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Record attempt in trouble from outset

Collision between Earthrace and a skiff off Guatemala probably spells the end of the ‘green’ challenge

Collision between Earthrace and a skiff off Guatemala probably spells the end of the ‘green’ challenge

After just eight days, Pete Bethune’s quest to set a new round-the-world speed record appeared dashed when his 78-foot biodiesel-powered trihull collided with a fishing skiff off Guatemala’s Pacific coast, killing one fisherman and injuring another.

“We are all pretty shaken but otherwise fine,” says Bethune, who talked to Soundings by satellite phone March 19 from Puerto Quetzal, where his wave-piercing boat, Earthrace, was docked at a naval compound.

Bethune, sounding exhausted and waiting to appear before a judge with his three crewmembers, says his attorney had told him not to talk further with the media about the previous night’s collision. “I don’t want to go inflaming things,” he says.

Both the boat and crew were being detained at the naval base. Still awaiting a court hearing two days after the accident, he says he had been meeting with “lawyers and [Guatemalan] government people” to seek the release of the boat and crew.

Bethune says the accident likely ends for now his effort to beat the 75-day round-the-world record set by British Cable and Wireless Adventurer in 1998. He had worked tirelessly on the project for three years, mortgaging his house and spending much of his own money.

Mechanical problems had dogged the $2 million, wave-piercing Earthrace almost from the March 10 start of the record attempt off Barbados. Sixteen hours into the first 1,250-mile leg to Panama, Bethune awakened to a disturbing vibration. Diving overboard with a flashlight to inspect the high-tech carbon props, the 41-year-old New Zealander discovered large gouges in the blades apparently from cavitation. Bethune replaced the props with bronze ones in Colon, Panama. Just 90 minutes after clearing the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, a heat exchanger cracked. Earthrace was en route to Acapulco for another repair when it collided with the skiff.

Bethune, a petroleum engineer who had turned “green,” had high hopes of beating the record and proving the viability of biodiesel as a marine fuel. Powered by twin 540-hp Cummins MerCruiser diesels, his Earthrace is built of strong, lightweight carbon fiber and Kevlar composites that keep its weight down to 10 tons. After running the engines 2,200 hours on pure biodiesel — processed vegetable oils and fats — Bethune says that using the alternative fuel instead of petroleum diesel had had little effect on performance while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by around 78 percent.

Earthrace’s water-ballasted trihull is designed to punch through waves instead of riding over them. She powered through 40-foot waves and 60- to 80-knot winds in New Zealand’s Cook Strait last year during sea trials, when Bethune and crew were looking for bad weather.

In another storm, however, the water ballast system wasn’t working right and Earthrace was low on fuel, so she started riding on top of the water. A 40-foot breaking wave hit the boat on the beam, and she tipped “well past 90 degrees.” Bethune says he had to brace himself with one leg on the cabin overhead. “It was scary, real scary. One of the worst experiences of my life,” he says.

Maybe the worst — until the March 18 collision.