Racing To The End Of The Earth Six giant catamarans, 80 sailors, 26,000 miles, no rules--big-boat racing crosses a perilous new frontier.
By Timothy K. Smith

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Some years ago, officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee spotted a curious correlation in international sports. Americans, they noted, do best in low-tech competitions involving simple equipment. As the technical components of sporting events increase--say, from running to basketball to cycling to biathlon to bobsledding--the prowess of American athletes, and the interest of American fans, declines in rough proportion.

It may say something positive about our culture that we tend to prize the athlete more than the gear. But it also means that once in a while, as a nation fixated on ball, hoop, and pigskin, we simply miss out on a big-ticket, high-tech sporting extravaganza that has much of the rest of the world riveted. A classic case is the Group B rally fever that swept Europe in the mid-1980s. While American motor-sports fans were watching stock cars go round and round, the Europeans created a class of spectacular road-racing machines to let car companies show off their engineering. With four-wheel drive, Kevlar bodies, 400-plus-horsepower engines, and gigantic twin turbochargers, the Group B cars did things that to this day seem impossible--some could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in less than three seconds. Screaming through the European woods, and quite often setting them on fire, these supercars made jaws drop from 1982 to 1986, a golden age for auto racing. Ford was a player in this breathtaking game, but who in this country noticed?

Something similar is going on right now, not in motor sports but in sailboat racing. If anything, it is an even wilder spectacle, because the laws of physics dictate that, unlike in cars, bigger is generally faster in sailing vessels. Over the past five years, teams of sailors and naval architects around the world have built, by hand, a new breed of multimillion-dollar racing catamarans that defy what you expect of a sailboat. Up to 125 feet long and 60 feet wide, they can move through the water much faster than the wind is blowing--in the right conditions, they lift one huge hull out of the water and thunder along at nearly highway speeds. Their crewmen wear crash helmets. And they are intended not for sailing around buoys but for a nonstop race around the globe. As this issue went to press, six of the giant cats were five days into it, having left the starting line in Barcelona on New Year's Eve. Each carrying a dozen or so of the world's top sailors, they are heading south to blast around Antarctica in what may turn out to be the greatest race the world has ever seen.

It may also be the most perilous. In the Southern Ocean, where there are no land masses to block the atmospheric depressions that howl from west to east, waves pile up to the size of small buildings. Most of the boats in this race (called, simply, the Race) were launched just weeks before the start, giving their crews scant time to train. Three boats that did launch early enough for sea trials broke down, and one had to be abandoned. The Race is expected to last a little more than 60 days--two months of flat-out sprinting in conditions severe enough to have driven some sailors to depression and suicide. Hanging over all this is a question that sailors have argued about for years: whether a racing catamaran is a safe design to take to sea in the first place. Unlike a monohull with a weighted keel, which is built to pop back up when knocked on its side, a catamaran, when flipped, stays flipped.

The possibility of violent death in this contest is on the minds of all concerned. In an editorial, the British sailing magazine Yachting World called on the race's organizer, Frenchman Bruno Peyron, to cancel it. "Of all the round-the-world races that have ever started, this has the greatest potential for a body count," Andrew Bray, the magazine's editor, told London's Sunday Times.

What company in its right mind would attach its name to such an undertaking? Disneyland Paris, for one. Also France Telecom, Sony, Club Med, Renault, and a score of others. In some markets, the Race is great publicity: It's attracting daily news coverage in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and the boats are carrying equipment to transmit five minutes per day of broadcast-quality video.

It is difficult to put a value on all this attention, though, in the ordinary sports-marketing sense. Philips Electronics, with Sun Microsystems and other sponsors, spent about $6 million on a radical British entry billed as the largest carbon-fiber structure in the world. The boat, called Team Philips, got lots of press coverage when the Queen christened it last year. Then it got a lot more when its port hull snapped on its maiden voyage--right where the Philips slogan, "Let's make things better," was emblazoned--and still more when it was repaired, relaunched, and promptly wrecked last month by a violent storm west of Ireland. (The crew, unharmed, was rescued by a German freighter.)

