Racing alone around the world in a 60-foot flyer, Conrad Colman's recent experiences illustrate clearly why the Vendee Globe is called the Everest of ocean racing. In the last two weeks he has dealt with an electrical fire that knocked out his instruments and led to an auto pilot shut down letting the boat jibe broach with the spinnaker up in 30 knots to a near capsize. He has been up and down his mast several times. He has been rewiring his boat to replace burned and shorted out cable, sails through a depression that created monstrous waves and winds over 50 knots. During all that time, he was racing his boat hard which means constant trimming, hand steering when the instruments don't work, reefing, changing head sails, reading the weather and planning routes to catch up to the boats he lost while the boat was on her side, etc. Through all this Conrad has not given up and in his last pod cast he said that he could truthfully answer a French journalist by saying he is enjoying the race.
The following are some snippets from this blog posts going back two weeks while he has been racing across the Southern Ocean.
Day 28 blog
After a fire, crash gybe while he was putting out the electrical fire, a near capsize, a blown sail, a semi flooded boat and hundreds of miles lost to his nearest competitors, Conrad wrote, "Bad days happen, especially at sea! What counts is how you get back up and into the fight. I lost a valuable sail that will handicap my performance for the rest of the race and a couple of hundred miles to my group but they'll have bad days too and I'm now in the position of hunter rather than running scared in front of them. Whenever you are thinking you are having a bad day, click here to read the full account of this horrid experience.
Mich Desj (Michel Desjoyeaux), two time winner of the Vendee Globe, says that you need to be mentally prepared for one major problem per day and so far I'm keeping up with his tempo ... When the wind shifted this afternoon from NW to N, I changed from my bigger reaching sail to my smaller flatter sail, the Solent or J2. When I unrolled it I saw that the pocket that holds the sail onto the cable was damaged and the sail risked to unzip itself completely. As the front of the sail is only exposed when the sail is unrolled I would have to fix it when the sail was working and the boat was fully powered up because I couldn't bear away onto a run because the Ice exclusion zone isn't far to leeward.
So, with the wind blowing at 20 knots and boatspeed sometimes the same, I climbed almost to the top of the mast and then hand stitched the pocket closed and then covered the repair with self adhesive sail cloth...22 meters in the air, one foot hooked around the sail and the other around the mast, bracing to stay stable and then concentrating on the needle I figured the closest possible comparison would be threading a needle on the back of a galloping horse while doing the splits and situps at the same time. I guess you need to have a head for heights!
By living with a tool kit and multimeter in my hands as much as the helm and the sheets I just hope that I can resolve enough of the problems fast enough to keep me in the race and avoid the fall of the executioner's axe!
It's getting windy and cold again, the passage of the cold front just hours away. After getting smacked with a 55 knot gust that could have torn my mainsail and stopped my race, I have taken the second reef earlier this time. Now I'm a little stressed not about the boat, but about the race as the rest of my group are still a little bit faster. They all have newer and faster boats that are more optimized for these reaching angles (my strong points are upwind and downwind) so I guess it's inevitable but still I do my best to walk the line between giving up miles and assuring that I won't wreck the boat before I escape the South.
Also, falling off the train that Stephane (Le Diraison) and Nandor (Fa) are still on has forced me to dive south, close to the Kerguelen Islands andclose to an iceberg detected by satellites four days ago. As I write this I have just crossed over the waypoint for the observed 30 meter iceberg as I figured the best way to avoid a moving target is to sail exactly over the point where it was last seen!
From Day 39
I currently am ripping along with my smallest jib and two reefs in the main sail and even with such small sails I still saw 27kts on the speedo! At such speeds it's dangerous to work on deck or in the cockpit because the waves coming over the boat have so much force that I have been knocked flat by "spray". I am clipped on at all times and limit my time outside to the strictly necessary maneuvers and I still feel like I've been in the ring with Tyson. In that storm his cockpit drain started leaking and flooding the aft compartment. The water got so high that running his pump for five minutes did nothing to lower the water level. "So I had to get creative to get the water out. I clipped my harness on and then climbed over the back of the boat and stood on the little skirt on the transom, just 4 centimeters up from the raging wake of the boat. From there I opened the back emergency escape hatch to release the flood from the inside. I was afraid that the autopilot would be drowned in the aft compartment, but it is mounted high enough that it wasn't touched. Only my nerves were fried this time! How did I stop the leak on this carbon fiber racing yacht full of high tech stuff? With a wooden bung! Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics when it's blowing 40kts!
Independently of Stephane's (Le Diraison) horror (dismasted) I had a tough night that started when the pilot over corrected coming off a wave and spun the boat into a gybe-broach. Imagine the scene from my video with the boat pinned on its side and now imagine it in the dark. This time as I stood on the side of the cockpit to furl up the sail I was illuminated by the navigations light winking hopefully from beneath the waves that lapped at my feet. After much effort I was able to get on my way again without any damage to man or machine.
I was afraid that the autopilot would be drowned but it is mounted high enough that it wasn't touched. Only my nerves were fried this time! How did I stop the leak on this carbon fiber racing yacht full of high tech stuff? With a wooden bung! Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics when it's blowing 40kts!
Escaping (nearby competitors) isn't easy however as I discovered both in the last storm but also last night when I had to gybe around the corner of the exclusion zone. While running down the no go zone, the wind continued to increase until it was gusting 40 and the boat was pitching down the valleys of the swells and sending up walls of spray that made for white-out conditions in the light of my headlamp. Clouds covered the moon so I was on my own for the maneuver with just my headlamp and foredeck light to judge the moment to gybe. I waited until a lull in the wind showed me my moment and I was able to pull the 170 square meter reacher around to the windward side and run downwind like a bird with one sail spread out on each side of the boat. With the big sail through I was able to accelerate the boat on a wave to take the pressure off the mainsail so I could bring it across without shock loading the rig. Like comedy, gybing is all about timing but the pressure is higher as one false move when choosing when to release a barber hauler, swing the keel, swap the backstays or grind on the sheets would result in more than just a joke falling flat!
Shortly after the first, I had to gybe again to take on the new course and again the sky was black and I had to pick a lull when the wind was blowing less than 30kts. Just minutes after my final maneuver for the night the sky cleared to reveal a beautiful starry sky and a powerful moon that would have made my life a lot easier just moments before. Clearly the joke was on me but the thousands of gybes I have done since I started in the Mini Transat in 2009, and the muscle memory I have created, served me well when I needed it and I'm still here, ready to gybe another day.