Stu Bannatyne (above) helped steer Ericsson 4 to victory in the 2008-2009 Volvo Ocean Race.
By the early afternoon of 29 October 2008, the racing yacht Ericsson 4 had been on world record pace for almost 36 hours. Fourteen tons of Volvo Open 70 in a relentless charge across the South Atlantic, driven by 35 knots of wind pressing on hundreds of square metres of high-technology fabric.
They had first punched through the old mark – 562.96 nautical miles in a day – in the early hours of the morning. The mileage eased briefly after breakfast, but then it clicked relentlessly upwards once again. Now they were closing on a new barrier – 600 miles in a day, sailing at an average 25 knots: that meant 25 nautical miles for each and every one of the 24 hours. This was new territory.
At the wheel just after midday was Stu Bannatyne, the watch captain. He had held the same position aboard the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race winner, illbruck. Bannatyne is softly spoken. On first meeting, you might think him shy, or aloof. Not at all the kind of a man you imagine flying through freezing southern oceans at maniacal speeds, with the lives of everyone on board in his hands. But the quiet reserve hides iron resolve and a single-minded focus: useful qualities when the slightest hesitation can spell disaster.
Bannatyne’s first trip away from his native New Zealand was to the 1989 ISAF World Youth Championships in Canada. It wasn’t so different from home, though there was plenty to distract a curious teenager on his first trip abroad. But none of it had any effect on Bannatyne, who came away with the single-handed title. In doing so he joined a pantheon of sailing luminaries that includes triple Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie, and three-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts.
Now Stu Bannatyne was applying all that focus, constantly bracing every nerve and muscle against the elemental battering. The elevated helming position provided a great view in daylight, but left him exposed to everything that the ocean could hurl at the boat. Protection was afforded by a survival suit, a windsurfing helmet with a full face visor, and he was tethered to a strong line, the jackstay, that runs transversely across the boat by the wheels.
There were just three men on deck with him; two on the sheets, and one at the double-handed winch pedestal, grinding the sails in response to the commands. Those commands were the only words spoken; the howl of wind and waves and the screech of winches allowed for nothing else. This was sailing at the very edge of human endeavour, and they all knew it.
They were sailing the boat at the fastest possible angle to the wind. Now, the wind shifted slightly, forcing them into the waves. Instead of skipping across the back of each one at a steady 26 or 27 knots, Bannatyne was forced to sail down the face, which accelerated them to a speed that would have earned him a fine in an urban area, not to mention the opprobrium of his wife, Amanda. Then the boat ploughed itself into the back of the wave in front, plunging the foredeck into green water and washing a white wall of boiling foam and spray back down the boat.
If the motion was bad before, now it was impossible. Down below, men were trying to follow the normal routines of any other day: eat, sleep, wash, dress. But this was not a normal day – this might be a day that people would talk about for years to come, the day when Ericsson 4 went through the 600-mile barrier. And then there was a bang.
Eighteen days earlier, eight Volvo Open 70s had left the race village in Alicante to the cheers of tens of thousands of spectators. They had started the first leg of the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, bound for Cape Town, South Africa, on a grim, grey day. The wind was blowing hard out of the north-east – more North Sea winter than Mediterranean autumn. The fleet sailed a lap of the bay in sight of the tenth-century Castle of Santa Barbara, before turning south-west towards the Cabo de Palos, the first of two capes they would have to negotiate on their way to the Straits of Gibraltar, and then the Atlantic.
No one was particularly surprised when Ericsson 4 led the way down the coast. They came to the race with impeccable credentials, part of a two-boat operation, with sister ship Ericsson 3 also racing. The group behind the team had been involved with the race since the 1980s. They won it with Team EF in 1997-98, were second in 2001-02, but in the previous race they had slipped to fifth, with Ericsson as a sponsor.
The giant communications technology company was eager for another go. This time they started early, with the designer of the winning boat from the last race, the Argentinean Juan Kouyoumdjian. They hired a world-class crew, led by Brazilian Torben Grael, who has an enviable collection of Olympic medals (two gold, two bronze and a silver), as well as having led a Brazilian team to third place in the previous race.
They weren’t the only ones with a score to settle. Telefonica Blue and Telefonica Black were the second of the race’s two-boat teams. Led by five-time Volvo veteran, Bouwe Bekking – sports and technical director as well as skipper of the Blue boat – their ill-starred 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race had opened with a first-night structural problem which forced them to retire from Leg 1. A tragic conclusion was narrowly avoided when their yacht, movistar, had finally been abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean on Leg 7, after the keel structure had suffered a dangerous failure.
