Tom Cunliffe nominates this spinechilling account by Mike Golding of how he rescued Alex Thomson from his stricken Hugo Boss during the 2006 Velux 6 Oceans
Mike Golding OBE, ex-firefighter and twice winner of the IMOCA (Open 60) World Championship against the assembled might of France is so well known in ocean racing circles that to spell out his achievements would seem superfluous.
It’s generally agreed among competitive sailors that if you never come unstuck you aren’t trying hard enough. Golding is no exception and, like most of us, he has had his moments. These have qualified him for that exclusive outfit, the Southwest Shingles Yacht Club, whose high-profile members have all survived some sort of brush with embarrassing disaster.
The annual Archivist’s Notebook (see footnote) displays a healthy attitude to such matters and is a lively read. March 2007 held an extract from Golding’s diary from 23-25 November 2006 describing his rescue of Alex Thomson during the Velux 5 Oceans race.
Despite the source of our text, there is nothing funny about the story of these two sailors and their yachts, Hugo Boss and Ecover.
Golding and Thomson were driving along the forward face of an extensive fast-moving Southern Ocean depression. Both were pushing hard to stay ahead of the system in foul conditions with winds up to 45 knots and huge, well-established seas.
Alex Thomson’s transfer from the critically damaged Hugo Boss was streamed live to Sky News from his yacht. It took place in highly confused seas in the eye of a storm. The result was that the sky was bright blue with fluffy clouds which, on low-quality video equipment, underplayed the real severity and danger of the situation by a multiple factor.
In fact, Hugo Boss disappeared off Argos tracking only two hours later, while Ecover was logging a 72-knot gust. Their timing had been fortunate, but you make your own luck in this world. The seamanship Golding describes remains supreme.
Two days ago on the 23 November, the first sign of a change came with the 1020 position report. Over the previous 48 hours, Ecover and Hugo Boss were making some of the fastest speeds of the race so far with 24-hour runs of 450 miles.
On Ecover we were seeing regular speeds in excess of 30 knots and our averages were around 20 knots. This is the most stressful sailing humanly possible. The speed is electrifying and the Southern Ocean is the most fearful location. Here the wind and waves have been uninterrupted by land for 15,000 miles and this makes it the best place for high-speed sailing, but also the most terrifying, for the sheer hostile and uncontrolled power exerted by the elements.
But for us, huge strides were being made on Bernard Stamm’s lead, and all indications were that within the next few days, the challenge for overall pole position would be firmly up for grabs.
But on seeing this particular position data file, with Alex and Hugo Boss making only eight knots to my 19, some intuition told me that things were about to change radically.
I immediately called the race office and asked them to find out what was happening. Minutes later they confirmed that there was indeed a problem on Hugo Boss, though Alex had not at that time requested any assistance. I told the race office that it was my intention to slow, until such time as we could confirm that Alex was OK.
I would not normally do this, but something here was not right and at the speeds Ecover was doing, we were rapidly putting a big and difficult distance between each other. If I did need to turn around, the job of heading back was getting harder by the minute.
I put the deep reef into the mainsail, slowing the boat measurably, but still averaging over 16 knots. Then I waited. Fifty minutes later David Adams called to tell me things had changed dramatically on Hugo Boss. The keel head had snapped and the keel was swinging uncontrolled in the boat, which was now taking in water. It was therefore just a matter of time before the situation turned from a dangerous one into a potentially fatal one. Alex was asking for assistance and Ecover was the closest to render it.
I put the phone down just as we screamed off a huge wave at 25 knots. This wouldn’t do at all, so I set about rigging the boat with storm sails to turn round. Alex was 90 miles away and we had five hours before darkness set in. Any successful rescue was going to hinge around managing to RV just as the low centre passed over his somewhat erratic position.
We were blessed (more by luck than judgement) that, in the event, this was actually possible, because conditions after turning back were properly horrendous.
The next period remains perhaps the most extreme Open 60 sailing I have ever done, with Ecover crashing through freezing waves at nine knots on the reciprocal heading. She didn’t enjoy this at all and the Fleet 77 satcom packed up immediately. Next, the engine got up to its tricks again, and with the batteries now desperately needing a charge, I was once more buried in the engine bay, covered in diesel as the boat lurched and crashed back where we had just come from.
This time I had to fix the problem in a fully reliable manner, as the engine would be needed to manoeuvre to get Alex on board. I ditched all advice and rigged a jerrycan filled with diesel as a gravity feed direct to the HP pump on the engine, skipping the fuel pump and secondary filter. The engine ran – and it now ran reliably – and at last I could concentrate on preparing the boat and myself for the job of safely collecting Alex.
The wind moderated and headed me as I closed the distance, but the sea state did not. If anything the waves got steeper. As the storm centre approached it became harder and harder to make progress. We were still not quite going to make the rendezvous in daylight, but with accurate and regular information coming through from the race office, we moved ever closer. In the final few miles, Alex and I conferred over satphone and radio, to make last-minute navigational adjustments.
