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The Big Plan

Recovering Team Vestas Wind's VO65

December 18, 2014
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Every now and then I feel like I’ll wake up and it’ll all just be a crazy dream, and I’d say, ‘wahoo, wasn’t that the worst dream I’ve had in a long while?’

Neil Cox has been Chris Nicholson’s shore manager for two Volvo Ocean Races before they entered their third one together with Team Vestas Wind. But the Aussie expert had never, ever been in the situation he is in now – heading to a remote Indian Ocean reef to recover the blue Volvo Ocean 65 after it ran aground in the middle of the second leg, on November 29.

“The ultimate plan, the gold-medal prize we’re reaching for, is to get the boat buoyant enough to float it across the lagoon to get it into more protected water,” explains Neil, or Coxy, as everybody calls him. “That would stop it disintegrating out on the reef, and at the same time, once we get to the other side of the reef, it gives us the chance to set it up in a controlled fashion to either be able to tow the boat back to Mauritius, or there is a Maersk Line ship coming on Monday and we’re hoping to use their derrick to get it on the ship.”

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Coxy pauses to take a breath.

“The race has taken me through some pretty bizarre scenarios, but I would say that this one is pretty unique.”

Chris, the skipper, joined him in Mauritius yesterday evening. They’ve set up the recovery operation in Port Louis, liaising with local resources, chartering a boat they’ll use as a mother ship, getting all the necessary tools through customs and the permits to go back to the Saint Brandon archipelago.

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In the meantime, the Île du Sud inhabitants have maintained a watch on the boat, and sent some photos with the supply boat two days ago.

It appears that the boat hasn’t moved much. Coxy and Chris are now sailing to the location along with their shore crew Tom Kiff plus two local guys, five recovery people from Durban, South Africa, and a cameraman. “The rest of the team offered to come and help,” adds Coxy, “but there is nothing out there so you cannot take a whole work force with you because you cannot provide enough water or power for everyone.

“We’ll base ourselves on this mother ship, on the inside of the lagoon. It’s on the leeward side of the reef and two and half miles away from the boat. The ship has the facilities for us to live onboard, because there is no way for us to stay on the island. We’ve also chartered local fishing boats to cross the lagoon everyday.

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“It’s a case of how structurally sound the boat is, and what we can utilise to get it buoyant again. And anything that floats, float tanks, buoyancy bags, you name it, is coming out with us.” Coxy, Chris and Team Vestas Wind have a plan, and a strong will to get the boat off the reef. But there are a lot of difficult factors to take into account.

“We want to bring as much of the boat back as possible,” asserts Coxy.

“If anything can be recycled or used for a potential new boat, we have to do everything in our power to make that happen.

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“The reality is, it’s a very dangerous workplace we’re going to. It doesn’t have all the nice things we have in the stopovers… it’s in the middle of the ocean. We’re on our own. And, while I’d avoid the cheap shark headlines, yes, there is a lot more activity on the reef at nighttime.”

He pauses again.

“We’ll get there by sunrise tomorrow. We’ll go straight to the boat after that.”

Team Vestas Wind’s Shore Manager, Niel Cox, is facing one of the most difficult tasks of all—recovering the damaged VO65 from a nearly inaccessible Indian Ocean reef. Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race
The extensive damage to the team’s VO65 resulted in not only the loss of the rudders and a large portion of the hull in the stern, but also the keel bulb and structure of the keel.
“I’m really disappointed of course,” said Skipper Chris Nicholson “On the other hand, we have to realize how fortunate we are for everyone to be here in one piece, and to be healthy. It’s pretty amazing, so there’s a lot of emotions at the moment.” Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind
The morning after the crash, a small boat from the local coastguard took the team to a small islet, Íle du Sud. The crew members made numerous trips back and forth to the boat to gather personal belongings, electronic equipment, and other materials deemed environmentally dangerous and necessary to remove.
An independent report into the grounding of Team Vestas Wind’s boat has been set up by the Volvo Ocean Race. A panel, to be chaired by Rear Admiral Chris Oxenbould, is to provide the Volvo Ocean Race with its final report by January 31, 2015. Volvo Ocean Race intends to make the report publicly available no later than during the Auckland stopover (February 27-March 15). Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind
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