The boys on Ericsson encountered more problems with their keel yesterday. Neal McDonald reports

Having sailed for nearly two days on starboard with the keel safely locked in place (way canted to the starboard side), yesterday morning we had a substantial wind shift and needed to gybe. Although we had been taking it easy on the boat, in view of the keel issues we had had two nights ago, we were all getting a bit more comfortable about our situation. Despite that going into the gybe we knew we would have to be careful, our plan was to drop the spinnaker, centre the keel and gybe. Simple!

Well it turned out not to be that simple in practice. Richard Mason had all the spanners out and was prepared down below to be undoing pipes and hand pumping oil from cylinder to cylinder.

All hands on deck, the spinnaker came down no problem, Richard seemed to manage to get the keel to the middle and Dingo (David Rolfe) did a great job gybing the boat on to port. On the face of it, the hard part of the manoeuvre had been completed. Now we had to sort out all the gear on deck, which mainly involved moving a tonne of wet sails from one side of the boat to the other. I’d jumped up on deck without foul weather gear and Dingo, being fully kitted up, kindly offered me the helm so I would not get soaked transferring sails. ‘Nice chap, I like the cut of his jib’ I thought. Five minutes into my stint on the wheel, what should have been a reasonably easy task of steering in broad day light, in about 20 knots of wind with just the mainsail up, suddenly became a very difficult task. I knew this sensation and before I heard the call of “we have another ‘free willy’ situation on our hands”, I had fully guessed what had happened. The waves would roll the boat one way and rather than steady the boat, the keel simply stayed in the vertical plane and the boat rolled around it. Not nice.

A couple of the guys ran down below to help Richard (he had plenty on). In ‘free Willy 1’ the damaged ball valve had permitted the oil in the rams to simply run from one ram to another so the system was ‘closed’ and the oil itself provided a large amount of damping to the movement of the keel. ‘Free Willy 2’ was another ball game. In order to get any control of the keel after the initial failure Richard had to butcher the system and go direct from the hand pump to the ram. Moving the keel for the gybe involved another re-jig of the system. A further venture into unknown territory. In the process hydraulic oil had been force out of the system. Now the keel was rattling from side to side with much more vigour than it had the previously. Air certainly did not seem to have the same favourable damping properties as oil. Mild panic had set in down below with the boys wildly doing up bits of pipe and pumping oil from here to there.

On deck I am desperately trying to keep the boat going downwind in a straight line, whilst wildly rolling from side to side.

We sort of laugh about it now but at the time it was far from fun. The noise and energy released as the keel slammed from side to side was staggering – Jason was down there helping and I could see from the look on his face afterwards he had far from enjoyed the moment. He was the build manager for the boat and, as such would have understood more than anyone how quickly this could have done some serious damage.

We were stuck like this for 10 or 15 minutes whilst Richard and his band of merry helpers down below wrestled with spanners, pipes, hand pumps and basically anything they could get their hands on to refill the rams with hydraulic oil and lock them in place. Full credit to them they managed to tame it and lock the keel in the centre. Richard had succeeded again. He looked shell shocked. He still had his foul weather gear trousers on was absolutely covered in hydraulic fluid. I have heard foul weather gear called ‘oil skins’ and that’s exactly what Richard’s were!

This all happened 12 or so hours ago. Another little reminder for us just how much respect and caution we have to have for these systems. We have proceeded with even more care than before. We have no intention of trying to move the keel now until we get back to the dock and before we get a spinnaker back up the wind will have to drop quite a bit more.

The three leading boat have shot ahead and our job now is to make sure we finish in one piece. As I write this with 565 miles to go there is clearly no way of catching any of the leaders particularly as we are only going at about 70 per cent of our capacity. Nevertheless the sailing conditions are excellent and we have seen our first few albatross over the past few days and life is not so bad.

Neal McDonald – skipper