MIKE RECALLS TRYING TO FIX A RIG PROBLEM IN THE SOUTHERN OCEAN THAT NEARLY SAW HIM STRANDED AT THE TOP OF THE MAST, SAILING BACK OUT TO SEA
On my first solo Vendée Globe race in 2000 I’d been at sea, alone for more than seven weeks and was just getting used to being in the Southern Indian Ocean when I realised I had a problem at the top of the rig. I could see the small lashing which held the J1 to the top of the furling gear had failed; only the friction of the wraps of the sail on the foil was preventing the sail coming down.
There was no option but to ascend the mast. My boat, Team Group 4, was charging across the Southern Ocean in a solid 25-35 knots of wind and surfing the relentless seas. Trips to the masthead in these conditions are near impossible, but with my track approaching the remote Marion and Prince Edward Islands, I decided to sail Team Group 4 into the lee of Marion Island to effect a repair.
Twenty-four hours later I sailed out of the wind and waves and into the 5-10 knot breeze and flat water behind Marion’s main mountain. I quickly began ascending the 100ft wingmast with my repair tools. To keep the boat stable and smooth throughout the climb, I left the mainsail at full hoist so TG4 cruised along easily at 5-6 knots on autopilot.
Reaching the masthead, I realised that the breakage was not quite what I had envisaged. The entire aluminium fitting, which the head of the sail was attached to, had sheared away: this was going to take more time...
After 30 minutes of work I could feel my heart rate rising, and I could see the wind and swell appearing on the water ahead of us at the other end of the island. I worked faster, conscious that with more than half the world ahead of me the work needed to be good.
Finally it was done and I turned my attention to getting down. To begin I had to disconnect the ascender on my chest and attach myself onto the descender, a different device. I realised there was a problem. In my effort to get as high as possible, I’d pushed the ascender hard against the masthead halyard exit. To release the cam I needed it to move up, but the halyard had been bounced bar tight. There was no way this ascender was coming off the climbing halyard – I was pinned at the masthead.
Fortunately, I’d gone up the mast in a bosun’s chair, but also wearing a climbing harness for security. I detached the harness from the chair and attached it and myself directly onto the masthead before climbing out of the chair – normally an unthinkable risk. By clipping the descender onto the spare masthead halyard I’d created a new route down to the safety of the deck 100ft below.
As all of this was happening, TG4 had merrily sailed herself back out into the Southern Ocean, which greeted us with a smacking slam as the flat hull struck the first swell. For me, 100ft up, that slap was magnified into what can only be described as a hammer blow. Completely unprepared, my head and body slammed against the mast. Stars spun and the warmth of my own blood running down my face told me that this was now going horribly, horribly wrong.
Over the next dozen or so waves I held on as best I could, over-exertion and panic making me weaker. I was desperately processing how I would avoid serious injury while depressing the trigger of the descender and at the same time holding myself secure against the rig with one arm. Several times the huge G-forces of the slams caused me to lose grip only to be flung around on the halyard like a rag doll. This was now completely out of control…
My head spun. There was no time left and I had come up with no good options. All climbing equipment is built to suit 11mm rope that is quite deliberately stretchy but I was now attached by the descender to a 10mm high tech Vectran halyard with absolutely zero stretch. The change of performance of the equipment was quite dramatic. Control now consisted of two modes – falling or stopped!
I touched the trigger, fell instantly, released in panic and stopped suddenly with far more than my poor old heart in my mouth. Breathless, I drove my arm between the luff of the sail and the mast and managed to hold on to survive the next few excruciating slams in the no-mans land 15ft down from the masthead.
Out of strength, heart pounding and head spinning, I timed another move, pushing with all my might outwards and away from the mast towards the middle of the mainsail. I pulled the descender trigger once again.
Call it what you like: blind luck; precision timing; whatever, but minutes later I was free of my harness and safe on deck, blood everywhere and a nagging fear of being unable ever to produce children.
I cried, I laughed, I phoned home to let them know I was alive. Of course, they knew I would be!
‘I WAS BEING FLUNG AROUND LIKE A RAG DOLL’