Charles Bonnay and Pamela Andriotakis
October 06, 1980 12:00 PM

For a hero’s welcome, it left a great deal to be desired. As the Baron Arnaud de Rosnay told the story, he had accomplished a once unthinkable feat: sailing alone and unescorted on a narrow, 13-foot surfboard from the island of Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia to the atoll of Ahé near Tahiti. He covered some 750 nautical miles in 11 days and 10 nights at sea, more than four times the previous distance record for surf sailing. After being attacked by sharks, severely burned by the tropical sun and losing 10 pounds, he washed up on Ahé desperately short of food and water, too dehydrated even to cry. He had long since been given up for lost by French navy cutters and search planes. Finally, now he was safe at home—or was he? “It’s a masquerade,” sniffed rival surfer Jean-Marie Faucheux, leading a chorus of skeptics who brought l’affaire De Rosnay from the sports section to the front pages of the French press and to kiosk posters all over Paris. After looking at photographs of De Rosnay after his ordeal, Faucheux declared: “I found him unmarked, his hands hardly damaged. He has no proof.”

De Rosnay’s shock in no time turned to outrage. “When you have risked your life and the government thinks you are lost at sea and your parents have received more than 40 letters of condolence,” he says, “it is immoral for other sportsmen to cast doubt on your feat and your honesty.” Since his return to France last week, the baron has engaged in a tireless round of public debates with his critics, arguing away doubts based on misinformation—such as the report that he neither ate nor slept during his days afloat. He eagerly displayed the only physical evidence of his voyage: his battered wind-surf board and blistered hands.

Doubts remained. Surfing champion Yves Bessas congratulated him on one TV show—then secretly made off with one of the boat’s flotation pillows to have a marine lab check what De Rosnay said were toothmarks left by a shark. “Now that I see his equipment I find it excellent,” allows Stephane Peyrone, the man who held the world distance record, 137 miles in 24 hours. “His calluses are three times as bad as mine. But I protest that he wasn’t accompanied. It is entirely possible, but I am not yet convinced.”

De Rosnay’s actual voyage was very different from the one he had prepared for the previous six months—a 2,100-mile wind-surf voyage from Nuku Hiva to Honolulu, with an escort yacht close by all the way. An aristocrat-play-boy who was a surfing champion by the age of 18, De Rosnay wind-surfed across the Bering Strait in eight hours in 1979. Earlier in the same year, adapting the craft into a sailing skateboard, he crossed the Sahara in 58 hours spread over 12 days. Pulling off a similar marathon on water meant first of all solving the challenge of sleep. He developed an aluminum bar that could be attached to the sail by day and, to stabilize the craft at night, extended laterally with floats on each end. He also devised a watertight plastic cocoon to cover himself while sleeping.

As he set sail for Hawaii on the morning of Aug. 29, however, a crisis arose that De Rosnay had not foreseen: His escort yacht could not keep up with his 15-knot pace. Returning to Nuku Hiva, he announced he would sail instead to Tahiti—unescorted. “It was a matter of pride,” he says. “I never had a doubt of my life—I only doubted the success of my technique of sleeping, which had never been done before.”

His first problem was eluding the authorities. Taking a wind-surf board out to sea unescorted is illegal on Nuku Hiva, and though he slipped away at night, search boats were on his trail within the hour. Next day De Rosnay ruefully discovered that the crew of his escort boat had eaten most of the dates he had taken aboard. The dates, along with macadamia nuts, vitamins, Geritol and survival bars he got from NASA, constituted his only nourishment. He also decided that he would have only stars, a pair of compasses and his knowledge of wave currents to guide him toward Tahiti. His sextant was worthless, since his view of the horizon was blocked by 12-foot waves. Later that day came the first of five shark attacks on his board, one of which nearly punctured a rubber float. “That was the one time I was really afraid,” he recalls, though he admits that by the last day, having exhausted his fresh-water supply and all but his last NASA protein bar, his spirits were touching bottom. “You get extremely humble,” he says, “when you get kicked in the ass for 11 days nonstop.”

De Rosnay, 34, traces his credibility problems in France in part to his pedigree. “They can’t stand that some-one from outside their little circle is successful,” he says. “Every time I do something my connections draw a lot of attention.” The youngest son of an Impressionist painter whose barony dates to the Crusades, De Rosnay divided his time as a child between the family homes in Paris, Switzerland and Mauritius, a former French colony in the Indian Ocean. At 18 he left school to become a surfing champion. For a time he studied Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles in India—and later, through connections made via his then live-in girlfriend, socialite-model Marisa Berenson, became a successful fashion photographer. He also put his hand to public relations. Retained first by the Mauritius Tourist Office, he helped put the island on the social map by bringing over planefuls of such celebrities as Christina Onassis and Brigitte Bardot. He later helped to rehabilitate the popularity of backgammon in France by marketing a set made of denim. When his two-year marriage to tin heiress Isabelle Goldsmith ended in 1975, his interest in outdoor sports became overriding. “I decided to go back to reality and nature,” as he puts it. “I wanted a fresh breath of life.”

Until last week he swore his latest sojourn in the South Pacific would suffice. “I will never endanger my life again,” he vowed, looking to the not-too-distant day when he would have a wife and family. He has the bride picked out: Jenna Severson, the 17-year-old daughter of a former surfing-magazine editor in Hawaii. Jenna was on his mind “all the time” during his 11-day ordeal, he says, and he took her home with him to Paris. “I never saw a man in such a hurry to get married,” she exclaimed during her whirlwind first trip to Europe last week. “I haven’t even finished high school.” Before the wedding, however, De Rosnay has decided to take on several of his more outspoken critics in a challenge race in the South Seas. And to seal his hold on the surf-sailing endurance record, he has accepted what some believe was a bluff offer from the Paris tabloid Le Meilleur to sponsor another marathon to Tahiti next month, guaranteeing him 100,000 francs ($30,000) if he makes it. De Rosnay is not worried. “These people think they are challenging some bourgeois punk,” he snarls. “They are going to be surprised.”

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