The first land I saw was Cape Horn.”

Guernsey spent a good part of each day studying charts and plotting his course. With a desalination device donated by the Pur company, he made two quarts of fresh water every day.

Still, he had plenty of free time. Time enough, he said, to read 30 literary classics and the Bible.

“I got up every morning, I’d have some Tang, take vitamins, have cold cereal and powdered milk. Before I’d do that I’d open up MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and get the coffee and I’d take a sight where I was and I’d plot for hours, studying the charts, a very important part of the day.

“Then at noon I’d have some Top Ramen (flavored noodles). Top Ramen was my main diet. Then in the afternoon I’d have a granola bar and tea. Then, at cocktail hour, I’d have one or two shots of brandy.”


The MREs, which he ate for dinner, were mainly pork and rice or tuna and noodles. There was one with turkey, which he saved for Thanksgiving. At Christmas, he ate one with a large pork patty.

After the ketchup ran out, he said, “It all tasted like just some sort of filling.”

Between lunch and dinner he played the flute for an hour “to maintain my sanity.”

It didn’t always work. Guernsey said his thoughts often focused on “three or four key people.”

One was the last person he had any real contact with, the man who towed his boat when he experienced a minor mechanical problem after his arrival at Avalon.

The man offhandedly told Guernsey he owed him a bottle of Scotch for his efforts. Guernsey didn’t think anything of it then, but as the trip grew longer he became obsessed with the incident.

“That bastard, I was thinking. . . . I’ll get him a cheap hat. . . . And then I’m reading the Bible and it says ‘Love your neighbor.’ And I said, ‘Oh (darn), he’s a nice guy after all. But then I became even more enraged; I wanted to kick his . . .”

In a portion of videotape shot while he sat off Cape Horn talking to a large albatross and watching the patrol boat circle his sailboat, Guernsey, his bearded face weathered and worn, reflected on what might be happening back home: “ . . . And Mary, she’s probably (fooling) around on me. . .,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.


Mary--watching the tape with Frank for the first time--gasped, embarrassed that he would think such a thing.

“I don’t remember saying that,” Frank Guernsey said, admitting that although he was not a jealous man, jealous thoughts plagued him throughout his trip.

Having survived the storms, and the demons in his head, Guernsey finally made it to the home stretch. He rounded Cape Horn and headed up the South American coast toward the basking resort, Mar de Plata. But strong head winds and the powerful outflow of the raging river, Rio de la Plata, forced him to change course.

He instead headed for the southern portion of Uruguay, making it not a moment too soon. His food supply was all but gone, his broken ribs ached and his tired body was no longer up to the tasks at hand. Just outside Punta del Este, bobbing under the stars in the wee hours of Jan. 28, Guernsey made radio contact and the Uruguayan Coast Guard ordered him towed in at 1:30 a.m.

“They sent a boat out, they thought I was running aground,” Guernsey recalled. “They brought me in and all these people clapped. At 3:30 a.m. I lay down. I got up early, at 7 a.m. I looked out--I thought I was still out there, but I wasn’t. I was in paradise. I never wanted to sail again.”

Start: Redondo Beach (Sept. 23, 1994)

Cape Horn (Dec. 31, 1994)

Punta del Este Uruguay (Jan. 28, 1995)