By Noelle Duck
Both passionate sailors had already gathered in victories and trophies. But they dreamed of the
impossible: traversing the Atlantic Ocean from Dakar, Senegal on Africa’s west coast, to Pointe a Pitre, Guadeloupe,
part of the French Antilles in the Caribbean. An Atlantic crossing is always a touch and go affair in a sailboat, but
Tony Laurent and Daniel Pradel were going to try the journey on a Hobie 18 Magnum. They left Dakar on November 12,
1986 at 8:30 in the morning. On a peaceful, windy Sunday 18 days later, a local sailor, Mr. Guegen, was doing some
chores on his boat in the Basse Terre Marina on Guadeloupe when he spotted two exhausted sailors gliding into port.
The impending arrival of the team had been announced by French Overseas Radio, so Guegen knew who the two were.
"You want some help?" he asked with concern. ''We’re bloody hungry." was the weak reply. With that
exchange, the two sailors had completed what many thought to be impossible. They had traversed the Atlantic on an
open, 18-foot catamaran. But the price they paid was great. Laurent and Pradel had often thought about crossing the
Atlantic on a Hobie Cat separately Then, one July night, Laurent told Pradel he had a "crazy project" to talk about.
Pradel replied that he, too, had been thinking of something crazy After deciding who was to speak first, only two
words were said: "Atlantic Ocean." They decided on late autumn and chose the course from Senegal to the French West
Indies, a route that had the reputation of being "easy," a route American slave ships travelled in the 17th and 18th
centuries because fresh trade winds and calm waters made the going fast and uneventful. "Once you have passed the
Cape Verde Islands, you'll see that the sea becomes peaceful and that it will rock you to your destination," said
their friends. By the time Pradel and Laurent were making final preparations on their boat, which rested on the beach
of N'Gor at Dakar, they were dreaming of the sweet regularity of the trades, still mild at this time of year, that
were to push them all the way to Guadeloupe.
On the beach at the Meridien Hotel of N'Gor, the Fujicolor, as the boat had been christened in
honor of the trek's chief sponsor, had become a major attraction. The crossbars had been set, the wings had been
placed and the double-layer trampoline, which would sandwich the bag of plastic-coated maps, was stretched between
the hulls. They raised the mast, fixed the shrouds and backstays and tied the ARGOS beacon, an emergency locator, to
the back of the trampoline. They fixed an inflatable mattress across the boat along with a plastic sheet to be used
for the protection of the sailor at rest. As they readied themselves, tourists snapped photos and asked dozens of
questions. Most centred on the Seagold desalinator the pair had bought from Pierre Fehlmann, the winner on
uncorrected time, of the last Around the World race. They explained that the machine could produce six liters of
fresh water in only one hour by pumping sea water through it.
At 8:30 on the morning of November 12, Laurent and Pradel arrived at their boat and were greeted by
the staff and guests of the Meridien. They stuffed their water tight bags with food and placed them in the hulls. The
food included a high-energy mix of cereals, dry fruit, cream and honey; bags of a protein drink; some cheese, a
Moroccan rice dish called couscous, a little bread, butter and even some red wine. The sextant, the two VHF radios
in plastic cases, the cigarettes and lighters and other equipment were placed in another bag and attached to the
trampoline opposite the inflatable mattress. Laurent and Pradel donned their equipment slowly and quietly to the
sound of the beating waves. Polar underwear, dry suits with neoprene necks, ankles and wrists, were soon snug. Next,
they slipped into their trapeze harnesses, life vests and neoprene boots and their sunglasses and gloves. Pradel
asked for someone to help carry the boat to the water and 20 people volunteered, lifting the cat on their shoulders
and walking down the beach in a slow procession. Just when the hulls touched the water, a fishing boat began to
leave. It would show them the way through the reef.
The team waved a rapid au revoir and jumped aboard. Laurent took the tiller; Pradel sheeted in.
They were gone.
