... Unimaginable terror in 'round the world' sailboat racing.
In his most readable and interesting book, "Godforsaken Sea," Derek Lundy takes the reader into the bowels of the fierce southern ocean as experienced only by the non-stop 'round the world' sailboat racers.
Specifically, the race is named "The Vendee Globe". It attracts a unique member of the human race, nature notwithstanding, someone so extraordinary that they are able and willing to attempt to run and win this race.
The term 'round the world' is not in the best sense true. The racers sail from the port of Les Sables-d'Olonne on the eastern coast of France and travel south by using the winds of the dependable north Atlantic high and the south Atlantic high and finally plunge past Cape Horn with only a slight turn to the east. This course takes them to a circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent. A true 'round the world' route would involve sailing in much higher latitudes and a much greater distance with the ensuing increase in time.
The phrases, "roaring forties, thundering fifties and screaming sixties" easily describe the environment into which these hardy adventurers sail. Time being of the essence, the solo sailors save time the further south they go and the closer to the Antarctic, but there are a few limits. One limit is that contestants must leave Heard Island to starboard. That means that even were they willing to go further south, they must stay no further south than Heard Island and that is fearfully far south. In reality, sailing in these latitudes is somewhere between perverse and suicidal.
Yes, the winds are constantly 40 knots and higher; often 60- 70- 80 knots. The waves reflect awesome winds with heights often 50 to 100 feet top to bottom. These sailors often, very often, close themselves in the sanctuary of the cabin to avoid being swept right off the boat into the icy seas. Even with a survival suit such an event would be fatal. Even if equipment does not fail, the sailor is constantly beaten for weeks as he or she hopes for survival and, yes, women participate and do very well.
That's the good part! The shortest route around the Antarctic continent takes sailor on a most risky area of ice. Relatively small cakes of ice called, 'growlers' are in this area and are virtually invisible until very close. In the wild south seas, sailors have to just hope for the best; hope that the boat does not capsize; hope the equipment doesn't fail; hope the boat avoids growlers and hope for survival. In such sailing races most disasters have taken place with the lone sailor secured inside the boat. Many have merely vanished, never to be found. On huge waves, boats slide out of control and can easily 'pitch pole'. When this happens, the bow digs into the sea and pitches over one end over the other. The mast gets destroyed, the boat no longer has control and often will not right itself. The main reason for this being that the beam or width of these 60 foot long wind surfers is nineteen feet so recovering from a roll over is not at all certain!
The skipper then has to somehow find a way to get his EPIRB (emergency position radio beacon) deployed topside as it will not work otherwise. This wonderful little radio sends an emergency locating radio beacon to a satellite telling listeners around the world that the sailor is in serious difficulty and his location. Each boat carries at least 4 EPIRBs.
If he or she is lucky, they get rescued. In the event the sailboat reaches the Cape Horn area, the course is set to the north and out of the more calamitous southern ocean. One sailor described it as "La sortie d'enfer", or the escape from hell! By the time any sailor passes by Cape Horn he or she invariably feels the fugitive from the fates left behind. After weeks in the company of 'the grim reaper', the sense of vast relief and rebirth is enormous. Sailing alone in the southern ocean is a roll of the dice for any sailor. It is a gauntlet whose course is replete with death-dealing storms of unimaginable ferocity, and boat-destroying ice. At the same time, storms seek out frailties in any boat and even small weaknesses in a boat can kill. Heavy keels have been known to separate from hulls to drop miles to the ocean floor and causing the abrupt turning over of the hull and an avalanche of unsecured cabin objects. Often the waves are 5 stories high!
In the continuous calamity of southern ocean racing, virtually all sailors are injured, all boats experience broken equipment. There are broken bones, severed fingers and infections. One contestant in the Vendee Globe race had to climb to the top of his mast, 80 feet in heavy seas and on the way down his lines got wrapped in the confusion and he almost hanged himself. Another whose boat was upside down with no keel and a broken mast, lost a finger as a hatch slammed down on it!
The southern ocean is a very lonely and primitive place. There are other wildernesses but none so far away and so huge. There, sailors cannot be reached. If you have a globe, hold it so that you are looking directly at the south pole. Only then can you see and realize that southern ocean racers are as distant from other humans as can be achieved and that assistance is most unlikely. Isabelle Autissier, an otherwise accomplished solo racer, was dismasted during an earlier BOC Challenge race 1200 miles southeast of Cape Town. Working frantically, Autissier chopped and sawed to rid the boat of the wreckage before it could destroy the hull in the wild seas. Then, with a jury-rigged boat, she slowly made her way to the French owned Kerguelan Islands which were 1200 miles to the west and 2500 miles southwest of The Cape of Good Hope. Her shore team located a replacement mast and shipped it to the Kerguelans on a French naval vessel. It was almost 40 feet shorter than her original mast and would severely restrict her speed during the rest of the leg to Sydney, Australia- the 2nd stop in the BOC race.
In three days the new mast was stepped and off went Isabelle again. After 2 weeks, still in the ferocious southern ocean, the weather got nasty and she took all the sails down and was sailing "on the sticks", which is a sailor's way of saying the wind was so strong sails were not needed! Luckily she was between spaces below when an enormous wave caused her sailboat to pitchpole and roll over 360 degrees at the same time, effectively removing not only her jury-rigged masts but the cabin top as well!