Jonathan Swain, who had climbed into the liferaft with Bekking on that occasion, was back as watch captain aboard Telefonica Blue for 2008-09. They were just a couple of hours out from Alicante when Swain took the wheel. They had a small spinnaker up and a reef in; conditions were fresh, but not frightening – as the saying would have it. But almost immediately Swain lost control of the boat, rounding up into the wind, broaching, sails flapping. He heaved on the wheel and got her back on track, only to lose it again. Bekking frowned; his instructions to Swain had been to take it easy. They needed to settle into the race before pushing hard.
Something wasn’t right, and it didn’t take long to find the problem. The tiller arm – the strut that connects the rudder to the steering gear and the wheels on deck – was broken, and the starboard rudder was flapping uselessly. They had limited control with the port rudder, which was fine when the boat was upright. But when Telefonica Blue heeled over on to her starboard side, the good rudder came out of the water and they quickly lost control. Fortunately, once they were past Cabo de Palos they had the option to sail back towards the coast. That put the working rudder in the water, and also got them into calmer conditions, so they could work on the repair.
They dug the boatbuilding spares out of the bag – not something they had imagined doing so soon after the start. It seemed as if Bekking and Swain’s first-night jinx had struck again. But this was a great deal less serious than the problems of 2005, and five hours later – although they weren’t convinced of the durability of the repair – they had full control of the boat.
The tiller arms had been a problem earlier in their preparation, so two brand-new, redesigned units had been delivered to their facility in Alicante. But, because they were an unknown quantity, they had decided not to fit them before the start. Now that decision had come back to haunt them. They could call into a port and swap them, but that meant taking a 12 hour penalty, the minimum time a team was allowed to suspend racing to seek help.
Bouwe Bekking and navigator Simon Fisher pored over the charts and weather maps to find the most efficient spot, and chose the Bay of Gibraltar. Decision made, they pulled into Algeciras on the evening of Sunday 12 October. Their support team met them with a van full of equipment, and sent the sailors to a local hotel. Swain reflected afterwards that it had been a strange sensation, lying in a comfortable bed, hours after they should have left shore-side comforts behind for the three-week race to South Africa.
In Swain’s case, the journey was a kind of homecoming. Brought up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, Swain was born to English parents, not long after they emigrated to their new home. He has subsequently proved no less prone to wanderlust himself, and now lives in Florida, with his American wife Cary and their two children. He stuck around in South Africa just long enough to get an education and complete his compulsory military service, and then headed for the States, where friends had told him he could earn a living as a sailor. And they were right. Starting from nothing, Swain had risen to the very top of the sport.
By 7am the next morning the crew was back at the dock, where the support team was giving the boat a final clean, ready to go. They motored out to where they had suspended racing and, exactly 12 hours later, pulled up the sails and set off in pursuit of Ericsson 4, who led the fleet over 100 miles away.
It had been rather different a week earlier. Telefonica Blue topped the podium in the opening in-port racing with a brilliant performance. In the light winds they were “unstoppable on all points of sailing”, as Swain put it afterwards. But this was a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint. And Bouwe Bekking made it clear to the team that even after that triumph there should be no question of complacency. In short order, they had reaped both the advantages and disadvantages of having their training base in Alicante. Dominant in the local conditions, they lacked the time spent sailing in the stronger winds and waves more common in the Atlantic, which might have led them to fix the tiller arm problem before the race started.
It had all been very different indeed almost four decades previously. When Colonel Bill Whitbread and Admiral Otto Steiner RNSA (Royal Naval Sailing Association) had had their idea of a crewed yacht race round the world, it certainly hadn’t included in-port racing. But like many good ideas, it had its genesis in a pub: the Still and West on Portsmouth waterfront where, legend has it, the pair brewed up the notion of the race. It was a different world back then. A dozen men had just walked on the moon, but not many more had sailed a yacht successfully through the southern ocean and round Cape Horn. Steiner and Whitbread proposed a fully crewed race through those same waters.
