Alain Colas ismissing at sea. An intensive search has been conducted by planes and shipsacross a vast wedge of the North Atlantic. His last official radio contact waswith a French radio station on the afternoon of Nov. 16, from a locationthought to be north and west of the Azores. Colas was barely 35, yet he wasalready a man whose life contained the stuff of legend. He was one—some say No.1—of a breed so unique that most folks can only approximate in dreams what hedid in real life. He was a single-handed ocean sailor, one of the few who makeblue-water voyages alone, relying on the wind for power, their wits forcompany. And even among these extraordinary few, Colas stood apart, exuding anaura of isolation. There was a hint of the fever of obsession about him,although he tended to keep it under precise control.
No man ever lookedmore like a sailor than Colas. He had black, curly hair and he affected thethick muttonchop sideburns of a 19th-century mariner. His face was seamed withsun-squint lines and he walked with a limp, the result of a sailing accident.The limp gave him an Ahab-like mystique.
Colas spoke withdisdain about life in modern cities; indeed, years ago he had fled Paris forthe South Seas. He was married to a beautiful Tahitian who gave him a daughterfour years ago and twin sons last summer.
Colas, who hadturned 35 on Sept. 16, had traveled 130,000 miles under sail, five times aroundthe planet, when he was lost at sea. For some 50,000 of those miles—close totwo years, in total time—he was alone, including two transatlantic races fromPlymouth, England to Newport, R.I. Colas won the 1972 race, sailing the3,000-plus miles in a record 20 days, 13 hours and 15 minutes, which slicednearly six full days off the previous best time. Colas' Pen Duick IV was firstamong the 55 boats entered that year, and in 1976, the next running of theevent, he was third out of 125 starters. On this occasion he was at the helm ofthe controversial Club Mèditerranèe, the 236-foot four-masted schooner which hedesigned. It was, and is, the largest sailing ship to be built since beforeWorld War I, and he sailed it alone across the Atlantic in one of the worstseasons of storms in memory. In another of his celebrated single-handedvoyages, Colas circumnavigated the globe in 168 days, 57 days better than therecord set by Sir Francis Chichester in Gipsy Moth III.
In early NovemberColas was off once more; when last seen he was alone again at the helm of thetrusty old trimaran Manureva he had twice sailed around the world. This time hewas heading across the treacherous Atlantic on a race of 4,000-odd miles,starting at Saint-Malo on the north coast of France; his destination wasPointe-à-Pitre on Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.
Although Colas wasalone on his boat, he wasn't exactly alone on that reach of ocean. No fewerthan 37 other solitary sailors had left Brittany with him on the morning ofNov. 5 in a new transatlantic race for single-handers called La Route du Rhum.The name comes from the course: roughly the reverse of the route sailed byclippers and schooners whose holds were loaded with barrels of rum. It issomething of an upstart event in that the British have pretty much held thefranchise for such races with the London Observer's 18-year-oldPlymouth-Newport event. The French also trod on yachting tradition by offeringmoney as a reward—$45,000 for first prize and lesser sums for other places. Thewinner of the Plymouth-Newport race receives a 12-inch silver plate.
The Rum Race isabout half again as long as Plymouth-Newport, and while the starting field forthe inaugural event was mainly French, it also attracted such world-classsailing loners as Chay Blyth of Great Britain, Michael Birch of Canada andPhilip Weld of the U.S. The most optimistic entrants predicted that the winnerwould complete the race in three weeks. But Colas was more meditative about thecourse. He thought that the mean and unpredictable weather in the Atlantic inNovember, plus the tough windward tack into the prevailing westerlies duringthe first third of the race, would mean no one could reach Guadeloupe in lessthan 25 days—or not until Nov. 30.
Sailing the oceanalone is a romantic notion. It sounds like simplicity itself, a mere matter ofa brave man with a strong hand on the tiller and a sharp eye on the starsputting canvas to wind. Single-handed ocean sailing has the ring of an ultimatereduction of life's complexities, an escape to personal purity, a consummatehuman adventure.
Unfortunately,this isn't quite the case. Adventure and romance are there, certainly, but thesingle-handed sailor is far from being a free child of nature. One may view himas a man who should express himself in poetry, but to whom, in fact, the jargonof modern technology is more suitable. The single-handed ocean racer is almostas much a product of the space age as an astronaut is.
