Steve Hayles with the latest news from Ericsson following last night's big wipeout 27/2/06

The most recent story on the VOR website includes a description by Steve Hayles of what happened when it all went horribly wrong last night. Here’s an except from the report:

“When running downwind in these boats in 25 knots we carry a full size mainsail and a spinnaker that is 500 sq m, which is all fine when you are sailing away from wind at 20 knots, but if you lose control of the boat, which can happen very easily, you normally broach – which means the rudder doesn’t have enough grip to keep you going straight and the boat rounds up into the wind uncontrollably. A broach in itself is a mess, with a huge spinnaker now seeing the full force of the wind as you round up almost head to wind. The thing flogs violently and is in great danger of destroying itself.

“We broached last night with everything up (full size main, spinnaker and staysail).

“Sat in the nav station I hear the rudder stall first; a huge rush of air under the boat as it looses its grip on the fast flowing water. This is accompanied by a very quick change of heading and a large heel angle.

“Last night I was talking with Neal [McDonald] in his bunk when suddenly you felt we were going to loose it; I rushed for the hatch, expecting to find the guys rigging the chute to drop it, (it was the sail that we destroyed two days into the race which cost us so many miles before the first ice waypoint) but it looked like we might recover. The key to getting out of a broach is to maintaining some forward speed; the rudder is the only thing that turns the boat and it needs water to flow over it to work. I heard someone shout that we were still doing four knots and you could feel the boat slowly getting back under control.

“As you bear away things happen really fast; the mainsheet, spinnaker sheet and vang are all blown quickly to try and prevent the broach in the first place and now you need to get the sails under control quickly. If it all works well you are off again downwind at 25 knots and, providing the sails are in one piece, you have a lost some distance but nothing more.

“Last night unfortunately did not turn out like that.

“We recovered the broach and got going downwind, but then a series of very quick events lead to us Chinese gybing.

“We got going downwind, but could not get the sails trimmed on quick enough which means they have a tendency to make the boat lean the opposite way to normal. When it does this, it wants to turn dangerously to leeward and as we hit the bottom of the first wave, you could feel that we were going to go out the wrong way.

“The scariest part was looking up at the boom which was pointing nearly vertically by now and knowing that within seconds the mainsail would gybe uncontrollably. The sail, the ropes attached to it and, more worryingly, the boom itself come across with such phenomenal power that anyone in the way would be lucky to survive.

“The problem is magnified massively by the fact that our canting keel is no longer helping to keep us upright, but actually contributing to heeling us over. Combined with tons of kit now on the wrong side, the boat lays over to about 70 degrees and the mess on deck is completely indescribable. Everything is on the wrong side, the mainsail is pinned against the runner and every single rope is a tangle heap of spaghetti in the cockpit, which is now full of tons of water.

“It’s amazingly disorientating trying to work out where to stand and which winches and ropes you are after. First job is to make sure we still have everyone and no major injuries, and at that point things start to happen very slowly.

“The next thing is to get the keel back in the middle. Fortunately the race organizers are smart enough to make us have an automated button to do this. You can’t start the generator; it’s a gravity feed fuel system and the cooling inlet would be three feet in the air. The batteries kick in a DC motor which moves the keel slowly but surely to the middle. You only have to press one button to do it, but its now above your head where you aren’t used to it and it takes a couple of minutes to find it, when it normally takes a couple of seconds.

“At this stage you need some careful thinking to get out safely with the minimum of damage; moving around is painfully slow and fairly dangerous so careful planning is the order of the day. The list of tasks is long and I won’t describe everything here, apart from to say that it took two hours to get upright and get sailing again, albeit slowly.

“Boats normally suffer lots of damage in one of these events; SEB in the last race lost their mast when they did it and you normally expect broken sail battens and blown out spinnakers. Remarkably, everything survived and a few hours later we were back to full speed.

“It cost us a fair few miles, and with the forecast not playing out as I would like, we find ourselves behind the Brazilians and loosing to the leading three. It’s been the hardest 24 hours of the race for all of us and the brutal facts are that with 2,000 miles to Cape Horn this sort of drama is far from over.

“It’s starting to feel properly cold now and we can’t use our heaters as a charging problem is chewing through our diesel at a higher rate than we planned for. The whole crew is exhausted and yet we need to push harder to stay in the hunt.

“A day like today will be hard to forget and although I know we will laugh about it one day, right now it sits as a reminder of how close to edge we are.

“Suddenly, Life at the Extreme doesn’t seem like just a catchy slogan.”