Seventeen yachts accepted the challenge and turned up at HMS Vernon, a Portsmouth naval base, in the autumn of 1973. This early version of the modern race village was just an encampment of pay phones, sailmakers’ tents and caravans selling yacht gear. The boats were loaded with fresh food, wine, real bunks and dining tables. They were mostly privately owned or entered by the armed services, and the crews were largely amateur. Setting a trend, some were more ready than others. Burton Cutter was still being built as she crossed the start line. Fourteen boats finished, but three men died: Paul Waterhouse went overboard from Tauranga, Dominique Guillet from 33 Export, and Bernie Hosking from Chay Blyth’s Great Britain II. Questions were asked: was this sport? But, at the prize-giving, the organisers announced that the race would be run again in four years’ time.
Two years later a rival round-the-world race was held, with a single stop in Sydney and sponsorship from the Financial Times. Only four boats competed and the exercise was not repeated. In contrast, 15 yachts came to the line for the second Whitbread Race in 1977. A classic was born, and then nurtured. But 25 years and seven races after they began Whitbread finally decided that they had had enough.
It was the Swedish industrial giant Volvo that stepped in to pick up the mantle of the world’s greatest crewed round-the-world race. And more changes followed to an event that had constantly evolved in boat design, format and route. The 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race was the third iteration, and the second to involve the crash and burn of in-port racing (literally in this case: two boats collided on the start line in Alicante). But while the in-port action accounts for 20 percent of the available points, the heart and soul of the Volvo Ocean Race remains in the name: ocean racing.
Telefonica Blue wasn’t the only one with problems now that the team was finally at sea. Team Russia was an unusual entry among its corporate brethren. In a race village overwhelmed by the displays, exhibitions and pageants of modern brand communications, Team Russia sat bereft of all slogans and logos save one: ‘Team Russia sails for the whale’, actively supporting the message of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
St Petersburg businessman, Oleg Zherebtsov, wanted to do the Volvo Ocean Race, and he wanted to do it for the right reasons. So he asked Andreas Hanakamp to skipper a campaign for him, and together they set up a team, built a boat, chose a cause, and then Zherebtsov planned to take his place aboard, working at the sharp end, on the foredeck. But just days before the start in Alicante, Zherebtsov had to return to Russia after the tragic death of his mother.
The team set off without him. And they were soon in trouble. Before the start gun had even gone, they had water pouring into the boat. The keel on a Volvo Open 70 is swung (or canted) from one side to the other to provide additional leverage. The movement of several tons of lead bulb on the end of a steel fin provides a highly efficient counter-balance to the pressure of the wind on the sails.
To achieve this canting effect, the keel fin pivots on giant pins inserted into the base of the hull, and above the pivot sit two massive hydraulic rams that push the top of the fin from side to side. As the pivot is not waterproof, the whole lot is surrounded by a solid carbon-fibre ‘wet-box’, which is sealed at the top by a transparent plate, so the crew can see inside. The two rams push on the top of the keel via holes in each side of the wet-box, and they are sealed by ‘ram boots’ – flexible waterproofing around the ram arms, allowing them to move. Team Russia’s ram boots had cracked and were leaking badly.
They put the bilge pumps on and started bailing. But within a couple of hours it became clear that this wasn’t sustainable; they didn’t have the manpower to bale and sail the boat. They had to fix the leak. They started work as they settled into the run down to Cabo de Palos. Positioning the boat a little to leeward of the fleet, they got caught in a squall with more breeze and the wind direction shifting against them. Trying to hold on to the wrong sail until they clawed around the cape, they blew it into pieces.
Wrestling the wreckage down below, sailmaker and trimmer, Jeremy Elliott could have been forgiven for cursing the kind of upbringing that had cemented an unbreakable affiliation with boats and the ocean. He had been brought up in a house that overlooked the water in the south-west Irish harbour town of Kinsale. Everybody sailed.
In 1985, when he was six, pop star Simon Le Bon’s Whitbread Maxi, Drum, turned up in the harbour. It was a vivid inspiration, and the young Elliott was bitterly disappointed when he was judged too young to join his father aboard for a sail.
The fire was kept burning by the 1989-90 Irish Whitbread Race entry, NCB (lovingly nicknamed by others in the fleet “Nice Cruising Boat” or, rather less kindly, “Not Coming Back”). In time, Elliott found his way into the ranks of professional sailing, and now here he was, setting off on his first Volvo Ocean Race – and responsible for fixing the mess of sail cloth. But he’d never quite got over his bouts of first-night seasickness. And as anyone who is prone to it will know, the one thing that will bring it on is working down below. Elliott faced up to 24 hours of confined labour repairing the sail.