A month before therace, Colas was in Brittany, supervising the overhaul of the Manureva. The nameis Tahitian; it translates into L'Oiseau du Voyage in French, The Bird ofTravel in English. Parts of the boat were scattered about a cluttered machineshop near Saint-Malo. Colas watched intently through a welding mask as amechanic blazed away at a section of the rudder. Colas said something inFrench, removed the mask and switched to English. "This has come to be likeauto racing," he said, "so technical and so much demand for precisionto the last detail. We are very close to airplane techniques in design, shapingthe surfaces to put up the least resistance. Turn an airplane upside-down andyou have a boat, you see?" He looked around at the disarray of the machineshop, then sighed. "The race itself is almost a minor point. It is thepreparation that rates first, the attention to each technicality."
He spoke quicklyin French to the proprietor of the shop, then limped out into a radiant Octobermorning. He climbed into his car. "Let's go have a look at the oldgirl," he said. "She and I have been separated for most of a yearnow."
He careened overstony hills on narrow roads and pulled into a boatyard at the village ofTrinitè-sur-Mer. There, perched on pilings above the receding tide, satManureva.
The trimaranlooked nothing at all like a bird of travel. Indeed, she resembled nothingquite so much as a great steel water spider, a bizarre contraption paintedgrayish-blue. Still, she was oddly graceful, an interlocking arrangement of twolarge pontoons attached to a center hull by struts and beams. She looked to bemore cousin to a lunar lander than to the Pequod. The two needle-like mastswere of a light new alloy. Everything else was made of a stainless-steel alloythat was the best stuff available when the boat was built 10 years ago.Manureva was 35 feet wide and almost 70 feet long.
"She's aracing machine," Colas said admiringly. Then he shrugged. "But she is10 years old now and there are many boats in the race that are bigger and madeof all the newest stuff. There'll be bigger boats and younger chaps than I.Perhaps this old girl is already outmoded and gone past her day. But with theright skirt and a little makeup, she will look as fine as the new girls whowill be running with her."
Colas went aboard,followed by a worker who furiously took notes as Colas dictated what was stillto be done.
Manureva was aracing machine, all right, stripped of excess weight and creature comfort. Themetal struts were punched with holes to lighten weight. For the skipper, therewas a cramped little cockpit filled with stacks of charts and navigationalinstruments. A plastic dome offered minimal protection from storms. Inside thebare metal of the hull was a narrow cabin containing a galley with a gasheating plate and a bunk mattress fitted into a box to keep the sleeper frombeing tossed out of bed in heavy seas. One had to bend almost double to moveabout.
Colas looked intothis dark hole with affection. "This was my home for many months, reallyfor years," he said. "I'm as comfortable in there as if it was a snuglittle house with a hearth and a parlor."
Although the seaand a boat reflected all the warmth of home to Colas, it wasn't too long agothat they were alien to him; few sailors were born with less seawater in theirveins. He grew up in the hills of Burgundy, the son of a man whose livelihoodwas literally made of earth—his father was a potter and a ceramics manufacturerin the village of Clamecy. "He takes a handful of clay and turns it intowhatever you might think of," Colas said.
As a boy, the onlywater sport Colas attempted was kayaking on the local river. He attended theUniversity of Dijon, then the Sorbonne. It was there that restlessnessstruck.
"I began tocrave a more thorough life. I wanted more colors, more sun, more open ways,Colas said. In 1966, he left what he called "the polluted skies ofParis" and flew to Australia to become a lecturer in French at theUniversity of Sydney. It was there, at 22, that he discovered the sea. "Myfriends were sailors and racing enthusiasts and they took me out in a keel boatone afternoon. It was love at first sight. I went to the library and got everybook on sailing that I could carry. I learned a mainsail from a helm and,gradually, I became a good crewman."
In December of1967, Eric Tabarly came to Australia for the Sydney-Hobart race. Tabarly was acelebrated French sailor, winner of the 1964 Plymouth-Newport race and,although Colas was crewing on another boat, the two men became friends. Whenthe race was over, Colas joined Tabarly's crew and sailed for NewCaledonia.
