Volvo racers take a beating in Leg 1

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American Paul Cayard had to bow out of the first leg of racing with concerns about a damaged keel

American Paul Cayard had to bow out of the first leg of racing with concerns about a damaged keel

Paul Cayard, America’s favorite round-the-world racer, retired from the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, his Disney yacht Black Pearl roughed up in a storm just a day after the start off Spain that sowed trouble for the seven-boat fleet.

“We are going to return to the race, and I feel that we have a good chance to win,” Cayard wrote in a Nov. 16

e-mail, as his Volvo 70 limped back toward Cascais, Portugal, with a damaged and leaking keel. Cayard had Black Pearl flown to Cape Town, South Africa — the first stopover — to repair the keel and other damage. He expected to start the second leg to Melbourne, Australia, with the rest of the fleet, but he’ll obviously be watching the keel carefully to see if the repairs hold.

Cayard says he had worried that water might start pouring into the boat as they headed back into port to repair Black Pearl’s canting keel. The keel box doors in the bottom of the hull had somehow peeled off, and with the boat racing at 35 knots, water was being forced up into the box under such high pressure that it endangered the boat at two points. It threatened to blow off the keel box lid that keeps water out of the boat, and it appeared close to bursting seals around the hydraulic rams that extend down into the box from inside the boat.

“When we discovered the situation early Sunday morning [Nov. 13], the lid to the box was bulging upward and straining the fasteners while water was squirting into the boat due to the 35 knots of water pressure, and the ram seals were bulging like cows’ udders,” Cayard reports on his Web site, www.cayardsailing.com. “If either of those had burst, we would have been taking on quite a bit of water. … It would have been a very difficult situation to manage if those had been compromised,” he says in an interview on the race site www.volvooceanrace.org.

Responding to a question on the site about whether the problem with these keel-box doors was specific to his boat or maybe a generic defect in all of the Farr-designed Volvo 70s, Cayard says he couldn’t say for sure. He says if the defect were common to all the Farr 70s, he would expect the same thing to have happened to the other boats.

“It’s hard to know what ripped those doors off, whether we hit something and that compromised the original design or whether [the doors] weren’t designed or built strong enough to start with,” he says.

All of the Volvo 70s have canting keels, and the keels of the four Farr designs — Black Pearl, movistar, Brasil 1 and Ericsson — are hinged in a box set 6 inches inside the hull to give them more swing, 40 degrees to either side. This apparently leaves a big opening in the bottom of the hull. Farr Yacht Design president G. Russell Bowler says there are plates, or doors, made of carbon-fiber composite on both sides of the keel fin that slide back and forth with it as it cants, covering and sealing the hole and fairing the bottom.

“If you lose that fairing piece on the bottom, then you’ve got a water issue,” Bowler says. Water in the box could breach the hull at higher boat speeds because of the pressure on the lid and ram seals. Bowler says his engineers are replacing the old plates with “something stronger and fastened better,” but they still are unsure of why the original ones failed. “We know what happened,” he says. “We’re a bit baffled about why.”

Bowler says the failure has raised a red flag. “We need to pay more attention to the design, fitting and maintenance of these elements,” he says. Cayard also reported other damage on Black Pearl: A bulkhead midway between headstay and mast crushed, and the bolt that holds the keel pins in place sheared.

Since the boat with the most points, not the best elapsed time, wins the race, Cayard says Black Pearl can make up for lost ground. Entries have 23 opportunities to score points in the 24,000-mile round-the-world odyssey by finishing legs, winning port races and passing waypoints. However, Cayard says his crew’s biggest problem now isn’t making up points but making up for the loss of 21 days of racing and learning how to sail the boat most efficiently.

Black Pearl, a late entry, was the last yacht launched, and Cayard had hoped this first leg would give his crew the chance to climb a steep learning curve on this new Volvo 70 design, and get up to speed with the rest of the fleet. “It’s a pretty big blow,” he says. “It’s definitely going to make it a lot harder to win, but hopefully we’ll rise to the occasion and find a way to get back in there, and it will just have made it all the more interesting.”

Black Pearl wasn’t the only boat damaged in the fall storm. Twenty-four hours of gale-force winds beat up three other of the new, lightweight Volvo 70s designed just for this race. A day after the Nov. 12 start off Vigo, Spain, 50-knot gusts lashed the fleet, waves crashing over the decks. “It was the windiest and roughest conditions I have been in for at least eight years,” Cayard writes.

Spanish entry movistar, captained by veteran Dutch round-the-world skipper Bouwe Bekking, and the Australian boat Sunergy and Friends, skippered by Grant Wharington, also returned to port.

“At the crack of dawn, we heard a sickening loud crack-bang downstairs,” Bekking writes in an e-mail. It was another keel problem. A shelf that one of the hydraulic keel rams is mounted on collapsed. This suddenly shifted the keel load to the other ram, generating enough force to buckle the main bulkhead, he says. Inspecting the damage in Cadiz, Spain, Bekking also found part of the port rudder and skeg missing, suggesting an underwater collision with a heavy object.

Sunergy high-tailed it into Madeira near the Canary Islands to repair a broken gooseneck. The Dutch boat ABN Amro One, skippered by Kiwi Mike Sanderson, lost one of its steering stations in a broach, and broke the tiller arm on the port rudder. Two crewmembers, Tony Mutter and Jan Dekker, were thrown with such force along the deck that they wiped out the pedestal and wheel, Sanderson says. The team continued racing with an emergency tiller. “This is seriously hard-core,” Sanderson writes in an e-mail report.

ABN Amro One went on to win the 6,400-mile first leg to Cape Town — finishing in 19 days, 24 minutes, 2 seconds — and set a new monohull world record for sailing 546 nautical miles in 24 hours, on Day 16.

The Farr-designed Ericsson, skippered by Neal McDonald, also had problems with its canting keel, dropping back after losing hydraulic power to its keel rams late in the leg. The yacht was reaching on a starboard tack at 20 knots when the crew heard a loud bang. “We immediately stopped the boat and took the mainsail down to investigate the problem,” he says. “There was no visible damage, but it was obvious that the keel was flopping from side to side.” Using a fail-safe feature of the design, the crew after a few minutes was able to lock the keel in position, enabling them to continue but under reduced sail. McDonald says the boat had heeled out of control and nearly capsized before they realized the keel was swinging freely.