On the upside, being a thorough, thoughtful kind of guy (with more than a passing resemblance to Harry Potter when he has his glasses on), he had gone to some trouble in his preparation for this moment. A spinnaker is shaped in the same way as a dress or a shirt. The three dimensions of the finished product are created by careful tailoring of the two dimensional panels from which it is constructed. The hard part when rebuilding a broken sail in the mobile confines of a Volvo Open 70 hull is not, despite appearances, how to move hundreds of square metres of cloth through the jaws of a tiny sewing machine in a space smaller than the average bathroom, but how to do all that and restore the damaged panels in such a way that the sail retains its original, designed shape.
To help in this task, Elliott had worked on the principle that when any sail breaks, it rips as far as the nearest seam, and then tears along it. When he had designed each spinnaker, he’d had the laser plotter indelibly print ‘tear lines’ 150millimetres back from each edge of the panel when it was marked out and cut. This defined a panel equal in proportions to the old one, but 150millimetres smaller in each dimension. Once the sail had been dismantled around the damage, Elliott and crewmate Ben Costello had to cut along the pre-marked tear lines on each damaged seam, and then sew the pieces back together with the tear lines all matching, which should ensure that the sail was rebuilt in the original shape.
For hours they battled away at the sail, with Elliott occasionally rushing to the hatch to throw up. Around them, others struggled to stem the flow of water into Team Russia from the leaking ram boots. And all this against the background of constant baling, and the race to Gibraltar. Eventually, a waterproof kit bag was chopped up to provide the perfect material to stem the leak. And after 20 hours’ work, the sail was finished and Elliott’s sickness was gone. When they put the sail back up, it looked almost new. Elliott noted a couple of little tweaks he’d like to do when it came back down. But it stayed up, and in one piece, for the next eight days of sailing.
Those eight days took the fleet all the way down the coast of Africa, past the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands, the pace unrelenting once they got into the trade winds. The Azores High was a lot further west than normal, and it had left a band of stronger wind on the coast. Telefonica Blue used it to get themselves back in touch with the fleet. But her sister ship, Telefonica Black, made big losses by going to the west of the Canary Islands, thus sailing out of the best of the breeze and replacing Blue in last place. The temptation to go west was understandable, not least because of the old maxim: Never let anyone get west of you entering the doldrums. It had worked beautifully for the winner in 2005-06, but by the end of the first week at sea, everyone who had gone that way had lost ground.
The highest-profile casualty was Ericsson 4, who had led the fleet for most of the journey south, only giving up their advantage when they ventured too far west after passing the Canary Islands. Then, just after breakfast on the morning of 16 October, the team indicated to the duty officer at Race Headquarters in Whiteley, England, that they had a different kind of problem. Tasked with a 24/7 watch over the fleet by all the means that modern satellite communications allow, the duty officers are always the first stop when there is any kind of issue, big or small, aboard the boats.
Ericsson 4 informed the duty officer that New Zealander Tony Mutter had an infected knee; the crewmen (trained as on-board medics by the Ericsson team and Race Management) were requesting advice. The first stop in such circumstances would normally be the race’s own medical coordinator, Polly Gough. But, in a coincidence you couldn’t write as fiction, she was having surgery that day, to repair damage to an injured knee.
The next stop was the on-call medical adviser at the time, Dr Spike Briggs, an anaesthetist at a hospital on the south coast of England. He requested more information, including photos, and measurements of both knees so that the swelling could be judged. Questions and answers were fired back across the Satcom, and soon Briggs advised that further oral antibiotics be administered, then the inflamed wound was to be incised and drained, cleaned and dressed.
On the boat, Stu Bannatyne got ready to help with the task. Bannatyne had been the medic on several of these races, including the one he had won with illbruck in 2001-02. But this was the most serious condition that he’d seen. They photographed the procedure, and sent the pictures to Briggs for analysis. By evening, Mutter was no better, and the crew contacted the team management and asked them to look at a possible evacuation – the Cape Verde Islands were looming to the south. Wheels began to turn; the situation was constantly assessed. How bad was Mutter? What were the risks of continuing? How much time would it cost them to drop him off, and where and when could it be done to incur the least penalty?
The following morning – after another round of checks, photos and consultations – the decision was taken to evacuate Mutter to a boat coming out from Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands. Ericsson 4 gybed off course towards the rendezvous. The rescue boat was late, and it was more than two frustrating hours after the intended meeting that they finally made contact.
