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Earthrace record attempt abandoned

The biodiesel wave-piercer was taking on water after developing cracks near a transducer

The biodiesel wave-piercer was taking on water after developing cracks near a transducer

A fatal accident, detention of boat and crew, howling storms, a broken heat exchanger, disintegrating props, delays in refueling. None of that could stop Pete Bethune’s quest to set a new round-the-world speed record for a powerboat. But on May 30 a 4-foot crack in the main hull of his 78-foot biodiesel-powered trihull forced him to abandon the attempt.

“All team members were extremely disappointed, but it seemed the ground crew more so than the boat crew,” says Bethune, 41, in an e-mail from his home in New Zealand. “Those aboard the boat were exhausted and really fearful about crossing the Atlantic.”

Several cracks appeared on the inside of the hull near the transducer as Earthrace battled 10- to 15-foot seas that peaked for a time at 20 feet during a three-day storm in the Mediterranean. The boat had weathered a monsoon off India’s south coast several weeks earlier and banged through 50-knot headwinds in the Red Sea.

The inconsistency of the Med’s waves may have done them in, Bethune says. “You’d pierce 10 waves beautifully, then come rocking off the top of one and crash down into the hole,” he says. Several days of that, on top of the earlier beatings, just proved too much.

Bethune says bonding between the hull’s carbon skin and a layer of e-glass over the transducer failed. The e-glass opened up, allowing water into the foam and causing the cracks to develop. “I reckon we had several liters [of water] a second coming in,” he says.

Earthrace put into Malaga, Spain, where crewmembers repaired the cracks, then set off for the Canary Islands. En route, however, Bethune decided the repair wouldn’t hold. “It was a tough call,” says Irishman Adrian Erangey, a crewmember on that leg. The hull still was leaking. Bethune inspected the cracks one last time.

“I saw him go back to his bunk bed and scratch his head,” Erangey says. “I knew it was over. We were beaten.”

Earthrace returned to the Vulkan Shipyard in Valencia for further hull repairs in anticipation of a 40-city European tour beginning in early July in Cork, Ireland. Crew and boat will continue to promote awareness and use of alternative fuels such as biodiesel, Bethune says.

Some pundits have questioned whether the Earthrace really saved any petroleum, since biodiesel had to be flown into remote fueling stations and the resupply flights consumed a lot of petroleum. Bethune says the critics are wrong. Earthrace refueled with locally produced biodiesel at six stops, and on average a liter of gasoline (and he presumes the same for petroleum diesel) is transported 4,500 nautical miles before it is consumed. He says his biodiesel resupply on average moved just 1,000 nautical miles. “That’s less than a quarter of the distance,” he says.

The $2 million, wave-piercing Earthrace was trying to beat the 75-day around-the-world record set by another wave-piercing powerboat, British Cable and Wireless Adventurer, in 1998. Bethune set off March 10 from Barbados. Earthrace collided with a fishing boat off Guatemala March 18, killing one Guatemalan fisherman and resulting in boat and crew’s detention for 10 days. Then a heat exchanger cracked. Earthrace restarted the record attempt April 7 in San Diego.

Bethune says some of his crew are talking about a new record attempt from Barbados in March 2008, but that will cost a half-million dollars. “Certainly no decision on this, and we have much to work on for the next six months anyway,” he says. “Another race attempt couldn’t be further from my mind right now.”

But Erangey says Cable and Wireless tried twice before setting the speed record. “I reckon we’ve got some unfinished business,” he says.