Thomson, Golding and Ecover's broken spar

Thomson, Golding and Ecover's broken spar

"The mast tube exploded 1.5m above the main spreader..."

Mike Golding recounts the dramatic events of Thursday and Friday in the Velux 5 Oceans

Monday November 27th 2006, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
Since my last blog things have changed, first my priorities, then my whole race have taken a massive change of direction. During the past 48 hours I have enjoyed the greatest feelings of success and joy at the successful rescue of a fellow competitor and then, just hours later, the crashing despair brought on by a mast failure which effectively puts me out of contention in the Velux 5 Oceans. As I write Ecover is making progress north towards South Africa, probably Cape Town, where we can make a measured assessment of what comes next.

Two days ago on 23 November the first sign of a change came with the 1020hrs position report. Over the previous 48 hours Ecover and Hugo Boss were making some of the fastest speeds of the race so far with 24hour runs around 450 miles. On Ecover we were seeing regular speeds in excess of 30 knots and our averages were around 20 knots. This is the most stressful sailing humanly possible - the speed is electrifying and the Southern Ocean is the most fearful location. Here the wind and waves have been uninterrupted by land for 15,000 miles and this makes it the best place for high speed sailing but also the most terrifying for the sheer hostile and uncontrolled power exerted by the elements. But for us, huge strides were being made on Bernard Stamm's lead, all indications were that within the next few days the race, the challenge for overall pole position would be firmly up for grabs. But on seeing this particular position data file, with Alex and Hugo Boss making only 8 knots to my 19 - an intuition told me that things were about to change radically.

I immediately called the race office and asked them to find out what was happening, minutes later they confirmed that there was indeed a problem on Hugo Boss though Alex had not at this time requested any assistance. I told the race office that it was my intention to slow until such time as we could confirm that Alex was indeed okay - I would not normally do this, but something here was not right and at the speeds Ecover was doing we were rapidly putting a big and difficult distance between each other, if I did need to turn around, the job of getting back was getting much harder by the minute.

I put the deep reef in the mainsail, slowing the boat measurably but still averaging over 16 knots - then waited. 50 minutes later David Adams [Race Director of the Velux 5 Oceans] called to tell me things had changed dramatically on Hugo Boss. The keel head had snapped, the keel was swinging uncontrolled in the boat, which was now taking in water - it was just a matter on time before the situation turned from a dangerous one into an potentially fatal one. Alex was now asking for assistance and Ecover was the closest to render it.

I put the phone down, looked at the B&G which was showing that the wind was 42 knots, I climbed into the cockpit just as we screamed off huge wave at 25 knots and I set about rigging the boat with storm sails to turn around. 20 minutes later Ecover was crashing through freezing waves at 9 knots on the reciprocal heading - Alex was 90 miles away and we had five hours before darkness set in.

Ecover did not enjoy this massive change of direction, the Fleet 77 sat com packed up immediately, next the engine got up to its tricks agin and with the batteries now desperately needing a charge, I was once more buried in the engine bay, covered in diesel as the boat lurched and crashed back wher we had just come to the west. This time I had to fix the problem in a fully reliable manner, the engine would be needed to manoeuvre to get Alex on board and had to be 100% reliable. I ditched all advice, and rigged a jerry can filled with diesel as a gravity feed direct to the HP pump on the engine skipping the fuel pump and secondary filter. The engine ran - and it now ran reliably - at last I could concentrate on preparing the boat and myself for the job of collecting Alex safely.

The wind moderated and headed me as I closed the distance, the sea state did not, if anything the waves got steeper and it became harder and harder to make progress and eventually I ended up with full sail as the ridge passed then began reefing again as the breeze built back to 25 knots. We were still not going to quite make the rendez-vous in daylight but with accurate and regular information coming through Gringo [Graham Tourell - Ecover' Shore Manager] from the Race Office we moved ever closer together. In the final few miles Alex and I conferred over satphone and radio to make last small navigational adjustments.

