Clad in rumpled sweatpants and a zippered polo shirt, Isabelle
Autissier alighted from the deck of her 60-foot sailing machine
PRB onto terra firma in Charleston, S.C. "'allo! 'allo! I'm
back," she said, grinning and embracing friends who had come to
This is an article from the Oct. 5, 1998 issue
After four years Autissier, 41, had returned to this venerable
Southern city accompanied by her 75-year-old father, Jean, and
three of the five shoreside crew members who would see her off
on the Around Alone, a 27,000-mile solo-sailing odyssey that
began in Charleston last Saturday and will end there in about
nine months. In her native France, Autissier is a celebrated
sports star, but that's not how she sees herself. "I am not
something special," she says. "I am a normal woman, doing what I
Normal isn't a term most people would assign to any competitor
in the Around Alone, which is as simple as its name: one person
per boat, around the globe, keep the frozen continent on your
right. Sailors who have completed the race are a rare breed.
More people have flown in outer space than have sailed around
the world alone.
Autissier, who is single, was one of the few Around Alone
veterans--and the only woman--among the 14 competitors who set off
from Charleston. As one of the two French entries in the
seven-boat marquee division of the race, Class I (boats 51 to 60
feet long), she seeks to maintain a kind of national hegemony: A
French boat has won each of the previous four races.
The fourth of five daughters, Autissier grew up in Paris in a
sailing family. She made her first solo crossing of the Atlantic
at 21, in a 10-meter boat she had built herself. It brought her
great satisfaction, she says, but the reason she still competes
is that she enjoys it. "It's certainly not to have money," she
says. The winner of the Around Alone receives only a silver plate.
In three previous around-the-world attempts, she has never
finished trouble-free and never better than seventh in the
official standings. Her bid to win the 1990-91 race, then called
the BOC Challenge, ended when her 60-foot entry, Ecureuil
Poitou-Chrentes, was dismasted in the Indian Ocean. During the
'96-97 race, called the Vendee Globe, her hopes for victory
evaporated when a rudder broke off in the Indian Ocean. But the
episode that most stirs her yearning for redemption occurred
four years ago in the '94-95 BOC Challenge, when Autissier
nearly tasted triumph, then barely escaped death.
First she grabbed headlines when her gamble on an unconventional
Leg I route from Charleston to Cape Town paid off and she
arrived in South Africa five days and 1,200 miles ahead of the
second-place boat. After the fleet left Cape Town to begin Leg
II, through the dangerous latitudes of the Southern Ocean to
Sydney, a low-pressure system swept in from the west, and
Autissier was one of its victims. In 50-knot winds and savage
seas, a shroud supporting her 85-foot mast parted, and the spar
toppled. Her boat was crippled, but she waved off assistance
from a fellow racer and jury-rigged a spinnaker pole and what
was left of her sail to propel her craft at a glacial pace
toward the tiny Kerguelen Islands, a remote French outpost in
the Indian Ocean.
There Autissier hastily fashioned a replacement rig and got back
in the race. A week later, nearly 1,000 miles west of Australia,
a huge wave cartwheeled her vessel, leaving it mastless and with
a sedan-sized hole in the deck where the cabin had been. "I was
inside the boat," she recalled. "I fell on the bulkhead, then on
the ceiling, then on the other bulkhead. If I had been on deck,
I would have been washed away." After a four-day search, a
helicopter from the Australian frigate HMAS Darwin lifted her
from her mangled vessel.
Around Alone race director Mark Schrader says of Autissier: "I
don't think she's a natural, but she trains and works very hard,
and she learns everything she can about a subject or a piece of
gear. She doesn't take things for granted. Like most of the
people who succeed in this discipline, she's not overly impressed
with her ability--not cocky, but confident and very competitive."
Autissier's real strength seems to be equipoise. She balances
her intense competitiveness with relaxed, Zen-like
concentration. "She is just so calm when it gets dicey out
there, ," says photographer Billy Black, part of the crew aboard
PRB for its delivery to Charleston.
"You have to have the same spirit when you are sailing--just
trying to go step by step and do it well," Autissier says. "You
don't say to yourself, There are still 7,000 miles to go, wow.
You just say, O.K., I am sailing today, and I will sail
tomorrow, and the next day I will be sailing."
Dan Dickison is a former associate editor of Sailing World
the world alone.