Volvo Ocean Race press conference about Team Vestas Wind shipwreck had no definitive answers to offer

What happened to cause Team Vestas Wind to hit a reef in the Indian Ocean last week and what will happen to the wreck? These are questions that almost everyone following the race has been asking for a week, and which we hoped would be answered this morning at a hastily arranged press conference.

The Volvo Ocean Race press conference about the Team Vestas Wind shipwreck was announced yesterday evening and scheduled for 0730UTC, an early Monday start so difficult, especially in the US, that it smacked just a little of what political spin doctors refer to as ‘burying bad news’.

But it turned out not to be a burial at all, just a light scuffling of soil around the body. There were to be no definitive answers to any of the pressing questions – why, how, what next – and it ended with a vague promise to reveal “honest and open” answers at some unspecified time in the future.

Here is what we do know. During the day of 29 November, the leading yachts passed to the west of the Cargados Carajos Shoal reefs, around 200 miles north-east of Mauritius. On board Abu Dhabi they noted that this was hard to spot. The comment would suggest the crew expected to see this reef and were keeping watch for it.

It was dark when Team Vestas Wind approached, and they were not keeping a watch for it nor, it sounds, were they expecting a reef to be there at all.

At the press conference today Chris Nicholson explained: “Prior to the crash we noticed there would be some sea mounts, and I asked what the wave, current and sea conditions would be. They went from 3000m to 40m. The current was negligible and we decided we would monitor the wave state as we approached; 40m [would be] perfectly safe to cross.”

It was, he added, “a big mistake that we made.” And while he did not elaborate precisely on this mistake, he said: “It was a simple human mistake,” and added that it was “a simple question of zoom.”

There were to be no further details, and no further discussion or mention of Nicholson’s earlier statement that, as skipper, he took ultimate responsibility for the loss. “We have not yet managed to get the computers up and running. We would like do this and hopefully we will be able to,” he said.

Knut Frostad was keen to move on. “You made a serious mistake, but then you didn’t make any more,” he said.

As I speculated last week, most likely Verbraak did not zoom in closely enough along his track. He therefore failed to see that the shoal patches shown at a small scale resolved into large drying reefs when zoomed to a larger scale.

This is a well known electronic charting flaw, an anomaly encountered quite frequently, especially in poorly charted areas and well known to ocean navigators, professional and amateur. The huge difference in appearance of this very reef at different zoom levels on some charts is shown in my earlier blog here.

Another point of interest is that the reef is not in the position charted. Using Google Earth images georeferenced and overlaid on electronic charts, one can calculate that the reef is approximately 0.46 nautical miles from of the charted position. The red dot annotated in these screen grabs of this show that the reef is to the west of its charted position.

Cargados Carajos Shoal

Cargados Carajos Shoal

Google Earth image overlaid on electronic chart of Cargados Carajos Shoal

Google Earth image overlaid on electronic chart of Cargados Carajos Shoal

Whether that is relevant to Team Vestas’s mistake we don’t yet know. If Verbraak and Nicholson thought the minimum depth in the area they were to cross was 40m, knowing of this chart inaccuracy would have made no difference. But it does beg the question of whether boats ahead which also cut very close, such as Dongfeng, were themselves aware of the extent and real position of the reef. Did they really mean to cut the reef so close? Possibly not.

Another reason we can be reasonably sure Verbraak believed there was no hazard ahead is because he was asleep at the time. In his account on his Facebook page – taken down the same day he posted it but reproduced elsewhere, including our Facebook page – he confesses that before the crash he had put his ‘head down for a rest after a very long day negotiating the tropical storm’.

What navigator would go to sleep when a reef is about to be passed close at night? What skipper would allow that to happen? A navigator and a skipper who both had no inkling of what lay ahead.

Actually, I think you can see that from the on board video. After two huge bangs stop the boat dead in its tracks, one of the crew rushes down to leeward, peers out into the darkness and says: “It’s a ROCK!” in utter amazement. What else could it have been, amid shoals? Yet judging by the tone of voice, the sight was as unexpected and astonishing as an encounter with the Kraken.

