Vestas, figurehead at Volvo: boat buried among corals (and in ridicule)


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Ocean literature is studded with “barbarian figures” collected even by sailing legends. Team Vestas’ beaching on the reef at the Volvo Ocean Race is just the latest in a long line of what would be called “epic failures” on the web today: but, we shall see, it is probably one of the most incredible.

The wreckage of Yvan Bourgnon's uninhabitable catamaran smashed against the coast of Sri Lanka
The wreckage of Yvan Bourgnon’s uninhabitable catamaran smashed against the coast of Sri Lanka

Bernard Moitessier, aboard the Marie Théreése II (in which the great navigator had sailed from Mauritius to Cape Town and then on to the West Indies), he smashed into the reef of the Diego Garcia atoll while trying to reach the Trinidad due, it is said, to a stroke of sleep. And to cite examples in more recent times, Giovanni Soldini and Vittorio Malingri at the Transat Jacques Vabre in 2005, shipwrecked with the trimaran Tim due to an autopilot malfunction. Or Yvan Bourgnon, who inexplicably ended up against the reefs of Sri Lanka while completing his round-the-world voyage on a 6.20-meter uninhabitable catamaran last August.

Team Vestas Wind beached on the coral reef. Photo by Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica / Volvo Ocean Race
Team Vestas Wind beached on coral reef. Photo by Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica / Volvo Ocean Race

But the beaching of Team Vestas in the Volvo Ocean Race, on the reef at Cargados Carajos Shoals, about 200 miles north-northeast of Mauritius (with the crew forced to abandon the boat), really has the unbelievable, almost the tragicomic. Moitessier sailed with the sextant, ditto Bourgnon. Here, however, we are talking about a super-technological boat, with a crew of highly experienced sailors, sophisticated computer equipment. Pending official explanations, it comes to mind that inattention and “performance anxiety” led them to make a terrible and unforgivable mistake. And to make a big impression. A figure that cost many millions of euros (4.5 million just the hull and masting, not counting equipment).

Chris Nicholson after the accident. Photo by Brian Carlin / Team Vestas Wind/ Volvo Ocean Race
Chris Nicholson after the accident. Photo by Brian Carlin / Team Vestas Wind/ Volvo Ocean Race

Chris Nicholson, the skipper of Vestas, the last team to enter the 2014-15 VOR, has four editions of the Volvo behind him (the first in 2001-02, aboard Amer Sports One). Navigator Wouter Verbraak is on his third Volvo; in 2011 he competed in the Barcelona World Race. And the entire crew of the boat flying the Danish colors has a truly enviable track record. In sailing, the one who makes the least mistakes wins. So it is assumed that everyone makes mistakes, even the biggest ones. We turn the question over to you, dear readers. What do you think about the affair? Whose fault is it?


Interview with Chris Nicholson by Mark Covell, watch producer in Alicante

How are you?

I’m here on a remote, beautiful island in the dark because they turned off the generator an hour ago. I made many satellite phone calls during a beautiful night, but yesterday’s was one of the worst nights I have ever experienced.

I can imagine, and how is the crew?

It seems impossible but good. We just had dinner, a simple dinner here on the island. I told the guys: how many times in your life and your sports career can you have an accident like what happened to us? We experienced it without media, friends and family close to us. Essentially we are castaways. We had dinner and everyone talked quite openly and honestly about what happened and how we handled the situation. Probably the most in-depth debrief you can get. So there is a sense of relief, in a way you feel lucky.

Chris can you tell me in your opinion what is the condition of the boat?

The damage is very extensive, if you want my opinion, but I am not a builder. He beat up a lot. To tell you the truth, I was surprised how we managed to stay in one piece, with all that beating. What happened is unbelievable.

Certainly being able to stay on board saved you. In general, what are the major concerns now?

My biggest priority is of course the welfare of my crew and of course all those who are close to them, who have suffered for them. My first phone call after the accident after informing Race Control was to Neil Cox (the Shore Manager of Team Vestas Wind) to ask him to inform the families so they would know what was going on. During those hours we had no electricity on board, no satellite coverage, and a horrible domino effect was produced. I can only imagine what their families were experiencing. So this is my most pressing problem, and also knowing that we have to try to save as much of the boat as possible.

What have you been able to salvage for the time being, and do you plan to go back on board to get more food, water, equipment, etc.?

Yes absolutely. The entire crew spent most of the day retrieving materials. Diesel, oil, boat hydraulic components, and we plan to do the same tomorrow. The damage is extensive. It’s crazy but we don’t have the means to be able to send the pictures we took, not from here. As I said, we are castaways, and what we are going through is a unique experience.