Finally out of the blackest night imaginable, a flare shot into the air, in the glow cast down from the scudding low cloud I could see Hugo Boss' mast and was able to pickup his masthead strobe light and finally his deck level nav lights. A transfer was absolutely too dangerous during the night, if during the transfer I lost sight of him, even for a moment - he would be gone. I dropped sail and tried to match his drifting course and speed, Alex slept, I fretted and tinkered with my engine, tested the controls, gathered my rescue kit, coiling down throw lines into buckets and in the end playing Solitaire on the PC - I was nervous about the transfer. At some point, it was clear that Alex may well end up in the water and in 5°C temperatures there would be no time for a screw up.

Sunrise was at 0259GMT, I called and woke Alex. we both ate some food and generally got our acts together before he rigged in his survival suit and set himself up for me to come close. The plan was that he would inflate his raft on his leeward side, throw some supplies in and jump in. He would then send a line across to me with his rocket line thrower before letting himself adrift from Hugo Boss. A good basic plan which meant he would never be unattached.

I manuovered Ecover under engine, the controls were stiff - being unused for three weeks but otherwise all seemed okay. I experimented to see if I could drive the bows through the wind and wave - nope - she would not go, I gunned the engine and - Bang!!! - the shear pin between the engine and drive leg failed - now I had a reliable engine but with no ability to drive the propeller. I called Alex and just stopped him from jumping into the raft. Then I did possibly the quickest sheer pin change in history, even reducing the chance of a further failure by pushing the broken piece of pin into the slot and taping to give the whole thing twice the strength. Then we began again.

The first part went okay, he was in the raft and in fact he let a painter out so that he was 50ft behind his boat, I positioned myself to leeward of both the raft and Hugo Boss bringing the boats together would be a full on disaster in the steep waves. He aimed the rocket thrower, I ducked - it looked like he was aiming at me! - but nothing, the rocket line did not work. I grabbed my first pre coiled down line and ran to the rail and did possibility the worst line throw imaginable. I turned and went around again.

This time it looked better I got a line to him but - the throttle/gear control now would not work and I could not kill my speed or control the gearbox for ahead or astern. We dropped the line and I pulled some sail out to make another pass. By now he had dropped his line to Hugo Boss, he could see the danger we would be in if the boat came together and realised that I needed some room to manoeuvre around him without getting any lines in the prop. Hugo Boss slowly headed away to the south looking low in the water but otherwise perfect - a deeply sad sight.

Then I unfurled some headsail and we had another go. This time I got a line on him and he secured the raft but in the process the bows blew down and Ecover began to sail too fast, a big wave started us on a surf. Alex clung on desperately, injuring his hand in the process, he yelled in pain and fright as the raft was being towed at 5/6kts with the rope twisted around his hand. Looking for all the world like a doughnut skier, Alex moving his weight to the backof the raft but the raft still flooded with water - we dropped the line and round I went again.

Perhaps the most bizarre image - which will stay with me - is the sight of Alex alone in his raft, Hugo Boss now a quarter mile away, and in the steep seas the world's largest albatross sitting in the water just feet from Alex - this could have been almost funny - but to me it began to look like a vulture moving in for the kill - this was just not happening....

This time I took off most of the sail and used the engine which was now stuck permanently in 'ahead', leaping below to adjust the throttle setting under the sink and in the very last moment killing the engine completely with the kill switch in the nav station. But this time the approach was near perfect, the raft arrived on my bows, bounced down the hull, I virtually passed Alex the line which he made fast, I killed the engine and winched him back into the leeward side - we had him!

We hugged as I welcomed him aboard, I apologised for my shabby pickup - " I probably would have failed my Yachtmasters on that one" I said - but we had him - and oh what a fantastic feeling!!!.

We took a couple of photos grabbed his luggage out of the raft - we are not going to starve - and chatted and then chatted some more. The relief from both of us was tangible. As we talked Hugo Boss now a mile away disappeared from view, the boat was taking in water and this morning (25th) we hear that the Sat C stopped transmitting - Hugo Boss has gone forever.

