A failure to the keel movement system has forced Team Ericsson to reduce sail area and head slowly to Cape Town

In accordance with the Volvo Ocean Race Rules, Ericsson’s skipper Neal McDonald called the Race Headquarters to report that they had experienced a keel hydraulics problem, but they had the situation under control and were sailing safely on towards the finish, though under reduced sail and now with no chance of closing the distance on Brasil 1 in third place, nor on the two leading boats, themselves not without problems.

From their team headquarters, Ericsson issued this statement: “Last night, Ericsson was reaching at 20 knots, in 22 knots of wind, when a failure occurred in the keel movement system. The boat had to be stopped to allow the crew to inspect the damage. Ericsson is now sailing towards Cape Town under reduced sail to avoid overloading the system. The crew is in no danger.”

“We were reaching on starboard tack at a speed of 20 knots,” explains Ericsson skipper Neal McDonald, “The boat was fully loaded, but these were normal sailing conditions. At 0045 GMT, we suddenly heard a loud bang. We immediately stopped the boat and took the mainsail down to investigate the problem. There was no visible damage, but it was obvious that the keel was flopping from side to side! After a few minutes of work, Richard Mason managed to lock the keel in one safe position. We are now sailing towards Cape Town in a much-reduced capacity.”

The details of the reasons of Ericsson’s keel problems are not known yet. The system will be thoroughly investigated once the boat arrives in Cape Town. As one crew member summarises: “We are in no danger. But we are very annoyed because we have lost the opportunity to sail the boat properly.”

Designs for boats built under Volvo Open 70 rules include the canting keel system which works by tilting the keel from side to side, swinging the lead ballast bulb out to the windward side of the boat to give immense sail-carrying power and therefore speed. Under the rule, to give as much redundancy for safety purposes as possible, there are two hydraulic rams that control the keel. Each one on its own must be capable of working the keel. In the event of any kind of failure, the keel can be locked in place by either one of the rams or the two working together.

Without the canting keel system in operation, Ericsson cannot use the sail-carrying power it produces, but can carry on under reduced sail area with the keel locked.

McDonald sent us this report this morning. “One situation that I have always dreaded occurring is where the canting keel system has a failure that allows it to swing wildly on its own accord from side to side – a situation that on Ericsson has been named ‘free Willy’. (Mainly because the massive lead bulb at the bottom of the keel looks like a killer whale). Well last night, much to my horror, it happened to us – Willy was released.

“As seems to be the case in a large number of maritime disasters I’ve been involved in, yet again I was at the wheel. Also in common with most of these horror stories it was completely pitch black and between midnight and 0200GMT in the morning.

“These situations are not uncommon in these boats and the boys know where to look – all the trouble spots were examined; after a short time we were none the better off about the source of the noise.

“I had been running the boat square downwind to slow the boat down for our survey and decided as we could not find any damage we’d come back to course. Coming up on to a reach the boat simply heeled over out of control – practically capsizing!

“While some of the guys wrestled to get the sails down, others went straight to the keel. “We have a free Willy on our hands!” I hear someone shout. Oh s?, now we are in trouble, I remember thinking.

“Richard Mason, our keel system expert, quickly and calmly worked out a method of locking the keel off in one place -basically by hydraulically isolating and locking the rams in place.

“With the initial danger over I breathed a sigh of relief – then of course comes the awful realisation that we can no longer race the boat hard – the guys are mortified. I guess we should all be pleased we are in one piece and in reasonable shape to get to Cape Town, but it’s hard to see it in that manner right now.”

Ericsson isn’t alone with its problems. ABN AMRO TWO reported last night that the fairing plates around one of their daggerboard slots had been damaged. Navigator Simon Fisher includes a report of the damage in his e-mail from the boat, “It’s been a pretty good couple of days for ABN AMRO TWO. Not only have we managed to consolidate our second position, but we have also managed to become one of the fastest monohulls in history by breaking the current 24-hour monohull record. Sadly we were pipped at the post by our big brothers on ABN AMRO ONE who packed just a few more miles into the 24 hour period than us to take the record, but I think it is a great effort and something to be proud of. It is definitely a testament of how far this team of young sailors has come from its humble beginnings.

“However, all the adrenaline-fuelled high speeds are now behind us and the focus is firmly on getting into Cape Town in second place. It’s been a tough day for sail changes as the wind has rapidly swung from the northwest to the southwest as the cold front has swept over us. Add to that driving rain and 30 knot squalls and it becomes quite an eventful day! Only minutes after gybing, the wind built to 30 knots and was pushing us in the wrong direction so it was all hands to get the spinnaker down and the reacher up. After the sail change and the stack was rebuilt on the windward side we were able to settle down on starboard tack for the first time in two weeks.

“It is a silly thing but it feels quite weird heeling in the other direction after so much time spent on one tack. Something I’m sure we will get used to though! More worrying for us is the fairing plate missing from the daggerboard on the port side which is now in the water. The turbulence caused by the missing part is causing a constant noise of roaring water down the leeward side of the boat and putting in the forefront of everyone’s mind that all this extra drag must be slowing us down. We all pray that this is not too much though and we can stay ahead of the two Farr boats for the remaining few days.”

At the 1000GMT poll, the positions of the boats are as follows: ABN AMRO ONE leading from ABN AMRO TWO by 127 miles. In third and now, with the problems for Ericsson, secure and able to put all of their concentration into catching the boats in front, is Brasil 1 who is a further 100 miles back. Ericsson is currently 309 miles from the leader, but still managing 14 knots to the 18 of the three in front, so while wounded, they are by no means out of it completely. Sunergy and Friends, just at the point where they can turn left and take the stronger reaching conditions round the bottom of the South Atlantic high, is currently 1,417 miles astern of Ericsson. They might be able to close up on the boat in front, but it is doubtful that they will be able to overhaul Ericsson before the finish.