Around the World of Cam Lewis
The record for sailing around the world non-stop has now been reduced to a stunning 45 days in 2012, and it’s getting hard to remember that just 20 years ago, a multihull voyage to the southern ocean was a journey into the unknown, the sailing equivalent of a moon landing. A total of three boats had set out into the unknown in January 1993, none of them was designed with this ultimate sailing challenge in mind. They were in search of adventure, competing against the mythic characters of a 19th century novel for the Jules Verne trophy.
Only one boat completed the journey. The skipper was Bruno Peyron and Lewis was one of his four crew. There’s only one book on that first race written in English, It’s called Around the World in 79 Days and it’s well worth a read. It’s by and about Lewis, who was until this year the only American to have raced around the world in a catamaran.
Dashing around the world in an 86′ wing-masted ocean racer with four crazy Frenchmen could easily have generated a thrill-a-minute prose style. But Lewis and his co-author Michael Levitt chose to take the literary high road in describing this harrowing journey. As the title suggests, it is written with an appreciation for the work of fiction that inspired this whole crazy movement–Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
They devoted a good portion of the book to re-printing whole chapters of Verne’s classic work, comparing the fictional adventures of the phlegmatic English gentleman Phileas Fogg with their own race against the clock. What’s more, the whole book is peppered with asides on topics that are only obliquely connected with both narratives–from population growth in India to the origin of the international dateline. Perhaps it’s Lewis’ way of admitting that daily life on a boat, no matter how fast, can’t compare with pulp fiction.
This may sound like a confusing way to organize a book, but the result is a pleasant change from the usual “wow-we-really-did-it” narrative and makes for very easy reading. In 1993, you’ll learn, Verne’s book was never far from the thoughts of Peyron and his crew, and their conversations covered all manner of topics. And if it wasn’t for Verne, Lewis jokes, a round number like three months or 100 days would been the goal, which would have been a whole lot easier to attain.
The progress of the unshakeable, imperturbable Fog provides enough excitement in the alternating chapters for the authors to keep their account down to the minimum necessary to get the story told. Not that there aren’t moments when they allow that nothing short of a stream-of-consciousness style will do the trick. So this is how Lewis describes the short walk across the trampoline of Commodore Explorer from one side of the cat to the other:
“Try to walk on a waterbed in sea boots. It’s similar……….but to get the real feeling you have to put it in a pickup truck with a crazed teenager driving in New York city on a rainy winter night at rush hour.” Lewis knows that, like Verne, he too, has a grand yarn to spin and just occasionally lets loose with one of these metaphoric broadsides. But he never gets carried away with the fact that he was making nautical history.
In addition to his in-your-face graphic moments, Lewis is also very observant and, you might well decide, practically addicted to word play in French and English. He never misses a chance of making light of the discomforts, and there were plenty, believe me! The narrow hull he shared with two other men for 80 days had less space than a wartime submarine, dripped and squirted water non-stop, and was rarely warmer than the outside temperature.
It was in this port hull that Lewis presided over the primitive “galley,” for he was the designated cook on the voyage, producing meals for four picky Frenchmen. Not haute cuisine, he admits, but filling enough to keep them going. He called his bistro “le café des cochons volant au rive gauche” (the flying pigs café on the left bank) when he was in a good mood. He was responsible for purchasing and packing all the food, and this was the first time he’d ever cooked on a long passage.
But there’s more! This is also a love story about Lewis and his girlfriend Molly: how he managed to procrastinate over proposing to her until they are oceans apart, when he finally pops the question over the radio. The book finishes with them settling down in Maine with their first child, conceived before the historic voyage began.
This was no expense-account trip, and Bruno had to keep the bankers at bay while they prepared the boat. The first day, they broke a yard off the bottom of the mainsail track. Then the mainsail outhaul exploded, followed by the shackle on the mainsheet traveler car. The auto pilots never worked well, forcing one man to be constantly at or near the helm. The escape hatch in Lewis’ port hull leaked until they practically glued it shut with silicone, and the diesel heater was a disaster.
