”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.”
Mike Plant died crossing the Atlantic in November of 1992 on a new racing yacht commissioned to compete in the Vendée Globe Challenge, a race of solo circumnavigation of the world. The race was a relatively new one in which the participants leave from France and essentially circle Antarctica, no stops allowed. Plant had done it before, in 1989-90, but this time he’d intended to win. He was a fierce competitor and a man who presented a face of unshakeable, and perhaps unwarranted, confidence to the world. But he answered to the "the sun, the rain, and the wind."
The story of prior races and the creation of Coyote, the 60-foot single-hulled sailing vessel Plant commissioned for speed is riveting and revealing. Despite our imagining the sometimes grim realities of solo sailing around the world in the cold weather of the southern seas, we are not likely to be prepared for the difficulties of designing and building a completely new-style racing vessel in a matter of months. In cringe-producing detail Julia Plant describes and underscores these difficulties and shows us how it might be possible for a new racing ship to break apart in heavy seas.
Undaunted by the difficulties of attempting to design a completely new racing vessel from scratch with little funding, Mike Plant went with his instincts. He wanted to beat the French, who were leaders in this type of sailing, and who designed ships that often sacrificed safety for speed. The only requirement was that the boat be 60 feet or less in length and monohull. Coyote had an 85 foot mast and 250 lbs of sail, described here by sailing journalist Herb McCormick:
Coyote was an extreme design with exaggerated dimensions. At 60 feet overall, she sported a plumb bow, a startling-looking 19-foot beam, and twin rudders. Her hull was a broad, Airex-cored, shallow dish with a displacement of only 21,500 pounds—5,000 pounds lighter than Duracell [an earlier boat].With upwind and downwind sail areas of 2,600 and 4,700 square feet respectively, she carried an impressive power plant…It was a ton of sail even for an experienced solo sailor.”
This was the thing: Mike Plant wasn’t all that experienced a solo sailor, at least at distances like these. The only way to get experience at solo circumnavigation, however, is to do it. He’d done it a three times before, but really, he was just confident of his ability to troubleshoot his way out of difficulties. And he usually succeeded.
Mike Plant grew up in Minnesota along the banks of Lake Minnetonka, near Minneapolis. He was competitive and physically gifted from an early age, leading him to accept challenges good sense might have rejected. Julia Plant characterizes her older brother Mike as special in many ways, but especially in his outsized appetite for adventures of his own making. He was considered a troublemaker early on and battled alcohol addiction his whole life. But he seemed to find his passion in battling the elements on the ocean, where in his thirties he took to ocean racing, specifically solo circumnavigation.
His career was short. Five years later, he was dead.
Julia Plant takes some time at the beginning of this book to share her early reminiscences of Mike, three years her senior. In retrospect this section is helpful to give one a fuller picture of the man, and how his decision-making process worked. No one could possibly dispute his courage and drive, considering his willingness to take on such an adventure. We might question his preparedness. None of us can know everything, and certainly hindsight gives us insights Mike couldn’t possibly have had. In the end, we must simply take the man for what he dared to do.
“It’s [solo circumnavigation] sort of like driving around Canada in the winter for 30,000 miles naked. If your car stops, you freeze to death.”
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