Wednesday, July 5, 2000

Sailing Way Down South: A Deep Keel in a Tight Place

Kingfisher and Pelagic Rendezvous
Off the Tip of Cape Horn;
Avoiding a Bump in the Night

By Kate Laird

Caleta Martial, behind Cape Horn

OMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT, a voice crackled on the VHF radio: "I can see your lights; we're coming in." Aboard Pelagic, the 54-foot expedition yacht my husband Hamish and I run in the Southern Ocean, we kicked off our sleeping bags and pulled on thermals.

On deck, in the crisp black of a Tierra del Fuego night, I could see the mast lights of a tall sailboat approaching the bay. Twenty-three-year-old Englishwoman Ellen MacArthur had just rounded Cape Horn for the first time in a brand new "Open 60" single-handed racing yacht called Kingfisher.

Cape Horn

Cape Horn

Three crew had accompanied her on the maiden voyage, a Southern Ocean passage from New Zealand to Cape Horn. We had received extraordinary permission from the Chilean government to rendez-vous with Ms. MacArthur by the Horn -- the southernmost tip of South America -- and to pick up her crew, leaving Ellen to sail the 9,000 miles back to England on her own.

But first she had to navigate Kingfisher into the Cape Horn archipelago--an unusual assignment for one of these ultralight racing yachts, with their deep keels, extreme width and no amenities to help with anchoring.

Ironically, Kingfisher is the more "pelagic" boat, made for the open sea. Pelagic, on the other hand, is rather like a kingfisher: a stocky, solitary bird, a bit lacking in grace, but at home in narrow inlets, vaguely charted waters and riddled coasts.

Our contract with Kingfisher included the provision that I go aboard the boat and help pilot her in. Caleta Martial, a broad halfmoon harbor on an island just north of Cape Horn is one of the easier harbors in the world: a gradually shelving sand bottom and a wide entrance with arms clearly visible on radar. It's one of the few places in Tierra del Fuego where there's room to swing on the anchor; normally we're in such tight inlets that we must tie three or four long lines to trees to hold the boat in place. My second time there, I'd brought Pelagic in without a second thought, despite six neophytes as crew and Hamish flu-ridden in his bunk.

But on Kingfisher, I was nervous. I was used to solid, heavy, steel Pelagic, with her lifting keel built (and much used) for bouncing over rocks. Motoring into Caleta Martial aboard Kingfisher, I was very aware of the 15-foot keel hanging below us. Touching it to the sand, even at our cautious speed, could weaken it enough to kill Ellen later on. "It absolutely cannot touch bottom," her shore manager impressed upon us as we sailed from Ushuaia, Argentina toward the rendezvous.

Even climing aboard posed a challenge. For one thing, I was pregnant, and the newly-aquired bump of four-and-a-half months made me awkward. But Kingfisher was the delicate one. "You've got to take those shackles off your dinghy," said the shore manager. "They could go right through Kingfisher's hull. If you drop a tool on deck, it might go through."

I didn't dare let the dinghy touch the hull as I climbed aboard Kingfisher and hugged Ellen. I'd known her for five years, since she was a kid making a name for herself by sailing around Britain alone on a small cruising boat.

Ellen MacArthur at Kingfisher's chart table

Ellen MacArthur at Kingfisher's chart table
© Thierry Martinez

Ellen is focused: She's probably the most intent person I know. In those five years, she's sailed back and forth across the Atlantic several times, apprenticing herself to a "Who's Who" of solo racers. On her own, she finished a respectable 17th in a herd of 52 21-foot "Open-class" boats in the 1997 Mini-Transat. (Yes, really, 52 people in 52 tiny yachts racing 4,000 miles across the Atlantic.) Now, she is gearing up for the ultimate single-handed test: the 27,000-mile, nonstop Vendee Globe, which begins in November.

As we came into the bay, I stayed below, keeping an eye on the radar, chart and depth sounder while Ellen and her crew ran the boat. Back aboard steel-decked Pelagic, Hamish set a spare anchor to act as a mooring for Kingfisher. Satisfied it was secure, he passed the end of the line to the waiting dinghy and moved Pelagic closer to the beach on another anchor--a lot of maneuvering, but safer than moving heavy gear on Kingfisher's fragile deck.

