Book: In the teeth of a human drama

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A sense of desperation set in as the wind rose and visibility fell. I stood on the bow, blasting the foghorn and firing rocket flares. If only I could attract Raphael's attention, he could let off a flare and we would have cracked it. 'Come on Raphael, wake up,' I shouted into the darkness. There was no response, just an enveloping greyness that soaked up my attempts to penetrate it. Come on, we didn't tackle that storm for this. Give us a break, Neptune... My new passenger lay face down on the deck and tried to move, but he was too stiff and cold. It was hardly surprising - he had spent two days waiting for me to rescue him. I gently turned him over to reveal a nose and two very inflamed eyes surrounded by thick, yellowish wax. A feeble 'thank you' could be heard from inside the immersion suit. All I could see was his eyes and I shall never forget them. I had no idea that a pair of eyes could convey such relief and gratitude."

British ex-marine Pete Goss was feted in France and received the country's top gallantry award, the Legion d'Honneur, for his rescue of the French solo sailor Raphael Dinelli on 27 December 1996; in Britain he was appointed MBE. Goss and Dinelli were two entries in the Vendee Globe Challenge, a non-stop race around the world starting and ending, some 100 or so days later, at Les Sables d'Olonne. It is, without doubt, the toughest undertaking a solo racing sailor can contemplate and Dinelli was overcome by a storm south-west of Australia and out of reach of the rescue services.

Dinelli sent out a mayday as his yacht was submerged and dismasted and Goss, his nearest hope of survival, was called on to help. "I sat for only about 30 seconds, a minute - I'm not sure. I thought about what I was about to put on the line: my family, my boat, my life. In my own little world it was a profound moment I shall never forget. To me, if you keep chipping away at life you will eventually get to a clear and simple crossroads. I knew I had to stand by my morals and principles. Not turning back would have been a disservice to myself, my family and the spirit of the sea."

The story (Headline, pounds 18.99) of how Goss turned into the teeth of a full gale and battled 160 miles upwind plumbing the depths of his considerable Royal Marine-honed reserves is a compelling one. Tired, nursing a damaged elbow that later he would operate on himself with scalpel, torch and mirror, but without anaesthetic as he cut to the bone, is a compelling one. Not for the elegance of Goss's prose and certainly not, given his quintessentially British and Military disposition, for emotive outpourings. But between the lines and behind the understatement is an incredible story, of adventure, good fortune and determination beyond mere mortal comprehension.

"Pete is God", "Pete the Great is back" read the banners of the crowd of 150,000 who turned out to welcome the 36-year-old Goss back to France after he had doggedly completed the race to finish fifth from a field of 16 after 126 days at sea. Typically he had no idea of the warm and wild welcome that would await him. Close to the Wind is no flowery novel. Goss's prose is honest and unexaggerated. But from the outset, where he helped nurse a boat across the Atlantic only to lift it out of the water and have the keel fall off, through his experiences sailing a catamaran across the Atlantic on to his defining moment in the Vendee Globe, the reality is more impressive than fiction could ever be.