So, this was a basic error of navigation and seamanship, a failure to properly walk the course and obtain detailed data about it. Maybe it was also a failure to use a secondary method of navigation, even something as low tech as a depth sounder alarm.

I’m not saying I don’t have enormous sympathy for their plight. As I wrote before, if you sail far enough or long enough, mightn’t you make a few mistakes yourself? Especially under pressure, with your eyes on the weather, and on the race.

What, if any, role did the race organisers play? Did the pre-race briefing point out these hazards? That was one of the questions asked this morning (journalists were instructed to submit their questions in advance on Sunday night; questions were not taken at the telephone conference).

Did any race waypoints take them closer to this area than was sensible? Were there any mitigating factors?

Questioned this morning about the briefing, CEO Knut Frostad surely knew exactly what was being asked but replied obliquely. “First of all, I must say it is the skippers’ and teams’ responsibility to make a passage plan and make their own decisions on where they go,” he pointed out.

This is indubitably true; the sole responsibly of a skipper for the safety of the ship and crew is rightly enshrined in racing rules. But we know that there was a course change shortly before the start of the leg; Wouter Verbraak told us so in his retracted Facebook post. He told us that he thought he ‘would have enough information with me to look at the changes in our route as we went along.’

Were the electronic charts supplied to the crews adequate? Were the organisers themselves aware of the hazards of these reefs, had they taken note of the chart inaccuracies and zoom errors? Could the new course have taken the fleet closer to these shoals than was sensible?

Questions still lie unanswered while, no doubt, discussions play out about how and what insurance will cover, and the costs of removing the wreck, something which can be very, very expensive. This, however, has no financial consequences for sponsors Vestas, group vice president Morten Albæk said this morning, as the boat is owned by the Volvo Ocean Race and leased to the company.

We were just told that removing the wreck “in its current form” or in parts is “not confirmed in detail but we are supporting the work.”

Meanwhile, there are still hints that the crew of Team Vestas might be back in the race if this proves possible. There is no spare boat, contrary to some rumours, but with the race due to continue until June is there the outside possibility of building another yacht and, perhaps, completing the final leg(s)?

Lead times for components, including the pre-preg carbon from which the hull is built, is likely a factor in this. Frostad wouldn’t say for sure whether it could happen, only that it was something they were working on very hard.

And for their part, Vestas said they had every confidence in Chris Nicholson. “It will be Chris as skipper if we are sailing again,” said Albæk. “I trust him completely.”

Frostad finished by promising that “learnings will be published and shared. We want the whole sport to benefit from what we learn.”

“I think it’s very imporant in our culture to be very open and honest,” Chris Nicholson agreed. “In the weeks ahead we can go into much finer detail.”

Let’s hope they do. The Volvo Ocean Race’s audience is more knowledgeable, intelligent and sophisticated than the media output is catering for – or perhaps wishes to – and, unanswered, these fundamental questions won’t go away. How did a crew of professionals come to make such a fundamental and catastrophic mistake, or series of mistakes?

Earlier story: ‘How could a yacht bristling with technology hit a known reef?’ here


  • Douglas Perkins

    I would hope that this episode arises from inadequate training on the use of electronic navigation systems rather than a cavalier attitude concerning navigation.

  • Richard Harris

    While I have much sympathy for the crew of Team Vestas Wind, I find is difficult to
    comprehend how negligent they were with their navigation. As Elaine
    Bunting points out they should have walked their projected course (and a good
    amount either side of it) to identify potential hazards (and then develop
    appropriate strategies to avoid them). In the case of the reef this would
    involve determining the miss-distance acknowledging the risk it presented; and
    taking account of the likely positional error on the chart, any information on
    its actual position from radar or fixes from its lights (Using a running fix
    which is not now taught on RYA courses) and of course the weather at the time.
    (My electronic charts provide a warning about the age of the survey and the unknown errors that it might contain.) To say that the ‘zoom errors’ were in some way responsible for the accident does not hold water in my view.