"The third night we passed the Cape Verde Islands," relates Laurent, "and we realized that our
project was going to be much more difficult than we had thought. I began to understand that it would be torture, but
it was impossible to go back. The sea was incredibly strong and there was no chance of returning. But then, we had
never even thought about abandoning. When we left the beach at N'Gor, the sea immediately became very strong. We met
strong winds, high, but negotiable waves and heavy swells caused by the north wind. During the first night, the waves
came from all directions. Steering was difficult. The night was so black that we could not see the bows three meters
in front of us. A lot of concentration was required to feel from where the next weird wave would arrive. We saw a
cargo ship far away and I directed the beam of my flashlight onto the sail. This was the only boat we were to see
during the entire passage. Aside from that ship we saw an old drifting can; that's it.
"We tried everything to sleep," says Laurent. "We changed the position of the mattress so that we
could put our heads under the shelter. Impossible. After three nights we were so fatigued that we fell asleep in
spite of everything but we were at the extreme limit of exhaustion. Each time a wave came over, the one at rest was
drowned under a meter of water. This lasted several seconds. At the end of the first week, we got upright without
really waking up and held onto the shrouds, searching for air. Even between the waves, we had the feeling of being in
a drum with people beating on it.
The heavily loaded trampoline was so near to the water surface that the sea was beating from above
and below with incredible power. Meanwhile, followers in France and in Guadeloupe followed the progress of the boat
by tracking the ARGOS signal sent out by the team's beacon. Supporters estimated their speed at seven knots, slow for
the Hobie l8 and two seasoned sailors. What they discovered was that a week of heavy storm activity in the North
Atlantic was driving large swells into the small catamaran nearly 2,000 miles away. "in waves that never seemed to
end, we passed a sort of tropical tornado," says Laurent. "it was a black cloud like ink above a white column that
rose above the sea. When night came, I asked Daniel not to sleep. The first wave ran toward us, and I've never seen a
bigger one. It had to have been more than ten meters. The wind increased to 60 knots and we hauled down all the
sails. Despite that, the boat was surfing like crazy. I couldn't control it anymore. When we saw this, we just said
'Looks like this will be the toughest night.' "During the storm a wave struck and I got up but was still under water.
In fact, the whole boat was under two meters of water for about ten seconds. When I emerged, I shouted at Daniel but
got nothing. I thought he was swept away! But the noise ,, was so intense that even though he was I just a few feet
away from me, he couldn't hear. Even he, on top of the Magnum I wings, had a hard time keeping his head above water.
After that, when it would happen again, our only check was OK?' and when the other replied OK,' one could go back to
sleep. The next day, there was no wind at all, but the waves were still there. In the morning I could not wake
Daniel. He was dreaming of having breakfast on the terrace of a bistro at Toulon.
Two Hundred Pumps for One Glass of Water
We talked a lot about food," continues Laurent. "We were always hungry. Then we discovered another
problem: thirst. Pumping the desalinator took superhuman efforts. On the beach at N'Gor, we described to our fans
what the Seagold could do. While it was true that the water was good, Daniel had to pump 200 times to squeeze the
equivalent of one glass of water out of it. Each time, we had to take the daggerboard out of the windward hull,
install the filter in the daggerboard case, put the outlet tube into the mouth of the one to drink, then start
pumping. We had two glasses of water per day, one in the morning and one in the evening and that amounted to 800 pump
strokes. On top of that we had to use fresh water to dissolve the Substi 500, a highly enriched protein powder. We
had five bags a day of that. "Daniel pumped for the whole passage. I tried it once but it was too tough for me and I
told him I was going to give up drinking. He waited several hours. I gritted my teeth and he finally went on passing
me the tube."
But while Pradel was left to do most of the water pumping, Laurent tackled the tough job of
driving the boat. "We were always in danger of capsizing even when we reefed the main and rolled the jib," says
Pradel. "That would have been a catastrophe; our boat was overloaded with 100 kilos of tools, equipment, food and
instruments. Even without the load we had some difficulties in our righting tests in the smooth waters of the Bay of
Hyeres in France. There were a couple of times in the Atlantic when we both thought "This is the end."
