Isabelle Autissier: A seafarer adapts to nature’s challenge

Eighteen of the twenty single-handed sailboats setting out from Charleston, South Carolina, headed southeast, setting a straight course for the coast of Brazil, from where they intended to cross the southern Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa, the first of three planned stops on the 27,000-mile around-the-world race. Two boats, though, surprisingly sailed due east towards Bermuda. Their skippers—an Italian man and a French woman—hoped to slingshot to the head of the pack by catching higher winds from a low pressure weather system that had begun forming in the northern Atlantic just prior to the race’s start that September day in 1994.

“I decided to make a big detour,” recalled Isabelle Autissier during a recent conversation we had at her home in La Rochelle, France. “I invested miles and time relative to the competitors who had headed south.” The gambit meant trading distance for speed, a tough decision even for an experienced sailor like Autissier, who had become the first woman to sail single-handed around the world four years earlier in the previous BOC Challenge race.

Weather forecasting, invented as a science in the mid-19th century, nonetheless remains largely an art. In addition to requiring an understanding of meteorological dynamics, forecasters must recognize patterns, visualize conditions throughout the atmosphere in 3D, imagine how those conditions might evolve over time, and draw on personal lessons learned from past forecasts, especially those that nature ignored. Forecasting is particularly challenging in the northern Atlantic. Low atmospheric pressure over Iceland and high pressure above the Azores archipelago act like a pump drawing wind from North America to Europe. The oscillation, however, is irregular. Timing and intensity of the westerly winds are unpredictable, depending on thousands of constantly shifting variables. No bet is a sure bet. As a result, powerful storms, often erupting unexpectedly around Bermuda, swallow up boats and their crews every year.

“Multiple strategies were possible due to the particular weather conditions at that time,” said Autissier, who had skippered her innovative 60-foot sloop, along with a crew, in record time from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn only a few months earlier. That uncertainty made it especially difficult to stick with her decision. “It’s complicated psychologically, especially at the beginning of a race, when falling behind right away is difficult for [land-based] crew and sponsors,” she noted. “I had to stick with my choice and avoid focusing on the other boats, who had chosen a route 40 degrees south of mine. That’s a big divergence!”

Eventually, the French sailor reached a point of no-return; heading back toward the pack would have left her even further behind. So she stuck with the shifting weather front, benefiting from mostly 30-knot winds in the northern Atlantic, and averaging 10 to 15 knots even as she crossed the Doldrums, the equatorial region that can frustrate sailors with calm prevailing winds. “I then swung around and caught the Trade Winds, coming out in front of the others,” she remembers.

In the southern hemisphere, Autissier extended her lead when she improvised a second weather-related strategy that was exactly opposite of the one she had followed at the race’s start. Two thousand miles west of Cape Town, she caught the edge of a front pushing up from the south, heading east several hundred miles north of the route favored by other competitors in the race. Winds were lighter, but unlike her first gambit, it put her on a shorter path. Renowned New Zealand sailor Sir Peter Blake would later call the tactic she invented the “Autissier variant.”

After 35 days at sea, the then 38-year-old Autissier won the race’s first leg on October 23rd, sailing into Cape Town with a commanding lead—5 days, 8 hours and 52 minutes ahead of the second-place boat. Unfortunately, heartbreak would soon replace the thrill of victory in the race’s next leg.

Over the three years prior to the race, the former marine science professor had worked closely with naval architects and shipwrights in La Rochelle to design, build and condition the boat. “We prepared it en finesse, systematically addressing the most minute details so that the boat would be a tool made exactly for me,” explained Autissier. Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2 became the first open ocean sailboat to use a hydraulically controlled pivoting keel to improve racing performance. All monohull boats competing in open ocean races have now adopted the innovation, previously seen only on smaller boats. The entire team worked for months to handcraft the lightest, fastest and sturdiest 60-foot sailboat ever made. No detail was too small to receive their attention.

On the next leg of the race, as Autissier sailed into the Indian Ocean heading for Sydney, Australia, she faced “manageable” 35-knot winds. For a week, everything seemed under control, with the autopilot maintaining a mostly steady course through the so-called Roaring Forties, the stormy latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south. But suddenly in the afternoon of December 2nd, Autissier heard a percussive pop that sounded like a gunshot. Rushing up on deck from her cabin, she found the 26-meter mast had snapped a few feet above its base. Upon inspection, she realized that a small metal sleeve tethering one of the shrouds—cables supporting the mast—to the deck had broken. A manufacturing fault in a tiny component had subverted the team’s innovative engineering and painstaking preparation, and the skipper’s superb navigational skill.

“I wasn’t in mortal danger. But I couldn’t sail the boat, which was very unstable,” said Autissier. She immediately cut away the fallen part of the mast, which dragged in the sea and threatened to ram a hole in the boat’s hull. Then, over the next 24 hours, with icy waves washing across the violently bobbing boat in swells of three to five meters, she improvised a temporary mast with a 9-meter pole, rope, carbon fiber and epoxy glue.

A competitor arrived the next day after diverting to her position, but Autissier refused to abandon her ship and the race. “I shouted that I was ok, and told him to keep going.” Her goal had shifted from winning the race to achieving “the simple honor of finishing.”

Invention requires assembling things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s both a form of intelligence and a sport.”

Her team in France shipped Autissier a smaller, temporary mast in time for her arrival two weeks later at the remote and snowy Kerguelen Islands, an archipelago situated 1240 miles to the east. She worked around the clock for two days—with help from scientists stationed on the island who welcomed the distraction from their routine—to attach the 13-meter mast to the center of her boat and to transform the 9-meter pole into a mast at the stern. Autissier had cleverly changed the single-masted sloop into a two-masted yawl.

Born in Paris, Autissier learned to sail at the age of seven and began single-handing in 1985. Her first solo voyage was aboard a 32-foot steel sloop which she built entirely herself, including metal work and electronics. “Even when I was a little girl,” she said, “I preferred playing with my father’s toolbox rather than with dolls.” Those many years of tinkering, combined with intimate knowledge of her boat, paid off in the Kerguelens.

“Invention requires assembling things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s both a form of intelligence and a sport; if we don’t do it often and a lot, it’s hard. But if we’ve engaged in this kind of intellectual gymnastic enough, we can do it quickly when we need to,” she explained. “All the upstream work we do to reflect and analyze … allows us to de-dramatize and manage situations as they arise, to improvise.”

Just four days after her arrival at the islands, a scant 600 miles or so north of Antarctica, Autissier set off for Sydney, hoping to arrive within the time-frame dictated by race rules. But yet another unpredictable event would dash her hopes again, this time for good. (Read Part 2 on Medium.)

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