Leg 3 of The Ocean Race, through the Southern Ocean proved a test of both human endurance and technological limits. Helen Fretter speaks to the sailors
“I’m so happy not to be alone,” an emotional Boris Herrmann said standing at the base of his 29m/95ft mast, a foot-long gash ripped into the carbon above his head threatening his entire race, “this would be a horror show alone.”
Just a week into the furthest non-stop Southern Ocean leg The Ocean Race (previously the Volvo Ocean Race) had ever attempted, from Cape Town to Itajai, the damage to Maliza’s mast looked insurmountable to outside observers. To continue on for a month of sailing ever deeper into the planet’s remotest reaches would be madness, surely they must turn back? They did not. Instead, Herrmann’s team sailed on to win.
This leg confounded expectations in many ways. Back in Gothenburg in 2018 I chatted to Volvo Ocean Race sailors who’d completed thousands of miles in the much-maligned but indisputably robust VO65s. The idea of the next race taking place in IMOCA 60s was being mooted, but many crews felt the flighty, foil-assisted designs simply wouldn’t stand up to being thrashed around the world by a team of four.
When the IMOCA class was confirmed for the current edition of The Ocean Race, those concerns had to be addressed – for some entries that involved building boats specifically designed for a larger crew. Then when Covid meant organisers could no longer plan stopovers in China, Australia, or New Zealand, a solution presented itself: one 13,000-mile mega-leg roaring through the south from the Cape of Good Hope to beyond Cape Horn. The longest stage the race had ever seen, and a symbolic return to the event’s roots. The doubters, however, remained vociferous. The leg would become a demolition derby. There was a risk, some said, of no boats completing the course at all.
But ocean racers are not like other sailors. You don’t step forward to live in a carbon box hurtling through oceans beyond the reach of all help, atop a boat that you know might break, unless you’re prepared to do extraordinary things to fix it.
And that’s what leg three became: proof that to race these machines you need not only be a talented sailor or navigator, but must have technical knowledge to rival an astronaut, the creative ability to conjure solutions in the face of seemingly impossible problems – all while bone-crushingly exhausted – and above all a never-say-die attitude.
Things didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Two boats broke even before the final turning mark off the start line, 11th Hour Racing and Biotherm shattering battens and blocks in crash gybes as 40-knot gusts whipped across Table Bay before the fleet headed for open ocean. Both opted to make repairs, wait out a mandatory two-hour time penalty, then restart, chasing the pack east.
Then, after 72 hours of racing, Guyot Environnement-Team Europe turned back to Cape Town with structural damage in the hull. And on Wednesday 1 April, five days into the race, Malizia’s crew discovered a rip in their mast. The more doom-laden predictions were starting to look vindicated.
On Malizia, Herrmann’s team first thought they’d had a halyard lock failure when their largest gennaker dropped into the water, wrapping around the keel and piercing itself on the foils. It was only when they used a masthead camera they discovered a 30cm crack in the mast. “It was right where the runners go into the mast, a really crucial part of it,” explains Malizia co-skipper Will Harris.
It looked initially as if their race might be over. “But the shore team were quite positive. They said, ‘There’s a good chance that if you do a good repair, you can sail this boat at 100%.’ The next thing was working out how to go about the repair. We’d been sent this big lamination schedule from the shore crew; a mammoth 18-layer job, which you have to do within a 45-minute period, up a mast. It seemed impossible at first.”
The team spent hours preparing the mast surface and materials, before Harris was sent up the rig while Rosalin Kuiper wetted layers in batches and hoisted them in a bucket to Harris. “That was really tough. I had all this wet laminate and you’re being thrown into the mast so the hardest thing was not touching it.” After hours of effort Harris taped up the patch to cure and left it overnight. The next morning Kuiper went up to check the repair, and they were confident enough in its solidity to resume racing.
“We’ve got fibre optics in our mast that measure the deformation, so we could use that to just check if things were looking bizarre. And to be honest, we said let’s push it. We’ve got to find out now if this is going to work or not. So we put the big sail up, and 24 hours later we felt like we had a new mast again.”
In the meantime, overall race leader Holcim-PRB had begun to steal away. By the time Malizia returned to racing Kevin Escoffier’s Holcim-PRB had opened up a 500-mile advantage. But the ‘rubber band’ effect which often sees gains and losses fluctuate in ocean races was particularly pronounced on this Southern Ocean leg, where the pace the IMOCAs can sail at for sustained periods meant that even 1,000-mile deltas between boats could be eroded in a matter of days.
“The accordion effect and the fact that the fleet kept coming back together was quite incredible,” explains Simon Fisher, navigator on 11th Hour Racing. “I think it was a combination of the speed of these boats and the fact we can be a little bit faster than the weather systems at times when conditions are right.”