Laurent agrees that the sea had become their enemy. "From the beginning, we encountered only a
stormy, disordered sea that pushed the boat in all directions. The noise was very loud and the absence of any rhythm
prevented us from getting accustomed to it. The nights were the toughest moments. When I saw twilight arrive at about
six, it was like a nightmare repeating itself. I was not keen to go through what I did the night before. Daniel, who
needs 12 hours of sleep a day on land, whereas I need very few, was better off during the nights. We learned a lot
from each other. Because of our spirit for survival, we never lost hope.
"When I saw Daniel looking wild after he missed an object, could not co-ordinate his movements, did
not understand what I was telling him, or when he had problems moving on the trampoline, I reduced the speed of the
boat and waited for him to come back to reality. 'At the beginning we were both sea sick. He was a little worse off
than me; I had a fixed scopoderm behind my ear-a gadget that proved pretty effective. Daniel let me steer and that
reduced the sickness since I had to concentrate on things other than the nausea. He stayed on the trampoline
operating the desalinator, preparing the meals, controlling the sails. He took care of me. I tried to do the same for
him, so I steered hours and hours as best I could."
Food also presented unexpected problems for the pair. According to Laurent, both men were
reluctant to eat the food concentrates from the tubes and the slabs of high energy cereal mix. Still, says Laurent,
‘After four days on the water, our revulsion against the food out of the tubes was gone, but it was dangerous
preparing it. We first had to find the pliers in the bag attached to the trampoline. When we opened the bag, the
waves flooded it with water. When we closed it again, we had to open the hull covers - between waves and had to find
the food. Then we had to close the hulls, put the pliers back and finally pump the water for the Substi 500. We had
three flavors: coffee, vegetable and vanilla. We never had enough water, so the drinks were always too strong and
made us nauseous, although the vanilla flavor wasn't too bad.
"If you had the chance to grab one, the feast began. "Even dissolving the food was a problem. We
had shakers with us with screw-on covers and we had glued straps to them, but they were torn off despite the
reputation of the glue we had used. I lost one after the other, washed away by the waves while we ate and when we
lost the last one, it was a catastrophe. Fortunately, Daniel had a stroke of genius. We took the case of a flashlight
(which was supposedly waterproof but failed anyway) and poured the powder and water into that. We stirred with our
fingers and ate. After a few minutes, we could actually feel the energy circulating through our bodies."
But this renewed energy wasn't enough. In fact, the two were only taking in about 500 calories a
day. Malnutrition, exhaustion and constant submersion in salt water all worked against them. Every time a small cut,
scrape or abrasion scarred their skin, salt water was able to enter. Soon it was infected. The constant exposure to
salt water led to ulcers on ankles, feet and hands that also became infected. "Physically, our biggest problem was
the fact that we were just always soaked," says Laurent. "Everything except our watches and the Maglite was
After two days, we tried the VHF radios. They were already rusty. One day after the start, Daniel
tried to fetch a cigarette, but a steep wave arrived at the same moment he opened the bag and flooded the lighters.
This wasn't a big tragedy since the next day, a wave washed all our cigarettes overboard anyway. "When we each took
our turn to sleep on the trampoline, we would take off our KWay overalls from Helly-Hansen - which were quite
practical with their zippers everywhere, then our polar underwear, and we would wring out the water. When we pulled
them on again, we thought it was sheer luxury. We had abandoned the dry suits long before because it was impossible
to wear neoprene in such conditions; our ankles and wrists would just balloon. Our boots were also thrown over board
because the volume of our feet had doubled and the neoprene prevented our skin from breathing. Our feet became
covered with ulcers which proved worse than ankles, there was doubt that his feet could be saved. Five days later
back in France, a skin graft was successful and his feet began to heal.
Laurent, although not as severely burned, was also racked with pain. His feeling had come back as
well. He did however, manage a breakfast consisting of a steak, tomatoes, two bowls of cornflakes with lots of sugar,
six yogurts, a complete camembert cheese, four slices of bread and butter, croissants, other French breakfast cakes
and a platter of fruit.