This first cruisewas almost Colas' last: they were caught at sea by Hurricane Brenda's 100-mphwinds and 35-foot waves. With sails shredded and rigging snarled, the boatbarely made the harbor afloat. But it was adventure enough to hook Colas onsailing and by 1968 he was back in France on the Breton coast where Tabarly wasbuilding a trimaran for that year's Plymouth-Newport race.
Tabarly had becomeentranced with the idea of a multihulled racer, with none but the barestessentials. He figured it could cross the Atlantic in the faintest of winds,yet hold its own to windward in heavy stuff. The result was a prototype thatcritics said looked like a floating tennis court. In the spring of 1968 therewas a rash of strikes throughout France and the boat was barely finished intime for the race. Tabarly named her Pen Duick TV, after a black sea swallow ofBrittany, and set sail. Barely out of Plymouth Harbor, he collided with afreighter and limped back in for repairs. He took off again and the automaticsteering broke down. Tabarly gave it up and went back to France.
Although out ofthe race, Tabarly nonetheless figured the time was right to cross the Atlantic.Then he would go through the Panama Canal and cruise the Pacific. Colas signedon as crew. They had a good year, putting in at such romantic spots as Tahiti,Hawaii and Samoa, setting a batch of records along the way.
Tabarly was notentirely comfortable with a multihull, however, and he decided to sell PenDuick IV. While in Los Angeles, he scrawled a crude FOR SALE sign and stuck itto the mast. There were no bidders. But Colas had come to love thefreakish-looking craft and wanted it. To raise the money, he began cruising thePacific in an old schooner, the Naragansett, working as a free-lance journalistand photographer. By 1970 he had made enough money for a down payment, andTabarly agreed to sell Pen Duick IV for $50,000. Now she belonged to Colas—oncredit. He used her as his journalist's workboat. "I roamed the Pacific forstories," he said. "And always I was gaining knowledge of the boat,sailing with fewer people, until I knew that one day I would go it allalone."
In the fall of1971, Colas was in Tahiti, gripped with a new obsession: he would sail in the1972 Transatlantic race. A solo journey home to France, a mere 14,000-milejaunt, would be just the thing to get him in shape. It was about that time thatColas met a Tahitian named Teura Krause.
"She was verydark and very Tahitian and we were close from our first meeting," Colassaid. "She became my wife, but that is not a good enough word. We are lifecompanions. I had to hurry to make the starting line at Plymouth, but we didn'tfeel like parting. So we sailed together.
"But shesuffered seasickness beyond belief. Also, a pack of 30 or 40 sharks followed usfor days, dashing in to snap and attack anytime we made any move near thewater. Finally, after a 24-day passage out of Darwin into Maurice-La-Reunion,in the Indian Ocean. Teura flew on ahead and I was left to make my first majorsingle-handed passage."
Teura left him inmid-December and Colas made his last landfall at Mauritius on Dec. 16, 1971. Hesailed non-stop past Madagascar, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the coastof Africa to the north coast of France without ever putting a foot on land. Heaveraged 125 miles a day and made the trip in 66 days.
At the boatyard inBrittany last fall, as he gazed pensively at the familiar lines of the formerPen Duick IV, Colas said, "We have sailed some lovely miles alone, the oldgirl and I, but I don't go out on the ocean for the sake of being on my own.Solitude isn't what I seek. I must have a sense of purpose behind a solitarysail and that overcomes the solitude. There are loners of the sea, men who wishnot to speak to others and who avoid all ports of call because that is the cutof their personality. I felt that old Joshua Slocum, our spiritual father asthe first man to do a single-handed circumnavigation, was the one who treasuredhis aloneness. I don't know that he actually disliked people, but I think theold captain was a bona fide loner. But for me, a single-handed sail is part ofan idea that leads to something other than solitude itself."
Whatever thepurpose behind a single-handed sail, solitude is as intrinsic to the game asthe sea itself. And as Colas went on to say about his colleagues, "We are aspecial brand of sport maniacs who derive our pleasure from our own lonelyactions instead of performing in a gymnasium or a pool or a stadium. Our sportinvolves long hardships and strange times, but it makes us very happy."
