MIKE PLANT WAS ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE who inspire confidence—maybe too much confidence. Plant, 42, the nation's most famous solo sailor, believed in himself, and his friends and family believed in him too. But even those who knew and loved him best were given pause by the obstacles that lay between him and his heart's desire: to compete in this year's Vendée Globe Challenge, a nonstop solo race around the world. Right up until he left New York Harbor for Les Sables d'Olonne, France, where the race would begin. Plant was scrambling for sponsors.
"I really thought he wouldn't race this time," says Plant's brother, Tom, 35. "And I was worried because this was what Mike lived to do. What would he do if he couldn't race?"
Tragically, no one will ever know. On Nov. 22, Plant's $650,000 racing boat, Coyote, which had been missing at sea for 32 days, was spotted by a Greek tanker 460 miles north of the Azores. Coyote was floating upside down; its mast, knifing 85 feet into the freezing water, was still rigged. The boat's hull was in one piece. But one crucial design element was missing: the 8,400-pound keel bulb. Without this counterweight, the boat could not stay upright.
A search of the yacht had to wait three days for a rescue boat to arrive. But Mike's parents, Frank and Mary Plant, who had charted the progress of the Coyote from their Plymouth, Minn., home, remained optimistic. "We never let ourselves think he might be gone," says Mary, 68.
The day before Thanksgiving, divers from the French tug Malabar were able to inspect the high-tech boat's four watertight compartments. They found the Coyote's life raft, half inflated, in the cockpit. But they did not find Plant.
By all accounts the missing man was a charismatic free spirit who could do anything he set out to do, from building a world-class sailboat to trekking 12,000 miles across South America. Plant learned to sail at age 9, when the family moved to suburban Wayzata, on Lake Minnetonka. "Mike took to it right away." says Frank, 80, an esteemed Minneapolis attorney. "By 12, he was winning local races."
Plant spent two years at what is now Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, where he was a less than sparkling student. "Mike was impatient," says Frank. "He wanted to be out there doing."
After working for a while with Outward Bound, he began a series of adventures, skippering charter boats in Greece and the Virgin Islands, hiking from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego and building a house near Minneapolis. In 1983 he saw a film about an around-the-world sailboat race. "He walked out of the theater and knew that's what he was going to do," says his mother. "From then on, that was his life."
Mary remembers seeing Mike's first racing boat, which he built in 1986 in a Jamestown, R.I., shed belonging to Helen Davis, 45, his fiancée for the past three years. "I asked how he knew what to do," Mary recalls. "He just smiled and said, 'I've been reading books, Mom.' "
That racing yacht—-with Plant at the helm—was good enough to take first place among Class II boats (40 to 50 feet long) in the 1986-87 BOC Challenge, a solo round-the-world race. Four years later, having moved up to 51-to-60-feet Class I boats, Plant raced to a fourth-place finish.
His new boat, Coyote, a 21,500-pound fiberglass lightweight, was capable of ripping through the seas at 25 knots. "No doubt about it," says Ken Read of Shore Sails, the company that designed Coyote's sails, "that boat was designed to go as fast as possible. It was built to be pushed to the limit. And the person setting that limit was Mike Plant."
Plant, who'd had little time to get to know his boat, ran into trouble almost as soon as he left New York City. He lost all electrical power around Oct. 19, his fourth day at sea. No one heard from Plant again until Oct. 21, when he contacted a passing freighter via his battery-operated VHF radio. "I have no power, but I'm working on the problem," he said. He ended the transmission with a message: "Tell Helen not to worry." It was Plant's last direct communication. A faint distress signal from his emergency beacon was picked up by onshore computers on Oct. 27. But since Plant had inexplicably failed to register his transmitter before setting off, the computers were unable to relay the information to coastal officials.
Naturally, Plant's family and friends are searching for answers to why the boat lost its power—and its keel bulb. But mostly, just now, they are facing up to their loss. "I don't have one regret, not one," says Helen Davis, who worries that other adventurers will be deterred by Mike's tragedy. "Don't let this stop you," she says. "Mike would want the spirit of adventure to be carried on. Mike's favorite line was from Jacques Cousteau: 'I am the sea, and the sea is me.' That's what he lived."
MARGARET NELSON in Plymouth and HEIDI J. LAFLECHE in Jamestown
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