SAILING: Dismasted Thiercelin tries to limp on

MARC THIERCELIN, one of only two skippers left in the solo Around Alone race, was heading for the Falkland Islands yesterday after his mast snapped. The Frenchman had carried out emergency repairs and was sailing his yacht "Somewhere" to Port Stanley 200 miles to the east in an attempt to stay in the round-the-world race.

Earlier, race organisers had told his only remaining challenger, Italy's Giovanni Soldini, who was about 15 hours away, to sail to the rescue. He was later stood down. Ten days ago, Soldini rescued the Frenchwoman Isabelle Autissier, whose yacht had capsized off Antarctica. If Soldini had rescued Thiercelin, it would have created the unprecedented situation of all the competitors in Class One of the race being on the same boat - with two of them disqualified. It would also have embarrassed Thiercelin, who complained to race headquarters last week that Soldini was no longer racing alone as Autissier could help him. Some smaller yachts are still in the race in other classes.

Thiercelin had enjoyed an 18-hour lead over Soldini until he hit rough seas west of the Falkland Islands. Thiercelin's mast jumped from its fitting and punched through the deck. "The mast, when it broke, made a big hole in the deck. Water was coming in and he is trying to get that stopped," said the race director, Mark Schrader.

Thiercelin alerted his shore crew in France by satellite phone early yesterday after the dismasting. The race's Internet website reported that the loosened mast was threatening to pierce the hull of Thiercelin's yacht and incoming water had drenched the navigation room, including the on- board computer and the electronic equipment. Thiercelin was left with a only a phone to communicate with after the accident.

"A lot of the rigging went over the side, so he's been busy cutting that away. And because of the hole, there are rough waves crashing on the deck and water's going in. He's dealing with it. He's got pumps and now he's just trying to get the hole plugged," said Schrader, adding that the work was being hampered by the rough seas.

He said Soldini, who changed course and sailed for more than 24 hours to reach Autissier when her yacht capsized in the Southern Ocean, was asked to stand by to divert again. "Received the news of the dismasting. Tell us if you need anything," Soldini said in a terse message. His yacht, Fila, was about 180 miles from Thiercelin two hours after the dismasting.

Thiercelin, as leader of the third leg from Auckland, New Zealand, had been expected in Punta del Este on about 1 March. "On this leg he is 85 miles ahead. He is some 18 hours ahead of Giovanni overall," Schrader said. "If nothing happens to Soldini, I'm sure he will take the lead."

Thiercelin faced difficult decisions. He risks being disqualified if he is towed more than 10 miles. However, he could improvise with what is left of the mast and limp to the Falkland Islands for repairs in an attempt to eventually reach Uruguay.

The Argentinian navy and Falkland authorities were advised of the situation, said Schrader, adding "no outside rescue resources are anticipated as being needed. He has the situation under control as best you could have it."

He said that even if Thiercelin were to make it under his own power to the Falklands, he may need a replacement for his sophisticated mast built of special carbon materials. "He will not find one of those masts in the Falklands," Schrader said.

Soldini rescued Autissier after her yacht turned over on 16 February, approximately 1,800 miles west of the southernmost tip of South America. Autissier had to ride out 30-foot swells and wait for her fellow Around Alone skipper. She was asleep when Soldini finally arrived and was only woken when he threw a hammer against the upturned hull.

Thiercelin drew criticism for not going to rescue Autissier even though he was actually closer to her (he was 120 miles away while Soldini had to cover 200 miles). Thiercelin claimed he had problems with his boom and could not sail upwind. That earned him the condemnation of sailors worldwide, who noted that he managed to build up a 400-mile lead during the rescue.