Whether its mainappeal is hardship or happiness, solitary ocean racing as an organized sport isnot yet 20 years old. It had its inception in 1960 when five boats leftPlymouth bound for New York, 3,000-odd miles away. The largest boat that yearwas Chichester's Gipsy Moth III, at 39 feet considered a possibly unmanageablehandful for a man at sea alone. Chichester won the race in 40 days and 13½hours. Over the years the number of single-handed sailors has increased, theboats have grown longer and lighter and computers are used in navigating andweather forecasting. But while the technology has changed greatly since thedays of the clipper ships, human beings have changed hardly at all. At seaalone, they are as susceptible today to strange visitations and hallucinationsas they were a century ago.
Slocum, thecelebrated 19th-century salt, was the first and perhaps still the greatest ofthe world's lone circumnavigators. Slocum spent more than three years on avoyage that began on April 24, 1895, when he headed out of Boston in his35-foot sloop, Spray. He sailed 46,000 miles in all, and during much of thetrip, Slocum, who was 51 when he started out, indulged in countless hours ofconversation with a cheerful, bearded fellow who periodically appeared on Sprayto help with navigation—a courteous man who introduced himself as the pilot ofColumbus' Pinta, which had sailed the seas some 400-odd years earlier.
Suchhallucinations are not uncommon. During the 1972 Plymouth-Newport race, amedical survey was taken to study the mental, emotional and physical effects ofthe race on several of the entrants. Through logbooks and interviews, theyreported impressions of their lonely journeys. One man recalled that throughoutthe trip he had heard "the usual high-pitched voices" in his riggingcalling "Bill! Bill!" Another said that after 56 continuous hours atthe helm, he noticed that his father-in-law had appeared at the top of themast, where he was quietly sitting. The sailor didn't find this surprising orunusual. Another competitor reported that he was lying on his bunk when heheard a man at the helm putting the boat onto another tack. When he went ondeck to investigate, the man passed him in the passageway coming down. Theydidn't speak and he didn't recognize the man, but when he checked the bearing,he found that the boat had, indeed, been put about and the course changed.Still another sailor reported that, on his 33rd day at sea alone, he wasraising his sails when he noticed a baby elephant in the sea and thought,"My, what a strange place to put a baby elephant." A few minutes laterhe saw that it wasn't a baby elephant at all but a Ford automobile. Later herealized that in fact it had been a whale.
The single mostserious problem is the shortage of sleep. Each sailor handles it in his ownway. Some never sleep more than an hour at a time. Others, like Colas, woulddoze off for three hours at a stretch, with automatic steering vanes set tohold course. But with sleep always uncertain, half-world sensations arise."My mind was completely separated from my body," one sailor reported."I just used my body to get around the boat."
Then come theterrors of storms, and almost as fearsome, calm. Some of the logbook entriesdealt with the suffocating frustration of a perfectly windless sea. One manwrote, "I feel like a prisoner in a well-stocked cell, but with no onearound to tell me the date of the termination of my sentence." Another keptlogging the word "becalmed," writing it larger and larger each dayuntil, finally, the single word BECALMED covered two full pages.
The changes inmood of men alone at sea are enormous, ranging from highs where they sing anddance hornpipes all alone, to blackest depressions. During the early hours ofthe 1968 race, one sailor inscribed in his log some noble lines from "TheSea" by Louis MacNeice:
It rattled the shingly beach of my childhood....
A day later thesame man scribbled darkly, "I must be nuts!"
In spite of this,most single-handed sailors say that the sense of isolation is neitherfrightening nor uncomfortable. One sailor said, "There is an intimate andcomplex relationship with the natural environment and the creatures thatinhabit the sea and the air, so that the lone sailor never feels abandoned orrejected." Colas said last year, "There is no sense of being aninfinitesimal, helpless speck in the universe when you are sailing in solitude.This is because you become the center of your own universe, you give birth toyour own island, to your own nation when you sail alone. Soon enough, you sailher right out of the ocean and into your own small circle of being. Perhapsthat is too existential, but that is the way it comes to seem."
