Volvo should look to safety: Jobson

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The death of a sailor and chronic keel problems marred this running of the Volvo Ocean Race

The death of a sailor and chronic keel problems marred this running of the Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race ground toward its finish under a pall, with the loss of Hans Horrevoets in a man overboard accident on ABN Amro Two and the abandonment of movistar, crippled yet again with keel problems.

Horrevoets’ death in the North Atlantic and persistent problems and dangers associated with canting keels on the new Volvo 70s have raised questions in this around-the-world race about what organizers will do to address safety and boat design issues for the next running.

Yacht racing is inherently dangerous, says veteran racer and sailing commentator Gary Jobson, but organizer Volvo built its reputation as an automaker on safety. He thinks it’s time for Volvo to shift the race’s emphasis from “life at the extreme” back to its automotive long suit: safety.

Jobson says few of the teams fielded new Volvo 70 designs in time to adequately sea-trial them and test their canting keels before the start. That turned out to be a formula for trouble, though it could have been much worse.

“You can make a case that this fleet could have spent more time preparing themselves,” Jobson says. “There were an awful lot of problems with the majority of the fleet. I think Volvo’s going to have to take a very hard look at this situation.”

The lighter and faster the boat, says Jobson, the more potential for failures and breakdowns. (The Volvo 70s are very light at 24,000 pounds, and they are 30-plus knot racers.) The Bruce Farr-designed movistar, Ericsson and Pirates of the Caribbean all struggled with structural or hydraulic ram failures in their canting keels during the race. Movistar nearly sank off Cape Horn when water burst past a faulty fairing plate — part of the canting keel mechanism — then finally was abandoned off England when the keel’s rear hinge failed.

Unrelated to problems with canting keels but linked to the speed and power of the Volvo 70s, 32-year-old Dutchman Horrevoets was lost overboard when a wave swept over ABN Amro Two’s deck in the dark of night May 18 during a sail change. The crewmembers were reducing sail as the weather deteriorated on the seventh leg, from New York to Portsmouth, England.

“The crew were sailing downwind in 25 to 30 knots of wind under main, fractional spinnaker and staysail,” said ABN Amro Two navigator Simon Fisher at a press conference in Portsmouth. “[Skipper] Sebastien Josse was on the helm, Hans was trimming the spinnaker sheet, Nick Bice was on the main pedestal [and] mainsheet, and Andrew Lewis and Lucas Brun where manning the forward pedestals when the boat nose-dived down a wave and water came washing back down the deck. When the water cleared, Hans was no longer on deck.”

ABN Amro spokeswoman Camilla Green says autopsy results showed Horrevoets drowned. However, she says he suffered a serious head trauma and very likely was knocked unconscious. “Obviously he hit something at some point,” she says. “We don’t know whether he regained consciousness or not.”

Horrevoets was the oldest of the ABN Amro Two crew and leaves behind his partner, Petra, 1-year-old daughter Bobbi, and the unborn child he affectionately called “Bump.” A memorial fund has been set up to help the family, and contributions can be made at www.sailinganarchy.com .

All 10 crewmembers had turned out at about 2 a.m. to take down a masthead spinnaker and put up a fractional one as conditions worsened, according to a transcript of the crew account. During the sail change the wind piped up from 12 to 25 knots, and right after the change — with seas running 15 feet — Josse gave the order for crew to cycle below to don life jackets and harnesses so they could tether themselves to jacklines on deck. Horrevoets, at the spinnaker sheet, reportedly was last in the rotation to get his tether and life jacket, and was the only sailor who hadn’t clipped on. He was less than a minute from going below when he went overboard, according to watch captain Bice.

“I was down below putting on my foul weather gear and harness. While I was doing that with George [Peet], the boat nose-dived — you could feel it inside — and heeled a little to windward,” said crewmember Luke Molloy. “The boat stopped, and you could hear the water coming down the deck. The next thing you know the boat had leveled out, the sail was flogging — you could hear it shaking the whole rig. Seb screamed, ‘Man overboard! Everyone on deck!’ I threw my harness on and flew up the hatch.”

Below, navigator Fisher punched the man-overboard button on the GPS navigation system to record the exact location where Horrevoets went in the water. Crewmembers deployed a Jon Buoy — an inflatable recovery raft with a marker light — a smoke flare and life rings for him to swim to.

The boat had been hurtling through the water at about 25 knots. The crew dropped the spinnaker, furled the staysail and lowered the starboard daggerboard so they could tack and try to sail back upwind to him. “The engine was switched on, and we attempted to motorsail back on a reciprocal course,” Fisher said. “Due to the strong headwinds it was decided we drop the main and go under motor alone, as it was difficult to maintain a direct course to the MOB position.”

They managed to turn the boat around just 1.6 miles from Horrevoets. Now fighting 37 knots of wind, the ABN Amro Two crew scanned the water with searchlights. After about a half-mile, they found the first life ring, then a half-mile farther on they found the second one, and a fifth mile after that, they spotted the Jon Buoy and Horrevoets, .15 miles from the recorded MOB position. It was now about 3 a.m., 50 minutes after he was washed overboard in a torrent of water.

“By the time we found Hans, we saw he was drowned,” said Simeon Tienpont, who had put on a wet suit and diving gear to go into the water, if necessary, to help Horrevoets back on board. They swept by him once, lapped him twice more, and got close enough the third time to pull the sailor aboard from the boat. Five crewmembers took turns administering CPR; attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Under supervision of doctors in the United Kingdom, the crew stopped CPR efforts at 4:20 a.m.

About two weeks after Horrevoets’ death, skipper Josse announced that he and his crew would continue racing. “We are all agreed that we want to continue this race for Hans and that it is what he would have wanted us to do,” Josse said.

Several days after Horrevoets’ loss, movistar’s rear keel hinge failed. The boat started taking on water and though its crew secured the keel with ropes, water kept pouring in. After 24 hours and with a forecast of deteriorating weather and 50-knot winds, skipper Bouwe Bekking decided not to risk it. “This morning we gybed over on the other board to check how the keel would cope with that angle,” he later wrote in an e-mail. “Straight away we saw that the water intake nearly doubled and had to start the second emergency pump. That made me realize that we were actually in way bigger trouble.”

Still reeling from their own loss, ABN Amro Two diverted to take the movistar crew aboard 300 miles off Land’s End. “We all realized that turning around had been a very hard call for [ABN Amro Two], and hopefully they can find a little comfort that they saved 10 lives,” Bekking said.

After all the drama in the North Atlantic, it went almost unnoticed that ABN Amro One not only won the leg to Portsmouth, but the entire race with two legs to spare. “For me this is the Olympic medal, the climbing Everest,” said skipper Michael Sanderson. “It’s a childhood dream to have skippered a boat and to have won the Volvo Ocean Race.” The five-month, 31,250-nautical-mile race would go on to Rotterdam, Netherlands, and finish in Gothenburg, Sweden in mid-June.

For the next running of the quadrennial race, Jobson believes Volvo will have to return to the drawing board and design a new boat. There were just seven entries this time, and he suspects the event has become so risky it will be hard to find sponsors. He proposes a one-design that is demonstrably safe.

“I don’t think most spectators care about who comes up with the fastest boat,” he says. “They care about who wins. Make it a test of the sailor instead of the boat.”

He would also constitute the crews more as national teams than international ones. “I think that would develop some interest,” he says.