At 6:46 last Thursday evening, Philippe Jeantot of France won the world's longest single-handed race—the four-leg, 27,000-mile, BOC Challenge—when he sailed his blunt-bowed, twin-ruddered 60-foot yacht, Crèdit Agricole III, past the finish line off Newport's Brenton Reef Tower and into a blood-orange sunset. Jeantot's arrival marked the end of a record-breaking voyage that had begun in Newport more than eight months ago. Of the 25 sailors who started, eight abandoned the race and one disappeared and is presumed dead. As of late Sunday night, 12 had finished and 4 were still at sea. The last of these, John Hughes of Canada, is not expected to arrive in Newport before May 30. Until then, the race is still under way.
However, Jeantot, who also won this round-the-world event in 1982-83, the only other time the BOC has been held, is champion. A national hero in France, Jeantot made the Newport to Cape Town to Sydney to Rio de Janeiro to Newport trip in a total sailing time of 134 days, 5 hours, 24 minutes—bettering his previous performance by 24 days, 21 hours. The next two finishers, Titouan Lamazou and Jean-Yves Terlain, were also French.
Guy Bernardin, who left Newport as a French citizen and arrived there on Thursday as an American, came in fourth. During a three-week layover in Cape Town last October, Bernardin, who has been living in North Kingstown, R.I., for several years, got word that his naturalization papers had come through, so he flew back to the States to be sworn in. The best finish by a home-grown American was that of Mike Plant of Jamestown, R.I., who sailed his 50-foot sloop, Airco Distributor, across the line Saturday afternoon to win the Class II division for boats 40 to 50 feet long.
Jeantot, who turned 35 the night of his arrival, won only one of the race's four legs and was third into Newport. But he was always among the leaders, pushing the pace and himself. "The guy who's the toughest one, who can keep going the longest, will win," he said on Friday, looking as clear-eyed and fresh as he did on Aug. 30, the day the race began.
May 17, 1987
Jeantot allowed himself no more than five hours of sleep a day when he was at sea and never more than an hour at a time. Before nodding off he would set Crèdit Agricole's computerized alarm system, which wailed like the air horn of an 18-wheeler if the boat speed, wind direction, course or water depth were not what they should have been. "Even if you are deep-sleeping you wake up," said Jeantot, demonstrating the alarm to two unprepared visitors, nearly blowing the hair off the napes of their necks.
Aug. 30 was a perfect day for sailing, and Newport Harbor was jammed with spectator boats. As a result, there were several collisions. The most serious mishap forced Warren Luhrs, who had been the leading hope among the Americans, back to port for repairs minutes before the race officially began. Having gotten under way more than a day late, Luhrs quit the race after the second leg, following two dismastings.
Jeantot had problems in the early going, tearing his genoa and falling 172 miles behind the leader, John Martin, a South African, who won the first and fourth legs in a sloop called Tuna Marine. It took Jeantot a month to repair his genoa by hand—the generator that ran his sewing machine was broken—but he arrived in Cape Town in second place, 43 days after setting out and some 16 hours behind Martin.
The fleet, which by the rules of the race was allowed to refit and repair at every stopover, encountered its worst weather on the second leg, between Cape Town and Sydney. Martin, who began the leg in the lead, lost all five of his autopilots 900 miles into the 6,900-mile leg but continued because "I could not summon the courage to turn the boat around. Waves were breaking three quarters of the way up my mast, which is 75 feet high. All I could do was lash myself into my bunk and carry on."
Crèdit Agricole, which had cost roughly $370,000 to design and build, had her mast in the water three times on Dec. 2 as the wind gusted to over 50 knots. She was sailing well, averaging 242 miles per day, but Jeantot began hearing strange noises from somewhere around the keel. Then the boat started to take on water, some 200 gallons a day. Pumping as he sailed, Jeantot nonetheless was the second boat into Sydney, arriving on Dec. 14, just 5½ hours behind Lamazou's Ecureuil d'Aquitaine. When Crèdit Agricole was hauled out of the water, Jeantot discovered that the keel had pulled several inches away from the hull. It had very nearly fallen off.
Four days later, race organizers noticed that Jacques de Roux's boat was sailing an erratic course 250 miles off the Australian coast. Each boat is equipped with an Argos beacon, which relays the craft's position at least twice a day via satellite to race headquarters in Newport. De Roux had also missed three scheduled radio check-ins. A search was launched on Dec. 19, and later that day de Roux's sloop, Skoiern IV, was found under sail, unmanned, its life raft still aboard. De Roux, who had been rescued from his sinking boat during the first BOC Challenge, most likely fell overboard while not wearing his lifeline.
Jeantot won the third and longest leg, from Sydney to Rio, after a dramatic seesaw battle with Lamazou through the fog and cold of the Southern Ocean. At one point Jeantot, who was in daily radio contact with his French meteorological team, steered his yacht south to the 62nd parallel in search of favorable winds. He rounded Cape Horn on Feb. 11 and reached Rio 12 days later, just 3½ hours ahead of Lamazou.
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Hughes, sailing Joseph Young, was making history. Dismasted 1,500 miles southeast of New Zealand, Hughes fashioned a jury-rigged mast out of two spinnaker poles, and instead of turning back or sailing north to Tahiti, which would have taken him several thousand miles off course, he carried on. He started for a port in Chile but when the weather turned against him, decided to round Cape Horn under jury rig—he is the first sailor to do so willingly—and did not put in for repairs until the Falkland Islands.
When Canadians learned of Hughes's gumption, donations to buy him a new mast began pouring in. (Joseph Young is without sponsorship, and a mast costs approximately $15,000.) One made in North Carolina was trucked to Montreal and then shipped to the Falklands via England. Hughes was waiting when it arrived.
Jeantot had mast problems shortly after beginning the final leg on April 11. He discovered that the wire shrouds that support the mast were fraying, so he put into port in Recife, Brazil, where he only had time to reinforce the rig with rope. The stopover cost Jeantot perhaps 10 hours of his 3½-day lead over Lamazou, but he still had enough of a cushion to sail conservatively to Newport for the overall win.
Surrounded at the dock by well-wishers, reporters and French television crews, Jeantot was asked if such a mob scene was not hell on earth for a single-handed sailor. He smiled and shook his head. "I don't go to sea to escape from society," he said. "When I come back, I'm not going to hide in a small place. I like to talk about what I was doing for the past eight months. It's very exciting. Each time you come back you have done things that, before, you didn't know you could do."