Mutter slipped into the water in his survival suit, his gear in a dry bag, and into the helping hands of the Cape Verde Islanders. For Polly Gough, coming out of surgery herself, there was relief that the system had worked. There had been constant encouragement to the crews to deal with problems early, before small issues became big ones. And Ericsson 4, with the help of the Race Management and their shore team, had done just that.
Tony Mutter was safe in hospital, with his own team doctor in attendance. It took several days of intravenous antibiotics before the infection was beaten, and, as Bannatyne explained afterwards, they couldn’t have dealt with that on board. Mutter was in Cape Town to greet the boat, and back to full fitness for the start of the next leg. While his crewmates had lost around 50 miles to the fleet, they were still racing. With the doldrums coming up, there was every opportunity for a return to the front row. It could hardly have been a better advertisement for how the whole emergency procedure should work.
Elsewhere, other medical issues weren’t quite so dramatic. Green Dragon was another team that, like the Russians, had been put together in short order, the boat launched just a few months before the start of the race. Skipper and prime mover behind the project was Ian Walker, double Olympic silver medallist and previously skipper of the GBR Challenge at the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland. Walker had been very careful to match his project’s ambitions to its resources, keeping his approach simple – and hiring some very talented people.
Amongst them was watch captain Neal McDonald, a 45-year-old Englishman who had long been one of the race’s stars, taking second place as skipper of Assa Abloy in 2001-02, before the less successful campaign with Ericsson in 2005-06. Learning to sail in the family’s Mirror dinghy and bilge-keeler from the age of five, McDonald grew up in boats and was now on his fifth Volvo Ocean Race.
So he should have known better than to be wearing his wedding ring (he married fellow Volvo Ocean Race skipper, Lisa Charles, in 1999) aboard a sailing boat. After all, even schoolchildren are told not to wear jewellery when playing sport. Hauling sails up and down the boat in light air, McDonald grabbed the back of the raised daggerboard to get some traction, dug the ring into his finger and came away with a small cut.
The cut started to swell, and soon he couldn’t get the ring off. He left it for a day hoping that the swelling would reduce, fending off help from hacksaw-wielding crewmates. In the end, he did the job himself, working a metal spike in between the ring and the swollen flesh, and then sawing it off. Afterwards, he volunteered the information that gold isn’t as soft as he’d expected.
Things were going more smoothly for the rest of the Green Dragon crew as they chased the leaders south towards the doldrums. They had already got their fingers burned once, following Telefonica Black when they ventured west of the Canary Islands. Skipper Walker and his navigator, Ian Moore, had realised their mistake early, and bailed out to return to the fleet, making a fraction of the losses of the Black boat. But as the Cape Verde Islands approached, they started to edge west again, and this time they committed.
The initial impact was a big loss on the leader board. McDonald noted afterwards that to get west, you had to sail almost at right angles to the course to the scoring gate at Fernando de Noronha, and if everyone else was still pointing where they wanted to go, you couldn’t help but tumble down the rankings. Their hope was that it was a short-term loss for a long-term gain – and everyone on Green Dragon had bought into the plan.
Then, on 19 October, the leaders hit the doldrums. The wind softened, and the numbers clicked downwards on the speedos. To the west, Green Dragon was still moving. The plan was working. By the afternoon of that day, McDonald and his men were through into the lead, as the oppressive heat, calms and squalls of the doldrums gripped the fleet.
The Nordic crew aboard Ericsson 3 were not having an easy ride. They had sailed into the Straits of Gibraltar at the side of their sister ship: heading the fleet. The lead had unravelled as they battled the Gibraltar currents with no wind to help them. They had dropped into the pack off the coast of Africa, but fought their way back to the front. Now it seemed as if they were stuck in a bad movie sequel, as Green Dragon flew past, snorting fire.
Becalmed, 27-year-old bowman Martin Krite wrote in an email to the Race Office: “On board Ericsson 3, time stands still. The temperature is around 40 degrees and the boat is moving very slowly through the water. The sweat is dripping down my back and no matter how much I drink, I still feel thirsty.”