"What this boat is supposed to do is symbolize the new management culture of Club Med," says Philippe Bourguignon, the company's chief executive officer, with a straight face. It is a sunny day in mid-July, six months before the start of the race, and he is relaxing under a picnic-table umbrella at New York City's Chelsea Piers, his company's giant cat, christened Club Med, tied up in a slip behind him. In this context his remark seems hardly strange. The gleaming 110-foot vessel, with the image of a woman in a yellow bikini painted on its bows, has just become the world's fastest sailboat, traveling 625.7 nautical miles in 24 hours, for an average of 26.1 knots, or 30 mph. Peak speeds reached about 37 knots, or 43 mph.

Step aboard Club Med, however, and you understand right away what the stakes are. In the cabins belowdecks are rows of lights with mercury switches that turn on when inverted. A generator sits in a 180-degree gimbal so that it can run if the boat is upside down. There are hatches not just in the tops of the hulls but in the sides too. The mattresses are lashed into the bunks; crewmen are instructed to sleep feet forward, so that if the boat slams into a wave--or an iceberg or a whale--they won't break their necks. In storage lockers are pneumatic tools that run off scuba tanks, in case somebody needs to cut a hole in the boat to escape. The mast has a little door in it so that crewmen can climb up inside to repair rigging.

As Club Med motors out into the Hudson River, crewmen hoist the cheesecake--no, sorry, that's the jib, which bears an even bigger image of the woman in the yellow bikini. The mainsail goes up, the engines are shut down, and right away the boat seems to defy conventional physics. Only about ten knots of wind are blowing on this day, a mere breeze, but the gauges in both cockpits tell the story: 12, 13, 15 knots of boat speed. Pretty soon the boat is generating so much apparent wind--the kind you experience in a moving convertible on a still day--that passengers' glasses nearly fly off.

What's happening here is a combination of aerodynamic lift and hull shape. The sails (and in this case the wing-shaped mast) generate lift that pulls the boat through the water. A monohull, to stay upright, relies on a combination of beam (width) and ballast (weight down low). A catamaran, with two hulls spaced far apart, relies only on beam, which means that it can be far lighter than a monohull of the same length and carry a lot more sail area per pound. Think of a beach cat, like a Hobie, the kind you may have seen or sailed at a resort, zipping alongshore. Then think of one ten times larger, weighing 20 tons, dodging hurricanes in the remotest regions on earth.

What kind of person wants to undertake a competition like this? The kind of person who has swum the English Channel, set ballooning records, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, raced a dogsled across Alaska, driven in Le Mans, and run the Boston Marathon. That would be Steve Fossett, 57, the California native who made a fortune trading options in Chicago and has devoted his life to sporting adventures. Fossett is one of two Americans who have a shot at winning this thing (three, if you count the co-skipper of a French boat). At 125 feet, Fossett's cat, PlayStation, is the biggest in the race and one of the most thoroughly tested. With funding from Sony's European arm, Fossett had the boat built in New Zealand in 1998 explicitly to break sailing records, which it did: Before Club Med captured the 24-hour record, PlayStation held it.

Fossett and his crew had doubts about entering the Race, and with good reason. Last summer, attempting to break the west-to-east transatlantic record, they were hit by a gust of 60 knots or so that stuffed the boat's bows into a wave, snapping its sail battens and nearly flipping it end over end. To reduce the chance of that happening again, Fossett has had PlayStation lengthened and the shape of its bows altered.

The other American team in the race is led by Cam Lewis, 43, an ocean-racing multihull specialist who lives in Lincolnville, Me. His boat, Team Adventure, is one of two sister ships of mighty Club Med (all three boats were built in France from the same molds). Lewis struggled to find sponsorship--he got a last-minute cash infusion from Monster.com, the online career service--and he launched the boat too late to permit much training. But Lewis is one of the few people on earth who have done this kind of thing before. He was a crewman aboard the famous Commodore Explorer, an early giant cat that more or less started this whole business when, in 1993, it sailed around the world in 76 days, becoming the first boat to capture what's called (naturally) the Jules Verne Trophy. His experience shows: He has had walls built on the sides of the cockpits to reduce the pounding his crew will take.

But he will have to beat Club Med, a favorite in the Race, not least because of its strong corporate backing (the company owns this boat in addition to sponsoring its campaign). Under the direction of Grant Dalton, 43, a tough Kiwi who has raced around the world five times in monohulls, its multinational crew has been training together--starting in the gym at 6 A.M. daily--for the better part of a year. But they and the other sailors are nervously eyeing Club Med's third sister ship, called Innovation Explorer, representing the formidable French catamaran establishment. Skipper Loick Peyron, 40, is a star multihull sailor and a younger brother of the race's organizer.

