The Hard­est Miles

Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race tests the lim­its of every­one and ev­ery­thing.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

On pa­per, the sec­ond South­ern Ocean leg of the Volvo Ocean Race is 7,600 miles, the long­est of the race by a lot. Th­ese are the dif­fi­cult miles that push men, women and equip­ment to their break­ing point. This clas­sic and defin­ing seg­ment of the race can be fast and kind, but more of­ten than not, it’s fast and bru­tal, the sort of leg that finds even the most hard­ened vet­er­ans and masochists clam­or­ing for the exit door at Cape Horn. Such will be re­mem­bered of the 2018 edi­tion, the one that claimed one life and stripped years off many oth­ers.

“The South­ern Ocean has been es­pe­cially tough this year,” wrote Si­mon Fisher, nav­i­ga­tor and helms­man for Ves­tas 11th Hour Rac­ing, hours be­fore they passed the iconic land­mark in the wake of Team Brunel on March 29, 10 days af­ter leav­ing Auck­land, New Zealand. “It has been more re­lent­less and un­for­giv­ing than I can ever re­mem­ber.”

Weigh­ing on Fisher’s mind and cast­ing a somber pall across the fleet was the un­set­tling death of Sun Hung Kai/ Scal­ly­wag’s 48- year- old crewmem­ber John Fisher, knocked overboard during an ac­ci­den­tal jibe and de­clared lost at sea af­ter an im­pos­si­ble search.

“In the past week, it feels as if we have been bat­tered by storm af­ter storm. And yet an­other squall is never far away,” said Si­mon Fisher. “As the clouds that bring the squalls roll by, we are hit by 35- to 40-knot gusts, not to men­tion a mix­ture of hail and snow. The nov­elty of mak­ing snow­balls has long since worn off. This is sail­ing at its most ex­treme.”

The bit­ter cold, re­lent­less speed from run­ning with con­sec­u­tive storms and lack of sleep fol­low­ing count­less jibes against the race-im­posed ice-ex­clu­sion zone had worn down every­one, added Fisher. Videos and pho­tos trans­mit­ted from every boat, in­clud­ing Ves­tas, re­vealed the sunken eyes, blis­tered and frost­bit­ing hands, wind-burned cheeks and the lethar­gic and

cal­cu­lated move­ments of the sailors.

“As we brace our­selves for the fi­nal few days of strong winds, Cape Horn can­not come soon enough,” closed Fisher. “We have en­dured many days of heavy weather, storms, squalls, snow, hail and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. Mas­sive waves and howl­ing winds, and all this in a fleet so close and so com­pet­i­tive that we are given no choice but to push to the limit 100 per­cent of the time. Round­ing Cape Horn this time will be more sat­is­fy­ing than ever.”

As mon­u­men­tal as the round­ing is for those who’ve done it, in­clud­ing Team Brunel’s Bouwe Bekking — his ninth — there was barely a mo­ment for slaps on the back, a cigar and a nip of rum, for there were still 2,000 miles to go be­fore the fin­ish in Ita­jai, Brazil.

“The crew is very, very, very tired,” wrote Bekking. “Even though we are lead­ing, there is no ‘hur­ray’ feel­ing on board. The loss of John is sit­ting way deeper than peo­ple like to ad­mit. I think of him sev­eral times in an hour. It didn’t come easy this leg. As ev­ery­body knows, it was a windy one.”

Only part­way through the leg did the teams get a 24-hour respite from the hard rac­ing and close bat­tle be­ing waged in the po­si­tion re­ports. Crews seized the op­por­tu­nity to mend and pre­pare their bod­ies and boats for one last pun­ish­ing low that would pro­pel them to­ward Cape Horn. Once the wind got crank­ing again, they were right back into it.

