Three boats including Golding and Thomson pull out as hurricane conditions take their toll 24/10/06

The first full day of racing in the Velux 5 Oceans Race has seen extraordinary weather conditions and high drama. Following the exciting departure from Bilbao at 1300 on Sunday 22 October, the fleet of six high performance Open 60 yachts has been blasted by enormous waves and violent winds of over 50 knots. The race is certainly living up to its name as the Ultimate Solo Challenge, as three boats have been forced to turn back to land to make essential repairs following a torrential 24 hours of exceptional weather conditions.

The returning boats include two of the favourites to win the race, Mike Golding (Ecover) and Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss), as well as local Basque hero Unai Basurko (Pakea). Meanwhile, Bernard Stamm (Cheminees Poujoulat) continues to lead the fleet as the rounds the north-west corner of Spain, with Kojiro Shiraishi (Spirit of Yukoh) close behind in second and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Saga Insurance) battling for survival in third position.

David Adams, Race Director, speaking from race HQ in Gosport, explained the horrendous conditions the skippers were facing in the infamous Biscay, “The boats have been facing extremely violent storms of over 50 knots, with a number reporting 60-70 knots on the nose and huge seas. The main problem is that you can’t slow these formula 1 boats down and they simply crash on through – it is bone breaking action!”

Commenting on the weather patterns sweeping into the region, Adams added: “We always knew that this would be a nasty corner to negotiate. We were expecting strong winds of 40 knots, but none of the weather models or advisors predicted 60 knots, and it looks as if this big storm might be around for at least another 24 hours. With such conditions, you can expect waves of 12-14 metres. I spoke to each of the teams and their weather advisors before they left Bilbao and none of the skippers had concerns about leaving on Sunday.”

At 1830 local Spanish time yesterday, Alex Thomson (GBR) was the first boat to stop racing and make it back to land, arriving in Gijon onboard his battered Hugo Boss. Alex was left with no choice but to head for land to make repairs following a gear failure.

Following Alex, Mike Golding (GBR) on Ecover has also been forced to make a pit stop in La Coruna. Early this morning he was making fair progress sailing under Solent jib only in 17 to 18 knots of wind and is expected to arrive at the port sometime mid-afternoon today. Mike reported that he has suffered damage to three of the mainsail batten boxes which retain the forward end of the mainsail battens and connect them to the mainsail track which runs up the mast.

Due to the 50-60 knot winds experienced at sea, Ecover’s mainsail was almost completely down when the incident occurred. It is understood that the extreme force of the wind was such that it whipped the exposed top section of the mainsail across the boat with such force that it snapped three of the steel pins which attach the batten box to the mast-track slider. Ecover shore team member Mike Clay reported: “The repair itself should not take that long. We have the spares and will put more on board but there are some small repairs to make to the mainsail which should not require it coming off the boat.”

Finally, Unai Basurko (ESP) is making his way to his home port of Bilbao to make repairs after damage to his headsail and mainsail, as well as reporting a loose mast. Unai is expected to arrive back in Puerto Deportivo (Gexto), the start point of the race, in around 10 hours, currently doing 6 knots at 81 miles from Bilbao.

Despite the incredible conditions, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the oldest competitor in the race and the legend of solo sailing, is still continuing through the storm, and sent a short text message by e-mail to race HQ last night, stating: “Wind 48-54knts not racing but surviving. White sea wiv spindrift. OK thanks Irish coffee.” Bernard Stamm has ridden out the worst of the storm and is currently experiencing 15 knots from with calm seas, having suffered some sail damage but nothing too major.

These are some of the most brutal conditions an offshore sailor can expect to face, with huge banks of waves and incessant winds that power these racing machines forward even with minimal sail areas. All the boats will incur a minimum 48-hour time penalty for stopping for assistance before rejoining leg 1.