Ecover skids off the tracks in big winds and 'phenomenal' seas

Overnight the frontrunners in the Vendee Globe non-stop singlehanded round the world race have been receiving a beating in gale force winds and giant seas from the depression to their south.

While the lead duo have experienced the worst of the weather, fifth placed Mike Golding on Ecover saw 45 knots overnight and even the experienced British skipper, now one third of the way through his fifth lap of the globe, described the steep 6-10m high swells as “phenomenal”.

“It explains a lot of the trouble I had during the night,” said Golding. “I decided to use the breeze to see if I could have a push back at Seb [fourth placed Sebastien Josse]. I kept pushing the boat forwards, but I couldn’t understand why I was getting on these huge surfs but wasn’t getting enormous speed until it started getting light and I saw the size of the waves.”

The waves were so big that in the troughs that the wind would drop off dramatically (in the lee of the wave) while at the top of them Ecover would feel its full brunt.

With Golding pushing hard so on one occasion during the night Ecover suffered a knock down, the yacht racing equivalent of skidding off the tracks. “I’d kept the Solent out and was really driving it and the next minute I ended up sideways at the bottom of a trough totally wiped out. I thought ‘that’s enough of that’ so I went to the staysail.”

While with cars their tyres lose grip on the road, with boats it is the rudder that stalls out more akin to the steering wheel falling off. In the worst scenario the boat accelerates down the front of a wave, the rudder stalls causing the boat to round up so that it is beam on to the wave, which can then roll the boat sideways. In extreme instances this can result in the mast touching the water or worse still the boat being capsized. For Golding the roll wasn’t this dramatic but in the trough there hadn’t been enough wind to get the boat upright and back on course. Ecover remained rolled over on her side until she reached the next wave peak. “It was an interesting experience,” understated Golding.

The main issue for Golding was that it was a moonless night and with little natural light to help him see the waves coming the experience was like a blind person skiing downhill hoping that luck would prevent them hitting a tree or a bump in the ground.

This morning the sea was still sizable but the wind had dropped to a more manageable 30 knots. Heading southwest Golding was due to gybe back to the northeast. This will put him back on course to the next waypoint safety gate some 1,000 miles away southwest of Australia.

After last night’s ordeal Golding is sticking to a more modest sail plan. “I’m quite often hitting 24 knots even though I haven’t got the wind speed. I am reluctant to go back to the bigger sail plan because I don’t want to get back into that scenario of rounding up. We are still making very good progress. Once it gets this big you are just trying not to break stuff. Breaking stuff in these conditions makes it just too hard.”