Still, he could not move his limbs without extreme pain and as the blood continued to return, the
pain increased. Unfortunately for Laurent, his sailing idol, Mike Birch who had participated in the Route de Rhum
race and who had helped plot their positions during the final days with his ARGOS beacon, refused to come to the
Meridien Hotel at Saint Francois, to salute them. "To shake hands with him would help me more than all this
medicine," said Laurent. Still, congratulatory letters, telegrams and phone calls from Europe and North America
poured in by the dozens. Fujicolor waited calmly on the beach, almost mocking the sailors. It was untouched by the
ordeal. Nothing was broken and it exhibited very little wear despite the bashing. Even the sails, prepared by Neil
Pryde in the colors of the French and Australian flags, were in excellent condition.
Sailors even took the boat out to play in the surf while Laurent and Pradel were attempting to
recover. The two drew several lessons from their crossing The first, according to Laurent, is that "Nobody should
ever try a crazy thing like that; if we had known how tough it would be, we never would have started." The second was
the mutual respect needed for a crew, or anyone, to survive a long ordeal. "When I think of Daniel clinging to the
trampoline, his hands and feet in the sea water. During the last few days, I couldn't prevent myself from trembling
and I hid myself when I had to vomit after seeing Daniel's feet.
"Finally, on the night of Saturday, December 6, we got the feeling that we were nearing land. We
could smell flowers and trees. We could see lights and cliffs. It was La Dominique, but we did not know that yet. We
just spent the night on the leeward side of the island enjoying the stillness. We were very happy. It was the end and
we knew that we had succeeded although we didn't know exactly where we were because it was next to impossible to tell
our position with the sextant; we were too low on the water, and we bounced around too much. Finally, on Sunday
morning, we arrived in Guadeloupe.
When the two sailed into the marina, it turned out that they needed a lot more help than food alone
could provide. They had to be carried to a small restaurant, the Royal, where a doctor was summoned to apply first
aid to their wounds while they stuffed themselves with their first full meal since the beginning of their journey.
Pradel's feet, which had seldom been atop the wings and were always submerged in salt water, were just tattered
flesh. The skin was torn away over most of their surface.
Laurent had deep wounds and scars over his butt and thighs as well as craters on his feet a
millimetre deep. Both men's hands were covered with wounds that had crusted and would not heal. Each cut, which never
had a chance to dry and heal properly, was infected. Their circulation suffered the effects of blockage due to
sitting and crouching in one position for hours on end and their hips and knees were paralyzed. Every movement
brought tears to their eyes, but the worst wasn't over. They were almost in a state of shock. With their eyes glazed
and the circulation problems preventing any feeling in their lower extremities, the pain was not nearly a horrible
state, I remember that never as bad as it would become. Later in the evening of their first day on land, Pradel was
wheeled to a restaurant to have dinner with friends while Laurent slept in his hotel room. Pradel's meal consisted of
two large steaks, a plate of vegetables, noodles and six large pieces of cake. Then he too retired for the evening.
The next day, both men could barely move. Pradel, despite being given tranquilizers, was tortured
by the dressings on his feet, which began to come back to life during the night. Tears welled in his eyes for three
hours. Groggy, he kept asking for someone to help him. Finally, when he managed to fall asleep, he felt himself
aboard the boat, unable to stop the rolling movement or the hammering of the waves in his ears. In his dream he
stretched his hand for a tool and some food only to have the waves wash them away. With infected third degree burns
over his feet and during the whole trip did he once complain."
Pradel also appreciated Laurent. "Tony is a much better driver than I am. I don't know anybody
else who's able to steer 18 hours a day in such high, vicious waves." Finally, the two learned that even if the boat,
rigging and the sails were able to stand up to the punishment, the critical points such as clothing and survival
equipment need a lot more preparation and careful thought. Improvements need to be made.
Naturally, the first few days after landing, both said they would never try such a feat again. But
Pradel, who is mounting a Tornado effort for the 1988 Olympics, began to state that he wanted to sail in the 1987
single-hand Figaro race and Laurent began to talk of racing Formula 40 catamarans in offshore grand prix events.
Despite their injuries, the sea had not lost it's allure.