That Sinking Feeling

A chapter from the book Voices from the Sea by Nic Compton - movistar's loss during the Volvo Ocean Race

Monday December 24th 2007, Author: Andy Nicholson, Location: United Kingdom
The signs were all there. Despite recurring problems with her keel, movistar carried on sailing in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race, even at one point reaching an impressive third place. Then, while crossing the Atlantic and 300 miles from land, she began to sink.

And this time it was serious.

That Sinking Feeling

Bouwe Bekking (2006)

We are sinking! Everybody up! Slow the boat down, the water is coming in very fast, and close the water tight hatches. These words greeted the crew of movistar, the Spanish entry in the 2005Ð06 Volvo Ocean Race, in the early hours of 2 March, 2006 not what you want to hear from your skipper as you are approaching Cape Horn in the middle of a round-the-world yacht race. movistar was on the fourth leg of the race from New Zealand to Rio de Janeiro, when the keel box containing the keel mechanism started to leak. By the time the alarm was raised, both the generator and the engine were underwater, and fuses were popping all over the place, disabling those all-important bilge pumps.

Meanwhile, the cabin was awash with sails, sleeping bags, food, and other debris, creating a scene that Dutch skipper Bouwe Bekking likened to something Hitchcock could only dream of. "A sailors nightmare is sinking," he reported to race headquarters, "and this looks like a pretty serious situation. If we had rats on board, they would have jumped off by now."

Thanks to the quick thinking of crew member Chris Nicholson, who dived underwater to connect the emergency bilge pumps directly to the batteries, the boat was slowly pumped out, and a few hours later the crew was able to make an emergency repair. Two days later the yacht pulled into Ushuaia in southern Argentina to make a more permanent fix and to allow them to finish the leg.

It wasn't the first time movistar had had problems with her keel, and it wouldn't be the last. On the first night of the race, the Spanish boat and the American boat, Pirates of the Caribbean, had suffered keel damage and had to pull into harbour to make repairs. Both boats were eventually shipped to Cape Town for the second leg rather than sailing there on their own bottoms. Halfway through the second leg, movistar had more keel trouble and had to pull in at Albany, Western Australia, for repairs. Two days later the ram broke again, which meant they were unable to cant, or angle, it to the optimum position. Two other boats also had problems with their keels on that leg, and one of them, Ericsson, had to be shipped to Australia. It was a bad start for the new Volvo Open 70 class on their first serious test, and questions were soon being asked about the integrity of the boats.

It was all a long way from the launch of the event in 1973, then known as the Whitbread Round the World Race, and a mismatched collection of seventeen yachts raced the seven legs of the race on handicap. In an attempt to level the playing field, the Whitbread 60 class was introduced in 1993, ruling out the popular cruising class and putting the whole event on a more professional footing.

By 2005, however, these boats had been outdated and were replaced by the Volvo Open 70 which 7ft (2m) longer than their predecessors and with the wide, shallow hulls typical of most modern ocean racers. Seven teams lined up for the 2005-06 race, which now comprised nine legs plus a new element of match racing during seven of the stopovers.

Once the team had completed the keel repairs in Rio de Janeiro, movistar carried gamely up the Atlantic, coming in second on the fifth leg to Baltimore and winning the in-port races there. On 18 May, as she was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Portsmouth, England, the boat was enjoying ideal sailing conditions, surfing down the waves at 24 knots. This was the kind of sailing which the crew had signed up for. Then they received news of a man overboard on a rival boat. Spinnaker trimmer Hans Horrevoets had been swept over the side of ABN AMRO Two just minutes before going down below to put on his harness. The Dutch entry had performed a textbook rescue but were unable to resuscitate their man.

The Atlantic had claimed its first victim of the race.

Two days later movistar had her own problems. Sailing off a wind of 22 to 27 knots, with big following seas and a triple-reefed mainsail to reduce sail area exposed to the wind, the crew heard a loud crack. Rushing below, Bekking first checked the rams, which looked fine, and then the keel pin. To his horror he discovered that the aft end of the pin, on which the entire 9,920 lb. (4,500 kg) keel pivoted, had shifted by 2 inches (50 mm). Water was pouring in, and it was only a matter of time before the whole thing dropped off.