Regretfully, Isabelle activated her EPIRB beacon and was lucky to eventually get picked up by an Australian navy shipborn helicopter. Her million dollar sailboat was lost. It is a wonder she wasn't lost, too!
Now the group of sixteen 60 foot sailboats plunge into the southern oceans again as they are spread out over a distance of 5000 miles. Over years of experiments with these boat designs, the sailors had realized that success in the race through the southern oceans depended on a change of techniques. Most pitch poling, capsizing and disasters in general took place while the boats were traveling at reduced speed. Often at night in mountainous seas, the sailors would reduce or entirely eliminate sails so that speed became reduced. The more aggressive among them tried maintaining speed but instead of glissading down a six-story wave and into the wave ahead and disaster, they drove the boats at an angle with the wave so that speed was not reduced and the boat took on all the characteristics of a windsurfer. The boats were steered at an angle of 45 degrees to the wave and survival became increasingly likely. There was safety in speed!
The potential for horror, fear and calamity in the scenario of sailing at 25 knots in howling, near hurricane force winds, for weeks on end is overwhelming. Sailing below 40º south at any time of the year puts the sailor in the area of ice. Colliding with an ice 'growler' at 25 knots can mean death in a matter of only a few minutes. Often ice would merely cripple a boat by destroying on of the two rudders and thereby forcing the sailor to seek repairs in port. In the Vendee Globe, going into any port disqualified the sailor instantly. None the less, it happened frequently. The idea of being killed when 2000 miles from help in dark, freezing and mountainous seas is easily the stuff of nightmares but, alas, it is common among 'round the world' sailors.
In the 1996-1997 Vendee Globe race, Raphael Dinelli, on December 25, capsized in huge rollers, his mast smashing a large hole in the 'Algimouss' deck and filling the boat with frigid salt water. Immediately his EPIRB sent signals which were picked up via satellite. The nearest racer, Afibel, was 60 miles away but its electrical system had failed completely and he, Patrick de Radigues, was incommunicado! The next nearest racer was Pete Goss, who was 160 miles downwind in Aqua Quorum. Things had gotten quite dangerous for Goss and he had taken all his sails down and was making 28 knots with no sails at all!
Luckily for Dinelli, Goss' electronics were working and he was contacted about turning about and trying to find and rescue Dinelli. The dilemma for Goss was that turning the Aqua Quorum about and attempting to sail back 160 miles smashing into the hideous high seas was far more than the sailboat was designed for. It was easily a sail to destruction for Goss but, it had to be done. The scenario was that the storm made it probable that Goss' sailboat would not make it and Goss, too, would lose his life along with Dinelli.
That night was unimaginable! The wind made it difficult to even breathe and Goss had trouble opening his eyes against the constant wash! The next day the storm center had passed and the wind speed dropped to 45 knots. That seemed like a calm day to Goss. The Australian Navy called Goss to report their aircraft had spotted Dinelli and Dinelli had waved so, he was still alive. They dropped a raft to the stricken sailor and he quickly boarded it. Ten minutes after that, his sailboat sank! The first raft failed so a second one was dropped. With superhuman effort, Dinelli got to it and climbed aboard. After thirty hours of beating against the weather, Goss was in the area of Dinelli but visibility was terrible and he could not see. The Aussie aircraft flew over Dinelli's raft with its lights on and Goss finally got to the raft and picked the man up. For his heroic risks, Goss was later awarded France's highest honor, The Legion d'honneur. Against all odds Goss had saved Dinelli at the great risk of losing his own life.
Tony Bullimore, sailing the Exide Challenger, was glissading down an awesome mountain of water when his keel broke off and the sailboat casually turned completely over! Then the window was smashed by the boom, the boat instantly flooding. Tony dived down through the companionway to try to cut away his life raft. The hatch slammed shut, chopping off his finger! He pushed an EPIRB out the broken window and climbed upon a little shelf half in and half out of the freezing water hoping the ARGOS EPIRB was working. It was.
To make a long story shorter, Bullimore was rescued by the Australians as was still another unhappy camper, Thierry Dubois. Like Bullimore, Dubois was sailing at 51º south latitude; far closer to the Antarctic than Australia. His sailboat also had capsized and he lashed himself to one of the two rudders as mountain climbers do on vertical cliffs. He, too, was somehow found and picked up by the Aussies in an awful scenario of slim chances.
It is now scheduled that the next Vendee Globe race will depart Les Sables d'Olonne on the west coast of France on 5 November, 2000. Required passage points as follows: 1. Sables d'Olonne, 2. The Canaries, 3. Antarctic to starboard, 4. Heard Island to starboard, 5. marker at 50º South by 90º east to starboard, 6. marker at 57º South by 180º to starboard, 7. marker at 57º South by 120º west to starboard, 8. a marker 27º south by 67º west to starboard and back to Sables d'Olonne.
Check this coarse on your maps and you can see the severity of the race.
This marvelous book is published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. The book is ISBN 1-56512-229-1. I have rarely read a more "on the edge" story and highly recommend it to you.
October 1, 1999