A Southern Slamfest
A Southern Slamfest
Ryan O'Grady, a veteran follower of the Volvo Ocean Race and a top amateur sailor, is providing regular insight and analysis on the 2011-'12 Volvo Ocean Race for SailingWorld.com. To get the full picture of this dynamic race, follow the racing in our Finish Line forum, track the fleet, and catch up on the race with O'Grady's previous Volvo Voyeur blogs.
“Why do we willingly do this to ourselves? I wish people would stop asking me to go.” – PUMA Ocean Racing’s Brad Jackson (clearly relishing his sixth lap of the planet)
A week ago we left the Volvo fleet in the middle of a classic Southern Ocean thrashing. So what’s changed? According to Brad Marsh on leg-leading Groupama, not much. “The unique thing with these boats is that we can travel at the same speed as a weather system, so as long as the system is moving in the same direction as we want to go, then we have the ability to stay with it for a long time," says Marsh. "It feels like forever now but I would guess it must be 5/6 days (time is pretty irrelevant out here) that we have been sailing with the last system. We have seen winds over 40 knots and seas much, much higher than I can explain. It has been a surreal experience and a combination of excitement, fear, survival and enjoyment. The sort of experience Disneyland would love to be able to capture and offer to customers. The Southern Ocean and the West to East crossing is one of the last classic adventures still unchanged in the modern world and I have so far experienced it in an amazing way. Downwind sailing, surfing big waves and watching impressive boat speeds.” While the sailing may be amazing, it has also been damaging and this week’s update seems more like a fantasy football injury report. Let’s see how everyone is faring.
The leg leaders have already suffered damage to the bow twice before in this race, but so far the repair made in Auckland is holding up well. There have been other issues onboard, as skipper Franck Cammas explains: “We've been sparing with Groupama 4 since the start but that hasn't stopped us from incurring damage ourselves, especially the first night with our issue with the storm jib swivel. As a result of that, we've had to deal with a leak where the ram passes through the deck up forward: we had at least a tonne of water up forward when we were sailing with eased sheets towards the Southern Ocean... After that Phil Harmer injured his shoulder on two separation occasions: he's not sure if he'll be able to do the next leg.”
The Southern Ocean is an unkind place for people, and the human toll had already scared the skipper of second placed PUMA Ocean Racing. “We certainly had a scare or two in the first 24 hours of this leg, and to be honest the health and well-being is always top priority for this skipper. Long, long, long before any result in any race," reports Kenny Read. “So when Casey took to his bunk with a bum back and Thomas took a wave to the posterior that shot him across the cockpit like he was blasted out of a cannon, there were certainly decisions to be made and phone calls to make.” For a while, the situation was dire enough to have the team considering a pit stop in the Chatham Islands to offload the two.
Amazingly, a week at sea in a gale has helped both crew stabilize. The onboard medics, led by Jono Swain, reset Thomas Johanson’s separated shoulder. “Thomas has made a fantastic recovery, and 24 hours later he was back on the wheel after the craziness died down. He is absolutely feeling better by the minute," reported Kenny Read. For Casey Smith, though, the situation was much more serious. “He was in the bunk and in pain pretty much hours after the start. He was simply moving a snail. Felt a pop. Couldn't move. Anti-inflammatory and pain meds immediately. He was hurting. Was it a disk or muscular? That was a big issue for us. A disk and we were likely heading to the Chatham Islands to unload him. Muscular we could hopefully deal with. The prognosis was unclear until a set of tests was done to him on board after about 48 hours. Essentially, the tests were to determine if it was a disk problem. Four simple aided activities with his legs and toes. If he screamed bloody terror from the pain, then it was most likely a disk. If he didn’t, it was most likely muscular. No scream. Whew. Massive relief. So, time to get him better, and I am happy to report that he is standing next to me as I write and just did some minor stretching, and he was laughing at himself earlier. All a good sign.”
A week later and Casey is getting back to full strength. In his latest daily report, PUMA MCM Amory Ross noted that "Casey’s up and running. I told him he was getting a first-hand experience for what the MCMs have to live like: look but don’t touch. Everyone’s happy to see he and Thomas on their way to full recoveries, only just in time for another hard few days of 30-40 knots on the approach towards the Cape.” For the crew onboard PUMA, the race for the leg victory will begin after rounding Cape Horn. “Rationalism and safety in these strong Southern Ocean conditions is still our first priority. It’s far more prudent to keep the boat together than it would be to aim for every shift. Ideally, we’d set a bigger sail and just sail lower, but it’s still too windy and too risky for that. So, for the time being we’re stuck with a smaller sail and higher angles taking us to the east…”
Overall Race leader Telefonica had looked invincible two legs ago. Every decision had come out correct, and they seemed to have an extra gear of boat speed. Leg 4 saw the team meet mortality for the first time, and now things are getting even more difficult for the Spanish team. Though currently in third place, Telefonica has been slowed by damage to their bow from these spectacular waves.
“As you can see, we've got no problems in terms of continuing to sail, but if we continue to violently crash against the waves like this the damage could worsen, and we want to rule out the possibility of that happening," said skipper Iker Martínez. “What we've done so far is to fix some battens to the deck at the bow to reinforce the section where the delamination has occurred, which is therefore weaker. The issue we've got is that nothing dries, and so we've had to repeat the exercise a few times.” Telefonica has now decided to stop in the Argentinean city of Ushuaia after rounding Cape Horn to make repairs.