British rivals brought together in Southern Ocean drama of bravery and heartache 26/11/06

It was only Wednesday that we were all engrossed in a fast and furious battle between bitter rivals Alex Thomson (HUGO BOSS) and Mike Golding (ECOVER), jostling constantly for second place, neck and neck, at times only separated by only one mile. The first cruel blow was struck at 0300 GMT on Thursday morning when Alex Thomson capsized as a result of severe structural damage to the top of his keel. By 1100 GMT, the young British skipper was forced to make the devastating and crushing decision to abandon ship as the damage was deemed irreparable and an immediate threat to his security.

Meanwhile Mike Golding, some 70 miles to the east, was experiencing some of the best sailing of his career, breaking his personal record for a top speed by hitting 32 knots and covering 446 miles in 24 hours, further closing the gap on leader Bernard Stamm (CHEMINEES POUJOULAT). However, once the FICO World Champion received the call from race control that Thomson was in trouble, Golding didn’t hesitate to immediately turn back and race towards HUGO BOSS as fast as possible, his focus shifted instantly from racing to rescue. This meant battling into strong headwinds and big seas to get to Thomson as quickly as possible in a race against the oncoming weather and the onset of darkness. The game had completely changed.

Although Golding made contact with Thomson on Thursday evening around 2030 GMT in typical Southern Ocean conditions of sleet and snow, it was jointly agreed to undertake the dangerous sea rescue and transfer at first light on Friday morning. Golding spent a nervous evening preparing himself and the boat for one of the toughest challenges in offshore racing.

At 0500 GMT Alex Thomson bid a tearful farewell to HUGO BOSS, his boat for three years, and jumped into his life raft, wearing his survival suit. Despite a well formulated plan from the two experienced sailors, the rescue was plagued by engine problems on ECOVER and 15 foot swell, making manoeuvring close to impossible for Golding. Finally, after four desperate attempts, Thomson stepped aboard ECOVER to much huge relief from both Brits. After dressing a hand wound that Alex picked up during the rescue, the rivals turned partners prepared to head back on course to Fremantle.

However, lady luck had not dealt her last cruel blow to these two skippers. At 1150 GMT on Friday, Mike and Alex were enjoying a much needed whisky coffee when a 40 knot icy gust blasted over the boat. They heard an incredible bang and rushed outside to see what was happening. They arrived on deck just in time to watch the top of the mast shatter before their eyes. Devastated by the damage, Golding turned to make best speed towards Cape Town. ECOVER now has two drained, very exhausted skippers on board this morning. An extremely long night saw work going on until they could do no more. With a staysail set only in 30-40knots of wind and extreme cold, they have been making steady progress on a course between north and 030 degrees.

Both Golding and Thomson are now reflecting their futures. Ironically, in Bilbao both skippers came head to head in debate about fortune when Thomson decided not to cross the finish line in the port race, citing he was superstitious and believed if he won the prologue he would not win the main event. Golding was furious to win the race in this manner and refused to accept the victory and the bad luck Thomson had effectively handed him in the in port race. Now both skippers have been dealt a crushing blow which will leave Golding questioning whether he can continue to compete in the VELUX 5 OCEANS and Thomson trying to re-assess his future plans after three round the world races in three years strategy can no longer be achieved with his Open 60 HUGO BOSS abandoned in the Southern Ocean.

It has yet to be established if Golding has a spare mast. If he does, will he fly it to Cape Town and re-fit his boat and get back on the track again? This is the only solo circumnavigation which he has some unfinished business with. In the 1998 race (formerly the Around Alone) Golding was forced to retire at the end of the second leg to Auckland whilst lying in second position, but leading overall by a big margin. Serious keel damage following a grounding at the top of North island proved un-repairable in the time remaining before the next leg.

But Golding has a good relationship with Cape Town. In fact, he married to his wife Andrea there. Golding has said in the past. “It’s a lucky place for me. I like Cape Town a lot!” Let’s hope when he arrives he is inspired to get back in the race. Golding is not a quitter by nature. In the Vendee Globe 2000, Golding was a pre-race favourite to take the race and smash the previous race record. Eight hours after the start Golding, ‘Team Group 4’s metal rod forestay failed and the mast collapsed. Golding managed to get the boat back to Les Sables D’Olonne for immediate repair. The shore team worked round the clock for eight days in order to re-step the spare mast with new rigging and sails.

In an amazing display of grit and determination he fought his way back up through the 20-boat fleet and after 102 days at sea finished 7th on the water and recorded the 4th fastest time for the race. “The worst thing I’ve had to contend with is me – my own desire to call it a day. You don’t pull yourself out of that, you just do it a day at a time and just keep pushing. It’s just been a battle against myself, really; whether I could keep doing it or whether I would stop. Even one week ago I thought I’d stop, and most of that was in my own head. I just felt that things were shutting down. Things were breaking and when the genoa failed again it just seemed like too much. But there wasn’t an alternative, which is probably why I’m here.”

Keeping himself motivated through all the problems and storms and maintaining that strength to see him through to the end of the 2004 Vendee Globe, shows how determined and strong Golding is.

Here’s what Golding and Thomson had to say:

Alex Thomson, HUGO BOSS
“It is really good to be on board ECOVER. It was very sad to leave HUGO BOSS, but I am very relieved to have finally stepped on board the boat. It is very courageous of Mike to turn around in the conditions that he did and he carried out an exemplary rescue in very, very difficult conditions and I am very grateful for him coming back to get me. It is also great for the class as it shows self-sufficiency. Overall it has been a very tough experience but with Mike’s support and all the support of my shore team and my family and friends it has been made bearable.”

“That boat has been my life for three years. It has been my livelihood. We have been through some tough times, she’s always looked after me. I have sunk more money into that boat than most people would stick into their houses in a life time and there I was having to abandon her. It just felt wrong, wrong to have to leave a boat. If you damage a boat you can normally fix them up and sell her and go on to do the next thing.”

Mike Golding, ECOVER
“It was slightly odd the way it happened but since then we have both come to the conclusion here that it was probably damage that was already there. Yes, it was a squall. Yes, we were going fairly fast, but we were not pushing and since the pick up we had spent most of the time drinking coffee, catching up and generally recovering from what we had both been through.

“There are two breaks. One is about a metre and a half above the third reef and the other is on the first reef, so it is hard to say which went first. I am suspicious of the one where the top of the mainsail was, but it is difficult to know which went first. Either failure would cause the other. There was no broach, We did not even lay over. I doubt we even exceeded 20 degrees of heel. It was not special. The only thing special about the squall was the coldness of it. It was extremely cold, dense air- even though the scientists would tell you that is rubbish.

“This just doesn’t seem terribly fair after what has happened in the last day what we have both been through. It is rubbish for me and rubbish for Alex. The last thing Alex wanted to do was get plunged into the middle of another problem, and it clearly rubbish for me, but it is one of the things that can happen when you are engaged in racing like this. We are fortunate that we have been left with the tools to continue sailing and make some choices about where we are going.”