Across the five oceans: extreme sailing

Canadian sailor Derek Hatfield gets set to race solo around the world - for the second time.

There comes a time when listening to Derek Hatfield talk about his sailing experiences that you can't help but sit up and take notice. At first, there doesn't appear to be anything remarkable about this 53-year-old man. Once a Bay Street compliance officer, Hatfield is soft-spoken, polite, and carefully chooses his words. He's wiry, in a marathon-runner kind of way, with a bushy moustache to match the curly mop on top. Even when he's giving a presentation about competing in a solo race around the world, a feat fewer people have completed than have climbed Mount Everest, Hatfield's not particularly conspicuous. But when he gets into the heart of the race–his own near-death experience–a hush comes over the 30 people assembled at the Ashbridge's Bay Yacht Club on a beautiful April night in Toronto.

Just as the sun blinks beyond the horizon, Hatfield begins his tale of battling the elements, his boat and even his own mind as he sailed around the world in the Velux 5 Oceans race (then called the Around Alone) in 2002, a gruelling 53,000-kilometre odyssey. He's told this story nearly 300 times in the past 24 months and lets a CBC documentary, Racing the Wind, run before taking over the microphone at the race's most crucial point–Cape Horn.

With its strong winds, large waves and icebergs, Cape Horn–simply the Horn to sailors–is a notorious graveyard. It was almost Hatfield's as well. Everyone sits awfully quietly as Hatfield relays how he lived through a hurricane that blew around the Horn. A hurricane that toppled his 40-foot boat, knocked his mast off, and killed most of his navigational equipment. A hurricane he only just survived.

Does he enjoy telling the same stories over and over? Hatfield pauses, says yes, but admits it's also “part of the job.” The job. It's a phrase Hatfield uses again and again. The job really is sailing–extreme sailing. What else can you call it? Conquering 18-metre waves, overcoming desperate loneliness and fighting through lack of sleep is the kind of thing most people wouldn't consider doing once, let alone twice, as Hatfield is preparing to do. Clearly, finishing third in the last 5 Oceans, the longest solo sailing race in the world, wasn't enough, as Hatfield and his team are busy preparing a 60-foot boat for the next race, which begins this October in Bilbao, Spain.

Not only is 5 Oceans a physical and psychological challenge, it also requires a lot of cash–some competitors blow through $7 million to compete. With that kind of dough, you'd expect this rarefied race to be filled with bon vivants looking for kicks. But nothing in Hatfield's background–a former Mountie-and-compliance-officer-turned-sailor–suggests such privilege. “You don't find any rich kids playing at this level,” says Hatfield. “It's a lot of hardship and effort.”

The 5 Oceans is regarded as one of the sport's ultimate challenges. Run every four years, it makes the America's Cup–sailing's pre-eminent trophy–look like a cottage country regatta. This year's version will have three legs and cover nearly 56,000 kilometres, with nearly half the race spent sailing from Freemantle, Australia, to Florida. Along the way, sailors might experience roller-coaster-sized waves, blizzards, icebergs and the windless tropics, and they will have no help whatsoever in combatting not only the elements, but also the mind games involved with being alone for weeks on end. The boats are some of the fastest and most high-tech in the world, but there are very few comforts, with the skipper spending most of his time in the “crash” seats between the open cockpit and the navigation station. The only thing connecting competitors to the outside world during the race is a satellite hookup.

A number of challenges face the rookie solo racer. But no place on earth is more treacherous than Cape Horn, the halfway point of the last race's fourth leg. Especially terrifying are the Horn's williwaw winds, which can strike a vessel with little warning and drive the helpless sailor onto the rocks that litter the area. Which is why Hatfield very nearly died there three years ago, missing by inches the Diego Ramirez Islands 48 kilometres west of the Horn. A storm, which had plagued Hatfield for days, turned into that hurricane, and, eventually, a rogue wave capped by some three metres of white foam toppled Hatfield's boat, the Spirit of Canada, disintegrating his mast and plunging Hatfield into the cold green water. Somehow Hatfield navigated what remained of his boat into a safe harbour. “I consider myself a lucky person, but you couldn't write a more difficult situation,” says Hatfield today.

So why would anyone risk death twice? Hatfield believes the chances of getting caught in another hurricane are slim to none. He's also competing in a bigger boat. And he senses something missing. “It feels like unfinished business,” says Hatfield. “I did it the first time and got through it. Now, with all the support I have, it seems almost a pity to waste it and say I'm not going to do it anymore, I'm just going to pack my bags and do something else.”

Cape Horn is a long way from Hatfield's childhood days in Newcastle, N.B., on the banks of the Miramichi River. Hatfield came to sailing relatively late, in his mid-20s, while working in Toronto: he went from fraud-squad Mountie to Bay Street compliance officer, finally leaving in May 2002 to sail full time. “It's a huge endeavour,” says Hatfield. “There's no downtime. It's 24/7, and there's always more to do than time to do it.” To compete, Hatfield will spend upward of $3.5 million, most of it from corporate sponsorships. Surprisingly, that's actually a pretty frugal budget for this kind of event. Buying a race-quality boat can set you back US$2 million, but racers generally spend between $5 million to $7 million per race, because they often make their own boats.

Hatfield is making his own boat, but he gets a lot of the building material in-kind, courtesy of sponsorships and speaking engagements. Still, 60% of the building cost is tied up in labour. Building an Open 60 boat–which refers to its open cockpit and length (in feet)–is a very specialized profession, and Hatfield has had to recruit experts from around the globe to do it. (Hatfield's boat will be the first Open 60 to be built in North America.) At any time, 10 to 15 people work in Hatfield's makeshift manufacturing plant in an industrial strip mall in Cobourg, Ont. Inside, the walls of one cavernous space, roughly 24 metres long by 9 metres wide, are covered with aluminum foil. This is the oven used to cook the boat at 200¡C. It's all very high-tech. Even the carbon fibre used to make the hull contains 37% resin and is the stuff of aerospace manufacturing, making the boat light, but incredibly strong.

Although this race will be Hatfield's second stab at 5 Oceans, it might end up being even harder than the first. This kind of sailing requires an inordinate amount of athleticism, tactical skill and nerves stronger than the carbon-steel that make up the boat's hull.

With his third-place finish in the last 5 Oceans race, Hatfield proved he has those skills, plus the psychological strength needed to make it through even the worst conditions. However, solo racing requires the intestinal fortitude to withstand weeks at sea with no direct human contact, something Hatfield will find even more difficult now that he has an 18-month-old daughter–who wasn't around the last time. “You have to look at it in a cold way almost. You have to say this is my job and I'm going off to war. But I'll miss two months of her life,” says Hatfield. “Still, that's no different than a lot of people who have to go off for two months.”

At Ashbridge's, Hatfield's wife and race organizer, Patianne Verburgh, suggests leaving pictures of little Sarah around the boat, but Hatfield doesn't seem thrilled by the idea. He's in race mode, and that means he's got to stay focused.

No matter how Hatfield finishes the Velux 5 Oceans, it won't be the end of his sailing days. In fact, he's setting his eyes on bigger fish: the fifth Vendée Globe in 2008, the mother of all solo sailing events: a round-the-world, non-stop race with no outside assistance. It takes roughly four months to complete the some 42,000-kilometre journey. Now, that's extreme–but to Hatfield, it's just his next job.