Third time unlucky as VDH’s rig topples 1,500 miles from the nearest land

Yesterday, Jean-Luc Van Den Heede’s ambition of setting a new solo non-stop westabout record foundered when his 85ft aluminium cutter Adrien was dismasted 1,500 miles from the nearest land. After 64 days at sea on his third attempt to break this record, VDH was midway across the Southern Ocean and a remarkable 18 days ahead of the time set by record holder Philippe Monnet.

VDH is at 55°S, 133°E and had been heading towards the centre of one of the most intense depressions he has yet encountered, with a pressure of 968MB and freezing temperatures that froze his cockpit drains solid. At 1400 GMT yesterday the rig broke near the foot for no apparent reason and eventually toppled. VDH was not injured and spent the following six hours clearing the deck and cutting away rigging.

Soaked and exhausted this morning, VDH explained to his shore crew what happened: “I wasn’t over-canvassed, far from it. It was the beginning of a depression, the wind was blowing at 40-45 knots. I was under staysail and had three reefs in the main. Since the start of my voyage, I have been very careful and I have never asked anything unreasonable of Adrien.

“The sea was running very high. As always in this part of the world where there is nothing to stop it, it gets up very quickly. It was about 1400 GMT, but the middle of the night for me, when I felt the stays become slack. I tried to tighten them, but in reality the foot of the mast had given way and tightening served no useful purpose. I kept it in place more or less for an hour and a half but finally it broke off just above the foot and fell to port.

“As it broke it took the stanchions and the guardrail with it. The wind was strengthening and the sea was beginning to become really dangerous. In addition, without the protection of the guardrails, work on the deck to free Adrien from her mast, which was likely to damage her, was very unpleasant. It took me nearly six hours to do it. My nightmare was that the mast would act as a battering ram on the hull.

“I had to saw the stays with a metal saw; on boats of this size everything is big and strong so all the more difficult to cut. I succeeded in getting three or four metres of mast back on board so that we can analyse it and understand what happened.”

VDH is about as far from land as it is possible to be. Tasmania, 1,500 miles away, is his closest landfall. He still has the boom and the spinnaker pole as well as a few metres of the mast and reports today that he has managed to make a jury rig and is heading for Australia or New Zealand, depending on his ability to manoeuvre the boat. “I don’t know for the moment where I am going; with the possible options of wind astern or abeam I shall go where the wind pushes me,” he says. “At best it’ll be Australia, at the worst New Zealand, but at 800 miles from the nearest coast and at a speed of 3 knots, it will take a little while!”

“My spinnaker boom is in the air, held by five halyards. I am under sail [he has two intact staysails] and I am heading north at 3 knots. I am happy enough with my rig and I hope that it will hold; if not, I have a problem. I don’t want to put too much strain on my spinnaker boom, which is fragile, and I have hoisted the small staysail.

“I haven’t had much rest, I was too cross, but I am in good spirits despite the fatigue. At times like this it is better to be occupied as it avoids your brooding over things. I have recovered the foot of the mast and the first three metres, we’re really going to need to understand just what happened.”

This is VDH’s third attempt to break the westabout record. In 1999, after 48 days at sea, a collision with an unidentified object split the hull of his Open 60 along the centreline, forcing him to turn back. He decided to build an aluminium boat specially for the record, but last year had to retire again when the keel began moving.