French yacht racer
During a decade of competitive marathon sailing, Isabelle Autissier demonstrated nearly supernatural sailing prowess and unmitigated bad luck. She is the first woman to sail around the world alone and she piloted a yacht from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn in world-record time. She also capsized and barely eluded death—twice—in violent, remote seas near Antarctica. Autissier retired from the sport as a national heroine in her native France and is widely regarded as the best woman ocean racer ever. "When you get down to it," Cruising World magazine concluded, "there is no one else on the planet like Isabelle Autissier."
Passion for the Sea
Autissier grew up in a sailing family in the French coastal town of LaRochelle. Her father, Jean, owned a succession of cruising boats and encouraged his five daughters to sail. Isabelle began sailing when she was six years old and started planning her first solo voyage around the world when she was twelve. "As a child, I was never told that something was impossible," she once told the Charlotte Observer. "I was only taught that everything had a price."
After graduating from college in 1978 with a degree in nautical engineering, Autissier taught at "fishing schools" in France where local fishermen learned better techniques and gained a background in research and marine sciences. For three years, she spent her nights and weekends welding together a 30-foot, steel-hulled cruising boat called Parole. In 1986, she sailed Parole across the Atlantic single-handedly. "When I returned to France," Autissier recalled, "I decided to try racing, just to see what it was like, to have the experience. I thought it would help me know more about the sea and sailing." In 1987, she won her class and finished third overall in the Mini Transat, a solo race across the Atlantic. She finished fourth in La Solitaire du Figaro in 1989. "In the beginning, I said I would race just for the experience and then go back to my job, (but) racing and trying to go fast in a small boat was such fun."
Around the World
Autissier entered the 1990-91 running of the BOC around-the-world yacht race, the first woman to compete in the contest. The grueling race, which has been renamed Around Alone, is run every four years and requires sailors to travel 27,000 miles over eight months. It begins and ends on the East Coast of the United States, with stops in South Africa, Australia, and Uruguay. During the second leg of the race, Autissier's 60-foot yacht, named Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes, lost its mast in rough seas and high winds as she neared Australia. She fashioned a makeshift rig, limped into port, made repairs, and set out again. She completed the voyage, finishing seventh. It was the first time a woman sailor had circumnavigated the globe alone. "It was wonderful because I discovered everything: I discovered sailing alone for a long time, the Southern Ocean, everything," Autissier said in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article. "It was really a wonderful experience.… I came back to Newport (Rhode Island) and … I thought: I did what I have wanted to do in life. Since I was a little girl, I wanted to sail around the world, and now I have done it. The rest of my life is extra."
Autissier again displayed her sailing prowess—including expert understanding of weather patterns, currents, and navigation—while setting a world record in the spring of 1994. She and a three-man crew piloted her new yacht, the Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes 2, around Cape Horn from New York to San Francisco in just sixty-two days, five hours, and fifty-five minutes—beating the old record by two weeks.
Nineteen yachts raced in a southerly direction from Charleston, South Carolina, at the start of the 1994-95 Around Alone Race—and Isabelle Autissier, following a hunch about Atlantic weather patterns, sailed north and east. Her instincts were correct. Autissier easily triurnphed in the first leg of the race, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, five days before her nearest competitor. Race director Mark Schrader called her 1, 200-mile lead "incomprehensible."
Her luck would soon change, however. During the second leg, the Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2 lost its 83-foot mast in a gale on the Indian Ocean. Autissier juryrigged a new mast, as she had four years earlier, and traveled to Kerguelen Islands. Repairs were made and she set out for Sydney, but halfway between Australia and the Antarctic her boat was hit by a monumental wave, rolled a full 360 degrees, and lost its rigging and part of its deck. The wave would have washed Autissier away had she been on deck when it hit. She activated her electronic positioning beacons, which signaled race officials in Charleston. The Australian Navy rescued Autissier from her listing ship four days later. The Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2 was never recovered.
Autissier returned to France and built a new 60-foot racing ship for the 1996 Vendee Globe competition in which racers must sail around the world alone—and, unlike the Around Alone, without stopping. She was disqualified when the boat, named PRB after the French building-products company sponsoring her, lost a rudder and she needed help replacing it. Autissier completed the race anyway, her second solo trip around the planet.
