view counter

In the Open Ocean, Things Break

That’s the story of Volvo’s 7,200-mile Leg 5

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing tackles steep and angry seas as they pass East Cape, the ­eastern-most point of New Zealand. <<photo © Ainhoa Sanchez / Volvo Ocean Race>>

Imagine this scene …    
    You and the women aboard Team SCA are sailing along at about 30 knots in the Southern Ocean aboard a sleek 65-foot sailboat. It is night, the wind is howling, the sails banging and popping as you surf giant 30-foot waves rolling north from frozen Antarctica. The water is a bone-chilling eight degrees. Every time you hit the bottom of a wave, a wall of water crashes over the bow and envelops the whole boat as if under water. Everybody on deck is wearing survival gear and is strapped in so they don’t get washed overboard.
    If that isn’t scary enough, you are entering Point Nemo, the most isolated area of the planet, named after the submarine captain in Jules Verne’s classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
    Then comes the death roll. Abby Ehler was working in the pit aboard SCA when it happened:
    “It was the middle of the night and pitch black. We had a wipeout, and it took us a little time to recover. We eased the front sail, and it was flapping a lot, and all the flapping caused the sail to explode … the whole sail was in the water acting as an anchor.”
    This can get confusing, so I’m going to describe what happened.
    The wind is blowing hard off the left side of the bow, and your sails are on the right side of the boat. You are being blown over, so you stack all of your gear — above and below deck — on the left side. The canting keel, which weighs several tons, is also positioned all the way to the left.
    The person at the helm keeps inching the bow toward the wind, trying to maximize speed. Suddenly you get hit by a big wave from the right, or the wind shifts and the helmsman loses control. The boat gybes, so the sails are now on the wrong side and the wind keeps the boat pinned, making it impossible to steer.
    The crew is on the wrong side and must climb a slick fiberglass wall to reach the lines that control the sails, all now above their heads. Meanwhile, the keel motor must be turned on and the keel moved to the opposite side to bring the boat back upright.
    All of this takes a long time, and the crew is in a state of panic as the ocean tries to suck the boat under the waves.
    Broken boats are a big part of the Volvo Ocean Race, and near misses a big part of the lore. This is why many of the sailors were angry when the start from New Zealand was delayed for two days to avoid Cyclone Pam.
    A few days after SCA almost turned over into a watery grave, the boat’s radar broke loose. Then their electronic systems stopped working. The next day, while heading downwind in 45 knots of wind, they executed a controlled gybe, and their J3 sail ripped apart.
    Anna-Lena Elled described another day in the barrel:
    “BOOM! We hit something with the port rudder. The boat turned around, tacked and capsized, and once again, we were on our side. A few hours later we had one more hit, this time in the keel — and before sunset another one. What are the odds?”
    A few days later, on the harrowing approach to Cape Horn, at the Southern tip of South America, Dongfeng’s mast snapped without warning. Crew and boat were barreling along at 25 knots at night while the broken mast section and main sail flapped above their heads, forcing them to quit the race and motor to Ushuaia, Argentina, where the boat could be transported to Brazil.
    It’s not just boats that break. Sailors do too.
    We tend to think of Volvo sailors as grizzled seafarers. But for the first three days of the race, the sea was like an endless roller coaster, and almost everyone in the fleet was seasick and unable to keep down any food.
    Annie Lush, aboard SCA, got launched from the aft side of the cockpit and wedged into the comms cage. Luckily, the tether on her harness prevented her from washing overboard. But she couldn’t sit after that and spent the rest of the voyage eating painkillers.
    Martin Strömberg, on Dongfeng, came close to losing a few fingers when his hand got stuck in a block while he was trying to remove a knot from a line. He had trouble using his right hand the rest of the race.
    In the end, Leg 5 was another photo finish, with veteran skipper Ian Walker leading Abu Dhabi to victory. After 7,200 miles, the top four boats finished within 55 minutes of one another, with a battered but unbroken Team SCA limping into Itajaí harbor two days later.
    Next stop: Newport, Rhode Island.