Pain, perseverance in the Vendée Globe

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The Everest of sail racing has seen half the competitors drop out after harrowing experiences

Knocked down — and out — on Boxing Day in the Roaring 40s, solo sailor Sebastien Josse’s 60-foot racer BT became the 13th boat (out of 17 retirees through early January) to quit the Vendée Globe, and the 25,000-mile round-the-world race was scarcely half over.

The Vendee globe isn't supposed to be easy - that's why they call it the Everest of Sailing. Skippers like Austrian Norbert Sedlacek, aboard Nauticsport-Kapsch, face extreme and grueling conditions with no letup.

An hour-and-half later Derek Hatfield’s Algimouss Spirit of Canada dropped out, also after a knockdown, leaving just 17 starters in the nonstop solo race known as the Everest of sailboat racing.

Boxing Day, Dec. 26, actually has nothing to do with pugilism. It is supposed to be a day of goodwill when many give gifts (in boxes, thus Boxing Day), but the Roaring 40s — the harsh, vast, lonely latitudes below the 40th parallel — showed precious little goodwill to the racers as gale after gale, snow squall after snow squall, pounded the fleet with 60-knot winds and 30-foot waves through most of December and early January.

Making their way southeasterly across the Indian Ocean from the Cape of Good Hope to below New Zealand over to Cape Horn, boats limped into ports Down Under with snapped masts, broken rudders and damaged keels. One skipper was sidelined with a disabling injury, another saved after a capsize.

In the most dramatic development to date, the keel bulb on Jean Le Cam’s Open 60 VM Materiaux snapped off Jan. 6, causing the boat to flip over 200 miles west of Cape Horn. Le Cam, in second place, was talking by satellite phone with Vincent Riou on PRB when he felt a shock and the boat slowly rolled. He had just enough time to put in a call to his shore team and tell them something was wrong when his phone went dead, but then VM’s distress beacon triggered, giving authorities his location.

Jean Le Cam was comfortably in second place before his keel bulb broke, forcing him to spend 18 hours in the bow of his overturned Open 60 VM materiaux.

Le Cam huddled in VM’s bow in his wetsuit for the next 18 hours while rescuers mobilized. A Chilean rescue plane sighted the overturned red-and-white hull eight hours after the distress signal went out, and an oil tanker, Sonangol Kassanje, arrived just minutes later, but couldn’t drop a lifeboat into the 15- to 20-foot seas.

Vendée competitors Riou and Armel Le Cleac’h on Brit Air reached VM about 4-1/2 hours later. Le Cleac’h couldn’t do much because his engine was disabled. Riou saw a little “flag” sticking out of one of the through-hulls, a sign Le Cam might be OK. Riou shouted for Le Cam and heard a muffled shout back. Riou and Le Cleac’h took turns circling VM while they waited for a Chilean Navy ship with divers aboard to arrive and perhaps cut into the boat to rescue its skipper. Authorities feared Le Cam might be trapped inside because both escape hatches were underwater.

Vincent Riou (right) on PRB executed a daring rescue of Le Cam before he was forced to put in at Cape Horn to repair an outrigger.

But Le Cam had other ideas. He later said he heard Riou clearly once and thought he heard him shout a second time later, when he decided it was time to make his move. He climbed out through the stern escape hatch carrying a rope, using it to tie himself to the rudder in water that was just 41 degrees. He remained in the water for 15 minutes while Riou made three passes, each time throwing a rope for him to grab. On the fourth pass Riou came so close to VM that he caught his port outrigger on VM’s keel. But he managed this time to get the rope to Le Cam, who tied it around himself so Riou could reel him in with a winch.

“It’s an incredible story that has a happy end,” says Alain Gautier, Vendée Globe’s safety consultant.

Riou was making his way under reduced sail to Cape Horn to drop Le Cam off and repair his outrigger, a vital part of the rigging that helps stabilize the mast.

Another riveting drama unfolded during the fleet’s dive into the Southern Ocean when Frenchman Yann Elies broke his left thighbone Dec. 18 while on the foredeck of the Open 60 Generali, about 850 miles southeast of Perth, Australia.

Elies was leaning on the bow pulpit and preparing a sail when Generali slammed into a wave. The boat came to an abrupt stop, throwing the skipper up against the pulpit. The sailor felt an acute pain, collapsed to the foredeck and crawled back inside the boat to contact his team, according to the team’s report to race headquarters. In extreme pain, Elies lay on his bunk at the navigation station and reported over a satellite phone. Marc Guillemot, on the Open 60 Safran, made his way about 100 miles to Elies’ location to lend moral support. About 48 hours after the call for help, the HMAS Arunta, a 385-foot Australian Navy frigate, arrived and launched a rigid-hull inflatable with two crewmembers aboard to take the skipper off his vessel.

Elies was reported in stable condition and recovering after surgery in a Perth Hospital. The Australians secured Generali, and a crew set out to recover her, but the salvage was abandoned when her locator beacon stopped working.

The Southern Ocean was a tough sled for all the skippers.

