The full picture

Now the dust has settled Mike Golding and Alex Thomson look back on last week's disasters

Wednesday November 29th 2006, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
While readers may have had their fill of Friday's Alex Thomson and Mike Golding debacle - Golding's stunning rescue of his compatriot, followed by Ecover's cruelly unfair dismasting - there are two British skippers currently plodding towards Cape Town with little else to do other than contemplate last week's terrible events.

While the Velux 5 Oceans has at present lost two of its three top competitors, with Golding still assessing whether or not he is able to return, the race has done exceedingly well in terms of the coverage it has received; Friday's Alex-Mike story following the carnage reaped by the hurricane force winds as the boats left Bilbao over a month ago. One aspect of the Alex-Mike story not picked up upon was that the dramatic video footage of Thomson leaving Hugo Boss to get into his liferaft was broadcast live from the Southern Ocean.

TV for the Velux 5 Oceans is being handled by our colleagues at APP Broadcast in Oxford. Andrew Preece explains what they did: "Alex had his Fleet 77 going and he was transmitting that via the Livewire into our office at 5am [on Friday morning] and we had a satellite uplink truck outside. So it came into our office and went out via cable to the satellite link truck then up to a satellite and down to BT Tower and then it was then picked up News 24, Sky and a few others."

This kind of live coverage is what is needed to revolutionise coverage of offshore yacht races and APP are to be commended with achieving this. APP were able to close the call to Hugo Boss' Fleet 77 satcom transceiver once Thomson was in the liferaft although Preece says he and business partner Richard Simmonds just sat there watching Hugo Boss abandoned mid-Southern Ocean for five minutes in silence before they did so. Preece reckons this is the first time such live coverage has been achieved. Alex Thomson quips he was thankful he didn't slip when he hopped into the liferaft on that freezing Friday morning.

For Thomson recovery from losing his Open 60 has taken a little longer thanks to Ecover's mast breakage. As he says: "I had only been on the boat for three hours when the mast broke and it was a terrible thing to have happen to Mike particularly having done what he had just done and I really felt for him, but it gave me something to concentrate on because at the time I was pretty upset about what had happened. But it put things into perspective and there was quite a lot of work to do to get Ecover back up and sailing again."

Last night he and Golding were making slow progress towards Cape Town, upwind with triple reefed main and staysail allowing them to sail due north on port tack. "I am certainly not complaining. I am happy to be on board here and happy the mast stayed up until I was on," says Thomson.

So why did the keel break? While Hugo Boss was designed by Marc Lombard, she was fitted a new carbon fibre canting keel, designed by Simon Rogers and built in the UK, prior to last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart race. With the boat abandoned it is unlikely whether we will ever know whether it was under-engineered, poorly built, or somehow overloaded and/or damaged.

"I don’t know to be honest," says Thomson struggling. He describes the match race he was having with Golding prior to the incident. "I was sailing at 135° TWA, Mike and I. We’d gone through periods over the previous three days where we’d pushed hard and then backed off again and I’d certainly backed off at that point and Mike had as well. So the boat wasn’t at maximum load and it just went. I still can’t get over it."

A canting keel foil is a fairly complex piece of kit. Beneath the water it is similar to a conventional keel, however on Open 60s there is a pin that passes through the keel and into two bearings at the hull exit. The top of the foil then continues a short distance into the boat where two rams attach to its top (see the video description of her keel here). The structure in the top of the foil for the ram attachments Thomson describes as being two trunnions "two great V-shaped things that go down about half a metre into the keel that are glued in and then have uni-bonded straps going over the top. It looks like the unis failed and the trunnions pulled out which is how it happened.

"If you imagine looking down on the top of the keel, either side of the centre of it you have got two great big holes and down those holes go these two trunnions which are pointed at the end and they come up into a rounded section where the pin for the rams goes through. So the trunnions were still attached to the rams but not to the keel."

Ironically Thomson says they had made the change to a carbon foil for security reasons. One can imagine there is some lively debate on board Ecover over this subject for Golding sailed his first Vendee Globe with a carbon keel on Team Group 4 without incident and yet suffered a keel breakage in the subsequent Vendee Globe with a fabricated steel keel.

The million dollar question is will Alex fit a carbon keel to his new Open 60? "I think it is time for a bit of reflection on the whole thing to be honest," he says quietly.

Golding says he is sticking to the steel solution for the new Ecover. "If carbon is done right it can be fit and forget which can be attractive. With steel the clock is running from the moment you fit it to the boat and the thing has got lifespan. You try not to exceed that lifespan. We understand more about that now and we act accordingly. You have to accept that these are not normal boats and they are doing an extreme thing. What Alex and I were doing in the three days preceding all this was pretty serious stuff. We were knocking off some miles. I’d just done a 450 miles - that is a big day. A few years ago that would have been the outright record - and not that many years ago..."

