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Renowned Sailor Who Tempted Fate Is Missing

Times Staff Writer

Frank Guernsey’s wife asked him why he planned to sail a tiny sloop around Cape Horn -- the turbulent passage between South America and Antarctica -- and the veteran skipper likened the challenge to climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks.

When she asked why he refused to pack a long-distance radio, a life raft or the satellite signal beacon she had bought him, the answer was much harder to accept. “He told me he didn’t want to endanger any other people’s lives by trying to save him,” Mary Guernsey said.

To a friend, Frank Guernsey was even more blunt. “Why prolong the agony?” he said.

Today, Guernsey’s family is experiencing the agony. It has been seven months since they last received word from the Redondo Beach adventurer.

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Last Oct. 8, Guernsey packed up his 22 1/2-foot Pearson Electra sailboat, dubbed “MF,” slipped out of Redondo’s King Harbor and began the 10,000-mile journey to Cape Town, South Africa.

Guernsey, a 61-year-old insurance salesman, created a second life for himself as a revered figure in the world of solo sailing. He has logged trips to Hawaii, Japan and Tahiti. He had sailed around the horn once before in a slightly larger boat named “Cestus” -- an experience that left him scarred and emaciated. He chronicled that harrowing voyage in a book, “Racing the Ice to Cape Horn,” a favorite among sailors.

If he succeeds in this latest bid, he would be the first solo sailor to complete the punishing journey in such a small craft.

“There’s no record of anyone ever attempting a trip quite like this before,” said Ted Jones, commodore of the Joshua Slocum Society International, a sailing group named for the first man to sail around the globe alone. “When you consider the size of the boat, the age of the man and the route he’s taking, you realize that what’s being done is very rare.”

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Guernsey was to have landed in Cape Town more than a month ago -- about the same time his provisions were due to run out. The only communication from Guernsey since his departure was a postcard he sent to his wife from Catalina Island on the second day of the voyage. To Mary Guernsey’s alarm, the mariner wrote that he was already feeling tired.

Now, Mary Guernsey and friends are trying to enlist the U.S. Coast Guard and the South African government in an effort to locate the “MF,” an abbreviation for Mary and Frank.

But officials say there is nothing they can do. Without the aid of a homing beacon, satellite telephone or radio, a rescue mission is impossible.

“He could be anywhere between Redondo Beach and Cape Town. We’re talking about an area that covers more than a million square miles of sea. We don’t even know which ocean he’s in,” said Coast Guard Lt. Mark Pototschnik, a rescue coordinator in Alameda. “It’s impossible for us to do any kind of search at this point.”

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Many in the King Harbor boating community who were accustomed to seeing Guernsey toil on his boat and prepare meticulously for the voyage believe the notion was insane to start with. They shake their head over news of his apparent disappearance.

“I told him he had rocks in his head,” said slip mate Bill McDade. “Now I’m inclined to think he’s lost at sea. I hate to think that, but he’s long overdue.”

But those closest to Guernsey say he possesses the resilience, nerve and resourcefulness of a world explorer.

At the Redondo Beach Yacht Club, where Guernsey for years has held court over cocktails and grilled steaks, members have listened in rapt attention to his accounts of raging storms, crushing fatigue and chilling fear. They compare him, in all seriousness, to Christopher Columbus or Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. They still believe he will return to King Harbor.

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“If anyone could do it, it would be Frank Guernsey,” said Cy Zoerner, a Manhattan Beach solo sailor and writer who co-wrote the book about Guernsey’s 1995 voyage around the horn. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he showed up yet.”

Even Pototschnik, the Coast Guard official, believes Guernsey may still be alive, but struggling.

“I definitely wouldn’t count him out,” said Pototschnik, who never met Guernsey but has read his book. “He’s very experienced and very resourceful. I’ve read about what he’s done in the past and it’s incredible. It just blew me away.”

He said that while such cases are rare, sailors who have missed their destination have turned up more than a month later somewhere else, surviving on rainwater, fish and sea birds.

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Guernsey himself confided to one friend that he believed he had a better than 20% chance of surviving the trip -- odds he considered “sporting.”

His plan was to sail nonstop, passing west of Easter Island, around Cape Horn, through the frozen Drake Passage, into the South Atlantic, north of Elephant Island and into powerful currents that would carry him on to the Cape of Good Hope. Or, if he miscalculated, he could be swept along by currents toward Australia, and slowly starve as his provisions ran out.