The final two boats in the race are older vessels that were extensively rebuilt last year. One is Commodore Explorer herself, now 17 years old, renamed Warta Polpharma and manned by a Polish crew. The other is also a long-in-the-tooth legend: the former Enza, which won the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994. Now called Team Legato after its software-company sponsor, it is skippered by Tony Bullimore, an irrepressible 61-year-old Briton who, the last time he went racing in the Southern Ocean, in 1997, survived for four days in an air pocket under his upturned 60-foot monohull before being rescued by the Australian Navy. Bullimore lost part of a finger when a hatch slammed on it, and nearly lost a foot to frostbite, and when his ordeal was done, he says, "all I wanted to do was go back to the Southern Ocean."

Admirers of over-the-top naval engineering have owed a special debt of gratitude to the French ever since they managed to float the 227-ton Luxor Obelisk from Egypt to Paris and stand it upright in the Place de la Concorde. It was Polynesians who first developed oceangoing catamarans thousands of years ago, but in the modern era the French, more than any others, have embraced the form and driven it to its current extremes. Nobody knows why this is so, but most sailors believe it is partly a national poke in the eye to the British yachting establishment.

Bruno Peyron, a tanker captain's son who grew up sailing on Brittany's Cote Sauvage, skippered the Commodore Explorer when it captured that first Jules Verne Trophy in 1993. Cam Lewis recalls that during that dash around the bottom of the world, Peyron would sit at the chart table with a sketchpad, "drawing these fantastic Jules Verne-ish catamarans and trimarans with balloons and submarines coming off them, imagining a fleet of the best of the best boats sailing around the world at the end of the millennium."

Returning home--where his boat was greeted by 50,000 cheering Frenchmen--Peyron decided to issue a worldwide challenge: a nonstop sailboat race around the globe, to begin Jan. 1, 2001, with no limits on design or construction. "It's a celebration of the millennium, and of liberty," Peyron says. "It's a technological challenge too. I think it's important for a civilization to leave behind a postcard that is worthy of its era."

Of course, most people thought Peyron was out of his mind. But while he was looking for a place to put Commodore Explorer on display, he met Bourguignon, then the CEO of Disneyland Paris. An amateur sailor who was engaged in a difficult turnaround of the company at the time, Bourguignon had followed the Jules Verne chase closely, identifying with the skipper's perseverance in stormy conditions. In 1995, Disneyland Paris agreed to become the first sponsor, and the Race was on.

As Peyron took his boat on a promotional world tour, his simple idea inflamed the imaginations of professional sailors and naval architects. Some proposed giant monohulls, trimarans with hydrofoils, even a boat pulled by a kite. In Britain, hundreds of volunteers rallied round a charismatic dreamer named Pete Goss to build the ill-fated Team Philips. In the end it came down to the six giant catamarans that made the start, some by the skin of their teeth, in Barcelona.

There are those who still think Peyron, 45, is crazy. Peyron is mindful of the accusations that his dream could imperil not just the race's sailors but also the people who might be called upon to save them in the event of catastrophe. So he is taking a step new to ocean racing: sending a rescue boat--an 84-foot monohull with a crew of five, including divers and a doctor--to follow the fleet. It won't be able to keep up, of course, but Peyron says he hopes that if a racer gets into trouble, the rescuers might be only a week or so behind.

Now sailing south through the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, the cats will turn east around Antarctica through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. They then race around Cape Horn and back up through the Atlantic to finish, some 26,000 miles later (if all goes well), at Marseilles in early March. As with all round-the-world races, a critical choice for skippers is how far south to go: The closer you get to the pole, the shorter the distance you have to cover, but the greater the likelihood of meeting an iceberg in the dark. Guided by their "weather routers"--tactical meteorologists who study the big picture from stations on shore--the boats will try to use their extraordinary speed to dodge the worst of the storms and stay in winds of 25 knots or so, circumnavigating the globe faster than man has ever done it on the surface.

The era of the Group B rally cars came to a sad end: The vehicles' capabilities eventually became so great that they exceeded their drivers' reaction times. After a series of fatal crashes, the class was canceled in 1987 and the cars became expensive collectors' items.

It's possible that a similar fate could befall the Race. With luck, it won't. With more luck, an American might even win it, making the nation tear its eyes away from the college basketball championships in March and salute a sporting achievement at technology's outer limits.

FEEDBACK: tsmith@fortunemail.com