Kingfisher at anchor, Caleta Martial

Kingfisher at anchor, Caleta Martial

The sky was still dark when, at 4:30 a.m., Ellen and her crew finished settling Kingfisher and came for dinner on Pelagic to celebrate the passage from New Zealand. Watching Kingfisher swinging to an anchor for the first time, we had a roast lamb and a few bottles of red wine--which seemed to go down well with Ellen's crew after 16 days of dehydrated, packaged rations.

Sixteen days: we knew a cruising single-hander who'd taken 43 days to cover the same distance from New Zealand to the Horn. This boat amazed us.

At less than a third of Pelagic's weight, Kingfisher looked like a Monte Carlo Grand Prix machine next to a jeep, except in her case, it was strictly a question of sails and the sea; we were the ones with the big, noisy engine.

To Pelagic, 10 knots of wind is flat calm; and the diesel engine pushes us along at seven knots. Kingfisher, under sails alone, can reach 10 knots in the same conditions. (For Pelagic to sail that fast, we need 45 knots of wind on the beam; Kingfisher would be touching 30 knots in the same gale.)

Ellen MacArthur departing solo from Caleta Martial

Ellen MacArthur departing alone
from Caleta Martial

Ellen didn't want to linger in Caleta Martial and lose the rhythm of her passage, so after a late breakfast and an afternoon of work, she set sail alone at dusk out past Isla Deceit and into the Atlantic. Ellen looked very small on Kingfisher's wide, flat deck: She's about five-foot-three, with short, dark, unbrushed hair and a pair of gold earrings as her only feminine accoutrement. Below her, the top of the rudders gleam rescue-orange through the water, a sobering concession to the frequency with which these machines turn upside down.

The next day brought a ripping 45-knot breeze as we crossed Bahia Nassau for the Beagle Channel: Pelagic's perfect wind. Pelagic hummed through the water and Ellen's crew, catching up on sleep below, reported it was more wind than they'd seen on the entire passage from New Zealand. The sun glinted through the clouds and spray washed over the deck. In my belly, the baby kicked and squirmed, though whether out of enjoyment or protest, I can't be sure.

Already 100 miles ahead of us, Ellen was struggling to clear thick kelp fronts off Kingfisher's keel. She was under pressure to return to England in time for the start of the 2,800-mile "Europe 1 New Man Star" single-handed race (despite the name, Ellen was one of two women in the 60-foot monohull class), which ran back across the Atlntic to Newport, Rhode Island.

Hamish and I left Pelagic shortly afterwards and returned home to a saltwater bay in New Hampshire, where we planned to spend the summer sailing a 17-foot plywood boat and watching the bump grow. But in the mornings, before starting work, we checked our e-mail for updates from Ellen. Quite a few of solo sailing's legends were on the starting line in Plymouth, England in the beginning of June, most in well-proven boats. Ellen, who had arrived home from Cape Horn after an uneventful voyage of 39 days, claimed to be hoping for a place in the top 10.

She was soon in the lead, but not without gear problems, a gashed forehead from a fall in the forehatch and very little rest. Her sleep patterns were monitored remotely via a sensor on her wrist, and after one bout of non-stop effort, the satellite link revealed she's only slept 2.81 hours in the last 24.

On the last day, the east coast of the New World proved fickle. There was no wind, even by Kingfisher's standards. The rest of the fleet was still offshore in breeze, and Ellen found herself completely stopped, untangling lobster-pot buoys from a daggerboard that extends below the hull to help the boat stay on course. No time for sleep.

But the rewards must have come Monday, June 19, when she crossed the finish line at 6:21 a.m. in Newport, R.I. In first place after 15 days racing, Ellen MacArthur is the youngest (and first woman) victor since the race began in 1960.

"People say, 'What's it like to be a girl in sailing? What's it like to be young?'" she said after the finish. "But you don't know because you're you and you don't know how it feels to be old and a bloke ... I just get on with it."

Kate Laird, The Wall Street Journal 2000

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