What about fear?"Not a factor," Colas said. "Fear is a result of the unknown. Anawareness of danger is not fear. I have many times felt my heart jump into mymouth at the sight of a mighty mountain of the sea hovering over me and mylittle boat. But I know we will climb up that steep wall and reach the top andslide down unharmed. We know things, so we need not fear. We know this earth isnot a disk and that we may not sail to the edge and fall off. We know a stormis not Neptune shaking his trident and aiming his wrath directly at a poorsailor at sea. We know storms are caused by cold air moving in over hot air.What we know, we do not fear—and we know much these days."
Is religion anessential companion to the single-handed sailor? "Ah, well, that maydepend," said Colas. "I am deeply Christian; I was raised as aCatholic. But perhaps I have read too much of Ralph Waldo Emerson and thetranscendentalists, and perhaps they are too much to my liking. I believe man'sfate is in his own hands. It is good to have religion, but I know that God willnot be coming down to help me rig a genoa, and thus I get a good hold of thesail by myself. There are times when I might be thankful to see God there withme in the cockpit on a black and tumultuous night, but I know that I cannotcount on that. He is not too reliable that way, I think, and therefore I mustbe perfectly reliable alone."
To Colas, the trueexhilaration in the life of a single-handed sailor lay in its stark contrastwith the ordinary perceptions that most men come to take for granted. "Thiskind of sailing is a way of knowing yourself a little better and of enjoyinglife more intensely," he said. "The risk sharpens you, and beingdeprived of so many things makes you sensitive to the true wonders of life whenyou return. You rediscover how wonderful it is to be close to people again. Thedeprivation of social warmth for so many weeks sharpens the sensations offriendship and of love, and you have never known before how immensely importantpeople are to you, how warm they are and how necessary."
After the voyageto Brittany, Colas had mastered himself and the eccentricities of Pen Duick IVat sea and was well prepared for the shorter trip between Plymouth and Newport.His boat was well known, partly because of Eric Tabarly's former ownership andpartly because of the records it had set in the Pacific. But Colas wasrelatively unknown and he was definitely not the favorite.
The boat to beatwas a radically new 128-footer called Vendredi 13 (Friday the 13th), bankrolledfor $250,000 by French film director Claude Lelouch. It would be skippered byJean-Yves Terlain, a veteran single-hander. Vendredi 13 was a three-masterdesigned to churn steadily through heavy windward seas; Colas' boat, bycontrast, was meant to pick up faint breezes and skim the surface.
As the weatherworked out, Pen Duick IV was the perfect boat. Vendredi 13 stuck to the sea asif it were glued when winds were light—and a good part of the voyage was madein whispering breezes. Colas finished 12 hours ahead of Terlain. When reportersasked the victor if he had experienced any trouble, Colas shrugged and smiled."After 66 days, what is another 20?" he said.
Spartan quartersaside, Colas had lived in style at sea. He was well stocked with Camembert,Pont l'Ev‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢que and Livarot cheese, patè from his home village and tripe à lamode de Caen. "I bring a special Burgundian approach to provisions," hesaid. "I always cook three meals a day at sea, always. I keep some hardtackstuff to put in the pockets of my oilskins for long hours at the helm, and Ihave some tinned foods on hand, but I like to travel with fresh things. Cabbagekeeps for months, and I bring eggs and onions, which are known as sailor'scaviar. I always bring garlic, because how can you cook without garlic? And Ibring a few bottles of wine, because how can you cook without wine? Sitting atmy little stove, browning nicely my onions and stirring up the fragrances ofhome with a wooden spoon—these things warm you up in many ways. And even thoughit may sound indulgent, it is not. I consider myself as a machine, a bit ofmechanical equipment, and just as an engine works better on excellent petrol,so does a man."
One form of petrolColas never used was liquor. "It is too dangerous at sea," he said."I am always flabbergasted at the amount of weight our English friendssometimes take along in ale and grog. Whoever must enhance his perception oflife with this extra stimulant, he has a poor grasp of things." (Colas'attitude toward alcohol is in the minority among single-handed sailors: SirFrancis Chichester rarely left port without a great store of whisky and beer,and a few years ago an Australian dentist may have set quite another kind oftransatlantic record by guzzling 23 dozen cans of beer in a 30-day voyage.)
After the 1972Plymouth-Newport victory, Teura told the press, "Up to now, we haven't hadthe money to get married—everything has gone into the boat. So we had to winfor our marriage, for our future, for everything." And the victory didbring Colas more than a silver plate. He got book contracts and endorsements inFrance, where single-handed racing is a surprisingly popular sport. One of hisbooks sold 200,000 copies, the money giving him further freedom to sail as hewished.
