Even before he crossed the starting line of the Vendee Globe, Conrad Colman knew the deck was stacked against him. He could not afford a new boat, he only bought two new sails for the race (both UK Sailmakers Titanium sails), and he only got a naming sponsor in the week before the start. Yet, Conrad knew that, if he was going to break into the top levels of professional sailing, he had to get on the course and show the world he has the skills to compete. Conrad did more than that. For more than half the race he was the leading “old boat” in the fleet, ahead of many better funded teams.
His first disaster struck December 30. Conrad was pushing hard catching up to his IMOCA 60 mentor Nandor Fa, who at one point had been over 600 miles ahead. Conrad had closed to less than 200 miles behind. While surfing in 35-30 knots of breeze with two reefs and the Solent Jib, a 50-knot gust came through and the boat wiped out. With the sail luffing while the boat lay on it side, the Solent Jib blew apart. The Solent Jib, his biggest upwind foresail, was shredded and irreparable. “As suddenly as it had come, the gust was over in less than a minute, but had spiked at 50 knots and just those few seconds of extreme pressure had ripped the jib from luff to leach. A kung fu master couldn’t have delivered a one punch knock out with more surprise.”
But that was only the beginning of his problems. A seemingly minor problem with a broken batten car cascaded to the point Conrad had to consider abandoning his boat in middle of nowhere. Conrad had been riding the leading edge of a powerful weather front in the South Pacific halfway between New Zealand and Cape Horn. As long as he could stay ahead of it, he had great wind from the stern. But, when he lowered the main to fix the luff slides that had ripped free, he was overtaken by the storm that was much stronger than forecast. In that storm he came within a hairsbreadth of losing his mast when his forestay disconnected from the bow.
“I was sailing in 50-60 knots of wind and it was gusting higher. So I was sailing with just the third reef and no foresail. I was actually outside helming when I came off a wave with a big bang and saw the forestay go limp. I saw the pin at the bottom had broken or fallen out. That meant the primary forestay, which holds the mast up, which had a sail furled on it, was then free to fly about. And so as soon the forestay was not held at the bottom anymore, the genoa on it unfurled and was whipping the forestay about. That was in 50-60 knots of wind. At that point of sail, with the sail flying like a flag from the top of the mast, the boat was pulled over, almost capsized,” said Colman. “It stayed like that for several hours while the mast was shaking. I was very afraid to lose the rig at that point.”
There was nothing more Colman could do than protect himself as best he could inside the boat, waiting until the worst of the storm had passed. He then spent the best part of a day, including three periods totaling six hours, up his mast in 30 knots of wind, trying to cut away his knotted headsail. “To cut the sail away took five or six hours hanging in the harness, to separate it off the bottom of the forestay,” Colman continued, “Finally the wind reduced and I was able to put a new pin in and to put a lashing in place to secure the forestay. The mast stayed up.”
After that he was down three sails and had lost 800 miles of his lead on the guys behind him. He was physically shattered and had some deep cuts from when he was aloft cutting away the genoa. At the time he wrote in his blog, “Emotionally, I am very disappointed; I felt like I was doing everything right, I was sailing very conservatively at the time. I was let down by a technical failure. The fact I ended up where I did was not because of my seamanship, but just the wear and tear on the boat.”
Luckily, the New Year’s disaster did not cost Conrad his life, his boat or the race. So far it only cost him one place. Eric Bellion passed Conrad shortly after the disaster before rounding Cape Horn, but Conrad has stayed within 300 miles of Bellion during the rounding of Cape Horn and during the race up the Atlantic. It took Conrad several days to recover physically and mentally from his New Year’s disaster, but he has continued the fight to the finish. It appears that his love of what he is doing may have dimmed for a moment, but his determination and sense of humor is evident in these two videos. One shows him crossing the Equator and in the other you’ll hear him discuss his weather options for the final 1200 miles.
When Conrad was just under 700 nautical miles from the finish, he had closed to under 200 miles behind Bellion, but then the second disaster struck. At 2200 UTC February 10, Colman’s boat was dismasted. In the dark he cut away the rig and mainsail and saved the broken boom. At this point he has repaired his crushed boom, stepped it as a jury rig and is attempting to finish the race. Colman’s goal is still to be the first person to finish the Vendee Globe race without using a drop of fossil fuel. If he can’t reach the finish line in Les Sables d’Olonne, he will sail the boat to whatever safe harbor he can reach. “If there is anyone who you’d put your money on to do this it would be Conrad,” said British ocean racer Sam Goodchild who raced with Colman in 2011-12 on his first round the world race, echoing the belief of tens of thousands of race followers who have been entranced by Colman’s drive and bravery since he left Les Sables d’Olonne on November 6.