Resourceful sailor fixes rudder alone

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Conrad Humphreys, competing in the Vendee Globe, had to replace a 175-pound blade without assistance

Conrad Humphreys, competing in the Vendee Globe, had to replace a 175-pound blade without assistance

The relentless Southern Ocean has taken its toll on the Vendee Globe fleet, forcing six boats to retire and a seventh to put in at the Cape of Good Hope so its skipper could replace a damaged rudder.

British sailor Conrad Humphreys single-handedly replaced his 175-pound rudder at a mooring off Simonstown, South Africa, after his Open 60, Hellomoto, struck a submerged object Dec. 4 about 300 miles off Cape Town. Humphreys was sailing at 17 knots in a 40-knot gale and breaking seas. “I was at the nav station, and the boat suddenly jerked to a stop as something hit the keel and then the rudder,” he says on his Web site,

www.conrad humphreys.com. “It was definitely a solid lump and not mammal-like, and my first thought was that the keel was going to come through the bottom of the boat as I was thrown against the nav station.”

Humphreys says the bottom 1.5 feet of the 10-foot-tall starboard rudder was smashed, and the carbon-fiber skin on one side had started to delaminate. Keel damage was superficial.

The Open 60s have two rudders. Most skippers in the non-stop single-handed race around the world carry a spare emergency rudder. Humphreys brought a full-size replacement. He had to pull the damaged rudder and slip the new one in place alone or face disqualification.

At a mooring on Simonstown’s False Bay, Humphreys rigged a pulley to make the transfer. “I’d set up a pulley system with a [165-pound] weight on it [40 feet] down on the seabed attached to a snatch block,” he says. Using boom and winch, he accomplished the delicate maneuver of exchanging rudders without damaging the rudder-post bearings. However, Humphreys — an accomplished diver — had to swim 40 feet down with a five-minute air canister and no weight belt to retrieve his pulley gear. He got stuck under the boat part-way up when Hellomoto swung on its mooring and the line attached to the block pulled him back down. He says he doesn’t ever want to do that again.

“This morning I woke up and literally I couldn’t even sit up I felt so fatigued,” he writes, following the repair. Humphreys was back in the race Dec. 10. At press time he was in ninth place out of 14 boats still racing.

Fellow Englishman Alex Thomson withdrew from the Vendee after the base of the gooseneck collapsed, punching a foot-square hole in the deck of his boat Dec. 2, 1,000 miles from the Cape of Good Hope, according to the race Web site, www.vendeeglobe.org/uk. He says winds were 40 knots and the boat was slamming down off steep waves when he heard a sharp crack, went below to check his keel, and saw daylight through his deck.

Sailing his Open 60 Hugo Boss for Cape Town without a mainsail, Thomson tried to plug the hole, but his repairs didn’t hold and the boat took on water. The pumps became clogged with pieces of carbon from the deck, forcing him to manually pump to keep the water at bay. He arrived in Cape Town a week later in a 40-knot gale.

Austrian sailor Norbert Sedlacek retired Dec. 9 after putting in at Cape Town with a damaged keel. Frenchman Herve Laurent also put in there, withdrawing from the race with a damaged keel and steering mechanism. He reported two knockdowns off South Africa in 70-knot winds and 35- to 40-foot waves. Frenchman Marc Thiercelin retired Dec. 31 with a “destroyed” bowsprit, broken mainsail traveler, damaged masthead, and no Internet communications to receive weather reports. He put in at ChristChurch, New Zealand, for repairs. Another Frenchman, Patrice Carpentier, retired Jan. 7 with a broken boom that snapped in a jibe in a 27-knot wind. He jury-rigged a repair, but it wouldn’t hold. He, too, put in a ChristChurch.

Though the lead boats were expected to finish off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, the first week in February, the leaders at press time, after rounding Cape Horn, were Vincent Riou on PRB, followed by Mike Golding on Ecover and Jean Le Cam on Bonduelle. Riou and Le Cam had been battling for the lead since shortly after the Nov. 7 start off Les Sables d’Olonne. Golding was more than 800 miles behind at one point but made a remarkable recovery in the Southern Ocean, turning the finale into a three-way dash to the finish. Bruce Schwab, the only American entry, was in 10th place racing Ocean Planet.