Finally, out of the blackest night imaginable, a flare shot into the air, and in the glow, cast down from the scudding low cloud I could just see Hugo Boss’s mast, and was able to pick up his masthead strobe light and finally his deck level navigation lights.
A transfer was absolutely too dangerous during the night, because if I lost sight of him, even for a moment, he would be gone. I dropped the sail and tried to match his drifting course and speed. Alex slept. I fretted and tinkered with my engine, tested the controls again, gathered my rescue kit, coiling down throw lines into buckets and in the end playing Solitaire on the PC.
I was nervous about the transfer. At some point, it was clear that Alex might well end up in the water and in 5°C temperatures there would be no time for a screw up.
Sunrise was at 0259 GMT, so I called and woke Alex. We both ate some food and generally got our acts together before he rigged in his survival suit and set himself up for me to come close. The plan was that he would inflate his liferaft on the leeward side, throw some supplies in and then jump in. He would then send a line across to me with his rocket line thrower, before casting himself adrift from Hugo Boss. A good basic plan which meant he would never be unattached.
I manoeuvred Ecover under engine – the controls were very stiff, being unused for three weeks, but otherwise all seemed to be OK. I experimented to see if I could drive the bow through the wind and waves – nope – she would not go. I gunned the engine and – bang! – the shear pin between the engine and drive leg failed. Now I had a reliable engine, but with no ability to drive the propeller.
I called Alex and just stopped him from jumping into the raft. Then I did possibly the quickest shear pin change in history. Then we began again.
The first part went OK, Alex was in the raft and in fact he let a painter out so that he was 50ft behind his boat. I positioned myself to leeward of both the raft and Hugo Boss: bringing the boats together would be a full-on disaster. He aimed the rocket thrower. I ducked, but nothing, the rocket line did not work. I grabbed my first pre-coiled-down line and ran to the rail and did possibly the worst line throw imaginable. I turned and went around again.
This time it looked better. I got a line to him, but the throttle/gear control now would not work, and I could not kill my speed or control the gearbox ahead or astern. We dropped the line and I pulled some sail out to make another pass. By now he had dropped his line to Hugo Boss. He could see the danger we would be in if the boats came together, and realised that I needed some room to manoeuvre around him, without getting any lines in the prop. Hugo Boss slowly headed away to the south looking low in the water – a deeply sad sight.
I unfurled some headsail and we had another go. This time I got a line on him and he secured the raft, but in the process, the bows blew down and Ecover began to sail too fast. A big wave started us on a surf. Alex clung on desperately, injuring his hand in the process. He yelled in pain and fright, as the raft was being towed at five or six knots with the rope twisted around his hand.
Looking for all the world like a doughnut skier, Alex moved his weight to the back of the raft, but it still flooded with water. We dropped the line and round I went again. Perhaps the most bizarre image, which will stay with me, was the sight of Alex alone in his raft, Hugo Boss now a quarter mile away, and in the steep seas the world’s largest albatross sitting in the water just feet from Alex. To me it began to look like a vulture moving in for the kill – this was just not happening.
This time I took off most of the sail and used the engine, which was now stuck permanently in ‘ahead’, thus having to leap below to adjust the throttle setting under the sink, and in the very last moment killing the engine using the kill switch in the navstation. But this time, the approach was near-perfection, the raft arrived on my bows, and bounced down the hull. I virtually passed Alex the line, which he made fast, I killed the engine and winched him back into the leeward side. We hugged as I welcomed him aboard and I apologised for my shabby pick-up.
“I probably would have failed my Yachtmaster’s on that one,” I said. But we had him – and oh, what a fantastic feeling!
We took a couple of photos, grabbed his luggage out of the raft – we are not going to starve – and chatted, and then chatted some more. The relief from both of us was tangible. As we talked, Hugo Boss, now a mile away, disappeared from view.
Slowly, we set about getting Alex sorted. I cut away his glove, cleaned and dressed his hand injury, which was painful, but not too serious. He clambered out of his survival suit, we tidied up, drank some coffee, and then some more. I unrolled some headsail and hoisted some main, aiming the boat back towards Fremantle.
I was not about to charge back into the race full throttle, we’d had enough adrenalin in the past 24 hours to last us a good long time, and the race seemed distant and somewhat less important than what we had just done. Alex was safe.
Postscripts: Shortly afterwards Mike Golding was dismasted and forced to retire from the race. He sailed to Cape Town with Thomson. This is Alex Thomson kissing the ground on their arrival.
In January 2016 the wreckage of Thomson’s yacht was found some nine years after the rescue and over 10,000 miles from where the rescue had occurred. Read about it here.
The Archivist’s Notebook is the annual publication of the Southwest Shingles Yacht Club. www.swsyc.co.uk