Days from the finish of the Vendée Globe, Conrad Colman was dismasted, but he refused to allow that one event to finish a huge life's ambition. This is his inspiring story.
Carbon fibre race yachts are noisy beasts. Sharp creaks from the sheets in the cockpit, constant thumping bass notes from the hull slamming against the oncoming waves and the staccato wash of spray on the deck all merge to create a constant cacophony as we streak between breaking swells under a fractured moonlit sky.
Just another day in the Vendée Globe. Ninety-six days down, just three to go. Until…
In an instant, 20 tonnes of pressure was released with a violent crack that shook the boat from stem to stern. I looked up and barely had time to watch the mast fall into the water, bringing my race to an end.
It wasn’t just a carbon tube splashing down into the raging seas but my whole race, my dreams and the ten years of my life I had invested in becoming the first New Zealander to tackle ‘The Everest of the Seas’.
I left the mountains of Colorado, USA, in 2007 with a freshly-minted economics degree in my pocket, all my worldly possessions in a bag on my back and the dream of adventures at sea twinkling in my eye.
Having founded a small company when I was still a university student and competitive mountain biker, I realised that being a solo sailor combined adventure, the entrepreneurial spirit and story-telling all wrapped up in the life of a high performance athlete. I set out determined to make that world my own, despite not having set foot on a boat in more than ten years.
On the south coast of the UK I worked at odd jobs: as a sailing instructor, sailmaker, shore crew and antifouling sander (yuck!) until I upped the stakes by moving to France where I was closer to the world I wanted. I didn’t know anyone, or the language, and I spent the first months cooking on a camping stove to save money.
I was able to join the Mini 6.50 fleet in 2009, the best offshore sailing school in the world, but felt it was an uphill climb as my new friends and competitors coasted on unemployment benefits and went home to hot meals, dry beds and washing machines.
I charged ahead, moving from the Mini Transat in 2009 to the famous Route du Rhum solo transatlantic race in 2010 to the Class 40 Global Ocean Race double-handed race around the world in 2011, where I won four of five legs, each with different crew.
Then I moved on to the Barcelona World Race – nonstop round the world – in 2014. While on paper this is a rapid progression I was always a day late and a dollar short and progressed by accepting roles that no sane person should.
I signed for my Rhum race three months before the race started, I signed my sponsorship deal for the Global Ocean Race ten days before the start and I accepted to sail the Barcelona World Race only five weeks before the start. More often than not, this meant that I found myself racing through dangerous waters on overpowered boats with complete strangers!
Business consultants would call these years extreme team building but I lay awake at night, despite crushing fatigue, hoping it wouldn’t end in disaster.
A French phenomenon
Through it all, I remained focused on the 2016 Vendée Globe and returned home buoyant after the Barcelona World Race thinking that finally I had the skills and connections to launch a proper solo campaign. A year of cold calling, preparing hundreds of personalised presentations and letters of introduction showed otherwise.
Despite Ellen MacArthur, Mike Golding and, most recently, Alex Thomson standing on the podium the race remained a French phenomenon. Most calls started and ended with: “What is the Vendée Globe”?
Despite two circumnavigations and years of knocking on doors I was no closer to my dream than I had been in Colorado, 1,500 miles from the sea in all directions.
Convinced that I needed to show I was a real prospect, and having skin in the game would demonstrate good faith for potential partners, my wife and I started a management company, found private investors, took on private debt and bought a 2005 IMOCA 60 that needed a lot of love before she would be ready to race again.
To our dismay, this changed nothing in the eyes of sponsors and all we had done was increase our risk without a reward. The clock ticked ever louder with less than a year to go before the start.
Launching the project without a title sponsor did have some benefits as I was able to shape the campaign to reflect my personal values so we ripped out the diesel engine and set out with our new partners Oceanvolt, Solar Cloth System, Super B and Solbian solar panels to do the race without burning any fossil fuels… if we could only make it to the start line!
After an intense winter refit I set off for a solo transatlantic warm up from Lorient to Newport, Rhode Island, via the Azores, arriving on the American coast only a couple of days before I had to leave again as part of the New York-Les Sables solo transatlantic race.
Sailing 6,000 miles solo before June gave me great confidence for the coming Vendée but despite a close call with a potential sponsor who turned out to be running some kind of scam, money now dominated my every waking moment.