Bearing in mind that the Hugo Boss scenario is not that uncommon - it has happened when Alex Bennett was delivering Pete Goss' former Aqua Quorum Open 50 back from the end of the TJV, to ABN AMRO One on a transatlantic delivery, just to name a few examples, one wonders if canting keels could be designed with some mechanical system to lock them dead centre should the rams and foil part company. Perhaps this could be some sort of lock on the main rotational pin at the hull exit or some sort of long lever arm that could be fitted to the top of the foil.

Thomson explains what he tried: "We tried disconnecting the rams and then manually taking them back and forcing them into the middle of the keel at an angle so they were pointing downwards and then made a cradle out of some floorboard-type material at the end of the rams to stop them coming up and then extended the rams hard against the end of the keel. But as soon as I tried to sail even with three reefs there wasn’t much strength in it."

With the keel swinging around, 1000 miles from land and a gale forecast there was no choice but to abandon. Thomson explains the scenario: "The boat gets out of sync with the keel [movement] then the top hits the side of the box. Then you crush the box and then the water starts coming in and the keel can just keep on going..."

Thomson praises Golding for his rescue which sounds every bit as valiant as Pete Goss' rescue of Raphael Dinelli - the conditions were bad but not as bad as Goss' rescue mission however the transfer was compounded by problems with Ecover's engine transmission controls.

As Thomson puts it: "All credit goes to Mike for risking his boat and turning around in the conditions he turned around in and then doing such a good job getting here. Although the pictures off the boat make the sea look pretty flat the reality was there were 15ft seas and once I was in the liferaft and it moved away from the boat a bit, he couldn’t come to me because we couldn’t put the boat so close together. So then I had to cut myself away from Hugo Boss and then I can tell you, you feel very isolated. When you are in the raft and you’re at the bottom of a trough you can’t even see the top of Ecover’s mast. You can’t see anything. You are very alone."

One can only imagine what hell Golding must have gone through: having not slept for at least 24 hours, trying to keep an eye on Thomson drifting in his liferaft disappearing between waves, trying to keep Ecover under control in the seaway, trying to keep her going at the right speed with an engine with a dodgey fuel feed with gears and throttle that could only be controlled from down below...

Thomson describes his side of it: "Mike had all sorts of problems with his engine, so he made four or five attempts to come round to get to the right place to be able to get me and I think it was on the third attempt he got to me and he threw me the line and I grabbed it. I was conscious that I didn’t want to secure it completely [to the liferaft] but it needed to be fairly secure so I wrapped it four times around the webbing inside the liferaft and then held on to it. And then when the slack got taken up it was just like being in a doughnut towed behind a ski boat, but obviously not going so fast but being in a doughnut full of water and gear. So I started to get towed and the raft started to go down at the front and I had to get all my weight to the back of it to get the bows up. Then I get towed a little bit and stop and start to get a little slack and then I start to get towed again and on the last tow, stupidly I’d wrapped it around my hand and my hand got pulled into the webbing and the rope burned my finger.

"At the time I was fairly relaxed knowing it was Mike there and conditions weren’t too bad and the raft was fairly stable. I put a lot of food and clothes and flares and EPIRBs in the raft and it was fairly stable. So I was fairly relaxed and then my hand got hurt and I am pretty squeamish and it looked pretty horrible in the raft so I put a glove over it and then I started to get a bit concerned. But on the next attempt Mike came around and got me good and proper - perfect in very very difficult circumstances."

On the final attempt Golding was able to get close enough to almost hand Thomson the line. The raft was then winched alongside. Thomson resumes: "Then I was on board. I can tell you when you are in that situation the relief on mine and Mike’s face was very apparent. It was very difficult from my end but it was even harder for Mike. He was in a difficult position because he was in control of the situation. So I actually managed to get two and a half hours sleep the night before while poor old Mike was trying to work out in his mind how it was going to work and make sure his engine was going to work. So it was quite stressful for me, but much more stressful for him. I have to say he did a fantastic job. If I could choose anyone in the race to come and get me I would have chosen him."

Golding paid tribute to Race Director David Adams for the race organisation's part in the rescue. "David did a good job in the pick-up. We had good comms and good co-operation. It could very easily have turned into a shit fight. The actual rendez-vous was close to perfect. When I looked at my GPS track there was pretty much no wasted time. We tacked when we were told to tack and it worked very nicely. And we found each other in the dark in quite a seaway. It wasn’t easy. In fact the following morning we lost sight of each other again. At night he was able to put up a flare. In the day he had to do the same just to help me identify where he was. It is amazing how little visibility you get. It was a clear day but it was just the sea state was so bad."

We jokingly castigate Golding for not trying to make the rescue under sail as any self-respecting French Open 60 skipper would try. "I tried a little bit under sail and nearly killed him! James Stevens [RYA Training Manager] would revoke my yachtmaster I’m sure." Mind you we would like to see James Stevens try this exercise in the middle of the Southern Ocean singlehanded on an Open 60 in a seaway with disabled engine controls.