A couple of years earlier, Martin Krite had quit professional sailing to marry Emilie, have a son, William, and start a theology course at Lund University. It was the first step down a five-year path to becoming a priest. But when, in late 2007, he heard about the Nordic Volvo Ocean Race crew, sponsored by Ericsson and with many of his friends already aboard, he couldn’t resist the call of another childhood dream. The Volvo beckoned, with all its previous history as the Whitbread and a great many famous Swedish participants. He called the skipper, Anders Lewander, to arrange a test sail, and got the job.
Krite wrote the email 24 hours before they eventually escaped the doldrums. It was the only thing he could think to do to ease the frustration and disappointment as boat after boat slipped past them on either side. There was nowhere to hide from the heat, off-watch or on deck, and the silence, the absence of a bow wave, said everything about the struggle to get the boat moving. Ericsson 3 dropped from second to sixth by the time the wind picked up again, with the nearest boat 180 miles ahead.
Leading Ericsson 3 and the fleet into the doldrums had been PUMA, a single boat campaign backed by the sportswear and lifestyle company. PUMA was skippered by Ken Read, who had steered a couple of America’s Cup challengers, before joining McDonald aboard the struggling Ericsson for the end of the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race. He enjoyed the experience so much he came back for more, and the PUMA Ocean Racing Team was the result.
Joining him as navigator was the vastly experienced Andrew Cape. The pair had sailed together aboard Ericsson in the previous race, after Cape had abandoned movistar for the liferaft (with Bouwe Bekking and Jonathan Swain, now aboard Telefonica Blue), and found himself available for the final couple of legs. When Read and Cape saw the impact of Green Dragon’s move they decided to cut their losses. Along with Ericsson 4, they gybed to starboard to get further west, and followed the Dragon’s trail through the doldrums. But it’s tough watching your lead get burned up, and then having to gybe and sail behind the boat that’s just taken it from you.
Delta Lloyd was the eighth and final entry into the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, their participation in doubt until just weeks beforehand. But they brought to the start line the winner of the previous race, ABN AMRO ONE, the only boat of that generation reckoned to have a chance against the new fleet. An Irish businessman, Ger O’Rourke, was behind the team, receiving the support from Delta Lloyd at very short notice, and leading the boat as skipper on the first leg.
The crew also came together late, with little opportunity to practise or prepare. In the light winds of the doldrums, they levered the jumper, one of the support struts, off the mast in the dark. But with every cloud comes a silver lining. Rigger Martin Watts was subsequently presented with the Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics Seamanship Award for effecting a remarkable repair that kept the mast in the boat all the way to Cape Town. Nevertheless, it would hinder them for the rest of the leg.
Green Dragon led the fleet from the doldrums, with PUMA and Ericsson 4 right on her tail. But the Dragon held her advantage through the scoring gate at Fernando de Noronha, followed by Ericsson 4, with PUMA just 17 minutes behind. The group was joined by Telefonica Black, who had staged a remarkable recovery from her western adventure at the Canary Islands, the clouds parting for them through the doldrums, like the Red Sea before Moses. She was up into fourth by the scoring gate.
Slowly, the longer preparation time and bigger budgets of the two boats behind Green Dragon started to tell, and Ericsson 4 and PUMA broke through into the lead. And the road south was a long one, as the fleet targeted a low-pressure front spinning up off the coast of Brazil. Everyone aboard each of the eight boats checked their area of responsibility as it became clearer just how tough the final days of sailing to Cape Town would be. After days of anxious anticipation, the front hit them on the morning of 28 October.
Aboard Ericsson 3, Martin Krite was twice swept from the bow. The first time, the clip on the end of his safety tether was torn open, such was the force of the water. Fortunately, he landed inside the lifelines. The second time, he was swept four or five metres along the deck in a blind chaos of foam until his legs were slammed into the daggerboard and his head hit the mast. He was helped back below. He stayed in his bunk for the rest of the watch, then resumed his duties on deck. But for the rest of the trip he couldn’t look up without losing his balance. After a CT scan in Cape Town, the diagnosis was that the concussion and swelling had affected the balance nerve. But Krite dismissed any concern. “The doldrums,” he said, “that was the worst thing that has happened in my sailing career.”
Green Dragon had dug themselves deep into the south, the closest to the centre of the low pressure. “I think it may be time to open negotiations with Neal about taking the spinnaker down,” wrote Ian Walker from the navigation station, as the ante began to get upped. Neal McDonald was helming in the early hours of the morning, with the wind averaging around 30 knots from the north-west, when, with all the violence of a slow-motion car crash, the boat hit something and went from about 22 knots to less than seven.