What Colas didnext was to circumnavigate the world alone in his trimaran (then renamedManureva). He departed Saint-Malo in Brittany in September of 1973, sailedaround Africa to Sydney, continued across the Pacific, around Cape Horn andback to Saint-Malo. He believed that any man who could negotiate thetreacherous straits at Cape Horn would achieve a special and praiseworthygoal.
"Cape Horn isto sailing as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris," he once wrote, "[it is]the most beautiful page in the history of the sea."
The first leg ofthe trip, 14,640 nautical miles to Sydney, took him just 79 days, beating allsingle-handed records. He arrived in Australia on November 27, 1972, laid overfor a month, then set out across the Pacific five days after Christmas. Hisboat carried a collection of books, letters and logbooks by captains andcrewmen who had circumnavigated a century before. "I was rubbing minds withthe ancient mariners," said Colas. "Their ideas and their words, themythology they created, were my companions and I was greatly affected by themand their ideas."
One idea that cameto be a compulsion during the second half of the voyage was an increasinglydesperate desire for speed. "I was driving the boat as hard as she could bedriven day after day," Colas said, "and soon the complexion of the tripchanged. I was obsessed, spurred to sail faster. An idea was growing inside ofme, and on the 160th day at sea, it peaked like a child in a mother's belly. Iwas pregnant with the idea for a new and faster boat."
Theround-the-world trip was a success: 30,067 miles in a record 168 days.
Back in France inthe spring of 1974, Colas began to design a massive ship that he would sailalone in the 1976 Plymouth-Newport race. He was still thinking speed."Those ancient mariners knew the secret," he said, "but I knewsomething was missing on my modern boat. What? It was length. When I roundedCape Horn, I topped 18 knots in the best conditions, but I wanted a boat thatcould do more. I wanted to design a boat that could do 29 knots and sustain asteady 20 to 21 knots day after day."
Colas beganorganizing the project. He made dozens of sales talks to potential sponsors,contacted steel and sail companies, tested model hulls in wind tunnels andwater tanks. About $1 million was needed. He gave lectures to raise money (from$1,000 to $1,800 per appearance), wrote more books and sold films made duringhis voyages. He convinced a steel company to give him 150 tons of raw iron orein return for a TV documentary covering the building of the ship. He inducedFrench naval architect Michel Bigoin to work with him on the hull design. Andultimately the great ship began to take shape.
She would be afour-master, with masts 105 feet tall. Each of her four mainsails measured1,035 square feet, each of her four foresails 2,205 square feet, and there wasa 1,071-square-foot spinnaker—a combined sail area of 14,031 square feet. Thehull was 236 feet long, longer than a Boeing 747, with a 36-foot beam, a draftof 18 feet and a displacement of 280 tons. Much of her rigging would be so faraway from Colas at the helm that he would need TV cameras and computers tomonitor the condition of the sails.
Finally, Colas gota major sponsor. The Club Mèditerranèe, the global resort firm based in Paris,decided to give $600,000, the cost of the rough hull. Colas would name hisgrand bateau Club Mèditerranèe.
"They gavemore than money," he said. "They gave trust and countless hours ofcommitment by their best men. They no longer own the boat; she is all mine andI could name her Alain Colas II if I wished. But she'll remain ClubMèditerranèe. They did not waver in their faith in me—even after I did thatbloody stupid thing on a joy ride."
The accidenthappened on May 19, 1975, in the tranquil harbor of La Trinitè sur Mer. Colasand Teura, some friends and a couple of crew members were returning from aday's sailing aboard Manureva. "It was only an afternoon joy ride, and myconcentration was not complete," Colas said. "I did not have my sheathknife at my belt, as I always do at sea, and I only had a small folding knifein my pocket. We were charging through the boats and moorings in the harborbecause the mainsail had gotten wedged at the top of the mast and I felt weshould slow down. I jumped forward to put down the anchor. The big hook fellover, 100 pounds or more, and I turned on my left foot to return to the helm.Ordinarily I would be watching the anchor line snake out, but this time I didnot. My right foot was above the uncoiling line. A loop sprang up and lassoedmy foot above the ankle.