Describe the island to us

I see the lagoon, I see the waves crashing on the reef, the one we saw all too closely yesterday. It is all so at odds with what we have experienced. It is a beautiful place and there is a seabird colony, we will try our best to clean up.

Going back to the other night, can you tell us how the evacuation of the boat worked and what it was like to make the decision to leave the boat, get on the rafts?

When it comes to hard decisions in life … this was one of the hardest I had to make. It was the thing to do, we were on the rocks and the damage was huge. The immediate concern was that people might stay on board and buy time, waiting for the situation to improve. But the situation did not improve, basically the boat had to destroy itself more to “climb up” the rocks ,out of the waves. I can’t even describe how hard it was just to hold on. In addition, we had not had time to practice evacuation systems, in case it was needed. I did not want to leave the boat during the hours of darkness. I simply didn’t want to do it and that was my intention from the beginning. But unfortunately when it happened night was falling, so we had to spend 7 or 8 hours waiting for it to get light. We did, I don’t know maybe 15 maybe 20 trials, to figure out how to do it. We repeated the maneuver throughout the night, always hoping it would not be necessary. But then, an hour and a half before it became clear we had to make the decision, and we abandoned the boat.

What was your biggest concern, you talk about rocks and coral, high or low water, waves but what were you thinking in those moments, what was going through your mind?

We knew the water was shallow on the other side of the reef, in the lagoon. The problem is that for most of the night we were in the part where the water is highest, where the keel was embedded in the rocks and the boat kept getting beaten up by the waves, which were breaking there. We had to hold on, with the boat breaking around us. But there was no way down, not safely. And then, when dawn was coming, two hours before sunrise, the bulb came off and the boat tilted heavily to one side. As this was happening, we realized that the stern was gone, the deck was starting to sag, and the boat kept tilting, so we decided to go down. We had already practiced with the jonbuoy system to see where it would go and had already inflated a raft, which had gone over the reef and which we could reach. We practiced all night to figure out how to do it. When we made the decision, we set to work.

We’re talking to you on an Inmarsat iSat satellite phone right now and I’m concerned I wouldn’t want us to be consuming precious energy to organize your logistics. Do you have a way to recharge with a solar panel?

Yes, it charged all day, the only problem is that we need a longer cable. It saved our lives, we had so much damage on board with water coming in fast, we lost electricity, onboard phones and had to take the Inmarsat phone from the grab bag (a bag with emergency equipment ed.). You always think you are well prepared for these situations, but in the excitement of the moment everything is different. You have to be able to inform the people who need to be informed and give the crew reassurance that there are others who are handling this.

In this regard, you have thousands and thousands of fans who are close to you and would like to give you a message of support. Do you have a message for them and your loved ones?

I’m obviously — upset about what happened, I don’t know, I told the guys today…. (pauses).

Take your time…

(long pause) I told the boys today that I always believed we were a strong group, that we made mistakes that led to last night’s situation. But I’m so proud of the way they behaved, their attitude, the fact that they tried to do the right things at such a time.

Yes, you can tell that you have made a tremendous effort, even to respect the environment. And we know that Volvo will work with you to resolve this in the best way possible. Speaking of plans to leave the island, how do you plan to do it?

Tomorrow (today for us ed) we will work all day to remove the ropes and most of the cables from the boat which will help us make any final decisions on what to do with the boat. Then, I think Tuesday morning, we can take a boat and make the trip to Mauritius, it’s about 20 hours, where Neil Cox will be there. ‘Coxy’ is already in Mauritius, I just talked to him and he is already at work, talking to the recovery experts and has to make the decision of what can or cannot be done for the boat. We have photos and videos but cannot share them at the moment. I will take them with me and they will be used to evaluate this, but unfortunately I am pretty sure of a negative outcome. But, you know, if anyone in the world can do it, it’s those who are part of the team. I cannot think that our story ends here, ours is a special group of people when you consider what has happened. And I think the crisis management plan that we and Volvo put in place had the best solution that could be expected in such a situation.

Hopefully Brian (Carlin, the Onboard reporter) did his best, he is a fantastic Onboard Reporter and he documented things. How much have you been able to film and can you still work?

It is difficult, because there are so many stories to tell, with what has happened and is happening, and lost a lot of equipment. We don’t have a chance to see what he produced, but I was able to take a look, and the material he did must be incredible. There is only so much we can do today and tomorrow on this point. It was amazing to see everyone doing their part, though.

Before we finish, is there anything you want to say?

No, personally I am just very grateful for all the help and support everyone has shown us.





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