We arrived in Les Sables d’Olonne in early October with the hull distressingly bare of sponsor logos and I was now hoping for a last minute miracle.
After a fortuitous connection, I signed with the perfect sponsor, a London based investment firm called the Foresight Group that makes investments in renewable energies and thus shares the values of my zero emissions racing campaign.
Echoing my previous projects, we signed only 48 hours before the start of the race but we still had time to brand the hull and sails and it was with great relief, a huge smile and a new enthusiastic family behind me that I finally crossed the start line on the newly christened Foresight Natural Energy. All that remained was to make it back in three months’ time…
Nothing more to give?
When the mast broke I didn’t have time to mourn the loss as I was afraid the breaking swells would turn the broken pieces into a battering ram and hole the hull. One advantage of modern textile PBO standing rigging is that it can be cut away with a knife rather than a saw so I was quickly left with just part of the mainsail and a broken boom on deck.
I crawled inside, called my wife and the race directors to explain the situation and collapsed on my bunk to wait the night out and hope that no ship would run me down now that I could no longer count on radar or AIS to keep me safe.
I was shattered. I had given the race my absolute all for 96 days.
I had fought an electrical fire that knocked out my electronics and still managed to continue. I had invented a way to rebuild a leaky hydraulic keel ram. I had taken shelter inside my boat in 60 knots of wind when the forestay let go and managed to continue.
I felt like I had nothing more to give as I lay there with the boat lurching violently and calling for a tow from Lisbon made the most sense. However, my mind turned to the years of work that had brought me to that moment, all the times I had managed to make seemingly unworkable situations turn out in my favour and I promised myself, and all those who had helped me in my campaigns, that I would find a way to keep racing.
My hopes rose with the sun and I emptied the sail locker and made a pile of sails on the side deck that allowed me to straighten the cracked boom and I built a tent from ripped sailcloth to keep the breaking waves off my work area.
I cut up carbon battens, glued them to brace the break and then laminated new carbon fibre between them to secure the repair. I turned my spinnaker sheets into backstays, the main halyard into a forestay and spliced new shrouds from 12mm Dyneema.
As the wind dropped I cut a new mainsail from the remains of my old one, using the reinforcements for the reefs as the new tack, clew and head in order to avoid too much hand stitching. Overall the composite repair, splicing and sailmaking took me four days of non-stop work and I even managed to make the world’s first square top jury rig mainsail to help tackle the light winds that had been forecast before the finish!
With my orange storm jib rigged forward and my new mainsail flying proudly from my repaired boom I again turned my bows towards the corner of Spain where I dodged countless container ships at walking pace, tacked upwind through fishing fleets and was finally becalmed in the often ferocious Bay of Biscay.
I was thankful for the light conditions as I had run out of food and was down to survival rations in my grab bag, which only allowed me 700 calories per day for the last two weeks at sea. Weight Watchers might want to start selling a survival at sea package as I had lost 10kg by the time I finally made it back to an incredible welcome in Les Sables-d’Olonne after 110 days at sea.
Throw everything at your goal
Where to from here? Like a tree growing in the forest that has to fight through the underbrush before finding the light, Vendée sailors like me who haven’t spent a lot of time in the light from wins in other classes (Olympic preparation or the famous Figaro offshore class) need to earn their way into the top ranks with a first participation as an adventurer rather than a pure competitor.
I won my first race around the world and my ambition now, despite the stress and the premature grey hairs, is to return with a boat and a team capable of winning again. Having circumnavigated the globe without burning fossil fuels, 500 years after Magellan first did it, I would like to help push renewable technology and bio composites further to take our sport to its natural position as the world’s only green mechanical sport.
And for you, the reader, you might think Vendée sailors are completely crazy, and indeed we are, but I hope that my example of moving around the world, learning a language and a trade as a sailmaker and becoming a specialist in solo ocean racing in pursuit of an audacious ten-year goal can inspire you do likewise. Your scary goal doesn’t need to be at sea and could instead be to become a piano virtuoso, a business leader or the best parent you can be and each option is inspiring and valid.
I hope just that you throw everything you have at your goal because, once invested, you will find more energy and motivation within yourselves that you could ever imagine. I look forward to seeing you out on the waves, literally or figuratively.
My Vendée Globe has taught me that we can go farther than we ever imagined.