Kon-Tiki Adventure in Space Age Style

06 November 2003

Frenchwoman Raphaela le Gouvello has completed a remarkable odyssey – a single-handed windsurfer crossing of the Pacific Ocean.

Assisted by ESA technology, Raphaëla le Gouvello used a custom-built windsurfer driven by the wind and generating electricity from the Sun to run its navigation systems, radio and mobile phone.

An innovative airbag with space technology from the European launcher Ariane guaranteed Raphaëla’s safety in the event of a capsize. And solar cells derived from technology originally developed for European spacecraft provided electricity during the crossing.

Raphaëla started out on her near 8000 km journey from Peru to Tahiti on 5 August 2003, and after 89 days 7 hours and exactly 4455 nautical miles, she arrived on Sunday 2 November at Tahiti.

Forty-three years old, Raphaëla is a veteran solo navigator. She is the only woman in the world to have crossed both the Atlantic (in 2000) and the Mediterranean (in 2002) alone on a sailboard.

“The Atlantic Ocean has shown me how painful it could be for a person to be alone on the ocean, stuck with no wind,” Raphaëla explained before the start of her latest trip. “The Mediterranean Sea was a provoker of strong emotions with its beauty, along with its changing mind and its sometimes vicious waves. Each time you take off to sea, you have to be prepared for new difficulties.”

“On the Pacific Ocean one must deal with its huge dimensions. Everything is multiplied by the scale of this ocean.” For instance, the shark density is three times higher than that of the Atlantic, and therefore she decided not to fish for food on the trip: “Even if they don't attack except in very determined circumstances, a dead fish could be a lure for sharks and create a situation I couldn't control.”

Six sails – their areas ranging from 4.2 to 7.4 m2 – a carbon fibre mast and an aluminium wishbone were the only ‘engines’, along with Raphaëla herself and her 17 years of windsurfing experience.

The board itself is a custom-built windsurfer, 7.80 m long and weighing 550 kg, including a watertight sleeping compartment. But righting such a hefty board in difficult conditions could be very hard to do. Her 2000 crossing of the Mediterranean Sea was almost interrupted when her board capsized, but with great difficulty she managed to right it.

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