A Jules Verne attempt finds ocean racer Nick Moloney and the Orange crew in a dangerously vulnerable position in the South Indian Ocean. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Chasing the dawn

The title of Nick Moloney’s remarkable book about breaking the Jules Verne unlimited round the world record in the 33m catamaran Orange offers a hint about the man that few titles ever do. No punches are pulled as it describes tearing around the Southern Ocean in 2002 at over 30 knots with 500-mile days commonplace.

Every now and again, the author’s Aussie roots peek through in a French world under the team’s great skipper Bruno Peyron.

Chasing the Dawn is pure romance. Most voyages are made to the west, following the setting sun, but these guys are going east so rapidly in such high latitudes that it’s like being in a Mach 2 jet fighter flying faster than the Earth is turning.

Despite the literally shocking battering these men are taking, their esprit de corps and appreciation of the beauty of their surroundings continually shines though. Even the mighty machine, overtaking Cape Horn greybeards at galactic speeds, fills them with wonder.

Chasing the Dawn extract

Log entry, 21 March: average speed since the start 17.47 knots.

The wind has been steadily increasing throughout the day into the high 20s and 30s. 30+ boat speed right now, the sea pattern is a little confused so the ride is unpredictable. We’re still sailing with one reef in the mainsail, staysail and medium gennaker. Our next sail choices as the wind increases are tied to the cockpit. Everything else is now inside the boat as far back as possible.

The forecast is slightly split. One forecast shows our expected wind speed at 45 knots, another map says 55 knots max. The approach is to hang onto the sails and wind that we have for as long as we can maintain a reasonable control margin. The thought of flipping over is now consistently on our minds. We are trying to outrun the core of an approaching storm. We will certainly have a bit on our plate in the next few days!

On 21 March at 0216 GMT we crossed from the South Atlantic Ocean into the South Indian Ocean and in doing so set a new record for the fastest time from Ile d’Ouessant to the Cape of Good Hope. It was a small but well-deserved victory, and we savoured the moment. Sport Elec had taken 21 days to get there. Peter Blake and the crew of Enza set a record of 19 days and 17 hours. We passed over the imaginary line due south from Cape Town in a new record time of 18 days, 18 hours and 40 minutes taking 23 hours and 13 minutes off Enza’s time.

Then the Roaring Forties started to roar. The low pressure we’d been keeping an eye on caught us up and the wind built rapidly. “There’s no doubt, we’re in it now,” said Bruno over the satellite phone to our mission control base on a barge on the River Seine in Paris. Our land-based communication agency, Mer et Media, told the world of our situation: ‘Bruno’s voice sounded far away and you could make out the sound of screaming water as it rushed along the maxi catamaran’s side. The wind is blowing at around 50mph (80km/h) and you have to be extremely vigilant both at the helm and with the trim of the sails.

‘The boys are harnessed on, the helmsman watches the wave ahead as he catches it up, then rides it over while the deck watch have their hands glued to the sheets just in case they have to do an emergency dump. The atmosphere is tense and you have to shout to make yourself heard over the noise of shrieking wind and the waves as they explode on the bows and through the trampoline nets.
‘“We had an absolutely lousy sea last night,” Bruno said. “We’ve been in 45 knots of wind since last night! Otherwise all is well aboard.”

‘The maxi-catamaran Orange crossed some pretty inhospitable territory last night. Apart from having to cope with the wind, the giant had to confront the Agulhas current that descends down the coast of Africa, whipping up a nasty boat-breaking sea. The Agulhas shelf off the coast of Africa stops the Atlantic swell because the seabed rises from more than 16,500ft/5,000m to only 2,526ft/770m. This acts like a cauldron.

“We went down the mine a bit violently in a surf at about 0800 this morning,” continued Bruno. “We are constantly at between 20 and 32 knots and this time we must have gone from 30 knots to 15 instantly. And with the inertia everything went flying around inside. Vlad was preparing a meal and he redecorated the galley. I split my lip open falling over and Florent hurt his pelvis. We called Dr Jean-Yves Chauve (shore-based doctor) on the telephone and at the moment Florent is lying down and resting.”’


Huge winds and seas in the Southern Indian Ocean meant crew were constantly soaked. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Epron

Into the red zone

Log entry, 22 March: Dawn was very welcome this morning. We have been copping a bit of a hammering. We are trying to keep the boat speed down to the low 20s but sometimes she just takes off. The call comes out ‘tenez­vous’ (hang on) and we brace ourselves for big stuff. The waves are cresting in small peaks that are very unpredictable.

It sets off a succession of explosions of water as these peaks hit the hull and beams randomly. Their next location is unpredictable. Crossing the tramp is a nightmare. Those on deck are getting hammered. It’s a pretty wild ride and very uncomfortable. People are sleeping on sails in the bilge still clad in full wet weather gear waiting for a call up to assist on deck. Life’s pretty ‘full-on’ right now.

Benoit Briand recounted his recent stint behind the wheel: “Helming in these conditions, there are many times when you lose contact with the boat for 10 seconds or so. You’re not on the water any more but under it.”

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Gilles Chiorri gives another: “On my watch, I had 56 knots of wind and a 36-knot surf. It’s tough, damp, violent and physical! I’ve never sailed down waves so fast. The speedometer had freaked out! Right now with our ski goggles on we look more like characters out of Star Wars than sailors.”