He planned to navigate by chart and a hand-held global positioning satellite device, but he expected that the Antarctic cold would freeze the batteries of the GPS device at one of the most critical points of his journey, Zoerner said. As backup, he had a sextant -- a navigation device that allows sailors to calculate their location based on the position of the sun and stars.

Among other provisions, he had stuffed the hull with 150 military ration packets, the mainstay of his previous voyage around Cape Horn; 20 packets of beef jerky; 106 cups of instant ramen noodle soup; 120 protein bars; six cans of Spam, and a quantity of garlic and onions, Zoerner informed fellow sailors in a newsletter. Guernsey believed the garlic and onions would ward off scurvy.

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In addition to brandy for “medicinal purposes,” Guernsey packed a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey with which he planned to toast his 61st birthday on Jan. 5, Zoerner said.

While some were not surprised to hear that Guernsey planned to sail around the horn a second time, they were shocked to hear about the boat he planned to use. The Pearson Electra, at 22 1/2 feet, is 18 inches shorter than the Gladiator 24 he used on his last voyage. That difference represents a significant loss in speed and storage volume.

Friends and family members had read his book and knew this would be a trip of great difficulty.

Among the hardships Guernsey encountered on that previous voyage were violent storms, seas as tall as office buildings that tumbled and crashed over his vessel, paralyzing cold, icebergs, treacherous currents, and extreme physical and mental exhaustion.

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Guernsey wrote that his biggest fear was that his hand-pumped water purifier -- a device he relied on daily for drinking water -- would break down and cause him to die of thirst. The second was that his boat would be crushed in the dead of night by a passing freighter as he slept strapped in his bunk below.

“A ship running me down would be like a locomotive running over a penny,” Guernsey wrote in “Racing the Ice to Cape Horn.” “No one aboard the ship would notice. I would be only one of about 65 vessels a year lost without a trace.”

On that earlier 128-day journey around Cape Horn, Guernsey lost 30 pounds, gashed his head when a swell tossed him from his bunk and broke three ribs when he fell from the rigging onto a stanchion.

David and Daniel Hays, a father-and-son team who rounded the horn 18 years ago in a 25-foot sailboat and wrote a book about the experience, said their voyage was profoundly awe-inspiring. But they said they wouldn’t try it in a boat as small as Guernsey’s.

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“It can be hideous,” Daniel Hays said Friday. “The foam on the top of the waves is like a tractor-trailer rolling at you, and that’s just the foam. Your boat gets thrown out of the water and it just tumbles down the front of the wave.”

Still, he can understand why Guernsey would brave such conditions.

“It’s as close as people get to being in space,” Hays said. “Astronauts talk about looking at the planet from above and how apart they feel. That’s how you feel when you’re there at the horn, looking up at the point of South America and North America beyond that. It’s all of civilization spreading up and out in front of you and there’s nothing behind you.”

Until several years ago, Mary Guernsey thought her husband had quenched his wanderlust with his first voyage around the horn.

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In 1995, when a battered, gaunt and exhausted Guernsey returned home to their modest two-bedroom apartment near King Harbor, Frank Guernsey spoke with a Times reporter.

“This trip shouldn’t have been done,” he said of that journey. “I’ve done four. Each time I went further. This time I went too far.”

But Guernsey’s wife and friends say he returned a different man. He seemed less interested in selling insurance and began losing clients.

“Little by little, I could see it. He didn’t want to be back in civilization,” Mary Guernsey said.

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In his book, Guernsey describes much of his life as a fight against conventionality.

He recounts how he was sent to boarding school and then to military school as a boy by a stern father and a distant mother.

As a teenager, he chafed at most forms of authority -- a quality that followed him into the Marine Corps and landed him in the brig on at least one occasion. After earning a degree in anthropology from what is now Cal State Northridge, Guernsey settled into a life of sales. In his late 20s, he discovered sailing.

Mary Guernsey said her husband had always refused to sail without her permission, approval she gave grudgingly and after much argument. Before one trip, she says, she accused her husband of being suicidal.

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“It was really hard for me, but I knew that if he didn’t do this, he’d be unhappy and probably resent me a little,” she said.

“Besides, I wouldn’t want him to stop me from doing something I wanted to do.”

At his Redondo Beach insurance office, Guernsey’s phone carries the last recorded message he left before sailing out of King Harbor.

The message refers clients to another insurance broker in his absence and, in a matter-of-fact voice, predicts that he will soon triumph over the forces of nature.

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“Hello, this is Frank Guernsey. I’m not in,” it says. “I’ve embarked on a sailing adventure and I’ll return in July 2003.

“This machine doesn’t take messages, so I wish you all well and I’ll be back. Over and out.”


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