Bekking immediately alerted race control, and the other Volvo boats in the area were put on alert for a possible rescue. Ironically, ABN AMRO Two, whose crew was still coming to terms with their own bereavement, was nearest and was asked to turn back to go to the assistance of the stricken yacht.

Meanwhile, the movistar crew, desperate to stay in the race, were carrying out their own emergency repairs. Following the advice of a structural engineer, relayed via radio by its shore team, the crew drilled a hole through the deck. They then attached a Spectra fastening from the boom fitting on the mast through the hole to the keel itself to prevent it from dropping any further. Two halyard, lines used for raising or lowering sails, were also fed through from the mast and attached to the pin in an attempt to hoist it back in place. This seemed to do the trick, and the bilge pump was able to cope with the amount of water coming in. At 1:00 a.m. the following day, Bekking reported that the situation was stable and that they would be able to bring the boat into port on their own, "fingers crossed".

A few hours later, however, the situation had deteriorated. "This morning we shifted over on the other tack to check how the keel would cope with that angle", he told race control. "Straightaway we saw that the water intake nearly doubled and we had to start the second emergency pump. That made me realise that we were actually in bigger trouble".

Approximately 307 miles (495 km) from Land's End and with winds of 50 knots forecasted, Bekking made the call to abandon ship. It was, he said, "the hardest decision I [have] ever taken in my life".

ABN AMRO Two, which was still on standby, was asked to rescue the ten people on board movistar. With ABN AMRO Two hovering nearby, one of the two life rafts was then launched, and the crew floated over to their new home, taking enough food with them to last until they arrived in the UK. The second life raft was transferred over to ABN AMRO Two uninflated, just in case the worst should happen again. Bekking had one last look down below, and that was it. End of race, end of boat. There was nothing more he could do. "Ten lives at stake, with a similar number of families, [I made]
the right call", he wrote soon after from ABN AMRO Two. "There is no mirror on board here, but I could face myself, we have done everything possible".

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy had responded to the call for help by sending the fishery patrol vessel HMS Mersey 'with all possible speed' from Milford Haven to escort the crews back to safety.

Back on board ABN AMRO Two, the movistar crew was reduced to observer status, as the Dutch team wanted to carry on racing in memory of their crewmate. It was a symbolic gesture suggested by Hans's father, who believed that his son would have wanted the crew to proceed. On 23 May, off the Cornish coast near Falmouth, the body of Hans Horrevoets was transferred to the Dutch frigate HNLMS Van Galen to be taken back to Terheijden, his hometown in the Netherlands. A minute of silence was held onboard ABN AMRO Two before they continued racing to Portsmouth. They arrived long after the other boats, but received an emotional welcome nonetheless.

For the crew of movistar, however, the race wasn't over yet. They still hoped to salvage the yacht that, despite her tendency to break and try her best to sink, had nevertheless carried them into third place overall at the point of abandonment. Before leaving her, they had set sea anchors from the stern so that she would continue to sail. The generators were also left running and her satellite communication systems left on so she could be tracked more easily. The following day, however, the signal disappeared, and when the movistar shore team flew over the area three days later, there was
no sign of her. It was time to move on.

Voices from the Sea, Nic Compton
Foreword by Alex Thomson

Voices from the Sea is a collection of inspirational tales of adventure on the world’s oceans; from the explorations of Shackleton in the Antarctic and Nansen’s quest for the North Pole, to extreme individual challenges of such as kite and windsurfing undertaken by Dom Mee and Raphaela le Gouvello. The tests of the Vendee Globe, Velux 5 Oceans and Golden Globe races provide sailors with the chance to push themselves to the limits, break records and experience the thrill of the ultimate adventure, but over the years they have also provided the settings to courageous rescues and incredible survival stories. Voices from the Sea allows you to experience all the fear, exhilaration and triumph felt by those who endured the dangers, excitements and rewards of life and adventure on the ocean.

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