Slowly we set about getting Alex sorted, I cut away his glove and we cleaned and dressed his hand injury which is painful but not too serious. He climbed out of his survival suit, we tidied up, drank some coffee then some more. Then we slowly set about getting moving. I unrolled some headsail, and hoisted some mainsail, aiming the boat back towards Fremantle. Over the next two hours we cruised, talked, drank lots of tea and coffee - in 24 hours we had both been through the mill and back, Alex was and is clearly deeply upset by the loss of his boat - but he was now safe.

I was not about to immediately charge back into the race full throttle - we had enough adrenaline in the past 24 hours to last us a good time yet and the race seemed distant and somewhat less important than what we had just done. Alex was safe.

Six hours after the transfer, Ecover was moving well again, the wind had built to match our reduced sailplan and we were seeing speeds of 15 - 20 knots. Still conditions were such that the boat was very much in control - I loaded the aft ballast and moments later a squall hit us from astern. The wind jumped up from 25kts and sleet and snow accompanied a truly icy blast from Antarctica. The boat healed over to 20° or so as altered the pilot to come down 10, released the vang (which had no load), and moved towards the mainsheet to take the pressure off the boat. Nothing here was unusual in these boats but as I did so my second intuition in 24 hours made me look up the rig - as I did so - the mast tube exploded 1.5m above the main spreader, shards of carbons of carbon scattered and a terrible grinding bang followed. The mast had broken and my competitive Velux 5 Oceans race was over.

We were blown away, in shock, call it what you will, we could not believe all that had just gone down - it was just too bizarre. Instead of rushing headlong into this new development - we ate the meal we had been preparing, rigged to work on deck and set about 12 crushing hours of cutting away the broken sections of Ecover's beautiful mast and setting the boat up to continue sailing. This was mind numbingly hard and disappointing. For me the competitive race is over, for Alex there is the loss of his boat a totally misplaced feeling of guilt. But the work to make the boat safe and sailable remained. Alex volunteered to go aloft and spent a treacherous hour dangling with 20ft of mast crashing around him. More squalls, more snow and an icy deck made working hugely difficult and dangerous. But working together, we achieved what would have ironically been completely impossible alone and as dark descended on an extraordinary 48 hours I hoisted the staysail and we altered our course once more away from Freementle to the North and South Africa.

45 foot of our mast remains in place, the two broken upper sections are lashed on deck. We only lost the Code Eco sail and even the mainsail which was at the first reef is undamaged. Everything about this is bizarre. We have stabilised the situation, we are in full control and we are making fair progress north which will improve once we have attached the main and hoisted it to the third reef point. The weather is now foul, 35/40 knots of wind and these icy squalls which have given both of us the first stages of frostbite in our fingers from our labours on deck. We are resting, eating, sleeping and chatting about the future, right now we have few concerns other that the immediate ones.

As for the cause of the failure, we know some facts. No element of the rigging or its attachments to the mast or boat failed. Nothing in our team's preparation of the boat was responsible. We know this because we have all the evidence here - nothing was broken except the tube. The conditions at the time of failure were incomparably small when compared to the loads which were being excerted just 24 hours before when we were clocking of huge milages and sailing on the brink of control. The failure was therefore most likely there in the carbon tube before I collected Alex. It could have happened anywhere, during the first brutal gale in Biscay, in a squall in the Doldrums or when we turned upwind to come get Alex - we won't ever know for sure.

One thing I am sure of right now, we may have lost an expensive mast, we may also have lost our place in this race, but I would not trade any of it for what we have gained in getting Alex off Hugo Boss - right now we might all be looking at a far more tragic outcome than a lump of broken carbon mast.

As for our future in this race, well Gringo and the team are exploring all the possibilities, we have a mast in Southampton, it is possible to ship it but this would take time, we could fly it but this is prohibitively expensive. For now I think we need to concentrate our thoughs and efforts on getting safely to shore, only then can we make a proper valued judgment on what sensibly comes next.

Even from here in the wastes of the Southern Ocean we are both touched by the huge outflowing of support and positive wishes we have recieved from all around the world - these are not easy times and we fully appreaciate all the sentiments.

However, when we do get to wherever we choose to go in South Africa - they had better watch out - cause two Angry Bulls are coming to town and its going to get very messy!

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