Emma Richards and Mike Sanderson talk to Elaine Bunting about their disaster on Pindar, and about what they'll do next

Following their retirement from the Transat Jacques Vabre when their boat filled with water, Emma Richards and Mike Sanderson spoke this morning to Yachting World’s Elaine Bunting about what went wrong and what they’ll do next.

Still recovering from an exhausting few days of furious conditions made worse by an accumulation of problems, Emma sounded understandably crushed. “There were a combination of things over the first couple of days,” she explains. “We’d lost our wind instruments [possibly a software problem] by the first night and that was destroying. And then we had a hard couple of nights of 40-plus, 50 knots.

“The conditions were horrendous. There were massive waves, big winds. We were expecting less than that, I have to admit. I’ve been in worse. When I was single-handing in Around Alone and on the second leg we had that tail end of hurricane Kyle [off the coast of Portugal], but I knew we would get beaten up so I had changed down to storm jib and three reefs by 30 or 35 knots. I knew I just had to get through it and get to the other side. But this was a very different mentality and a different way of sailing.

“All sorts of little things happened, making it more and more difficult. We’d blown out the second reef in the sail, the solent had unfurled itself in 40 knots of wind and destroyed itself. Then the cockpit drain hose came off inside and by the time we realised the aft compartment was half full of water sloshing around.”

The first clue that something was wrong, she says, was when the pilot alarms went off. The boat had felt sluggish, but they put that down to another earlier problem: leaking ballast tanks. But when Emma and Mike went below to check it out it the entire aft compartment was so full of water that it was washing through the bulkhead hatch. Looking in, they could see that the jubilee clips securing the cockpit drain hose had worked off.

“There was a huge amount of water in there,” says Mike. “I think there was probably over 2,000 litres. But we probably would have got away with the whole thing except for the nasty coincidence that as I went down to check it out the pilot faulted and crash tacked and of course the water went from all one side to the other and just took everything out.”

It took out the autopilot, and because the compass and GPS data for the entire system works through the autopilot, Pindar’s basic systems were destroyed at a stroke. For the next few hours, the pair ran the electric pump and took it in turns to work the manual pump while the other steered by a star, still in appalling seas.

“It was just a horror show,” says Mike. “And then we had to make a decision how long, if we pit-stopped, we would have been out of the race. We decided we were going to be ashore too long. The others would have got too far away and the aim wasn’t just to get the boat to Brazil, the aim was to have a good result.”

On reflection, Emma believes they were hobbled by limited time for preparation. The boat, formerly Graham Dalton’s dismasted Around Alone entry Hexagon, had been shipped back from Argentina during the summer in a poor state. “Basically these were all the things that if we’d had more time would have been sorted. If we’d known we’d only have two weeks’ sailing before this race we might even have said to ourselves ‘We’re not going to have this ready for the Jacques Vabre, so let’s aim at the next race. But we gave it our best shot.”

The ideas on Emma’s boat that are so new to the Open 60 fleet, such as using hanked-on headsails, remain unproven for now. In hindsight, Sanderson wonders if they didn’t turn out to be a disadvantage:

“What we thought was going to be our strength – not being set up for the Vendee – ended up being our weakness. The guys that were set up for the Vendee had heavier sails, had all their sails on deck, were probably set up more so that one person could do everything. We were set up so that it took two of us to do everything.

“The boat was a bit harder to sail, we knew that. We knew that there was performance gain because of it. But what we did need was to be able to use the pilot. We took lots of spare parts to fix it. We just didn’t take a whole one as if the boat was going to get swamped.”

With plans to use Pindar for corporate hospitality in Mexico and the Caribbean now scrapped, Emma and Mike are trying to focus on positive ways to move on. Over the winter Emma says she will concentrate on writing a book and preparing for her next race the Transat, but adds dejectedly: “I’m trying not to think about that right now, it’s been such a rough couple of days and although I’m capable of it, I already know I can’t bear doing that on my own.”

They will also use the time to try to raise money for the Volvo Race, a long-term goal for them and for Pindar. “We’ve got a fantastic vehicle for trying to promote some sponsorship, especially with this boat, which is basically a little Volvo boat,” says Mike.

“And after Christmas we’ll start getting Em ready for the Transat race. We will just go out and learn what the boat likes and what it doesn’t like. We’ve spent so much time on this particular configuration that we may as well learn from it now, both the single-handed aspect and how much we have to change, and also from its current set-up for the Volvo. Hopefully we can gain on both fronts.”