On to part two of this woeful tale - Ecover's sorry dismasting just three hours after Thomson's rescue. After Thomson was successfully recovered one can imagine the scenario. Both are ready to collapse. But there are many calls to be made to teams, sponsors, family and friends, race office, media, etc. Both want to relieve the adrenalin and relax a little with warm tea, cigarettes and the cathartic process of recounting their experience, analysiing it, pulling it apart. There is a modest amount of sail up, the autopilot is on, just enough to keep the boat pootling along as they regain their strength.

Golding takes up his account: "It was the last thing either of us expected particularly as we weren’t going at it hammer and tongs. We weren’t doing anything. We were under sailing the boat and the wind just caught up with us. The wind was building and this big squall came through - it was a fairly big squall, it was pretty violent, but compared to what we’d just been in it should have been a cake walk. I was gobsmacked and so was Alex. The boat didn’t even lean over. It was just bizarre. The only thing we can assume was that somehow we’d done something to it, maybe in the turn around, maybe before. The turn around seems unlikely given what we’d been doing before [the large daily runs, etc]. What we’d been doing before was infinitely more loaded."

The mast broke in two places - Golding isn't sure which happened first - one at the first reef (the mainsail had one reef in at the time), the second 1.5m above the main spreaders. They are left with 45ft of spar still standing. Interestingly Ecover's complex rotating rig (see the video explanation of it here) was rigged in such a way that if it broke it would go like this. When the mast broke instead of the top section going over the side they remained hanging aloft.

Golding continues: "The only difficult part of the whole process was getting the rig back on to the deck because it was all suspended by PBO cable. For example the Windex and the mast wand, I was able to unscrew them from on deck. They didn’t quite hit the deck – so I managed to unscrew the wand. So that is a few quid saved!"

Golding points out that had this happened when he was on his own it is unlikely he would have been able to get the pieces back down on to the deck alone. He reckons he would have had to strap the pieces to the side of the mast and continue on under staysail alone ."Alex was quick to volunteer to go up and do the necessary. So he spent a couple of freezing hours in the snow and hail. It was pretty wicked out there. It was so bad I picked up the first stages of frost bite in my finger tips which is very painful."

The breakage was of the Southern Spars tube not due to a failure of the Future Fibres PBO rigging as both Golding and particularly Future Fibres' Tom Hutchinson are keen to point out. "That flicks it on to Southern Spars except to say that this tube has gone around the world, it has done more stressful things than this," says Golding. "We’d been going three days flat out, it was a well defined Southern Ocean gale. You can only but imagine the conditions I turned around in. It wasn’t pleasant. It has to be said while I don’t think I made any mistakes, I don’t think I did anything wrong, but that would have been infinitiely more loaded than what we were doing trundling away from the pick up area."

The carbon tube is the same one which did the Vendee Globe and has been on Ecover since she was launched. "It has been a good rig, but carbon is funny stuff. It doesn’t deteriorate. It is either good or it isn’t good. There is no middle ground with it. The fact that it has done the Vendee doesn’t really cut any ice as to giving us a clue as to why it might have failed." There are possibly the same arguments for Hugo Boss’s keel foil? "It is weird. It tells us again that we don’t completely understand these materials. But even steel keels fall off, so even that isn’t an absolute science and we’ve been doing that for 100 years. We’ve only been using carbon for 15."

At the top of the rig Thomson's job involved cutting through a considerable amount of PBO cable. "We have got all sorts of fancy knives on the boat and we have one or two blunt Gerbers now. But we have a superb yellow kitchen knife, 5.99 from the supermarket in Spain and it did the business and it is still the sharpest knife on the boat," says Golding. In the salvage operation they managed to save every part of the rig.

This morning Ecover still has almost 400 miles to go to reach Cape Town, where Golding reckons they will arrive on Friday. They looked at Port Elizabeth but he and Thomson both know Cape Town better and have more contacts there to help them. At present Golding says they are looking at three solutions, one of them being retirement. The other two involve flying their spare mast tube from Southampton to South Africa. This could be by prohibitively expensive ($500,000ish) Antanov directly to Cape Town or by cargo plane to Johannesburg, although how one would get a 100ft long spar across Africa could make this option impossible.

"We need to look at the options and see whether we can find the funding and we also have to make an assessment about whether that is the right thing to do. I just don’t think it is right for me to make a decision here on the water. Whatever scenario we are looking at it is trains, planes and automobile. And it is expensive. But we don’t quit easy. It is a shame. There is part of me saying that this race just hasn’t got my name on it. It is the only race I have failed to complete and now I have failed to complete it twice. Sometimes you have to swallow those pill and just move along. Every other race I’ve done I’ve finished. This one just doesn’t like me."

The antics over the last few days have left their mark on Golding at a more profound level. "The main thing is Alex’s boat has gone and he hasn’t. This is all about money and my personal goals and that is all irrelevant in the scheme of things. It puts everything into perspective. All the little rows that were going on - you realise it is all bollocks."

We are thankful that Mike and Alex are safe and sincerely hope Mike will find a way to resume racing in the Velux 5 Oceans

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