Trimarans v 70 knot winds

British multihull skipper describes his Route du Rhum ordeal

Thursday December 14th 2006, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
One of the sadder stories to come out of the recent Route du Rhum was that of Ross Hobson who's 40ft trimaran Ideal Stelrad pitchpoled in storm force winds to the north west of the Azores. The boat was originally designed by Nic Bailey who sailed her to a class win in the 1988 C-Star (OSTAR). She was eventually sold to Richard Tolkien who sailed her at FPC Greenaway with Robert Wingate to a line honours victory in the Royal Western YC's two handed Round Britain and Ireland race in 1998, a feat which new owner Ross Hobson repeated in the race four years later with Andrew Newnam in her new guise as Mollymawk.

Now safely back on dry land, Hobson, a senior lecturer/consultant in Orthodontics at Newcastle Dental School, explained to thedailysail what happened.

Readers who followed this year's incredible Route du Rhum race will remember that after the boats had passed the Azores they were forced to contend with a front that had remained static for almost a week (see our report at the time). Getting to the west side of this and into strong but favourable northeasterlies was a tactic that proved a winning move for several of the boats that attempted it, but fatal for others - Steve Ravussin's ORMA 60 Orange Project, Pascal Quintin's Class 2 trimaran Jean Stalaven and ultimately Ideal Stelrad all of whom were capsized in terrible conditions.

For weather routing Hobson was using Mike Broughton and he was fuly aware that he would encounter two fronts before reaching the favourable breeze and the latter cold front would bring strong winds. The problem was anticipating exactly how much. Hobson takes up the story: "We went through the first front that was okay. Then we sailed into the second front. We knew we were going to get 40-45 knots of winds, but we just caught that part of it which was really much bigger, it was blowing 50-55.

"So it was blowing old boots and I decided get rid of the mainsail, get rid of the headsail, and go to storm staysail and the mast and just bang your way through this mess." Ideal Stelrad was fitted with a carbon fibre wingmast built by Marstrom and fitted in 2003. At the time Hobson had taken the opportunity to up the horsepower of the sail plan and had also installed an intermediate forestay between the jib and staysail to allow more flexibility in the sail plan.

"The sea state was really quite horrible. I took longer than I wanted to get the mainsail down. I knew it was taking time and as I started to come back after turning down the head of the main she just bore off in a big big gust. The gusts which had seen before that had been coming through at 60-65 knots and this one felt bigger. So she just bore away and nosedived and we went into the capsize. Literally another 5-10 seconds and I would have been in the cockpit and I could have dropped the sail…" She pitchpoled over her port bow.

At the time the trimaran was still on starboard tack, the mainsail was down and she was sailing under her wingmast and small jib, with Hobson about to change down to the storm jib. At the time the wind had already shifted to the north and Hobson reckons he was an hour from completing the passage through the front and being able to gybe south. "If I had been five seconds quicker...if I’d gone to the staysail first of all - I spent the next two hours going curse, curse, curse, bugger, bugger, bugger," recounts Hobson in agony. "I was talking to Mike [Broughton] later and he said 'you don’t want to know this, but if you’d got through that you would have taken 200-300 miles out of him [the leader Pierre Antoine] over the next 24-48 hours. He was on the wrong side of the front and I would have been on the right side, sleighriding southbound."

As the 70 knot gust struck Hobson was by Ideal Stelrad's perspex cabin top. The mast head crashed down into the water and from there her turning turtle slowed due to the mast and sails. "I was able just to hang on then and let her settle upside down and duck out from underneath and get on what was now the top side of the netting," says Hobson. "So I got on to the net, she came over and I ducked under the rear life line." He then clambered over the top of the upturned mainhull and got inside through the escape hatch.

Job one was to let those ashore know what had happened. Unfortunately at this stage another disaster occurred when a wave broke in through the escape hatch soaking the Iridium phone. From now on, Hobson reckons, he'll carry his Iridium phone in a watertight bag. Because of this he was unable to establish communication with shore other than via his EPIRB distress beacons.

"I had three EPIRBs. I set off the first and clipped that one to the daggerboard which was obviously sticking up and I tapped the lifebelt light on so there was a light and a strobe flashing. After about an hour I set off the second EPIRB because they might have thought the first one was an accident. So I set off the second one as a personal one, saying ‘look I am still alive’. Then I dived beneath the boat to retrieve the ARGOS [another emergency beacon, also used to track boats in the race]. So I set that off as well. So I had four beacons going ape. So they knew I was there. 'Come and get me please'."

During the capsize water had obviously poured in through the main hatchway door. Unfortunately this was not watertight and Hobson says there was a surge occurring inside the cabin. "On reflection, if I’d had a proper water tight hatch then I could have pumped her out and been totally dry inside," he says.

To keep warm Hobson climbed on to the former underside of the chart table out of the water and found some food and water and tried to get some sleep. "I was okay. I had enough food and water for two or three days. It wasn’t uncomfortable," he recalls.

Meanwhile ashore the signal from the EPIRBs had been picked up by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres around the world and a ship had been diverted to the scene. The capsize occurred at 19.30-20.00 in the evening - they always happen at night... - and the ship arrived alongside at around 03.30. it was the 198m long Carmen, one of Wallenius Lines' RoRo ships that had come to the rescue. After one attempt at manoeuvring the 50,000 ton ship into position, eventually the Carmen was masterfully steered to a halt just upwind of Ideal Stelrad allowing the wind to blow her down on to Hobson's comparitively tincy trimaran.

Despite the ship's offcers recording winds still gusting up to 70 knots at the time, thanks to the lee created by the Carmen's four story high topsides, Hobson was able to transfer on board with relatively little fuss, clambering up a pilot's ladder after he had attached a line thrown down by the ship's crew which he attached to a bundle of all the salvagable gear. "It was just like getting on to a quayside except that it was going up and down by 4m," he recalls.

"The Swedish crew on board were great," says Hobson. "They picked me up, said hi, gave me a shower, gave me a drink. I washed anything electronic in fresh water. And I went to bed. The next day was crazy. The phone just rang and rang and rang with TV and radio and people wanting to know what had gone wrong."

At the time he was picked up Hobson reckons the rotating wingmast had come off its ball socket, but hadn't broken. However it was just a matter of time. He considered leaving the ARGOS on board and trying to rescue the boat, but being so far from land around 800 miles from the Azores at the time this seemed pointless. "The likelihood of getting money together to go and get it when you are that far offshore and what you’d get at the end of the day. The mast would have been trashed by the time we got out there a week or so later. So we would have got three hulls and the rest would have been scrap and that wouldn’t have been worth much at that stage. That was the same with Orange Project - they decided to leave her."

Unless the boat is smashed to pieces inadvertently by a ship Hobson reckons that sometime in the future she will wash up on a beach on the west coast of Ireland or Scotland. She may of course drift further north up towards the White Sea.

Painfully Hobson thought he was covered by insurance for total loss, but this has proved not to be the case. He is currently in negotiation with his sponsors - based in Newcastle Ideal Stelrad are a manufacturer of boilers and radiators and are in fact the second biggest radiator manufacturer in the world. Hobson has been talking to the company about an ORMA 60 campaign, although concentrating on a program of offshore events and records.

Meanwhile Hobson is still coming to terms with the disaster. "I’m okay. It is just a case of where we go next. I am just seriously pissed off. The aim was to go across, get back and work out where to go next, not to get into the news by being an accident."

Latest Comments

Add a comment - Members log in


Latest news!

Back to top
    Back to top