Perhaps it was just as well they did not have jib furlers, as nothing on the boat seemed to work for long without expert maintenance. Nonetheless, things went well enough for the first two weeks. In the middle of the south Atlantic, on the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, they got their first good blow. The boat was moving at 25 knots in 50 knots of wind. With Bruno at the wheel, the Commodore Explorer skied down a 40′ wave at maximum speed, ran out of water in the trough, and drove its bows under all the way to the mast.
The whole boat rose out of the water, pirouetted around the lee bow and hung in the air, deciding whether gravity or inertia would win out. Lewis and the rest of the crew were flung from their seats. When they recovered, they found their skipper “wide-eyed and ashen.” The next day, they ran under bare mast at 10 knots.
The fleet of two cats and one tri had all been lengthened, modified and reinforced to resist the impact of the 26,000-mile journey. However, this wasn’t enough to resist the impact of a breaking wave that slammed the Explorer hard enough to split the surface layer of carbon fiber. Peyron’s crew voted to carry on, but when the 85′ catamaran Enza and the 90′ trimaran Charal collided with some unseen object east of South Africa, they were forced to withdraw.
With his boat the nominal “winner” of the race, Peyron brooded over the risks and talked often about calling off the attempt in Australia. He spent as much time “dialing for dollars” as he did plotting the weather, Lewis reckoned. If the captain was becoming reluctant, the crew cheerfully pushed ahead, perhaps driven by the thought that they’d have to come back and DO IT AGAIN if they didn’t get it right the first time.
Having broken every historic sailing record on the books, they reached Cape Horn after 52 days, on schedule for the 80-day target, only to be confronted by a storm of epic proportions. With the wind gusting to 85 knots, they were still making 25 knots under wingmast, unable to slow down, and heading straight for the Chilean coastline. This was the time they chose to pioneer a new maneuver we may hear more of in The Race: turning a cat across the breaking waves and into a storm to force it to heave to. The crew huddled in their survival suits expecting the worst, but it never came.
In a day they were back under storm jib and racing for the last mark on the course–Cape Horn with twenty- seven days left and the whole Atlantic ahead of them. While the south had been a question of survival, the return north was one of strategy–how to cross a half dozen weather zones without dropping below the magical 14 knot average. With their boat and rig on its last legs and week to go, they found the right wind and pressed the boat hard. They were rewarded with day’s run of 480 and 507 nautical miles–the best of the entire trip, and reached the western tip of France with 17 hours to spare.
They were welcomed home as conquering heroes to the small port of Le Pouliguen, Peyron’s home and swept up in the whirlwind of welcomes, parties and interviews, which the odd-man-out (Lewis) seems to have sidestepped with his fiancee Molly. Over the following years, the two boats that dropped out returned to the quest and lowered the record to first 74 days and then 71 days. Peyron kept his sites set on his goal of building his idea into a world-class event.
In the world of adventuring it’s always best to be first, says Lewis (an attitude that I’ve taken to heart in my own sea-to-summit adventures). There’s no reason on earth for him to go back to that forbidding southern route again, but “I believe life should be lived to its fullest,” he said in 1994.
Which brings me to the fascinating question you’ll be confronted with after following The Race and reading this book: “Who is Cameron Carruthers Lewis.” He introduces himself as a privileged child, borne to a well-known and powerful New England family and makes no apology for devoting his life to the pleasure of sailing close to the edge.
Personally, I’ve got no problem with a wealthy man who uses his fortune to put himself in conditions where money won’t do him any good. (I think the best example would be millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett in a balloon gondola setting a solo, distance record–spending big bucks for the privilege of being cold, hypoxic, and totally at the mercy of the winds.)
Outside magazine put Lewis on its cover in November and put him under a magnifying glass in a detailed story. Is he “a gentleman of leisure ……… who just likes to go fast,” or a “leader of men?” the author asked. Using his yachting and society connections, Lewis pulled together some $4 million to finance the building of a third 110′ cat from the molds built by Gilles Ollier, the designer of Peyron’s record-breaking Commodore Explorer. That project ended with a Polish insurance company and a broken bow. But the glory of that first voyage will always belong to Peyron, Lewis and their comrades.