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French sailor sets Vendee record

British sailor Mike Golding finishes third, despite losing his keel 50 miles from the finish line

British sailor Mike Golding finishes third, despite losing his keel 50 miles from the finish line

Singlehander Vincent Riou set a new Vendee Globe record, beating the old one by more than five days, but finished just 6 hours and 33 minutes ahead of competitor Jean LeCam after 87-1/2 days of racing.

“I am awash in a sea of happiness,” the Frenchman exulted, as he approached the finish off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, Feb. 2.

Riou finished the 23,680-mile round-the-world race in 87 days, 10 hours, 47 minutes, 55 seconds, posting an average speed of 11.28 knots.

Riou and fellow French Open 60 sailor LeCam led from near the start, exchanging the lead several times, but Riou was the most consistent leader, never trailing by more than 260 miles — just west of Cape Horn. Thirty-six hours from the finish, less than 90 miles separated the top three finishers — Riou, LeCam and British sailor Mike Golding, who sailed a remarkable race despite daunting setbacks.

Trailing 811 miles going into the Southern Ocean, Golding caught up with Riou and LeCam, and held the lead for a short time until a broken halyard set him back again. Yet Golding remained in contention right up to the end. In a surprise finale, Golding almost abandoned the race when his keel broke off 50 miles from the finish, but he managed to nurse his boat the last 14 hours across the Bay of Biscay racing under a staysail and fully reefed main, and using Ecover’s flooded water-ballast tanks and twin daggerboards as stabilizers.

“Having this happen to me has made me realize just how important third place is to me,” Golding said at a press conference after the finish. “It has made third feel pretty good.”

On his Web site, Golding told what happened. He was sailing in 20 to 25 knots of wind with two reefs in the main and a Solent headsail, when suddenly the boat heeled — he thought from a strong wind gust. He jumped into the cockpit and released the mainsail sheet, but the boat didn’t straighten up. He checked the water ballast. That was OK. Looking over the side, he became alarmed. He couldn’t see the keel.

“I looked through the endoscope at the top of the keel, but that was inconclusive,” he said. “So then I opened up the escape hatch underneath the boat, put a diving mask on and put my head under water. That was interesting, because the boat was still doing 6 knots at the time. I looked under the boat and there was a keel there, but it was in a strange position.” Looking up for a moment, he considered the possibility that the keel was damaged. Then he looked again. This time the keel was gone. The three-ton bulbed keel had sheered off.

“Suddenly the boat was three tons lighter, and I thought ‘Great, here we go,’” Golding said. “My immediate thought was retirement. I thought there was no option about carrying on.” But after dropping sail and flooding the ballast tanks, Golding weighed other options and found he could sail on — gingerly — with a staysail and fully reefed main.

Golding set out to win. He finished third, earning a footnote in the record books as the only Vendee entry to finish without a keel. “I just feel lucky to finish,” he said. “Lucky to be third and lucky to still have my boat. The boat has taken care of me. I’m just happy to be here.”

Seven of the 20 boats to start the race had retired by the time Golding crossed the finish line. At that time 10 were still on the water. American Bruce Schwab’s Ocean Planet was sixth among those still racing. Riou succeeds Michel Desjoyeaux as the racer with the fastest Vendee time. Desjoyeaux set the previous record of 93 days, 3 hours, 57 minutes and 32 seconds in 2000-’01. n