Two years later, Autissier entered the Around Alone for the third time. She was leading the race in its third leg when—halfway between New Zealand and Cape Horn—a huge wave hit PRB and caused its autopilot to malfunction. The boat capsized. She had only enough time to slam the waterproof hatch behind her to prevent the cabin from flooding. Autissier activated her emergency beacons, but she was far from shipping lanes and out of
the range of the rescue services. Race officials directed one of her competitors, Giovanni Soldini of Italy, to go to her aid. Soldini piloted his boat through fierce conditions for more than twenty hours to reach Autissier's coordinates. "The problem is that these positions aren't precise, and it won't be easy to see Isabelle's boat," Soldini emailed to his Milan-based racing team. "Visibility is always poor, and in any case I'll need some luck."
Two and a half hours later, Soldini saw the upturned hull of Autissier's boat being pummeled by enormous waves. Twice he steered close to PRB and called for her, but there was no sign of Autissier. On his third pass, Soldini threw a hammer at the hull. It struck forcefully. An escape hatch opened, and Autissier crawled out. She had been sleeping.
Weeks after being rescued from the raging, frigid Southern seas for the second time in her larger-than-life career, Isabelle Autissier had this to say about racing around the world alone: "No more.… This has been mycrazy job for 10 years. I had 10 wonderful years doing that, maybe the best years of my life—great adventures, great friends, great feelings. It has been a wonderful story for me. But now it's time to do something else."
|1956||Born October 18 in Brittany, France|
|1978||Graduates from college with a degree in nautical engineering|
|1987||Finishes third in the Mini Transat, a solo race across the Atlantic|
|1989||Finishes fourth in La Solitaire du Figaro competition|
|1991||Finishes seventh in the BOC yacht race (later renamed Around Alone) to become the first woman sailor to circumnavigate the planet|
|1994||Sets world record sailing around Cape Horn from New York to San Francisco in sixty-two days, five hours, and fifty-five minutes—beating the old record by two weeks|
|1994||Capsizes in the Indian Ocean during the Around Alone Race and spends four days adrift before being rescued by the Australian military|
|1996||Disqualified from the Vendee Globe race when she requires assistance to repair a broken rudder|
|1999||Capsizes midway between New Zealand and Cape Horn during her third Around Alone race; rescued by rival Giovanni Soldini|
|1999||Announces retirement from solo marathon racing|
Since that time, in 1999, the quiet, modest French-woman has kept a low profile and avoided media coverage. She lives near the coast of France, in the region where she was born and learned, as a child, to sail.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1991||First woman ever to sail alone around the world|
|1994||Sailed from New York harbor to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge by way of Cape Horn in fastest time ever|
|1996||Sailed around the world alone for the second time|
|2002||Inducted into the Museum of Yachting's Single-Handed Sailors' Hall of Fame|
Fisher, Bob. "Sailing: French Leader Saved by Rival." Guardian (London, England) (February 17, 1999).
Gorman, Edward. "Autissier Pays Tribute to Rescuer Soldini." The Times (London, England) (March 4, 1999).
Gorman, Edward. "Race Rival Turns Back to Rescue Stricken Sailor." The Times (London, England) (February 17, 1999).
Gorman, Edward. "Autissier Sails Close to the Wind." The Times (London, England) (February 17, 1999).
Manly, Chris. "Ocean Ordeal: High Seas Triumph: Lone Yachtswoman 'Never in Doubt'About Rescue." The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia) (February 18, 1999).
Meade, Tom. "Solo Sailor Prepares for Next Trip Around Globe." Knight Ridder News Service (August 19, 1998).
McCormick, Herb. "A Woman of Singular Disposition." Cruising World (January, 1999).
McCormick, Herb. "Isabelle Airlifted to Safety After Rollover—Auguin wins Leg II." Cruising World (March 1995)
Mossop, Brian. "Waves of Disaster." Gold Coast Bulletin (September 18, 2002).
"Rescue at Sea." Sports Illustrated (January 9, 1995).
Stinemetz, Morgan. "Autissier Showed Courage in Solo Effort." Sarasota Herald Tribune (March 13, 1999).
Time. "The Deep End of the Sea: Capsized in Round-the-World Boat Race, France's Most Beloved Female Sailor is Saved by a Rival." (March 1, 1999).
Sketch by David Wilkins