McDonald was thrown forward with such force by the deceleration that the wheel rim snapped off the spoke. The boat staggered under the impact, but the sails filled again and she began to accelerate. Irish bowman Justin Slattery, an ABN AMRO ONE veteran, recovered his feet and grabbed the leeward wheel to keep control of the boat, until McDonald could free himself from the smashed and useless windward one. Unlike Stu Bannatyne aboard Ericsson 4, McDonald was tethered to the wheel pedestal to stop him being washed overboard, rather than to a jackstay that would allow him to cross the boat.
They had no idea how much damage had been done to the hull and fins, and could only wait anxiously for word from below as they tried to sort out the mess on deck. At least there was no one tumbling out of the hatch with lifejackets and emergency grab-bags. Finally, the stand-by watch appeared with the news that the boat didn’t appear to be sinking – at least, not immediately. It was a full 10 minutes before they were happy that they weren’t going to be sinking at all. And in the meantime, McDonald and the crew had resumed racing anyway. “You’ve fought for those metres,” he said afterwards, “and you don’t give them up easily.”
Whatever they hit remained attached to the keel for a good few hours, vibrating horribly, before it was finally washed away. It left considerable damage to the hydrodynamically shaped carbon plates that smooth the water flow around the steel keel fin. The extra drag slowed them by about 10 percent for the rest of the leg. McDonald reckoned the damage created about 250 kilograms of extra resistance to the boat’s forward motion. And with 1,500 miles to go, it put them out of the chase for a podium finish.
Telefonica Black was skippered by Fernando Echavarri, fresh from winning the Tornado Olympic gold medal in Beijing. The Black boat had been built late, joining her sister ship from the construction yard in New Zealand with just a couple of months left for two-boat testing. Her navigator was the irrepressible Roger Nilson, a Swedish veteran whose first race was aboard Alaska Eagle in 1981-82, back in the days when there was a bottle or two of wine for dinner every night. Nilson admitted to an addictive personality in his 2007 autobiography, Towards the Eye of the Storm, and the Volvo Ocean Race was probably its least destructive outlet.
Nilson and Telefonica Black had the sort of rollercoaster ride up and down the first leg rankings that was almost, but not quite, a match for Nilson’s previous buccaneering career. Starting with a drunken expedition down the west coast of Sweden in a half-decked five-metre boat at the age of 15, he had gone on to survive a stint as a naval reserve officer, hanging with the aristocratic sixties jetset in Mexico, a pirate attack in the Bahamas, a medical career, and open heart surgery six months before the race started.
Nilson knows his way around the planet, but there are plenty of unknowns and uncertainties in blue-water offshore racing, and at 17.40 GMT on 29 October, Telefonica Black found one of them. The leeward rudder sheered off just below the hull. The boat rolled on to its side, completely out of control, the sails flogging. Nilson was at his navigation station. He thought it was just another broach and reached for his foul-weather gear. By the time he got on deck the headsail was gone; Argentinean crewman Maciel Cicchetti had cut it loose. But the sea had smashed away the bowsprit, and as the sail and all the gear came rushing aft, it had taken blocks off the deck. A deep wound had also been scored in the daggerboard, but if it hadn’t been there, the rigging might have been damaged and brought the mast down instead. The crew set about clearing up the mess, and fixing the emergency rudder.
All this while, Ericsson 4 swept imperially eastwards, outrunning the opposition, the low-pressure front and the record. And then Stu Bannatyne heard and felt that bang. Something had hit the rudder. Immediately, he turned the boat away from the wind to wash off the speed, and David Endean went down below to check for damage.
Despite never quite finishing his apprenticeship at the legendary Cookson Boats, David Endean was boat captain for Ericsson 4. He was ultimately responsible for the yacht and all its systems. If there was a problem he would likely be the man to lead any repair team. He was a New Zealander, like Bannatyne, and, again like Bannatyne, he had won the race before – in Endean’s case, the previous edition aboard ABN AMRO ONE. Still in his twenties, this was his third Volvo Ocean Race. There wasn’t much he didn’t know about these boats, even if learning it had got in the way of his trade certificate.
Endean climbed down the companionway and unhooked his safety tether, then grabbed a torch and crawled back down the boat. The rudders were in the furthest aft compartment, behind a watertight bulkhead door which was kept shut to reduce the noise. He opened it with some trepidation, but when he shone the torch inside, everything looked normal: the steering gear and rudder stock were all fine. Whatever it was they had hit, it hadn’t done any damage. He shut the door, crawled back on deck with the good news, and Bannatyne turned the burners back on.