“We had some 40 to 45 knots, which is no fun. Ac­tu­ally, it is pure sur­vival mode,” wrote Bekking on March 25, four days out from the Horn. “But still do­ing be­tween 22 and top speeds of 39 knots, crazy. But you know the oth­ers don’t hold back ei­ther. Back­ing down now? No way. Any­body will do this. It is the way we sail.”

A day ear­lier, nav­i­ga­tor Libby Green­halgh con­fessed to “some try­ing times” on board Scal­ly­wag as they jibed against the ice gate. The Hong Kong/aus­tralian en­try was seem­ingly fall­ing far­ther be­hind the fleet with every ma­neu­ver. Crash jibes weren’t help­ing their cause. “The mo­ti­va­tion to push our­selves has to come from within the team, es­pe­cially when you are short jib­ing and can­not im­me­di­ately dis­play the ben­e­fit from the boats around,” wrote Green­halgh. “There is no one there, just us, and that mid­dle of the

ocean sud­denly seems very far and very alone.”

Two days later, with the South­ern Ocean in full noise, her words rang true. Fif­teen min­utes be­fore sun­rise, in 35 to 45 knots of wind and 15-foot boil­ing seas, the 65-footer re­port­edly surfed down a wave and then spun into an ac­ci­den­tal jibe.

Ac­cord­ing to a team state­ment, John Fisher was tran­sit­ing the cock­pit, mov­ing for­ward to tend to a head­sail sheet when “the main­sheet sys­tem caught John and knocked him off the boat.” Be­cause of his move­ment at the time, he was not teth­ered.

A Jon­buoy and horse­shoe were de­ployed, but by the time the team had stowed head­sails and mo­tor­sailed back to the MOB lo­ca­tion, they were un­able to find buoys nor Fisher. With a pow­er­ful storm bar­rel­ing down on them and the Bri­tish sailor’s chances of sur­vival di­min­ished, the search­ing ended and the mourn­ing be­gan.

As Scal­ly­wag rerouted to Chile, its com­peti­tors sol­diered on to­ward Cape Horn with yet an­other low-pres­sure punch, with more crash jibes and bro­ken bits and bones to write home about.

It was then Mapfre’s turn, when the over­all race leader re­vealed it’d been deal­ing with a com­pro­mised main­sail track, which was giv­ing the team dire con­cerns. They’d ef­fected a jury rig, and know­ing the next fail­ure was a dis­mast­ing, they dis­patched a small shore team to the re­mote South Amer­i­can tip. Skip­per Xabi Fer­nan­dez hadn’t an­tic­i­pated their main­sail part­ing from luff to leech while en route, so Mapfre’s an­tic­i­pated pit stop be­fore round­ing the Horn proved to be a wise choice af­ter all. Thir­teen hours af­ter sus­pend­ing rac­ing, with a ban­daged main­sail, a reglued track and a crit­i­cal re­pair to the boom per­formed, they were back on the race­track, in slow pur­suit of the front-run­ners. They too were happy to leave the South­ern Ocean, with all its splen­dor and mis­ery.

Prov­ing, how­ever, that one is never done un­til the dock­lines are se­cured, word came on March 30 that Ves­tas 11th Hour Rac­ing, sec­ond around the Horn, dis­masted ap­prox­i­mately 100 miles south­east of the Falk­land Is­lands. The crew was forced to cut away the bro­ken mast to avoid dam­age to the hull and mo­tored under its own power to­ward the is­lands. At press time, the team was mo­tor­ing to Ita­jai, this time putting a few thou­sand hard miles on its Volvo Penta saildrive. Q


John Fisher winds a winch on Sun Hung Kai/ Scal­ly­wag during a sail change on March 26. He would soon be knocked overboard and never re­cov­ered.

Bouwe Bekking drives in a big sea state en­coun­tered 10 days into Leg 7 en route to win­ning the team’s first leg. PHOTO: YANN R IOU/ VOLVO OCEAN RACE


Mapfre’s An­to­nio Cuer­vas-mons warms the glue for a sail patch as the team stops to re­pair its main­sail and mast track.

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