The storm continued to gather strength relentlessly through the day. Updates on the system were relayed to those on deck. Conversation is now made by yelling at the top of your voice, repeating the information several times until it is received. Everyone is on edge. Trying to rest below is impossible; lying around in cold wet Gore-Tex has you shivering within minutes. Your ears are tuned in to the sounds of the hull and your heart skips a few beats every time a voice pierces the wind. Every time we accelerate everybody braces for a sudden stop as the beams plough into the cold sea.

The shuffle of feet on deck and the opening of the hatch was all it took to have all hands at the foot of the companionway ready to assist the on-deck team. The call was for yet more reduction of sail. This reduction would leave us with only a triple-reefed main. Working on the tramp was marginal: one second you were 33ft/10m above the sea, the next you were under water.

More big conditions in the Southern Indian Ocean. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Epron

Our safety relied on the strength of the harness lines and their anchor points. If either failed we’d be swept off the deck into the cold, dark, wild sea, never to be seen again. The situation was very risky but after a long, wet wrestle the storm jib was lashed to the beam. We all turned and scrambled back to the cockpit.

Those of us off watch gathered under the cuddy and talked about the situation. The change in sail area didn’t seem to have helped and we were still surfing too hard and fast. There was no other way to slow the boat down and we were at the mercy of the sea. We had lost control of the situation. Bruno came on deck and stood beside Hervé at the helm. The seas were getting bigger and bigger, so big that it was becoming too dangerous to take the drop down the face of the waves as the risk of cartwheeling was too high. Other crew members crowded under the canopy.

I felt the boat turning sharply. “Oh my god, we are about to capsize,” I thought. I turned around to see Hervé and Bruno wrestling with the wheel. Someone yelled in French and Ronnie clipped his harness onto the mainsheet and ran towards the foot of the mast.

I scrambled on deck as we came head to wind. The wind was just howling. I jumped out of the cockpit onto the trampoline to help Ronnie. I had not clipped on and was immediately smacked by a huge wave. I was engulfed completely and knew I was airborne. ‘Oh no, I’m off the boat,’ I thought. Then the water subsided and I landed on the trampoline. I immediately scrambled on all fours to the little shelter behind the mid beam. I took a few deep breaths, thanked my lucky stars, clipped onto the mainsheet and ran forward again.

Work on the trampolines was always high risk. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Epron

When I got to the mast, Ronnie had begun to release the main halyard, dropping the sail completely – the only sail we had left flying. I climbed onto the sail and began lashing it to the boom. Ronnie and Yann also climbed onto the sail while Yves, Vlad and Pépêche threw lines to us and we tied them off. We were now side-on to the waves and wind, in a very vulnerable position.

Looking back at Bruno on the helm, the waves were the biggest I had ever seen, even at the movies. The windage of the hulls and wing mast was great enough to leave our windward hull suspended as an enormous wave passed beneath us. Thick spray burst through the trampoline engulfing us all. When it blew clear, the hull was still suspended in the screaming wind. We were not in a good position if she had gone over.

We finished lashing down the sail and scurried back to the cockpit. We were getting close to that 70 to 80 knots of wind that can flip one of these boats at the dock. Our next step would have been to flood the hulls with water making the boat heavier and hopefully more stable. We put off this option for as long as possible because of the effort involved in getting the water out again, and because of the extra stress the added weight gives to the structure. “We have to get away from this system,” yelled Gilles.

With the boat parked I went below to try and send off a report via email. The noise of the waves breaking over the boat was indescribable. As was the motion. I kept getting thrown about the cabin and was wondering if it was all worth it when suddenly I received an email of encouragement from my sister and niece. It’s amazing how a few words of encouragement can change your world.

The note also brought a sudden twinge of homesickness. I had been away for too long already. For the next 18 hours we huddled in the dark, cold bilges of our craft. The sounds of the screaming winds and roaring seas left us bracing ourselves against nature’s anger and fury. Our lifeline was being battered and we heavily contemplated our fate and the possible end to our journey.

Orange knocked a week off the previous best Jules Verne time set by Sport Elec. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

Towards a new dawn

During the radio chat session with mission control Bruno reported: “We’ll not forget Friday night in a hurry. It’s not every day you find yourself under bare poles on a 33m boat. Even the crew that have done The Race have never seen that before. We shortened sail until there was nothing at all. None of this stopped us from making 20-plus knots with just the mast! What surprised us most was the force of the sea. We managed to have a life raft torn away from the aft beam overnight!”

We can see the waves coming about 500-700m off. We take avoiding action, which turns out not to work and we find ourselves at the foot of a wall of water. Speed, no speed, go through it, cut across it? You have to make your mind up quickly. Once you have decided what you’re going to do, there’s no going back on it.

At mid-morning on 24 March, on our 22nd day at sea, we broke free of that storm, some 1,000 miles south of the Kerguelen Islands, and resumed our course to the south-east, towards a new dawn and a new day. During the storm I remember saying ‘for every tough day at sea, there are at least five great days in return’. Well, just then we were ready to cash in.

The boys made it round in 64 days 8 hours 37 minutes 24 seconds, taking a week out of the previous best time by Sport Elec five years previously. In 2017, Joyon got round in an almost incredible 40 days 23 hours 30 minutes 30 seconds in the trimaran IDEC Sport.

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