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Nautical wackos need not call for help

2007 March 17
I don't know about you, but I tend to sleep fairly peacefully. By that, I mean that I don't have many nightmares and I can usually trace those few nightmares to an overdose of Shakey's pizza, a Dunkin' Donuts hyper-caffeinated frappe right before bedtime, or the heebie-jeebies two days before income tax deadline. But if I did have a nightmare, it would go something like this.

I am alone in the middle of the ocean, perhaps 1,000 miles from the nearest land. No one knows where I am and I have no way of contacting anyone.

I am aboard a 20-foot Tornado class catamaran, which is a handful for two competent sailors on an afternoon race, let alone singlehanded in the middle of the ocean. I am sailing in 30- to 40-knot wind and rough seas, not for a few hours, but for days on end. I have no water, no food and no medicine. It is night, and there is cloud cover and no stars. I have only a toy compass, but no flashlight to see it.

Oh, yes, I have poor vision but I have no glasses, so I can barely see the end of the catamaran, let alone the sails.

Get the picture? This is clearly a Technicolor nightmare that would have you sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 a.m., covered with sweat and trembling.

This is a nightmare that wasn't a dream. It was reality for a 40-year-old Italian named Francesco Di Benedetto who decided that he wanted to cross an ocean, the Atlantic Ocean to be precise. His Web site notes that he has 10 years of offshore experience, but he has something even more important: a mutant gene in the family pool.

His older brother is also one of this merry band who set out alone on weird ocean voyages and, in fact, Alessandro set a record for sailing from Yokohama (as in Japan) to San Francisco (as in California) in 62 days. He did it aboard a 19-foot plywood catamaran that you, dear reader, would be too smart to sail across a calm bay.

Back to Francesco, however. He fitted out his Tornado catamaran with all the basics: plenty of food, water, a GPS system, an autopilot so he could sleep, headlights so he could sail at night, medicine and, because of his ocular issues, both glasses and contact lenses.

Francesco set off the day after New Years on what his Web site calls "a breathtaking challenge" from Gran Canaria bound for Guadeloupe. All went well for the first three days, but his support team on shore lost contact with him on Day Four.

They waited a bit, and then sent a message to all ships in the Atlantic to keep an eye open for either a Tornado or a short Italian swimmer, since they thought he might have capsized and been unable to right the boat. A few more days and search and rescue aircraft from the Canary Islands were called into play, covering vast areas with no success.

Seventeen days later, he finally activated his EPIRB and a cargo ship bound for Barcelona was diverted to look for him. But the story doesn't end here. It turns out that his GPS was sending out the wrong position coordinates, so the ship spent hours searching 10 to 20 miles from his actual position. By chance, they picked up a tiny blip on their radar and, five hours later, managed to hoist him and his Tornado on board.

It turns out that he had lost everything in a storm and, as he describes it, "I had nothing; imagine myself, the boat, the mast, and two sails." He'd lost all the water, food, GPS, and of course, his glasses. "I had a small compass with no light and the EPIRB in my pocket, that's it."

Some of you may be thinking that I'm being pretty tough on a guy who just went through a harrowing survival ordeal, but you know what? I think he's a self-centered jerk.

In the process of trying to set a record that would be approved by the World Speed Sailing Record Council, which seems to be as much a magnet for nautical wackos as the Guinness Book of Records is for landlubbers, he put a whole lot of people in harm's way, not to mention running up a pretty expensive tab for his rescue operation.

That said, I will defend his decision to set sail in an inflatable wading pool if he wants. I do believe in freedom of choice and we all have challenges that we want to tackle. But do it by yourself.

Every time a search and rescue aircraft goes aloft, it puts a crew in danger. Sure, they need training exercises, but every SAR pilot I've met always pushes the envelope when he thinks there is someone in danger.

And that cargo ship had a schedule to meet that didn't include stooging around mid-Atlantic looking for some guy trying to get his name in the record books.

Of course, Francesco isn't going to reimburse the Canary Islands for the fuel used by the aircraft, nor is he going to compensate the cargo ship for lost time or wasted fuel. No, he's making this sound like a great adventure so that he can get sponsors for his next epic foolishness.

As long as I've got a good rant going here, I might as well tackle the World Speed Sailing Record Council, which was set up by the International Sailing Federation to handle speed record attempts over a 500-meter course. But then they were asked to start providing certificates for long-distance sailing voyages, and that's where Francesco and Alessandro and the other loonies get their inspiration.

If there was no certificate for sailing your kiddie pool across the ocean, there would be no one attempting it. Or, at least, there'd be a lot fewer and I think that nature would tend to weed them out fairly quickly.

But once you have the WSSRC giving these bizarre "record voyages" some sort of respectability, then you can bring in sponsors (as did Francesco, who had a long list of sponsors who anted up money and gear) and the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket.

The unwritten law of the sea is that all sailors will go to the aid of other sailors in distress. But let's add a clause to that law: If you're doing something really dangerous and really stupid, you're on your own. The rest of the sane world doesn't have to put itself in danger to save you.

I know that would put an end to most of these voyages.