Billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett believes that the
unendangered life is not worth living. A Chicago options trader
by profession, Fossett thinks of leisure as swimming the English
Channel or competing in an Ironman triathlon or racking up world
records. He has set more than two dozen of the last, 10 of which
he still holds, in sports from sailing to flying jet aircraft.
But the record he coveted most--being on the first team to
circumnavigate the globe in a balloon--eluded his grasp earlier
This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue
In December 1998 Fossett and fellow billionaire Richard Branson
had started in Morocco and were more than halfway around the
world (having navigated a change in their course to avoid an
incident with the Chinese government, which warned them to stay
out of China's air space) when they were forced by an unexpected
weather front to ditch into the open sea off Hawaii. Barely a
month later, a rival team completed the historic feat.
Today Fossett is back in the record hunt with a 105-foot
catamaran called PlayStation, arguably the world's fastest
ocean-going sailboat and the first of a new generation of hi-tech
multihulls that will push sailing speeds into territory
previously reserved for fast ocean liners. Fossett's goal for his
$5 million sailing machine is to smash all three of the most
coveted marks in ocean sailing: the 24-hour distance record, the
transatlantic crossing mark and the round-the-world record (for
what is appropriately called the Jules Verne Trophy).
Fossett and PlayStation, launched in New Zealand last December
with operating costs subsidized by Sony, have already attained
the first record. In March, Fossett took the ultralight,
ultrastrong carbon-fiber boat out into South Pacific swells for
its first offshore run and shattered the 24-hour record of 540
nautical miles by rocketing 580 nautical miles at an average
speed of 24 knots. Now Fossett has PlayStation deployed in New
York harbor, waiting for a favorable weather window to launch an
assault on the Atlantic crossing record, which stands at six
days, 13 hours, three minutes and 32 seconds.
To set the transatlantic record Fossett and PlayStation will have
to travel almost 3,000 nautical miles from Ambrose Light, off New
York Harbor, to the Lizard, a landmark on the coast of Cornwall
in England, at an average speed of about 20 knots. That means
PlayStation needs to stay in the breeze. "It's a very powerful
boat, more powerful than any multihull that's ever been built,"
says Fossett. During her 24-hour record run, PlayStation hit
speeds of more than 35 knots, and Fossett and her designers
believe that in the right conditions she could top out at about
That sort of speed in a sailboat requires size and power.
PlayStation's twin hulls are 105 feet long, and her mast stands
almost 148 feet above the water. Her enormous 5,300-square-foot
mainsail weighs almost a ton, and depending on conditions
PlayStation can throw up more than 11,000 square feet of sail.
The resulting loads on the boat's structure and lines are
stupefying. The tension on the headstay--which anchors the soaring
mast--can reach 30 tons. The load on the mainsheet, which controls
the mainsail, spikes to 15 tons or more. Under sail, every line
is bar-tight, and a blown fitting or parted line can easily kill
someone. (During the 24-hour record run, Ben Wright, who
co-manages the boat for Fossett, lost most of a little finger
while trying to reduce sail to help keep PlayStation under
control.) For record-setting purposes, PlayStation's rig and sail
controls must be powered by human muscle. "Given current
technology, PlayStation is at the limits of human capability,"
says Pete Melvin of Morrelli & Melvin, which designed the boat.
After the transatlantic attempt Fossett plans to launch
PlayStation on its Jules Verne bid in February. The time to beat
is 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and eight seconds. Melvin and
his partner, Gino Morrelli, have done everything they can to
design a boat that will survive the terrific pounding PlayStation
will receive. "The loads are the great unknown," says Melvin.
"There are no books which tell you how to build boat like this."
That left Melvin and Morrelli trying to assess their brainchild
with computer simulations that were designed, in essence, to
break the boat. One scenario launched PlayStation off a wave,
crashing down entirely on one hull. (The bows deflected about 10
feet out of alignment.) Another brought the big cat to a
shuddering stop by accelerating it off one wave and burying the
bows 40 feet into the next--"the equivalent of a train wreck,"
Melvin says with a grin.
But bits and bytes can't entirely capture the caprice of the
world's oceans, particularly the tumultuous seas of the North
Atlantic or the wild southern oceans. In tacit recognition of the
dangers PlayStation is built with a series of watertight
compartments to minimize the chance of sinking after a collision,
and it's equipped with immersion suits and other gear to allow
the crew to survive for a couple of weeks (barring hypothermia)
after a capsize or dismasting. Veteran weather-router Bob Rice,
who has made a career of guiding racing sailboats around the
world's oceans, predicts that PlayStation will experience seas at
least 30 to 40 feet in height when she goes for the Jules Verne
Trophy. "When you are in the southern oceans, you spend as much
time trying to slow the boat down as you do trying to make it go
fast," Rice says. "And any boat that has escape hatches so you
can live in it upside down is something I wouldn't want to be
Fossett and his crew know the score, which is why they are on
board. "I consider this to be a very dangerous boat," Fossett
told his crew as they set out on a training run for the
transatlantic attempt. That means being aware of where the danger
zones are if a fitting breaks; sleeping feet forward in case of a
sudden thrust caused by one big wave crashing into another or by
a collision with a floating container or a whale (to avoid a
broken neck); and, perhaps most important, staying on board a
boat whose speed might take it miles before it can be turned
around. "If we lose a man over the side, we have about a 50-50
chance of getting him back," Fossett says.
Fossett is confident that PlayStation has a good shot at the
transatlantic record, which has stood for nine years, if the
winds blow at least 15 knots for the duration of the crossing.
(He would prefer 25 to 30 knots.) To maximize the chances that
this will happen, Fossett has invested in a meteorological study
of North Atlantic weather patterns over the past 10 years. The
preliminary conclusion is that November is the most propitious
time to find a succession of windy weather systems that
PlayStation can hitch onto all the way across the Atlantic.
"Everybody gets the weather right for setting off," Fossett says.
"But it's the finishing weather that's tough."
Fossett still muses about the possibility of becoming the first
person to balloon around the world alone. But for the moment, a
ridiculously fast sailboat and the possibility of breaking two
more records--especially winning the Jules Verne Trophy--appear to
give him enough adrenaline. "Sailing around the world is one of
the ultimate goals in sailing," Fossett says. "And there's a lot
of romance and excitement associated with an around-the-world
event, regardless of the sport."
Fossett says of PlayStation.
getting him back."