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Analysis & Opinion

Fyodor Konyukhov: The Russian dead-end of rationalism

20:27 09/08/2005

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolev.)

The phenomenon of Russian yachtsman Fyodor Konyukhov, who has recently finished his fourth round-the-world single-handed sail, baffles any rational thought.

What feeling can force a 54-year-old man to start a lethal fight against the ocean? And how can a loner win a battle that lasts 24 hours a day for six months?

Konyukhov himself does not answer all the questions.

For him, the ocean is a living being, or perhaps a living substance. The Ocean watches him - sometimes with curiosity, but most often with indifference, as a giant might watch an ant crawling on his leg, and only seldom does it become so outraged that it tries to smash the blasphemer and his yacht with a thousand waves.

The sail, on a maxi boat, began on November 24, 2004, when Konyukhov left Falmouth, England, and headed to the English Channel and on to the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic. At first, he planned to complete his journey in 120 days along a route from England to the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Cape Lewin, Australia, then across the Pacific to Cape Horn, which looks like the point of a spear on the North American continent. Finally, sailing round the spear, he was to return to the Atlantic and back to Falmouth.

In the southern hemisphere, most of the route lay around the ice-covered Antarctic, from where cold winds kept attacking the yacht.

The Ocean quickly noticed the bold loner, and sent a few most powerful storms against him as early as the Portuguese coast. Usually storms are much calmer there, but that was only the beginning. An Atlantic storm pushed the yacht over to the storm area of the Doldrums. There the hydraulic autopilot broke down, and Konyukhov had to stand at the wheel on his own. So there was no sleep. It seemed that after a little more rush the man would be broken and the yacht would sink. Suddenly, the Ocean lost any interest in the challenger.

The Ocean does not have a memory, Konyukhov says, and when you sail it, it does not remember you. It does not care about your suffering. And every time it is different. For 14 years that I have been sailing, the Ocean has never been the same, he adds.

But there is some superior force that does see you, the yachtsman says. This is God. And it is his gaze and blows that you should be able to bear.

The truce between the destiny and the man lasted for two months.

In the Indian Ocean, near Kerguelen Island, Heaven lost patience and hit Konyukhov with the most terrible storm in his 14 years of sailing. He reported it to the world tour's headquarters via the satellite phone: I have never seen anything like this! Wind speeds reached 120 km/h. Waves rose as high as 18 meters. Among the huge water mountains a sunny day looked like midnight.

The horror lasted a week.

The headquarters told him to switch to the survival mode: To stop following the route and try to move away from the storm at any cost. But Konyukhov stuck to the route stubbornly, having fallen into the holy madness of a fight that often helps warriors. Suddenly, the Ocean changed heart and forgot about him again. A hollow swell came to replace the storm.

Then God decided to take mercy, Konyukhov recalls: The steel diagonal backstay on the mast suddenly burst. After that the mast could break down at any moment, and the yachtsman was forced to drop behind the schedule and enter the port of Hobart, Australia, where he was delivered a new stray and an autopilot. He wasted forty days.

But, "Had I not gone to make repairs, I would have definitely lost the mast," he says. "After all, I went along Cape Horn very late. It had already snowed and there was frost. Without the autopilot I would have certainly frozen on the deck. The hurricane was so strong it cannot be described. I think that it was no coincidence that the backstay had broken down before the most difficult zone at Cape Horn. God saved me."

I once found myself among yachtsmen getting ready for a round-the-world sail and I asked them why they were going to sea and what they were looking for. The answer was amazing: Only at sea you can truly understand how precious life is; it is so dreadful there that having survived you are ready to kiss your slippers. After such a journey ordinary life seems like sheer happiness.

Does this feeling last long? I asked.

For about three years, they said. Then you are off to sea again.

Konyukhov says the same: You go on a round-the-world sail not to break a sporting record. You go to give meaning to your life.

"This is what I was after. You see, there your entire life passes in one day. One minute in the ocean is more precious than all the years you have spent in town. Besides, I am always fearful when I am in the ocean. I am afraid of loneliness, afraid when there is a hurricane, and apprehensive even when the sea is calm, because there is an abyss above you and an abyss under your. But fear is a feeling I treasure. I am afraid that if I lose fear I will be handicapped."

In the Konyukhov phenomenon we can easily find a key to the Russian mentality.

Russia is like a lonely ship near the ice-covered Arctic; its stormy history always heads towards the extreme, the sphere of holy fear. Why? In order to find the fullness of life in the horror of loneliness, to experience in the abyss of fear the feeling, which the great philosopher Albert Schweitzer described as awe of life.

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