Another factor was that the ice gates imposed by the race control were relatively far north. “The latitude where they were meant you couldn’t get too far down south over the front of the systems. But it was pretty surprising when our range to Holcim at one stage was 950 miles, which is a massive distance, and we all came back together again.”
The fact that the IMOCAs travel faster than the weather systems – and are therefore ahead of the fronts – also meant that for much of the long stretch to Cape Horn the crews avoided the most aggressive weather the south is renowned for. “Conditions wise, we got away fairly lightly, at least for the first three quarters,” recalls Jack Bouttell of 11th Hour Racing. “Because effectively the majority of the time, we’re on the front of something so we actually had pretty flat sea states. You don’t have those post frontal, post depression squalls to deal with, which are really tough in the south because you can have an average wind speed of 25 knots and then squalls coming with 40-50 knots in them and big wind shifts.”
But while the field of play got ever larger, staying in touch with the leaders became ever harder for the 11th Hour Racing team, as the damage toll on board their IMOCA Malama began to rack up – foil control lines, furlers, a large rip in the mainsail, delamination in the bow, and cracking in two rudders. Onboard videos were soon littered with expletives, as the crew discovered problem after problem, several potentially race-ending failures.
On 11th Hour, Fisher had to manage whether to try and push on, or find a window to fix it and then restart. “But then we’re still going to be 1,000 or 2,000 miles behind. So we’re actually better off just to resolve it and carry on,” explains Bouttell. “There’s also the safety factor that up until New Zealand someone can eventually come and get you. The ice gate under Australia is effectively a rescue limit. But once you go past New Zealand, you’re on your own, your safety boat is the fleet. So if you go into delivery mode 2,000 miles behind you’re completely alone.”
Biotherm was experiencing similar. “In the middle of the South Pacific we were hooning along and there was a massive bang,” recalled Sam Davies. “One of the bulkheads inside the boat just sheared. So we slow down and Paul [Meilhat] and Anthony [Marchand] get their heads down and start sanding and laminating. They basically rebuilt a bulkhead in the middle of the Southern Ocean.”
Both teams continued racing – working around the failures, contending with ever-dwindling repair kits: 11th Hour Racing team hand cranking the keel when the pump failed, cutting up sail bags to make a last ditch repair to their disintegrating mainsail; Biotherm sailed the final 2,000 miles ‘blind’ with no wind instruments.
Playing cat and mouse
Meanwhile at the front of the fleet tensions were also rising. After rounding Cape Horn in the lead, Malizia faced a cat and mouse game with previously undefeated Holcim-PRB. “That was a very stressful part of the race,” reflects Harris. “We had this opportunity to do an amazing thing and this incredible comeback to win the race.
“From Cape Horn there was still 2,000 miles to go, nearly a week of sailing, and we had storms coming through, which were to our advantage. But Holcim was still within 30 miles. It’s next to nothing. It takes one little mistake and that would be it. Game over for us.”
To make things worse, Kuiper was injured in the severe sea state off South America. Thrown from her bunk she suffered concussion and a facial injury. “So we’re missing a crewmember, sailing only three up, and the racing got really intense. I really felt like I was back in Figaro mode, my watches were so intense,” says Harris.
“Nico (Lunven, navigator) was on his own floating watch, sailing as if he’s solo. And Boris and I would do a four-hour watch each where we’re doing all the work of two people, and we’d be there on the autopilot trying to get every mile possible. I wasn’t confident we were going to win it until 10 miles from the finish and we had an 80 miles lead.”
After 12,000 miles of racing, errors began to creep in. Holcim-PRB, until then yet to drop a point in the race, had an autopilot glitch which sent the boat into a crash gybe, breaking mainsail battens. It was the first time the French team had revealed any problems in their videos – but that, Escoffier says, was because in contrast to the other boats they had nothing to report. “We’ve shown everything.”
Despite Malizia picking up some serious sail damage in the same squalls, Herrmann’s team was able to extend away to win their first ever leg. Holcim-PRB came in close behind them, having also picked up points for passing the Tasmanian scoring gate in 1st. 11th Hour Racing limped home in 3rd after Biotherm collided with an object off the Chilean coast and damaged their port foil.
So how did the IMOCAs acquit themselves on their toughest ever test? The list of repairs across the fleet was, as Enright put it, “long and distinguished”. But more remarkable is how the crews managed to keep the boats on their feet and not only complete the course, but produce super-close, ‘dogfight’ racing, as Escoffier calls it. “I think it’s good news for The Ocean Race and good news for the IMOCAs,” he added. For those not at the front of the fight, the achievement lay in managing a relentless series of apparently hopeless situations. “It almost felt like a victory in itself, just getting to Itajai,” says Davies.
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