Alone Against the Sea, American Sailor Mike Plant Braces for a Dangerous Race Around the World

A stiff breeze ruffling his sun-streaked hair, Mike Plant strides toward the sleek white sailboat. Moored next to 12 other million-dollar racing yachts in the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne, its nil gleams through the lashing rain. The handsome sailor from Minneapolis smiles bashfully and shakes hands with a group of locals, then jumps catlike onto the deck of his sailboat. Named in honor of his corporate sponsors, the Duracell is 60 feet long, 15 feet wide and has a 70-foot mast. And for the next four months or so, the Duracell will define the boundaries of Plant’s universe.

This Sunday afternoon (Nov. 26) Plant and 12 other sailors will steer out into the Atlantic on a single-handed 24,000-mile nonstop race round the world. Carrying as much sail as they dare hoist, the competitors will race day and night at speeds of up to 25 knots, challenging wind and sea, one another and their own limits of nerve and strength in a dangerous sprint across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans to the finish in Les Sables d’Olonne. In the only previous event that approached the Globe Challenge in severity, an ill-fated venture in 1968, just one of the nine entrants finished. Moreover, since the promised prize money of $150,000 has failed to materialize, the one racers won’t be sailing for anything other than glory. “If money were the only motive,” says Plant, “we all would have dropped out. This is the ultimate adventure, and that’s what you strive for.”

The record for a nonstop single-handed circumnavigation of the globe is 150 days, set by American Dodge Morgan in 1986. Globe organizer (and one of the race favorites) Philippe Jeantot expects the race’s winner will shave about 30 days off Morgan’s mark. Only 50-to 60-foot monohulls are permitted in the Globe. With the exception of radio communication, absolutely no outside assistance is allowed. Plant will be in daily contact with meteorolgist Bob Rice, located in Bedford, Mass.

As the only American entrant, Plant has been gearing up for the Globe since 1987, when he finished first in his class in an eight-month, 27,000-mile, three-stop event. During that race, he nearly collided with an iceberg, and his boat capsized in the Indian Ocean in 45-foot seas.

For the Globe, Plant had to find corporate sponsors to raise $700,000 for a new boat. “It’s a lot of money for a country boy,” says Plant, 39. A group of Minneapolis businessmen provided enough seed money to allow Plant and a small team to get to work on a new boat in Newport, R.I. Late last spring, with no additional money coming in, Plant nearly had to abandon the project. At the eleventh hour Duracell Inc. stepped in and contributed some $250,000. “It was an extremely tense year,” Mike says. “But it was worth it. It’s a good boat.”

Eleven thousand man hours went into the construction of the Duracell, specially designed by Rodger Martin. During the race Plant will spend most of his time under the transparent canopy that encloses the navigation and steering console. The boat is outfitted with a short-range, high-frequency radio, radar, automatic pilots, computer, weatherfax machine and satellite linkup. “Modern-day racing,” he says, “is the marriage of the ancient art of sailing and 1990s technology.”

Plant has tried to prepare for any emergency. He has spare parts for the pumps, water ballast tanks and diesel generator. His medical kit contains sutures and painkillers. As for food, Plant will chow down on staples like rice and beans, packets of high-energy food and various microwave dishes. He’ll sleep when he can, taking 20-minute catnaps with alarms set to go off if the boat’s course or speed changes more than a fraction.

Plant, who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, has always wanted to be a sailor. Encouraged by his father, a lawyer, and his mother, a housewife, he began sailing at age 11 on a nearby lake. The following year he built his first boat. “It was a disaster,” he remembers. “It went through, not over, the first wave I hit.”

After high school he put in a stint as an Outward Bound instructor in Minnesota. Inspired by the experience, Plant hiked solo to the tip of South America and back again, covering 12,000 miles in nine months. Back in the States he knocked about, working part-time as a contractor. But whenever he had a chance he’d head to the sea. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, he raced, delivered and captained yachts in the U.S., the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

In 1983 Plant decided to move permanently to Newport. He still hadn’t figured out how to channel his love of the sea until the day he saw a movie on a round-the-world race. “I walked out of the movie theater, and it was like a light switch had gone on,” he says. “I’ve never really looked back.”

Plant is drawing on the emotional reserves he has developed over the years for this latest challenge. “I’m not frustrated by things like being cold or hot anymore,” he says. “That’s why I get along so well on these long trips. I’ve broken down all those fences. The weather never p—-es me off. People say you go out there to beat the ocean, like some macho thing. You don’t beat anything, you just live with it. It’s a rhythm.”

If Plant is worried about the psychological strain of being alone for four months, or the fear of a collision or drowning, he’s not showing it. “I don’t think there is anything you can do to prepare,” he says dismissively. “What are you going to do? Read a bunch of self-help psycho books?” Nor does he think he deliberately courts danger. “I get excited, I start pumping adrenaline like the next guy. But I’m not a masochist or suicidal.”

Plant’s strategy is aggressive. “I’ve no reason to hold back,” he says. “The biggest fear is breakage, but if the gear breaks, you don’t finish. I don’t sail recklessly, but I don’t sail conservatively either.” Plant will need to bring all his expertise to bear if he is to have a shot at beating the heavily favored Frenchmen he is sailing against, but onshore “pit crew” member Serge Viviand has confidence in his skipper. “Mike’s big advantage is that he really knows his boat because he built it. And he likes solitude,” says Viviand. “Everyone has his element,” adds boat outfitter Davis Murray. “This is Mike’s element.”

To get in out of the weather, Plant repairs to L’Entre-Côtes, a local bistro. By his side is his girlfriend of the last four years, Helen Davis, 39, who runs a seaside restaurant in Newport. As he sips on a beer, the American adventurer struggles to find a metaphor to describe how his upcoming voyage will combine the magic and the mundane. “Imagine going to your office,” says Plant, “locking yourself in for 120 days and working every day and every night.” But the difference, he explains, is that while most people have to “answer to the internal politics of complicated corporate society, I answer to the sun, the rain, the wind….”

—Harriet Shapiro, Cathy Nolan in Les Sables d’Olonne

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