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Race rival’s quick fade was all too telling

Closing the gap on the Velux leader, Mike Golding knew he had to reverse course and carry out a rescue

Closing the gap on the Velux leader, Mike Golding knew he had to reverse course and carry out a rescue

For a moment, at about 10 o’clock in the morning, British solo circumnavigator Mike Golding was elated. He was sailing his Open 60, Ecover, in the Southern Ocean Nov. 26, 2006, and the position report from race headquarters showed he had sharply widened his lead on his nearest rival, Alex Thomson, on the yacht Hugo Boss.

In the next instant, the moment evaporated, and reality set in. Golding, a veteran of five solo and crewed circumnavigations, knew he and Thomson were sailing in the same weather system with the same winds. “Alex and I had been going hammer and tongs at each other the previous two days,” Golding says. The boats were doing “25 to 30 knots, at times surfing off waves.” Moving in lockstep, with Ecover 90 miles downwind and ahead, the two boats had steadily closed the gap on the leader of the Velux 5 Oceans race, Bernard Stamm.

Now Thomson, a fellow Brit, had slowed, and there was only one explanation for his sudden deceleration from 19 to 9 knots. Something was wrong aboard Hugo Boss, and — 1,000 miles south of Cape Town, South Africa — Golding was the only safety net Thomson had. Golding immediately slowed his own boat, ready to do a mariner’s duty. Twenty-four hours later, after abandoning their first rescue plan, Golding helped Thomson out of his life raft and aboard Ecover.

Fourteen months later, the Cruising Club of America ( ) awarded Golding its 2007 Rod Stephens Trophy for Outstanding Seamanship. The award is presented for “an act of seamanship which significantly contributes to the safety of a yacht or one or more individuals at sea.” The 2006 trophy went to the crew of ABN AMRO Two for their recovery of a crewmember, found unconscious and later declared dead, during the Volvo Ocean Race with a perfectly executed man-overboard drill.

Golding, in an interview with Soundings, described a less-than-ideal rescue that nonetheless accomplished its goal and, in the end, may have saved both sailors’ lives.

“The people who sail in these races do it to compete, for adventure and because sometimes it just throws up things you never thought you would experience,” Golding says. Thomson’s rescue “provided an experience and challenge that none of us had bargained for. Hopefully we’ll come away from it learning a few things.”

A race to be won

The race, which started in Bilbao, Spain, in October 2006, wasn’t a week old when Golding was forced to make a 48-hour pit stop in La Coruna to repair mainsail battens that had snapped in a storm. But then he and Thomson began to pile on the miles, heading for the first scheduled stop in Fremantle, Australia. For two solid days, they shared a wild ride into the ice zone north of Antarctica.

“I think Bernard was over 1,000 miles ahead of us, but we were catching up pretty quick,” Golding says. “All our routing was telling us we were going to catch him in the next 48 hours. I think Alex and I both knew there was a race to be won here.”

That would take some risk, however. First, there was the ice, as yet unseen. “You sleep with your feet on the bulkhead, waiting for the impact,” Golding says. Then there was the stress on boat and equipment. “The boats were fine, but they were on the edge. You can hold the boat like that 24, 48 hours, but eventually things catch up with you. You get tired. You’re waiting for the weather to turn down the stress.”

Sailing Ecover in 40 knots of wind and with its big genoa out, Golding thought, He’ll break before I do. That was prophetic. “We were kind of riding on the front edge of a big Southern Ocean depression,” Golding recalls. “I was expecting to see a gain or loss of a matter of miles, not 30 or 40 miles.” Five minutes after receiving the position report, Golding was on his satellite phone, calling race headquarters “to inform them that it was my opinion that Alex had had a problem. I just do it because I know the man. I know his boat. I knew where he should have been. It’s just deduction,” he says.

His momentary elation dashed, Golding began thinking of the implication: You are the closest guy to him, charging away at 20 knots. Each hour at that speed would add three hours to the slog back upwind to Hugo Boss. “I knew that if we were going to do something to help him … the decision had to be made [quickly],” Golding says. So without a request for help from Thomson, “I slowed the boat down. I wasn’t going to lose anything in a competitive sense … plus it [the speed of the boat] was stressful, so I was pleased to slow down.

“I was still waiting to hear what would happen,” Golding says, “then the Iridium phone rings.” David Adams, race director, told Golding that Thomson had called for assistance.

“The keel has snapped. Thinks the boat is in danger of sinking. She’s taking on water. Can you get back to him?”

The course change

In rescues, Golding was a novice. “I’ve been on the race course before where people have been in trouble. I’ve offered my services,” but they weren’t needed, he says. But rescues at sea are probably not something a sailor could practice, he says. “I think all your yachting skills get brought into effect, whether it be navigation or preparation.

“I [had] slowed down to a Solent [a small headsail to replace the genoa,] but it’s still a lot of sail to put away in those conditions. I had one reef in the main, and things were pretty wild. I had to go down to three reefs and put the storm jib up.