It was about an hour and a half later that Endean finished his watch. He made a habit of going round the boat for a final check before he turned in for some sleep. But this time, when he opened the aft compartment door, water poured out. It was completely flooded, water swilling around the compartment. He yelled up on deck and immediately they slowed the boat down. At the very least it was the end of their challenge for the record, but was it more serious than that?
It was impossible to see from the outside. In that part of the boat there was only about a metre of headroom between the deck and the hull, narrowing further at the sides. The dark, cramped space was packed with bags of food, spares, clothing and electronics (including the satellite-communications terminal that transmitted their position and instrument data to the Race Office), devices whose prospects of remaining functional seemed limited.
All the survival suits and spare rope had broken free of the bags they had been stored in, and were now washing around the compartment, tying themselves into a knot of Gordian proportions. Floating on the surface was the grime that normally hid in the dark corners of their black carbon-fibre boat: hair, scraps of paper and a grey mulch, the origin of which no one liked to think too much about. And somewhere, buried in this mess, were the rudder posts: the likely source of the leak. Endean climbed in and shut the watertight door behind him, to stem the flow of water into the rest of the boat.
With the deck hatch open instead, he started to pass everything up to clear the space. He wrestled the gear free of the tangle, even as he was washed around amongst it, gasping as the cold water flushed over him. Then the hatch fell shut. Plunged into semi-darkness, he was immediately dragged away from the exit by a surge of water. Survival suits and ropes grasped at his arms and legs, holding him down, and panic started to rise. He could see the hatch cover – it was opaque and the only source of light. Thrashing through the gear, he fought his way back to it and pounded on the plastic until it was opened. His subsequent outburst left his crewmates in no doubt about what he thought and the consequences should they let it happen again.
Endean eventually discovered that the rudder had been forced backwards in the boat by seven millimetres, dragging the locking ring through the carbon fibre, and creating enough of a gap to let the ocean in. About £16,000 worth of electronics had blown up, leaking current into the hull, which, although they didn’t know it at the time, was fast corroding the winch bases and rudder bearings. It took him the rest of his off-watch to repair the problem and clear up the mess, at the end of which he went back on deck.
Ericsson 4 had been slowed, but remained ahead of both the fleet, and the cold front until it faded to the south. Ken Read and PUMA chased them home, finishing 12 hours behind. Everyone else was dropped by the front, and forced to detour to the south to find wind to take them to Cape Town. Ericsson 3 and the still dazed Martin Krite did the best job of that, finally passing a wounded Green Dragon. Neal McDonald and his team-mates limped home fourth on the water, but were promoted to third after Ericsson 3 had a penalty applied for a keel infringement that was subsequently rectified in Cape Town.
Next were Jonathan Swain and Telefonica Blue, after a good recovery from the pit-stop at Gibraltar. The decision to change the tiller arms had been vindicated by the high loads that the rudders had had to withstand in the South Atlantic. But it could have been better, Swain explained afterwards that they were struggling to push the boat hard in the heavy running conditions of the final days, and passing opportunities had gone begging. They set to work on the problem in Cape Town.
Jeremy Elliott and Team Russia slid up to sixth in the home straight, gaining the benefit of holding their boat together. On arrival in Cape Town, Elliott would propose to his girlfriend, Jo (and be accepted). Delta Lloyd’s broken strut meant they could only fly fractional spinnakers on starboard gybe, which left them in seventh place. Roger Nilson and Telefonica Black trailed home last, and when they pulled the boat out of the water in Cape Town there was evidence of impact damage to the bow and both rudders. They couldn’t be sure this had caused the rudder failure, but it seemed very likely.
And eventually, the World Speed Sailing Record Council (WSSRC) pronounced on Ericsson 4’s run, ratifying a new 24-hour monohull world record at a distance of 596.6 nautical miles, concluding at 18.55 on 29 October – after Endean had completed the repair to the back of the boat. The magical 600-mile barrier remained officially unbroken, but the rudder damage and subsequent instrument failure had come just when they were poised to break the 600 miles – both slowing them and forcing the Race Office to rely on back-up positioning systems to measure their progress. There was no question that 600 miles was now possible, but would they get another chance to put it in the record books?