    The problem with the hiding of detail in vector electronic charts is a well known
    issue (I would not describe it as a flaw but a problem that has to be managed)
    which any competent navigator should be aware of. It is not only an issue in poorly charted areas and there are many examples in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and around the UK where the problem manifests itself both in relation to fixed objects and also in relation to traffic separation schemes (TSS). Indeed one cannot generalize as different charting software presents the data in different ways so that the gravity of the ‘zoom problem’ can vary from modest to extreme. Examine the Navionics and Garmin IPAD application’s view of the Dover Strait to see what I mean – Whilst at a reasonable zoom level with the Navionics App the TSSs are clearly visible they are invisible on the Garmin App!

    The problem with the visibility of navigation information from electronic charts on
    big ships using Electronic Chart Displays and Information Systems (ECDIS) has
    already led to incidents and accidents. As a consequence those involved in navigational duties are required to carry out additional training to ensure that they can use ECDIS equipment skillfully and safely. I Hope that the inquiry into the
    Team Vestas accident will review inter alia the training and skill levels of
    the navigator and skipper; the performance of the electronic charting system;
    the age of the electronic charts; and way the skipper, navigator and crew
    worked together on the yacht’s navigation. With the greater use of electronic charting on recreational craft, the results of the investigation has much to offer all of us. YW could also play a role I suggest in publicizing the deficiencies of charting software for recreational craft?

  • Paddy Fischer

    Meanwhile I agree, many questions unanswered so far. I suppose Nico and
    the navigator went thru a professional press briefing. There´s a lot at
    stake for VESTAS, a major campaign barrel busted at the start… They
    already admitted it was a mistake, which to me sounds somehow
    inadequate, and claim there´s an ongoing investigation..

    That may well be the case, but I am not sure if VESTAS made the right
    approach towards the public, saying it was just a SIMPLE mistake and
    overemphasizing how AMAZING the crew performed after the crash. Why was
    the conference not on video ? Is it appropriate by Verbraak to make
    statement: Yes it did a mistake, but everything right after ?

    I think, there is no but. It was a major, major Fuck Up. But no word of that in
    public appearance. Many sailers run aground, but hitting a giant atoll
    is not the same. My personal feeling is VESTAS should stand up for what
    it was and not beat around the bush… at least the sailing world would
    appreciate their honesty and that way VESTAS would score some points

    It also raises the question ( like other comments mention), if in a one design race there should be more back up for navigation. Because he simply forgot the basics of navigation, even though electronic, probably after hours of focussing on weather and stragtegy. To strange that no one else, paid attention to the course and
    the navigator is asleep?!??… No one on watch ?? Besides, my impression is that they were extremely lucky not have lost someone upon impact, I think the procedures performed on adrenalin were just what had and could be done when hanging around a beaten boat for hours.

    I really wonder, if VESTAS gets back to sea, who will be navigating. This
    is not about publicly hanging someone for a mistake. It´s about how you
    deal with the public after such an incident. I think the media advisors
    are on the wrong tack, if they keep it where it´s now… it ll go down in sailing history for what it was, attached to the name VESTAS…

  • Mahatmah

    It is fairly clear actually if we want to be honest. Look at the charts, there’s a lighthouse on the reef. They grounded having the lighthouse 2 NM on their port bow, they should have passed having it on their starboard bow. It must have shown up on the radar (which you are required to use), and the echo sounder showed 40 m. Didn’t anyone wonder what was happening when the depth went up to 40 meters, and zommed the chats and checked the radar??? It is a matter of over exhaustion and maybe the crew allowance was just too thin.

  • marco

    I guess you crave for answers which most sailors would know already. The navigator made a “human mistake” not checking the map by zooming in mile over mile the
    route ahead – a tiresome task even more when you are exhausted, at his
    own admission. There’s little aid from electronics or other equipments. Many experienced sailors run aground in such mental conditions (I remember a French one crashing his tri soon after having smashed the transatlantic solo record, Mike Golding in Australia, and so on). I guess nine crew on such a race are too few – given they need 4-men watches continuosly trimming the boat. Unlike the old Whitbread or the Vendee Globe, there are here too many legs close to coasts, shiplanes and along islands and shoals never sailed before by racing yachts or by these sailors – though higly experienced. I guess two navigators plus the skipper outside the watch system would allow for a more human and safe racing – without reducing the thrill.