Konioukhov is closing on Auckland, but his Around Alone future is uncertain

Fedor Konioukhov has been to the back of beyond, and back again. In his illustrious career of adventure and exploration, he has reached the summit of the highest mountain on every continent in the world, including Mt. Everest. He has led expeditions to the North and South Poles. He dreams of future undersea conquests. Konioukhov has even sailed around the world alone twice, though one of those painful voyages took well over a year. In this edition of Around Alone, Konioukhov’s trip has again bordered on the bizarre. His navigational decisions, especially, have led countless race observers to scratch their heads in wonderment. For all its challenges, perhaps navigating the steeps of Everest is a simpler proposition. After all, the choices are basic: you’re either going up, or you’re coming down.

Regarding his ongoing status as an official Around Alone competitor, the next two weeks will be crucial in determining whether Konioukhov is going on, or staying put. Last week, Konioukhov blew past a mandatory waypoint south of Western Australia without honoring it. At the very least, for that infraction Konioukhov will be disqualified (DSQ) from the leg. The race committee may be called upon to make a ruling on that point once Konioukhov reaches New Zealand. Even with a DSQ, it’s possible that they would allow the Russian skipper to continue on and complete the course. But with a DSQ for Leg 2, he would not be listed in race records as an actual finisher.

But all that discussion may become purely theoretical, for at 0944 GMT today Konioukhov was still 1,620 miles from Auckland. To be eligible for Leg 3, all competitors must have completed the second stage of the race by January 30. To do so, Konioukhov must average between 135- and 140-miles a day. It’s possible. Race co-ordinator Pete Dunning said this morning that Konioukhov had averaged about 140 miles per day over the last several days. But Konioukhov still has the Tasman Sea before him. And the Tasman is proving to be as frustrating to the back-enders as it was to the leaders.

In a COMSAT email to race headquarters today, South African Neal Petersen said, ‘Becalmed. Variable winds between west to north quadrant, less than 4 knots. Please plug the fan back in.’ Petersen, who recently reported that he was taking on some water after a bump in the night with an unseen object (he added that the situation was under control), had passed Minoru Saito at the recent update and was 810 miles from Auckland. Neil Hunter, still 1,254 miles from the finish early today, echoed Petersen’s lament: ‘I am totally becalmed so have dropped all sail to stop them flogging to death and am going nowhere. Main halyard is now tangled around mast anyway so we will wait till morning. The Tasman stinks.’

If Konioukhov is able to find breeze where the others have not, he may salvage his slim hopes of pressing on. It seems unlikely. On Leg 1, it was light, upwind work – precisely what lies ahead – that proved to be his greatest obstacle. Konioukhov eventually found reaching winds and was able to coax his boat into Cape Town just hours before the cut-off point for Leg 2 eligibility. This time, however, he is also experiencing problems with his engine and charging systems, which in turn have rendered his electronic self-steering devices devoid of juice for extended periods. All signs seem to be pointing towards the inevitable – that Konioukhov’s days as an Around Alone competitor are numbered. It’s too bad. Konioukhov is liked and respected in the Around Alone family. But at the end of the day, safety comes first. And when a skipper begins to raise serious safety issues not only for himself, but for the rest of the fleet, the time has come to furl the sails.