|Happy birthday, Gerard! I hesitate to use the word happy because the day is beginning very badly. Winds from the southeast, with increasing velocity, barometer falling, rain, and a pitch-black sky.
A lot to look forward to: another twenty-four hours of punishment.
Come what may, I'd at least reached the ripe old age of forty-six, which wasn't bad. Only a few days ago I wouldn't have put money on it.
Prow facing due east, with my sea anchors out, I tried to make the best of a bad situation by pausing to read the letters my family had given me before my departure, to be opened only on my birthday. I couldn't help feeling
nostalgic, and tears welled up despite my efforts to force them back. In my situation, words had a very special resonance and were so much more moving than they would have been under normal conditions.
I opened Ann's present first: a lovely bar of soap in the shape of a fish whose perfume filled my watertight quarters. Then Guillaume's: a double present. First a book entitled Tin tin in America, doubtless to help me find my way around once I arrived; then a copy of Playboy, with a
written note on the cover reminding me that it was only on loan and that it was to be returned to the rightful owner once I was back on dry land.
The fact was, I did not have enough to read on board. A question of weight, which had obliged me to make serious cuts and omissions: a book by Henry de Montfried, another by Alphonse Allais, a third by Edgar Allen Poe. But I had kept on board my favorite, Frank Bullen's classic The Cruise of the Cachalot, which is the story of sailors' lives a hundred and fifty years ago on a great whaling ship. Their lot was so terrible I almost forgot my own trials and
|0430: another capsize.
0630: another capsize, this time extremely violent.
The second time Sector flipped over, I hit my head very hard against the bulkhead. Fortunately, I was wearing my wool cap. It was a rough day ahead with waves of twenty feet and more.
Between two waves, I dashed toward the forward part of the boat to check on the state of my foodstuffs. According to the sky and the weather reports, my problems were only just beginning.
Ensconced once more in my cabin, I began to question myself again about my future, which was a way of escaping reality.
The success or failure of the voyage was the incessant, ever-burning question. Yet I knew the answer by heart. I knew that, even if I were successful, there would be a brief
moment of exaltation, when everything would be simple and easy. But life - real life - would soon reassert itself, with all its demands and banalities. I also had to face the possibility of failure: something serious might happen to the boat, or to me. That thought was the unkindest cut of all: so much pain and suffering, so much self-investment for naught. Even assuming a failure in which I survived but failed to reach my goal, wouldn't I be affected forever? Maybe not, for I would have fought the good fight to the bitter end. But whenever that comforting thought came to mind I knew immediately, in my heart of hearts, that I was letting myself off too easily. In this kind of undertaking, it was all or nothing.
When life is reduced to a struggle to survive, everything else - glory, fame, fortune - pales to insignificance. All the gold in the world, all the honors that might be heaped upon me by others, seem virtually meaningless next to the question: am I really going to make it?
|Night of September
|I was sound asleep, wrapped in a slicker in an attempt to keep myself warm despite the fact that my sleeping sack was sopping wet. Together the two pieces of equipment were combination survival gear and antishock device. Since I'd had my fill of the sound of roaring waves, I'd plugged my cars in an effort to catch up on my sleep. As a result, I heard nothing and felt nothing this time. The boat capsized on the bunkside, that is, to starboard, and I only woke up once the boat was hull up!
|I know two very unhappy kids today, namely Guillaume
and Ann, since this is their first day of school. As for me,
I am relatively happy: I've just crossed the international
dateline - hence the "repeat." I'm going to live September
8 all over again. As if once were not enough.
Absolutely wretched weather, barometer falling, the boat off again and running. Retreat into my watertight shelter, with a knot in my stomach. Typhoon "Ivy" is heading inexorably toward the North Pacific.
When I set out on this adventure I was not unaware that late in the summer and early in the fall typhoons formed in the Pacific. Despite the many successive delays in Japan that had kept me from leaving on schedule, I was still virtually certain that I would avoid the worst of them. But I also knew that I would probably not be able to avoid them altogether and was counting on being able to skirt them.
These meteorological monsters would doubtless wipe me out in a trice if I had the misfortune of running smack into them while they were at their peak. I had a hard time imagining what it would be like to be caught in cyclonic winds of from 120 to 180 miles per hour, out on the high seas. Few are the mariners who have experienced these monsters of nature and lived to tell the tale. Although I had managed to steer clear of the centers of these low pressure "great winds," [the term typhoon comes from the Chinese tai-fung , literally "great wind"] I felt their breath on my back. For weeks on end I would live with this menace, spawned in distant waters, that seemed to pursue me in the North Pacific. First Ivy, then Luke, followed by Mireille and Or-chid. Gentle names that wrought havoc on the Asian con-tinent, leaving hundreds of dead in their wake before pursuing their relentless course across the ocean. Some typhoons aborted, but those I cited remained powerful enough to head north in my direction, too far away to wipe me out but close enough to generate enormous waves that did affect me. On the plus side, they also sent me hurtling in an easterly direction.
Typhoons don't materialize out of nowhere, without warning. Weather stations track them from their inception, so I was always fully aware of their impending arrival. I spent a full week watching and waiting expectantly for them, readying the boat as best I could, making sure Sector and I were as ready as possible when D-day arrived.
By the time I saw Ivy arrive on the distant horizon, it had already claimed some two hundred lives.