"It sawedswiftly through the skin, sliced the muscle, bit through the bone, and by thetime I managed to get my knife out of my pocket and the blade opened I could nolonger see my foot. Only the naked end of the tibia bone where it had been cutthrough. The knife cut the running line very briskly, but by then all that wasattached to my foot was the Achilles tendon. I fished the foot up by the tendonand I knew enough to press the artery in my knee to slow down the rush ofblood.
"The majorreaction I had at the moment was one of annoyance. The boat was still movingquickly and I had to give orders. I was annoyed that I could not use my handsto give signals because I had to continue pressing the artery. And there wasthe severed foot itself to hold against my leg. I had to keep my balance on myone good foot and keep giving orders to bring the boat to a standstill.
"A friend wasthere who had had medical experience during the war in Algeria. He put on atourniquet and kept me from spilling too much more blood. My wife played thepart of a siren with her screams and woke up the village. An ambulance came andsped me to a tiny hospital 40 miles away. The surgeon there didn't know whatelse to do but some ax work further up the leg to get it organized for a laterfitting of wood perhaps. I wanted none of that.
"Eventually wewere able to raise Professor Jean-Vincent Bainvel in Nantes, a specialist inorthopedics, along with a colleague in cardiology well acquainted with thelace-work of veins and arteries. We raced to Nantes, which is about 85 milesaway, and by the time they put me in the operating room, it had been eighthours since the foot was pulled off. I was extremely fit and they decided togive it a go—to reattach the foot where it belonged."
The operationlasted seven hours and involved an intricate stitching of lengths of vein andarteries from other parts of Colas' body into the leg and severed foot. Overthe next seven months, there were 22 more operations involving skin grafts, andfurther work on the circulatory system. Miraculously, Colas kept his foot. Itwas almost as numb and stiff as if it were indeed made of wood, but it wasalive and well in its own way.
"I have neverwanted to be a surgical hero," said Colas. "I'd rather be a sailinghero. But I prefer my own foot to an artificial construction. One gets to likeone's own things, you know. And it has also added a rather impressive newweather-forecasting aid to my sailing. The foot is very sensitive to any changein the humidity—I find it as reliable as a barometer in most cases. Sometimesmore reliable."
The trauma of theaccident was short-lived: Colas' obsession with the building of his new boattook over almost immediately. On the second day after his foot was "splicedback," as he put it, Colas signed a contract to begin construction of thehull. For the next several months, he masterminded all of the initialconstruction from his hospital bed. "The project literally pulled me out ofbed," he said. "One year and one week after the accident, I was makingfinal preparations to start the race in my dream boat."
Club Mèditerranèehad indeed been built and fitted out in the year, and it was an incredibleracing machine. But the British race sponsors found it rather an irritation.Bitter arguments arose over the entry of such a behemoth. The British insistedthat Colas sail his beast on a 1,500-mile qualifying run instead of the 500miles required of the other entrants. Colas had no trouble: he finished the1,500 miles in just over six days.
The sponsorssearched for other ways to disqualify him, according to Colas, but their rulesput no limits on size, and nothing could be done. (Since then, race rules havebeen changed and no boat longer than 56 feet is allowed.) The Route du Rhum hasno limitation on maximum size, a policy Colas endorsed. "I believe thereshould never be a limit to the audacity of this sport," he said.
For the 1976Newport race, Colas wore a special boot to keep more of his weight supported bythe knee instead of by the still-weak foot. Although his makeshift circulatorysystem was beginning to function, it was far from perfect.
"One arteryand one vein were back at work," Colas said, "but the vein was notdoing its cleansing job very well. I could hardly totter more than seven hoursout of every 24 in a standing position. The other 17 hours I had to keep thefoot in a higher position than the leg to allow it to drain and circulate theblood properly. On board ship during the race, I had to pace my effortscarefully. When I had been standing too long and still had work to do about theboat, I simply had to crawl."
