Movistar crew’s wakeup call: ‘We are sinking’


The latest casualty of the Volvo 70 keel problem, movistar takes on water in the Southern Ocean

The latest casualty of the Volvo 70 keel problem, movistar takes on water in the Southern Ocean

Another of the Volvo 70 canting keels has sprung a leak, this time movistar’s, as it approached Cape Horn in the stormy Southern Ocean. The 3:15 a.m. call for all hands painted an alarming scenario. “We are sinking! Everybody up!” skipper Bouwe Bekking cried.

Movistar, in second place in the Volvo Ocean Race’s fourth leg from Wellington, New Zealand, to Rio de Janiero, had been sailing in 30 to 35 knots of wind when water started pouring into the engine room.

In an e-mail report later, Bekking said crew scrambled on deck to drop the jib-top sail and a single reef in the main sail to slow movistar down and keep the water from bursting past a faulty fairing plate — part of the canting keel mechanism — into the boat. Leaving just a small staysail to steady the boat, they secured watertight bulkheads and gathered safety gear on deck in case they had to launch life rafts.

Bekking was worried enough he asked for the boats nipping at his heels — Brasil 1 and Ericcson — to stand by to assist. “A sailor’s nightmare is sinking, and this looked like a pretty serious situation,” Bekking wrote. “If we had rats on board they would have jumped off by now.”

The Volvo report of the incident said water was knee-deep below. It had washed over the generator box, and was close to washing over the engine box when the crew started bailing and Chris Nicholson — flashlight in hand — slipped under the rising water to connect two emergency high-capacity bilge pumps directly to the battery bank. The pumps kicked in, the crew fitted an emergency patch over the leak and the water receded. Movistar diverted to Ushuaia, southernmost town of the Americas, where Bekking locked the keel in center position and plugged the leak with foam until they could make a permanent fix.

The big bilge pumps were a late addition to the boat after a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, where the Volvo skippers decided they needed the bigger pumps after a scare in Leg 1 on Pirates of the Caribbean, which also had to staunch a massive leak around its canting keel.

All of the new Volvo 70s have canting keels. Three of them, all Farr designs, have had problems with their keels. Movistar, Ericsson and Pirates of the Caribbean have suffered failures of the hydraulic rams that cant the keel. The teams have retrofitted their rams with stronger components to withstand the enormous stresses.

Pirates also took on water in Leg 1, much as movistar did. The pounding at the 30- to 35-knot speeds that these boats routinely do knocked a fairing plate loose. As the water swept past the keel, the plate acted as a scoop channeling it into a wet box that is recessed in the hull and houses the canting mechanism. The wet box’s seals aren’t designed for this kind of an assault, so water poured through into the boat.

Russ Bowker, president of Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis, Md., describes the fairing plate as a 10 mm-thick carbon composite plate contoured to the shape of the hull. It surrounds the keel fin, and slides back and forth along the hull on wedges inside slots as the keel cants. He said in movistar’s case one of the wedges gave way, causing the front of a plate to come loose and start scooping up water.

Bowker said Farr has designed a stainless steel plate to fit over the leading edge of the sliding plate to prevent it from becoming a scoop in the event of failure. He believes, however, that the plate’s design is sound and that weak bonding in the construction may have been a factor in the failure of the wedges. He notes, too, that Farr quantified the loads on the keel rams for the ram manufacturers, and it was up to them to design components strong enough to withstand those loads.