Rich Roberts Reports

Steve Fossett received the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award at the New York Yacht Club Friday, Feb. 15.

Rich's Interview with Steve Fossett - February 2002

Photo courtesy of Fossett Challenge-click on photo to their site

He has never sailed in the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean/Whitbread Race, the Olympics or even a world championship event, but Steve Fossett went to New York to pick up a watch as America's Rolex Yachtsman of the Year for 2001.

He got there by a means no other recipient has used. He flew himself there, in his Cessna Citation X twinjet.

I suppose he could have used, as he has in the past, a dog sled or hot air balloon, claiming records along the way, because that's what Fossett does: set speed records for most known forms of transportation, including sailing.

At 57, he is not only the oldest recipient of the award in its 41 years but the first to win the Rolex without the usual résumé.

If you have a problem with that, you are not alone. But the guidelines for the panel of sailing journalists who make the selections each year are clear and simple: "[to] recognize outstanding on-the-water achievement within the calendar year."

Where does it say you have to race against anybody? Still, his selection may have surprised hardcore racing sailors, if not Fossett.

He said he was "well, not surprised, but very pleased. There have been so many great sailors who never got it who have congratulated me-like Mark Rudiger, who was navigator on a winning Whitbread boat, and a couple others who missed it."

Despite his wealth and achievements, Fossett is soft-spoken, unassuming and easily lost in a crowd. He is also determined and persistent as hell. He grew up in Garden Grove and has homes in Carmel and Beaver Creek, Colo. He made his fortune with Lakota Trading, an options market maker firm based in
Chicago, but he has sold off most of his business interests to chase more records.

He has raced in the conventional sense-several Southern California-to-Mexico races and the Transpac in '95 and '97 with his former boat, the 60-foot trimaran Lakota. Sailing one of Dennis Conner's old Stars
& Stripes catamarans, he was the first ever to finish the Newport-to-Ensenada race before sundown. In 2001 he raced his 125-foot PlayStation in The Race of giant cats, although he was forced out early
with a broken daggerboard and mainsail problems.

But, no question, racing in the conventional sense has not been his forte.

"I was aware of this issue when I was a candidate back in the late 90s," he said. "In fact, I've been first to finish in 22 major yacht races, although not during the year 2001.

"One of the gratifying things about this is that what I'm doing in sailing is being recognized. I've been very much involved in records. I came into sailing with this concept. I brought it in from other sports where you try to have the best equipment and be the fastest.

"Even competition-class racing--is a prevailing concept of sailing, and I haven't related as well to that. The goal for me was to set records."

So, you muse, can't anyone claim a speed sailing record by randomly picking some spot to another-say, Sausalito to Chula Vista?

Not really. The World Speed Sailing Record Council, the last word on such things, lists 35 of what it calls "ratified passage records." Many are exclusive to monohulls, women or singlehanders, but 18 are recognized for full crews on any type of sailing vessel, including multihulls.

Last year PlayStation, designed by Gino Morrelli and Pete Melvin of Newport Beach, broke four of those 18 records, plus the 24-hour distance record of 687 nautical miles. That came during Fossett's supreme achievement: the record transatlantic run from New York to England in 4 days 17 hours 28
minutes 6 seconds.

Fossett already held six of the other records, including PlayStation's Newport, R.I.-to-Bermuda run in 2000 and five with Lakota. Those include around Great Britain in '94 and both ways across the Pacific between San Francisco and Yokohama-this way singlehanded.

Some of the records were held by clipper ships a century or more removed. No contest, you say? Then what is the purpose of evolution, if not to advance technology? Fossett's sailing, ballooning and flying successes validate such advancement.

"They are all about taking the latest technology and making the most of it," he said, "building and sailing the fastest sailboat, maximizing the potential of the fastest airplane, developing and testing the technology to fly a balloon around the world-and, of course, meeting the challenge of harnessing weather systems to make these records possible."

Fossett competes in a different dimension, racing against the ghosts and glories of the past. He doesn't always succeed. The transatlantic record took four tries.

"It's frustrating to not be successful, and I've had a lot of experience not being successful," he said. "But I've seen that if you keep working at these things you end up having your share of successes."

As he accepted the award, one boat-Bruno Peyron's maxi-cat Orange-had just aborted its bid for the Jules Verne round-the-world speed record, set by France's Olivier de Kersauson in '97 at 71 1/2 days. The tip of its mast broke a half-hour after it started. Meanwhile, de Kersauson had a big trimaran, Geronimo, ready to go later this month.

"I have some interest in [the Jules Verne]," Fossett said. "It's not specifically on the agenda. I'll just continue to think about that one."

Meanwhile, PlayStation was in England being prepared for a spring and summer assault on several other recognized records.

"Our program includes Plymouth to La Rochelle, Marseilles to Carthage, which is the
trans-Mediterranean record, and the Route of Discovery across the Atlantic," Fossett said.

He also will be trying for an altitude record of 62,000 feet in a glider. He draws the line at doing a Volvo Ocean Race.

"I don't enjoy danger or getting scared," he said. "It's one of the unattractive things about the sports I'm involved in that do have significant danger.

"I'm in sailing for the purpose of accomplishments, not for the thrills."

(sidebar with Fossett story)

Skydiving is one high-risk adventure that never appealed to Steve Fossett. So how do you think he broke a leg?

"It's kind of embarrassing," he said.

Fossett's left leg was shattered at the ankle. The injury occurred in a recent training session at Davis, Calif.

"I've never had any interest in skydiving as a sport," Fossett said. "The irony is that [with the high-altitude] glider project, flying an experimental glider at altitude I might have to jump someday, and if I didn't have any training beforehand I could get hurt on landing. So I went to skydiving school. That backfired on me."

Fossett plans to fly a glider to 62,000 feet this year and perhaps 100,000 feet later. He was doing what he called an "accelerated free fall, with instructors on each side, but you do everything yourself. [You] jump from 13,000 feet [and] one instructor lands first.

"The instructor didn't notice that I did anything particularly wrong, except when I rolled. Then I look and see that my foot's off to the side."

Despite several brushes with disaster in balloons and boats, the broken leg is Fossett's most serious injury. By the time he showed up to receive his Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award in New York Feb. 15 he was off crutches wearing a walking brace, so the injury wasn't conspicuous, which was just
as well.

"I'm supposed to be smarter than that," he said.

Along with the glider project, Fossett will sail his 125-foot catamaran PlayStation in pursuit of more speed records around Europe this spring. The broken leg won't alter his plans.

"It's just bones," he said, "lots of bones broken, and because it's just bones it will heal up in the standard six weeks. It's not really going to stop me from doing very much. We may even be sailing the boat when I still have this brace on. We'll be ready to sail the first of March."

---Rich Roberts

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