Ian Walker’s team loses mast on first night of Volvo Ocean Race

At 1915 UTC/GMT, Abu Dhabi told race management Azzam had suspended racing after the mast was broken. The boat was 30 nautical miles south of Cartagena on the Spanish coast.

Walker later reported at 2053 UTC/GMT: “Our situation is now stable. We are motoring towards flatter water at Cabo de Palos where we hope to lift the top section of the mast aboard.

“We have no injuries and have retrieved or secured all equipment. Our mast broke into three pieces when landing off a big wave in 30+ knots of wind. We were sailing under a J4 and two reefs. We do not as yet know the cause.

“Our intention is to return to Alicante under motor to repair any damage and step our spare mast.”

Team media crew member Nick Dana told how crew member Wade Morgan had made a courageous attempt in waves of up to 3.5 metres to rescue the rig.

“The boat’s mainsail and J4 were retrieved successfully along with various other parts that we will hope to re-use.

“We put a man in the water (Morgan) to cut away the top of the mainsail at the headboard car. Wade was able to make several attempts at cutting. However, a very violent sea state made it extremely dangerous for him to remain in the water.

“The crew retrieved him promptly and were able to get the mainsail off the lock – allowing it to slide down the rig and be pulled from the water.

“The mast from the first spreader up is now secured to the port side of the boat. About three or four metres protrude from behind the boat. A spider web of lines is keeping the operation intact. The crew are deeply disappointed.”

The dismasting is a massive blow for Walker and his team who’s pre race campaign and results placed them as one of the top boats in the six boat fleet. Winning this year’s Fastnet race and setting a new course record was a dream start for a team that had been meticulous in its preparation for the 39,000 mile race around the world.

The mast and rigging package was produced by Future Fibres and is the only complete rig package supplied by the Spanish based company. Team Sanya is fitted with Future Fibres standing rigging.

Hours after the news broke the reasons for the failure were unknown. Of the possible causes, mast and or rigging failure would clearly be among the possibilities. Yet so too would the sail configuration that the team were using. Given the strong winds and big seas, two reefs in the mainsail can present challenging conditions for any rig as the mainsail tries to pull the middle of the mast aft with the risk of inverting the spar. Falling off a big wave can cause serious loading issues for any mast.

Dismasting so early in an around the world race is not without precedent. In the 2001 Vendee Globe race Mike Golding was dismasted on the first night but sailed back to Les Sables d’Olonne to effect repairs and returned to the race.

Despite the setback, British skipper Walker, a double Olympic silver medallist, insisted his team – one of the pre-race favourites – could still win the Volvo Ocean Race.

“I think it is too early to start making judgments but certainly we believe we can [win the race],” he said. “We have put so much work into this project – everybody, and you just don’t… don’t want to let anyone down. When you have worked so hard every day for 18 months you are desperate to do well. We still are desperate to do well – the race isn’t lost.”

Describing the moments leading up to the loss of the mast, Walker said his “heart was in his mouth” as Azzam leapt off the back of a steep wave at around 12 knots before crashing back down.

“I was steering and we just came off a big wave,” he said. “I know it’s a big wave when my feet leave the ground. You always have your heart in your mouth when that happens. When we landed the mast just kept going. We immediately numbered off which is our safety drill to make sure we haven’t lost anyone over the side. Then we set about trying to retrieve whatever we could.”

During the recovery, carried out in total darkness, boat captain Wade Morgan had to jump into the sea to release the locks that keep the mainsail attached to the mast.

“Wade Morgan did a great job,” Walker said. “We had with the rig and sails in the water and ordinarily you might chop the rig away before it damages the boat. But we couldn’t do that because we only have one mainsail. We are only allowed 17 sails for the race so you can’t go throwing two sails over the side. So we had to retrieve our sails and all of them were on locks at the top of the mast.

“We tried to winch the mast alongside the hull but we punched the spreader through the side of the hull in the sea state. The closer we tried to get the mast too us so we could get to it, the more damage we were doing to the boat. We were in a little bit of fix as to what to do so. Wade put his survival suit on and lifejacket and as retrieval line and he managed to get in and cut the head of the mainsail and then we got him back on board. He did a good job.”

Abu Dhabi’s replacement mast is now en route to Alicante where a team of specialist riggers will prepare it for racing. The team will also carry out a complete check of the boat’s hull, which was damaged during the recovery of the rig.

Walker said his team would now work 24 hours a day to prepare Azzam for re-joining the race.

“I’d be surprised if we could do [the repairs] in three days as a guess,” he said. “But, it’s amazing what you can do when you’ve got a strong will. We’ve had a lot of offers of help and we’ll get people on it 24 hours a day, and you’ll be amazed at what a team of people can achieve in a very short time. I say three days and hopefully it’s two, maybe it’s four, but we’ll do it as soon as we can.”