“Every now and again we get on a wave and [surf down it at] 20 to 25 knots totally out of control before we plummet headlong … into the wave in front,” e-mailed Briton Jonny Malbon from his 60-footer, Artemis. Tons of water engulfed the boat. “Slowly she manages to shake the water off and get going again, but how many times will she manage?” he asked. “It has been relentless for us back here, and I am sick and tired of living in fear of the next wave, the next pooping or a knockdown.”

Malbon’s Artemis was near the back of the fleet with Hatfield’s Algimouss and Rich Wilson’s Great American III, another 60-footer. Overnight Dec. 27, Great American recovered from several knockdowns, one of which threw Wilson across the cabin, leaving him with a black eye and a deep cut under his brow.

“The whole left side of my face was dripping blood,” he wrote, but the boat was intact.

He kept on trucking while cleaning up his face and staunching the bleeding.

Hatfield was not so lucky. His Algimouss was sailing under bare poles when an enormous wave knocked the boat on its side.

“I was exhausted and laying in my bunk and ‘crash,’ the boat went over and I ended up on the ceiling with all kinds of articles whizzing past me” he wrote. “I rushed on deck and my heart sank to see two of the spreaders dangling limp on the shrouds. The shock hits you quickly that this is not fixable. … I started to cry and it was uncontrollable.”

His boat badly beaten up, Hatfield sought safe harbor in Hobart, Tasmania.

Others faced their own Waterloos. Josse described BT’s demise in a snow squall with winds blowing a steady 65 knots. “During the night a big wave caught the boat and put the mast on the water at around 120 degrees – close to a capsize,” he e-mailed from the boat. “For a few minutes I didn’t really know what had happened — if the keel had gone or a wave [had hit BT] — but finally I could check the keel and realized it was OK and that a wave had knocked the boat over.”

The mast was fine, but a central bulkhead was cracked, the cabin roof was cracked and leaking, the masthead wind instruments were gone and the boat wasn’t steering right. After heading north out of the storm on bare poles, he found a key carbon-and-titanium fitting on the port rudder had broken where the bar linking the two rudders should be attached. The rudders were misaligned, causing autopilot malfunction. The repair was too sophisticated to do at sea.

Josse turned toward Auckland and retired from the race.

British sailor Mike Golding, a favorite to win the race, was leading the fleet when he dropped out Dec. 17 after a dismasting. “I was below deck when a squall came through with winds of 55 knots,” Golding reported to his shore team. “It basically went from being a near gale to a hurricane, and the mast didn’t like it.”

He sailed his 60-footer Ecover 3 some 1,000 miles under jury rig to Fremantle in Western Australia.

Vendée veteran Loick Peyron retired his Open 60 Gitana Eighty Dec. 10 after his mast snapped in several places in 30 knots of wind. Swiss skipper Bernard Stamm was making his way into the Kerguelen Islands Dec. 14 in a 40- to 45-knot wind to repair his boat Cheminees Poujoulat’s collapsing rudder bearings when he went aground and holed his boat. Stamm was able to ship himself and his boat out of the Kerguelens on a visiting ship, Marion Dufresne, before she left.

Another Swiss skipper, Dominique Wavre, already was in the Kerguelens with his Open 60 Temenos II after his swing keel began to wobble, a result of the keel head shattering under pressure from the hydraulic rams that change the cant of the keel. After retiring, he made his way — gingerly — to Fremantle.

This was the biggest field of racers for a Vendée — and the most experienced — but there’s good reason the nonstop solo race is known as the Everest of sailboat racing. The fleet had scarcely made it off the starting line Nov. 9 at Les Sables d’Olonne, France, when a gale battered them with 45-knot winds and 15-foot waves on the Bay of Biscay. Three French Open 60s — veteran Marc Thiercelin’s DCNS, Kito de Pavant’s Groupe Bel and Yannick Bestaven’s Aquarelle.com — all retired with busted masts.

On New Year’s Eve, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Dick lost the port rudder on his Open 60 Paprec-Virbac 2 in a collision with an unidentified object, and retired. Five days later, Jonny Malbon on Artemis II dropped out with a delaminating mainsail and the next day Le Cam capsized, raising the attrition rate to more than 50 percent with 6,300 miles to go.

As the carnage continued some began to question whether the light, fast, high-tech Open 60s were too light, too fast, too experimental — criticism often heard when these speedsters “crash and burn” in the horrid conditions they encounter.

“I’m not at all surprised by the level of breakages and retirements,” says Merf Owen, of the Owen Clarke Design Group, designer of Algimouss, Aviva, Ecover 3 and Temenos II, in a response on the Vendée Globe Web site (www.vendée globe.org). “Historically in the Vendée [retirements] run at around 50 percent. …You are asking a lot of man and machine just to complete this course. When you turn it into a race at this tempo — particularly at the front — and put only one person on the boat then you have what is the Vendée Globe.”

A few days into 2009 the French Open 60s were dominating the field. Michael Desjoyeaux’s Foncia was in the lead, followed by Roland Jourdain on Veolia Environment 285 miles behind, and Le Cleac’h trailing Desjoyeaux by 693 miles.

See related story, "Vendée Victims."

This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.