“In those conditions, you run with a lot of aft ballast [going downwind],” he continues. “You have to unload it — not a quick system. Then you have to load forward ballast [to go upwind]. In those conditions with big seas the boat will slam very heavily.” Ecover was riding well-established Southern Ocean swells ranging from around 33 to 50 feet.

“Big enough,” says Golding. “Sure enough, when I did turn around, the first half an hour was absolutely dreadful trying to make progress. I was on the front edge of a depression.”

Golding notes that a sailor normally comes to a beat in “an evolved way, so you’re prepared.” Everything in the boat is stored for the anticipated tack. “It’s OK to go upwind in those conditions. This … was a big shock on the boat and on the systems and on me.

“Very quickly after I sailed back through the front, the breeze started to drop off. A lot of stuff broke in first 30 minutes … just because it was horrendous slamming.”

Sailing now in 25 to 35 knots of wind, Ecover was racing toward Hugo Boss. However, there was only a brief weather window. After a predicted wind shift, there would be 50 knots of wind from the south. Communicating by sat phone, Golding and Thomson worked out a converging course.

Because Ecover had been engaged in a sailboat race for more than a month, some new issues arose, even as Golding and Thomson drafted the plan for the actual rescue. “I was having problems with engine control and the engine,” Golding says. “As soon as I tacked to starboard, I was drawing air into the engine. Because I didn’t know what the nature of the pickup would be … I made a connection to a jerry can and set up a gravity feed straight to the engine.

“When I eventually started using the gear controls, because they hadn’t been used for a month and a half of the race, there was corrosion in the linkage,” Golding continues. “So I couldn’t control the engine gears or throttle.”

The men came up with a simple plan for the pickup. Thomson would get into his life raft and let himself drift downwind on a tether 50 feet from Hugo Boss so Golding could get near him. Then Thomson would shoot a line rocket across Ecover’s deck, allowing Golding to get the line.

The weather cooperated, allowing Golding to sail upwind with the genoa and unreefed mainsail. Through the “marvel of GPS,” Ecover reached Hugo Boss with only one tack of about four miles, and the two boats were abreast. But darkness had fallen. Golding couldn’t see Thomson aboard Hugo Boss due to the “still very, very choppy sea” and the moonless night. Shouting across the divide, the men modified their plan to do the pickup after first light.

“Alex had a sleep,” Golding says. “I didn’t, getting the gear ready.”

The pickup and then …

When first light arrived they were prepared, the two yachts riding broadside. “We had to keep a reasonable clearance because it was quite bumpy, and there was a risk of the rigs bumping,” Golding says. With everything aligned and Thomson in the life raft, Thomson aimed and fired the line rocket — and nothing happened.

“Alex and I were quite meticulous … but it all went pretty wrong pretty quickly. We had a great plan, but it didn’t work because … the line thrower didn’t work,” Golding says. “I had problems with the engine as well. Once we got the boat into position, it was clear I had to send a line to him. It had to really be done by hand. At that time, Alex realized I was going to have difficulty maneuvering to him without coming in disastrous contact with Hugo Boss. So he let go of Hugo Boss.

“In the end, I managed to find a way of doing it, but not until after a few passes,” Golding says. “I wasn’t going to panic about it. I just wanted to make sure I got him in safely.” Once Thomson was aboard Ecover, Golding told him, “I would have failed my yachtmaster’s [examination] on that pickup.”

Thomson was “a little bit in shock and [was] cold,” Golding says, so they spent the first hour feeding him coffee and soup “and just chatting and trying to normalize the situation. After that, I was still technically in the race, so I started bringing the boat back up and putting it on course.”

The company aboard Ecover, however, proved costly. “We were chatting, and I missed seeing the front approach,” says Golding. The boat had the genoa up, with one reef in the main, in 25 knots of wind. “As the front came through and the rain came through, it shot up to 50 [knots] very quickly before the mast snapped. The strange thing was we had been running in similar conditions just hours before. Something clearly had come undone or broken when going upwind.”

Six hours after the rescue of Thomson and the loss of Hugo Boss, the two sailors began to salvage Ecover. The mast had folded nearly in half, the masthead now suspended just above the deck. The first job was to remove the masthead instruments. Then they needed to get the mainsail back down its track. If they could fly the top of the mainsail from the new mast top, near the middle set of three spreaders, they would have a “fairly big chunk of rig,” Golding says.

“Alex suddenly had to kick back into gear, but he was great,” he says. “The two of us worked pretty consistently for probably 17 hours to get the pieces in place.”

Golding says the repairs were being made in a gale. “At one point, we were in driving snow. You could hardly see the front or the back of the boat. Alex was up the rig, trying to cut some rigging.”

At the end of three days, the rig had evolved into a mainsail tacked at the third reef, efficient in more than 25 knots of wind. In five days, they made landfall in Africa, and two days later they reached port in Cape Town.

This February, Thomson finished second with a new Hugo Boss Open 60 in the double-handed Barcelona World Race. Golding was preparing for The Transat — a single-handed race that starts in Plymouth, England, and finishes in Boston — in a new Ecover Open 60, after finishing fifth in the 2007 Transat Jacques Vabre in the same boat. Both men expect to compete later this year in the Vendee Globe solo non-stop race around the world.