The first time Derek Hatfield sailed around Cape Horn was nearly his last.
In the 2002-03 Around Alone, the Canadian skipper was fighting 60-foot waves in a particularly brutal Southern Ocean storm as he approached the South American landmark.
His 40-foot yacht, Spirit of Canada, was hit by a wave that stood the boat on its nose and flipped it upside down, tearing off the mast and dumping Hatfield into the icy water near the spot where British skipper Harry Mitchell was lost at sea in the 1994-95 race.
Somehow, the Spirit scooped up Hatfield as it righted itself and he was able to limp into Argentina, get a new mast and finish the race in third place.
Today, Hatfield is in Charleston tied for second place in the Velux 5 Oceans race (previously the Around Alone). He finished the race's fourth leg from Punta del Este, Uruguay to Charleston in second place, just 15 hours after local skipper and race leader Brad Van Liew.
"I vowed to myself to ramp it up," Hatfield said while working on his 60-foot yacht, Active House, at Seabreeze Marina. "I started slowly, didn't feel like I was in the game. Then, in the Southern Ocean, it's all about survival."
After rounding Cape Horn and shaking off that demon, the veteran solo skipper has undoubtedly ramped it up. In the last leg, he was in second place until the final days, when Polish skipper Zbigniew Gutkowski and British sailor Chris Stanmore-Major got around him, finishing just hours ahead of him.
In the fourth leg, Van Liew said he didn't know if he could beat Hatfield until two days before the finish.
Since returning to the Atlantic, Hatfield has squeezed every ounce of speed out of Active House, the newest boat in the Velux fleet and, Hatfield notes, the only Open 60 in its fifth trip around the world.
Van Liew calls Hatfield the "gentleman" of the race, but also a fierce competitor who is putting a great top to his sailing career. Velux 5 Oceans Race Director David Adams said that since Hatfield successfully rounded the Horn, he has been sailing better, and faster. That, is in part, a function of his experience and, at 58, his maturity.
"He thinks about it a bit more," Adams said. "He knows his limits and works within that."
Hatfield did not start out as a sailor. In 1971, he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, where he eventually specialized in fraud investigations. A neighbor took him sailing and he was hooked. Almost immediately, he started racing. He won the 1996 Legend Cup Transatlantic Race, did a couple of Bermuda One-Two races and began a five-year campaign to get into the Around Alone.
After finishing third in his class in the Around Alone, Hatfield entered the 2008-09 Vendee Globe -- a non-stop around-the-world single-handed race. Halfway through the race, his boat's spreaders broke, forcing him to quit. In the Vendee, if you stop for any reason you are disqualified.
Coming into the 2010-11 Velux 5 Oceans, Hatfield had made two trips into the Southern Ocean, and had yet to emerge unscathed.
"It's only a matter of time before you get hammered in the Southern Ocean," Hatfield said. "I've been there three times, and don't know if I'm going back."
Hatfield is the only skipper in the race to have competed in both the Vendee and Velux, and he said there's no doubt this is the bigger challenge.
"In the Vendee you just go out and do it. This is really five races back to back," he said. "Every start you have to get back in the groove. It's harder from an emotional point of view and a physical point of view."
As the fleet sets out from Charleston for La Rochelle, France, and the race finish line, Hatfield will be battling Gutkowski for second place (Van Liew owns such a points lead right now he only has to finish the race to win it).
"I think we'll all be letting it hang loose in the last leg," Hatfield said.