The Block Island Times

Mike Plant, an ocean adventurer, lost at sea

New book explores this adventurous spirit
Dec 21, 2013

In 1991, I met a solo racing sailor named Mike Plant in Newport while he was working on his 60-foot ocean racer Duracell. He had just sailed around the world in a race called the BOC Challenge. The 27,000 mile race is done in four legs: Newport to Cape Town, South Africa to Sydney to Rio de Janeiro to Newport. Mike established a new record by sailing single-handed around the world in 132 days and 20 hours.

I was impressed with him. Now his life and tragic fate have been told in a riveting book written by his sister, Julia, called “Coyote Lost At Sea” that anyone who loves the sea and is interested in a life fully lived ought to read.

Back to that day in 1991. I was looking at the mast and stainless steel rod rigging on Duracell when Mike said hi. I introduced myself, and told him I had a boat and did some sailing. Then I asked him if he would come and speak to my English class at Narragansett High School. I said I couldn’t pay him anything, but I’d buy him a burger or something.

“Forget money,” he said, smiling. “When do you want me to come?”

It was a simple exchange. I liked this guy from the jump.

Mike came to the school wearing a brown leather jacket and jeans, carrying a box of slides. He followed me into the library to set up the projector; more kids wanted to see what this guy was all about, and the library had much more space than my classroom. I introduced Mike who, with his winning smile, told the students how he ended up at the school at my request, and proceeded to show and tell them what ocean racing was all about. You could hear a pin drop as each slide clicked by.

Click: “This wave is in the Southern Ocean off a place called Cape Horn. It’s about 30 feet high, but you can see the breaking white water on the top of the wave, now add maybe another 10 feet; so it’s about 40 feet. Duracell was doing 27 knots going down the face of this wave.”

Click: “This iceberg is about 10 stories high and is moving at about five knots.”

Click: “This smaller one is called a growler and these are very dangerous if you hit them. They’re hard to see at night.”

So it went for an hour, in this very understated manner. His generosity had no bounds, as he gave clear and succinct answers to the questions asked of him.

There was powerful applause when Mike was finished. We wrapped up the visit, and as we walked out to his car, I thanked Mike for coming. “My pleasure. The kids seemed to like this,” he said, smiling as usual. We shook hands and he gave me a poster. (A student framed it in finished pine for me 15 years later).

Right after Mike’s school visit, he started preparing for his next racing campaign. This would’ve been his fourth around-the-world single-handed race. The Coyote, his new boat, was a lighter and faster design. Mike was upping his game to beat the French sailors who had some cutting-edge boats with enormous sail plans that were fast sailing off the wind. Coyote was an Open 60 racer, built with lightweight composites. She had a 4.5-ton, 112-inch lead bulb at the bottom of a 14-foot carbon fiber blade keel. It was through-bolted to the hull with stainless hardware and epoxied laminates. It was a savage design that gave stability when the boat sailed upwind.

I witnessed a test sail out of Newport to the Point Judith Lighthouse. The boat came toward the lighthouse in 20 knots of southwest wind. Then, the boat turned downwind and a huge gennaker (a headsail) came billowing off the bow; Coyote sprinted back to Newport. What a sight to behold. Mike had created himself the most innovative and powerful sailboat ever built in America at that time.

Julia Plant has written a book about Mike, titled, “Coyote Lost at Sea.” It is an unflinching and honest look at her brother’s passion for sailing, and how it affected people closest to him. Mike was not a good citizen all of the time. The backstory of his intense and edgy life reads like fiction in many places ― this is a warts-and-all look at a sometimes very wild spirit. His risk-taking behavior was daunting to Julia. Although he was legally blind, Mike grew up racing sailboats on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. Throughout his life, Mike’s behavior and mindset had no boundaries. For example, he got into ocean racing late in life; nevertheless, he gave it his all. He redefines the word competitive. Mike also possessed an expansive ego.

The book goes into great detail as to what may have happened to Mike Plant. He was sailing to Les Sables d’Olonne, France, to race in the Vendée Globe Challenge, when things went bad for Coyote and her captain. This was an around-the-world, non-stop race, and to qualify the sailors had to sail to Les Sables d’Olonne. Mike never made it. Coyote was found upside-down with her lead bulb missing from her blade keel. Part of Julia’s book deals with how this might have happened.

In the world of competitive ocean sailing, there are many theories regarding what and why things went wrong aboard Coyote, and what Mike’s last days at sea may’ve been like. We’ll never know. After an extensive search, Mike Plant was presumed lost at sea. He was 41.

The last time I saw Mike, he was boarding the Carol Jean with a quick step and his sea bag over his shoulder. He was off to crew on a boat during Race Week on Block Island. We shook hands and he asked how my students were doing. I told him they were good, and that they loved his visit. Then he bounded off to win some sailboat races. Mike had his dark side as we all do — it’s part of the human condition. However, I choose to remember the genuine and good-natured spirit he showed my students; a class act. Mike contained and displayed a quiet power as he raced the world’s oceans and pushed his physical, intellectual and emotional boundaries. He was one of a kind; an ocean adventurer.

“Coyote Lost at Sea,” by Julia Plant, was published by McGraw Hill in March.

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