The 1976 race wasthe roughest ever run. The weather in the Atlantic was savage, with winds andstorms battering the entire field. Of the 125 starters, 37 boats retired andfive sank; two men were lost. Some sailors reported winds up to 80 knots. Sailswere popped off, masts snapped, automatic steering gear fouled. Through thesedays of tempest, Colas hobbled about his huge vessel, setting sails manually asthe regulations required, fighting to make headway and at the same time keephis sails from being blown out. But he, too, fell victim to the terribleweather and was forced to put in at Newfoundland to repair his sails.
It all proved tobe part of a bitter experience for Colas. "There was—and is—nothing thatcan go faster across the ocean under sail than my four-masted old girl.Nothing," he said. "But it was a very hard year on the Atlantic. Myadversities were many. Some newsmen were reporting that I was running second tomy old friend Eric Tabarly. Unfortunately, I believed that. Actually, it turnedout that I was two days ahead of him; had I known that, I wouldn't have stayedso long in Newfoundland."
But Tabarly hadfinished first in his 73-foot ketch Pen Duick VI. He was exhausted after 23days, 20 hours and 12 minutes on the raging Atlantic, most of it with hisself-steering rudder out of whack. Club Mèditerranèe glided into Newport out ofa heavy mist in an elapsed time of 24 days, 3 hours and 36 minutes, whichincluded Colas' layover time. He was second man in, but he was assessed a58-hour penalty, dropping him to third. It was claimed that he had illegallytaken passengers aboard when he left the boatyard in Newfoundland to return tothe racecourse.
The loss of therace was a blow to Colas, but he maintained a proud posture in discussing theoutcome. "I have nothing to prove," he said. "I have my owncontentment."
Colas returned toTahiti in 1976, where he carried paying passengers on joy rides aboard ClubMèditerranèe. But he hadn't retired from racing and when the Route du Rhum wasannounced early in 1978, Colas was one of the first entrants.
"I love torace and I ache when I am too long away from a race," he said. "Butdon't forget, I must work for my boats. Sailing has been a sport too much forthe sons of rich men. There has never been enough professionalism in it. Andprofessionalism is the truest democracy. If there were more money inracing—sponsors and money prizes as in the Rum Race—then a poor young man couldparticipate in his sport just as the rich do."
As for his hopes,he said shortly before leaving, "My boat and I, we sail at a good pace. Andwe are good in all weather. I think it will take 25 days to finish, but otherssay three weeks or only 18 days. Well, good on them if they can do it. When Iarrive, if I find some others have made harbor sooner than I, I shall say,'Bravo to you!' And then I shall continue on and sail my old girl home toTahiti. It will be the boat's third trip around the world. She has earned arest and I must spend more time with my family.
"If I am firstacross the line I will say, 'Bravo, old Manureva, bravo!—and I shall still setsail with her for home. I will feel that I am a winner either way."
At about 4 p.m.last Nov. 16, the Saint-Lys radio station on the French coast near Bordeauxreceived a message from Alain Colas. It was quite cheerful and optimistic. Hewas west of the Azores, proceeding nicely, he said. The operator warned himthat his signal was weak and full of interference, suggesting that his batterywas failing. That was his last known message.
The night of the16th, a storm hit the area where Colas had been. Winds rose to more than 50 mphwith waves cresting at 25 feet or so. The conditions were bad, but notcritically so for a man of Colas' experience. That night, ham radio operatorsin Lisbon, Portugal, and Ostender, Norway heard a Mayday distress signal and acall for "immediate assistance" from an unknown vessel at sea.
The winner of theRoute du Rhum, the Canadian Michael Birch, arrived in Guadeloupe on Nov. 29.After 4,000 miles of ocean racing his margin of victory was just 300 yards overMichel Malinovsky of France. Philip Weld of Gloucester, Mass. was third. One byone, the other boats appeared at Pointe-à-Pitre. The last two arrived on Dec.9. Only Colas was missing.
On Dec. 1, theFrench Navy dispatched four planes—two to the Azores, two to Guadeloupe—tostart a concentrated, 12-hour-a-day search for Manureva and Colas. Theycrisscrossed some two million kilometers of ocean, flying alternately at 6,000feet and 1,500 feet. There was no sign of boat or debris.
The search planeswere recalled and the French Naval Ministry canceled the search Dec. 28 aftercovering a five-million-square-kilometer area in 450 hours of flying time.Little hope remains. It now seems likely that the sea has claimed AlainColas.
NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN