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Graham Dalton: taking it on the chin

Single-hander pressed on around the world

With barely enough money and plenty of misfortune, the single-hander pressed on around the world

Larger than life, solo sailor Graham Dalton endures. He keeps going. Disqualified in the next-to-last leg of the Velux 5 Oceans, the 55-year-old New Zealander finished the eight-month, 30,000-mile race last June 18, arriving in Bilbao, Spain, six weeks behind winner Bernard Stamm. Dalton won no trophies for his effort, but he earned the admiration of those who followed his toils to the end. He made good on his defiant rallying cry: “You never give up.”

Dogged by mishaps and trailing so far behind that he no longer was in the race, Dalton would not let go of his dream to sail around the world. The single-hander missed the 5 Ocean’s October 2006 start after a storm damaged the spreaders of his Open 50, A Southern Man AGD — at the marina. His luck only got worse. Already behind, he had to stop in the Madeira Islands to repair a rudder and put in at the Kerguelen Islands to stitch a ripped headsail. He battled 90-mph winds in the Southern Ocean and stopped again — this time in New Zealand — to resupply. A hundred liters of diesel fuel had leaked into his dehydrated food. He broke two fingers on a swinging boom and stopped to repair a headboard car in the Falkland Islands.

The rudder failed again off Fortaleza, Brazil. Headed to a marina for repairs, he bumped bottom and lost the keel bulb. (A guide who was supposed to know local waters gave him a bum steer.) In Fortaleza, he suffered food poisoning, and thieves made off with his computer and its navigation and weather software. He fixed the rudder, rebuilt the keel himself, and set off from Brazil without a computer. His budget didn’t allow for new software, so he navigated with a hand-held GPS and paper charts, and took weather reports using his satellite phone. He shredded a genoa off Bermuda and sailed into Norfolk, Va., so far behind that race officials disqualified him. But he kept going. His last crisis: In the middle of the Atlantic, the port rudder snapped off.

Bilbao never looked more welcoming.

Two months later, Dalton was decommissioning A Southern Man AGD at the Marina Davila Sport in Vigo, Spain. He hadn’t been home yet because of budgetary constraints and was still living on the stripped-out racer. “My living conditions are fourth-world now,” says Dalton, after 10 months on the boat. “It has been a long time.” Physically exhausted, emotionally drained, he was ready for a break.

Dalton makes no excuses for his troubles. “It’s easy to blame other people and not accept responsibility,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and say, ‘It’s my fault.’ ” Though he had no major sponsor, Dalton says he had enough money — not a lot, but enough. “Ninety percent of the problem goes back to the rudders,” he says. Too deep, he says, they “snapped off the back of the bloody boat.”

The only Corinthian in the race — one who sails around the world with little or no sponsorship on a boat 50 feet or smaller — Dalton sailed a new Greg Elliot-designed Open 50 against a field of six bigger, faster Open 60s. He didn’t have much of a chance to win, but he could do well — and finish. He could fulfill his dream of racing around the world. He placed third on the second leg, but the 5 Oceans is billed as The Ultimate Challenge. It tears up men and boats.

Dalton raced in the 2002-’03 edition — then known as the Around Alone — in the Open 60 Hexagon, but a disastrous Southern Ocean crossing dashed his hopes of going the distance. Hexagon’s carbon-fiber boom snapped west of Cape Horn. A week later, the boat rolled rounding the Horn. Hexagon lost its mast, and Dalton didn’t have the money for a new one. He retired from the race.

Dalton says that left a hole in his stomach — abandoning the race and falling short of his goal of circling the globe. Business unfinished, the Kiwi girded himself for the next battle — the 2006-’07 Velux 5 Oceans. He found a designer, chose a builder — Davie Norris Boatbuilders of Christchurch, New Zealand — and hit the pavement, knocking on doors again, seeking sponsors to help pay bills. “If you want to do the 5 Oceans, you need to find money. It’s a full-time job with no guarantee of success,” he says. “You can go bankrupt.”

Dalton has a fire in the belly to challenge himself alone — and the fire just doesn’t go out. Broken booms, snapped masts, capsizes in frigid seas don’t put it out. He keeps coming back for more. “You have to want to do this as much as you want your next breath,” he says. “Otherwise you won’t succeed. That’s just to get to the starting line.”

Dalton was well on his way to this second start when doctors diagnosed his 22-year-old son Tony with very aggressive germ cell cancer. It already had spread from his testicles to around his heart. “Besides being my son, Tony was my best mate,” Dalton says. “I told him, ‘Don’t you worry about this. I’ll solve it for you.’ Of course, I didn’t.”

Dalton set off on a year’s search for a treatment to eradicate Tony’s cancer. The young man underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatments and surgery, all unsuccessful. When doctors tried to cut the cancer out, “they couldn’t,” says Dalton. “It was all the way down the center of his body.” They surgically removed some cancer around his spine so it wouldn’t paralyze his legs, but four days later his intestines — weakened by the spreading germ cells — burst. Finally, after a worldwide search, he found a doctor in Melbourne, Australia, to administer stem cell therapy to regenerate Tony’s bone marrow, which had been killed by massive doses of chemotherapy. It was a desperate effort.

“He gave Tony a 30-percent chance,” Dalton says. “It didn’t work. … He went through a lot, but he never complained — even up to the last.”

While in Melbourne, Tony told him whatever the outcome, he wanted his dad to be at the start of the 5 Oceans. They bought video satellite phones to talk and see each other while Dalton was at sea. “He told me, ‘If I die, I don’t want you moping around. I want you out doing things,’ ” Dalton says. Tony died Dec. 19, 2005, and his dad took up where he left off, preparing for an Oct. 22, 2006, race start.

He named the boat after Tony, a “true” Southern Man (AGD are Anthony Graham Dalton’s initials), and he put a small photo on both sides of the bow in his memory. Dalton dedicated the race to Tony, but he knows himself too well to say that he endured what he did for his son. “It’s too hard to do for somebody else,” he says. “You wouldn’t last a week. I did it for myself, but Tony motivated me. He was on the boat with me.”

When troubles at sea left him low and feeling sorry for himself, Dalton could hear Tony scolding, “You’re a bloody girl. You think you’ve got it tough? You didn’t have to go through what I did.”

“I’d get up swinging,” Dalton says. “It was amazing.”

Dalton began preparing as a child to do the 5 Oceans. His younger — and more famous — brother, Grant, is managing director of Emirates New Zealand, the Kiwis’ America’s Cup syndicate, a parenthetical observation that is practically grafted now to the single-hander’s name in the press. The contrast between the two is obvious: Grant, the popular and successful organization man, and Graham, the fierce loner. “We’re the same, yet we’re different,” Dalton says.

Both love to sail and they have big dreams. “Grant is perhaps a bigger-picture man, with a different skill set,” Dalton says. “We are the way we are. You can’t turn a world-class shot putter into an Olympic marathon winner.”

Reports that the brothers don’t get along “saddens” Dalton. He says they’re not true. “When I was at sea [and Grant was in the throes of a Cup campaign], we talked at least once a week,” he says.

The brothers grew up in the Parnell neighborhood of Auckland on Hobson Bay, in a very traditional home. Their dad, an armorer in New Zealand’s World War II Air Force, went on to a career importing textiles. The Dalton boys grew up at the knee of their father and his Air Force buddies, listening to them tell war stories over beers. Their mom ran the home. In the Dalton house, “men were men, and girls were girls,” he says. That’s still his model for work and family life. “We did boy things.”

The Daltons lived at the top of a cliff overlooking the bay, so the boys spent a lot of their free time in the water, on the water or over the water. “We used to swing from root to root 100 feet over the water,” he says. “I’m hopeless to take to dinner. I finish very quickly. When we got called in for lunch, I just wanted to eat and get back outside.”

His father didn’t own a boat, but he was a regular crewmember in the ubiquitous sailboat races on the waters around Auckland. Graham began sailing at 9 years old in a 7-foot P Class sailing dinghy, the same local design that Peter Blake, Russell Coutts and most of New Zealand’s other sailing greats trained on as kids. He remembers one teacher who left an indelible mark on him and gave him the grit and desire to race around the world. He was a mean-spirited alcoholic just a year from retirement who used to wallop the then-9-year-old around the legs with a hard-rubber cane with some regularity. One day, the cane left welts on his legs, and when his mom saw them, she saw red. “She went straight for this guy,” he says.

It never happened again. “I’ve hated bullies ever since,” says Dalton. “I don’t like being bullied. You can break my body, but you can’t break my mind. You’re going to have trouble doing that.”

Sometimes the sea can be a bully, Dalton says, and he learned to stand up to it. That steely stubbornness brought him through the Christmas Eve storm of 2006 — the “monster storm,” as he calls it — in the South Indian Ocean, 150 miles from Australia. “I saw it forming for two or three days,” he says. “I tracked it carefully.” At 45 knots of wind, he dropped the mainsail and set three reefs in the staysail. At 60 knots, he discovered the staysail was stuck; he couldn’t get it down. Winds reached 90 knots and ripped the sail to shreds.

“I reckon I’ve been in some pretty bad seas,” he says. “I’ve never been in seas like that. They were unbelievable: 60 feet if they were a foot.” And the top 20 to 30 feet of these waves was white water. “They were straight up. They were shockers,” he says.

The violent pitching below threw him against a halyard tunnel, knocking him unconscious — for how long he’s unsure. After coming to, he was vomiting and suffering from double and triple vision. “I must have had a concussion,” he says.

Dalton called home over the satellite phone. “I said I might not be coming home, but I didn’t want to die,” he says. “I had made a conscious decision I was going to scrap. I was going to scrap until the salt water came into my lungs. I was going to go out like a man.”

He endured the pounding for 12 hours. Then the sun came out again. “If you had to go through that three times,” he says, you might not come back one of those times. “If I’d lost my rudder it would have been the end.”

As a teen, Dalton followed Sir Francis Chichester’s 1967-’68 single-handed circumnavigation with fascination, and while sailing vicariously with the intrepid Brit a teacher said something he never forgot: “The dreams you will have as boys will be the strongest of your life; never let them fade.” Dalton didn’t; his extended far beyond Hobson Bay.

An avid sailor and rugby player, Dalton went on to become a sports journalist and publish Sports Action, a magazine for children and teens that stressed discipline, personal excellence, loyalty and integrity, values Dalton says he stressed to his own children — twins Tony and Nick, and daughters Carly, 27, and Katie, 12.

“What I’ve tried to instill in my children is that they don’t have control over others, but they do have control over themselves,” he says. “They can achieve personal excellence. That goes for sailing, and it goes for life.”

A fierce competitor, Dalton always wants to win, but he says it’s even more important for him to do his personal best, “whether [I’m] first, last or in the middle. … Your toughest competitor in life is yourself. If you are hard on yourself, it’s harder to compete with yourself than with someone else.”

Especially if you never give up. That’s what he told the press before leaving Norfolk on the last leg of the Velux 5 Oceans. “I see it as a lack of character,” he says. “I see it in yachting. I see it in other sports, where someone’s not winning and because someone’s not winning they give up. I see it as a heresy. I see it as a lack of backbone. You have to take it on the chin. You have your good days and your bad days.”

That’s another of Dalton’s maxims for life as well as sailing, but it’s one practiced less and less today in round-the-world racing, says Richard Konkolski, 64, of Newport, R.I., a historian of single-handed racing who has raced solo around the world twice and three times across the Atlantic. Konkolski knows about the fire in the belly. He circumnavigated the first time when he was 28 in defiance of a communist government in his native Czechoslovakia.

“You have to have a strong will like this guy,” he says. “It’s clear he is fighting for it. … You have a lot of people who read about doing this. They want to go; they work hard to do it. But when the time is favorable, many times they cannot fulfill the dream.”

The Corinthian racer is giving way to the professional racer, fully sponsored in a big, high-tech Open 60, he says. Konkolski finds that pros often forget why they set their sights on racing around the world — for the personal challenge. Now it’s a business; they’ve forgotten the dream.

“Guys like [Graham] give me a good kick,” says Konkolski. “They don’t give up. They keep trying. They keep going. They keep doing it.”

That single-mindedness may be inspiring, but it has wreaked havoc on Dalton’s relationships. Divorced after he took up racing around the world, Dalton says the run-up to a race followed by months of separation is brutal on families.

“If you live in New Zealand and you’re counting your pennies, you don’t go home,” he says. “It’s a very selfish pursuit.”

He says his wife, the mother of his four children, had asked before they separated, “Why can’t you just be like other men?”

“It’s just the way I am,” he answers. “Some of it’s good; some of it’s not good.”

After the 2006-’07 5 Oceans, Dalton and his partner, Robbi, went their separate ways. She had undergone a mastectomy while he was at sea, and told him about it after-the-fact while he was in the South Indian Ocean. It became part of the Dalton saga, but they broke up after he reached Spain. “Life is not like a fairy story,” he says. “The relationship is finished. I’ve been away for 13 months. Really, it’s an occupational hazard.”

After all he’s been through, after all he’s lost — a son, a wife, a partner — “I’ve still got a hole in my stomach. I’m still not satisfied,” he says. “I’ve got goals to achieve. Now’s not the time to lie down. Now is the time to start scrapping again.”

Dalton has set his sights on the September 2008 Portimao Global Ocean Race, an around-the-world race for single- and double-handers. They’ll race in 40- and 50-footers — Corinthian-sized boats — and start and finish in Portimao, Portugal. This fall Dalton was ready to get out and pound the pavement yet again, looking for sponsors.

“Life is not like a 1,500-meter race [around the track a couple times],” he says. “You only get to run around this track once. I’m probably at the bottom turn now. I’ve done about 300 meters. I’m breathing hard, but I’ve got to go for it.”

He wants to race and finish — no DSQ this time — and maybe even win. “Let’s get on with it,” he says.