11 and 12
|Late in the afternoon, the sky turned livid. The troughs of the waves yawned like deepening canyons, and the winds ranged between gale force 6 and 7. On two occasions, I stuck my nose outside, intending to film the scene, and both times almost turned to tragedy. I cursed myself. Even if I were trying to stiffen my spine by resorting to film, I could not under any circumstances let down my guard.
Hundreds of birds overhead, fleeing the monster. Heading due south. A feeling of cataclysm. Ashen sunset, followed by a night of complete horror. Sector tossed about in every direction.
1800: Boat capsizes.
2320: Two capsizes, one after the other.
0120: Sector capsizes again.
This list will be too long to relate.
0300: Backward somersault, all of a sudden. I'm thrown
forward. The boat makes a full somersault before return-ing to the vertical. Then it turns back again, upside down. Most of the times Sector turned over it was from a
wave that hit broadside. This time it was grabbed by a monster wave, hurled
downward, downward, faster and faster. Then suddenly the prow hit the sea as though
it had run smack into a brick wall. I could feel the whole craft shudder, and the massive
blow on the cabin wall made me think it was going to snap. The shock was so brutal I
thought the port-hole was going to explode right in my face. From one second to the next
I had gone from twenty-five knots to a full stop. I was hurled against the bulkhead. At
the same moment, the hull moved from a forty-five degree downward angle to
completely vertical, prow skyward, before quivering and falling backward. A descent of
at least twenty-five feet. Three full stories. The same feeling you'd have inside a car
somersaulting off a cliff.
An inventory of the damage reveals several cracks in the inner lining of the hull, as well as in the door and cabin deck.
As for myself, two broken ribs, a nose that's turned into a shapeless, swollen mass. Nervous exhaustion. Physi-cally, a basket case.
During my Atlantic crossing, I did not have a life raft with me nor even a distress signal such as I had on board Sector. I did not even have a life jacket, and yet I can honestly say that never have I have been as frightened as I was during my hours battling to survive Ivy. The Pacific is so different from the Atlantic, so much harsher and unforgiving. Not that I have not had my share of close calls. I remember once when I was sailing along the Brittany coast some fifteen years ago, in charge of a convoy of sailing ships. Cornëlia was with me, as was Guillaume - then two months old - and two other people. It was night, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came this great gust of wind that sank the ship. Just like that. We all managed to make it to the life raft, but it wasn't long before that went down, too, leaving us in the high seas in mid-November. 1 saw myself dying, and my family with me. As luck would have it, one of the sailing vessels I was escorting saw us and, just in time, fished us out of the water.
Now even that experience paled before the gnawing, nag-ging, burning, subterranean fear that for weeks had held me in its grip.
|I confess, without the slightest bit of shame, that fear is by now part and parcel of my being. It follows me like a shadow, always present, latent during the rare hours of relative calm, carrying on its patient task of undermining my morale, forever ready to move in during difficult times, ready to strike at the slightest sign of letdown.
If fear is inevitable, it is nonetheless ignoble. Demeaning. It does not station itself in the head or heart, as other emotions do, but in the belly. To face fear and overcome it is a source of great pride and satisfaction. It is the greatest victory, that of the mind over the animal. An illusory re-futation of the human condition? Perhaps. The sin of haughtiness or legitimate pride? We all have to judge for ourselves.
Risk is not an end in itself - to play the role of daredevil by hanging on to the tail of an airplane or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, no thanks! Yet for me risk - real risk -is the salt of life. It accompanies and flatters my penchant for daring solutions, for panache, for the "heroic" and gra-tuitous act. I think of risk as one of the indispensable in-gredients that validates victory and makes it taste so sweet.
We often speak of calculated risks. I don't quite know what that expression includes. If it means smothering risk beneath a plethora of precautions, nothing is left. By com-parison, the lucid appreciation of danger, to which one adds solid experience, careful preparation, and material adapted to the situation you plan to confront, simply gives you a better chance at success, enables you to raise the stakes further, to expand the limits.
I have always had a great need for personal freedom. Other people sometimes think that I'm not interested in them because I treat them the way I would like to be treated; that is, I totally respect their privacy - and that includes their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. It is very possible that I carry this so-called virtue too far. But the fact is, I never intrude on other people's privacy unless they specifically ask me to. Maybe this tendency is some-times misconstrued as a lack of interest on my part. But I confess that I have never understood why I should be obliged to ask people every morning how their cat or canary is doing today, as if I really cared. By the same token, I ask others to leave me alone, to tend my garden any way I see fit.
I know, too, that my desire for independence and au-tonomy - which, I admit, I carry fairly far - does not fit in very well with certain widespread values in our overly civilized society: social security, life insurance, all the other kinds of insurance designed to protect us from the risks of the world, not to mention a whole slew of other codes and regulations. I fully understand the need for a driver to have automobile insurance, as I understand that one should re-spect the basic rules of the road. But the bewildering in-crease in the rules that govern our lives strikes me as more than a little stultifying.
When I say that I value my personal freedom above all else, I also accept the other side of that coin, namely that I take full responsibility for my actions and conduct. Not ninety or ninety-five percent, but one hundred percent. This voyage across the North Pacific is, to my mind, the supreme responsibility, because in putting my life on the line I have risked my all.
True responsibility, the ultimate exercise of one's free-dom, is to know that in the event you fail you expose yourself to the supreme penalty, death. That in itself is enough to make me feel the full weight of what I do. All the rest is so much literature.
I have chosen the ocean as my field of confrontation or, if you will, my field of battle. Because the ocean is reality at its toughest and most demanding. As my weapons against this awesome power, I have human values: intelligence, experience, and the stubborn will to win.