Seasoned Sailboat Racer Recalls A Somersault in the Southern Sea

THE last time Steve Pettengill sailed in the Southern Ocean, he was upside down.

Actually, Mr. Pettengill was right side up - but the boat was upside down, flipped over by a giant rogue wave 300 miles off the coast of Chile.

An hour later, when another wave flipped the boat like a pancake again (an event Pettengill remembers as sounding like a 10-car pileup), he and his partner moved into a watertight sail locker that measured 2-1/2 feet by 7 feet.

When they stuck their heads out of the locker, 60-knot winds blew spume in their faces and 50-foot waves swept over them until they were rescued by a giant container ship that had suffered serious damage itself from the storm.

``I was glad to see it wasn't a sissy storm,'' Pettengill says.

That was Thanksgiving 1990, when Pettengill and his partner were trying to break the clipper ship Northern Light's 132-year-old sailing record from San Francisco to Boston.

So why does he want to return to the Southern Ocean?

``You have to go back to where you left off sometimes - you have to challenge it,'' Pettengill replies.

Early solo record stands

Pettengill will get his chance to challenge it this fall when he joins 37 other entrants in the fourth BOC race. Pettengill will be racing Hunter's Child, a 60-foot sailboat built and designed by Hunter Marine in Alachua, Fla.

Although this is Pettengill's first BOC, he is no stranger to racing. He grew up in Belding, Mich., where his parents were sailors. In the 1980s, he started crewing and solo racing. His solo course record from Port Huron to Mackinac still stands.

In 1987, Pettengill built a trailer and trucked his 40-foot sailboat to Newport, R.I., where he sailed in the Newport to Bermuda One-Two Race. In his first open ocean race, he came in second in his division and won the Navy Seamanship award. The next year he won the Legend Cup with a three-man crew racing from New York to England and came in third in the Carlsberg Singlehanded Transatlantic race coming back.

His racing experience wins Pettengill some grudging admiration from another BOC racer, Annapolis, Md.-based Tim Troy. ``He has a lot of miles under his belt, and he knows what keeps a boat going,'' Mr. Troy says. ``I've already beaten Steve [the Bermuda One-Two Race] - it's other people I'm worried about,'' he adds.

ESPN sailing analyst Gary Jobson says Pettengill could be one of the top finishers in the BOC Challenge: ``The best quality for Steve is that he is steady for a long period of time; he does not have a lot of emotional ups and downs.'' Mr. Jobson sailed with the mercurial Ted Turner during Turner's America's Cup bids.

In a race as intense as the BOC, Jobson says this quality is critical. ``You must run at about a 90 percent level all the time; you can't have an emotional `down' day,'' he explains.

That shouldn't be a problem for Pettengill. ``He's optimistic all the time,'' says Rich Wilson, who spent 18 hours in the sail locker with Pettengill after their trimaran was flipped. Another attribute, Mr. Wilson says, is that Pettengill stays focused on his objective. And he's good at seagoing repairs - a useful skill when there's no one to call for help in mid-ocean.

Taller, lighter mast

Pettengill also has a chance to win the race because Hunter's Child is made from exotic lightweight material and could be a very fast boat. ``He's got a real horse under him,'' Jobson says.

It will be even faster before the race begins. Hunter Marine and Pettengill are adding a carbon mast system, which will make the mast lighter. The new mast, which is also taller, will allow Hunter to add 16 percent more sail area.

Hunter is making the effort because it hopes to incorporate some of the changes into a new line of 45- and 60-foot offshore cruisers this year. ``What we find works best at sea we bring to the production line,'' says Warren Luhrs, the company chairman who is also a racer.

The around-the-world racing boats are frequently on the cutting edge of sailing technology - sometimes with disastrous results. This was the case with sailor Mike Plant, whose boat Coyote lost the weighted bulb on the bottom of its keel last year. The boat was salvaged off of Ireland, but Plant was never found.

Pettengill and Plant were good friends. And Pettengill, who worked on getting Coyote ready, says he told Plant that the critical connection holding the bulb to the keel was not strong enough.

Pettengill believes the incident was a ``freak - like having the wheel fall off your car.'' He also says there is a lesson in Plant's death: ``You have to look everything over yourself; you have to do all the details yourself; you can't rely on someone else doing anything for you,'' he says.

Any sailor going offshore has to confront fear. Pettengill's biggest fear is getting separated from his boat - falling off it while not connected by a tether.

But Pettengill is not likely to be intimidated by storms in the Southern Ocean.

``When it's stormy, he'll say we should be out sailing - he thrives on it,'' says Pettengill's wife, Patty. He'll get his chance when he returns to the Southern Ocean - right side up.

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