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Russian Roulette

December 29, 2004

It has been a week of Russian Roulette for the Vendee Globe skippers as they pick their way through an ocean strewn with icebergs. It’s every skipper’s nightmare as they sail in dangerous waters with only their wits and some electronic back-up to see them safely through this treacherous area. For one skipper, Sebastian Josse on VMI, his ultimate concern became a bone-crunching reality when he collided with an iceberg while sailing at 13 knots. It was just after daybreak when he spotted the 50-meter long berg directly in his path. His radar, for some reason, had not picked up the iceberg but luckily Josse was able to change course to avoid hitting solid ice. Unfortunately a large growler had broken off the main berg and lay submerged directly in his path. The boat collided with the chunk of ice smashing the bowsprit, but luckily not puncturing the hull. The good news is that with some rudimentary repairs VMI is back sailing at speed, but the collision comes as a stark reminder to Bruce and the rest of the skippers that they are sailing a razor’s edge between fun and failure.

Bruce himself is deep in the Roaring Forties. He may well be positioned to the north of most of his competitors, but it’s a prudent place to be given the ice situation to the south. His jog to the north to fix his radar was in fact a lucky move as the leading boats, all sailing well below 50 degrees south, have seen numerous bergs. It’s neither good for boat speed or mental health to be dodging ice, and all the Vendee sailors know that boat speed and mental health are key ingredients to surviving and winning the race. The icebergs themselves, while dangerous in their own right, are not as dangerous as the pieces that break off the main berg. These pieces of ice, known as growlers or bergy bits, are about the size of a car and float just below the surface of the water where they cannot be picked up by radar. In fact if the wind is up a growler looks just like a breaking wave, so getting a visual on one is very difficult. The only rule of thumb sailors adhere to, as far as possible, is to pass all icebergs to windward. The debris in the water usually floats to leeward of the main berg so attempting to pass on that side would be suicide.

For the first time since the race started Bruce has moved into the top half of the fleet. He is currently sailing in tenth place behind Joe Seeton on Arcelor Dunkerque and ahead of Conrad Humphries on Hellomoto. His progress has been slow and steady which is what long distance ocean racing is all about. While no skipper feels any joy when a fellow competitor is forced to stop to make repairs, it is a part of the race and with Patrice Carpentier on VM Materiaux anchored in Tasmania, and Marc Thiercelin on Pro Form heading for New Zealand, Ocean Planet has slowly moved up the rankings. Some sailors might claim that it’s simply the luck of the draw who gets damaged and who passes through the deep south unscathed, and there may be some merit to that point, but it’s also about how the boat is prepared. During the Around Alone Bruce was very unlucky and broke his boom on two occasions. He has since learned from those disasters and shortened his boom. So far so good, the new boom is holding up fine and the careful sailing and prudent tactical choices are beginning to pay dividends. Ocean Planet still has 12,000 miles to sail and a lot can happen along the way.

As we pass from 2004 to 2005, Bruce and some of his fellow Vendee competitors may pass quite close to some other around-the-world racers. A fleet of 12 identical 72-foot sailboats are currently racing the “wrong” way around the world. They are en route from Buenos Aries in Argentina, to Wellington in New Zealand, sailing upwind through the Southern Ocean. On New Year’s Day Ocean Planet should pass quite close to the leading boats. The two fleets could not be more different even though all the sailors have a common desire; to sail around the world. The other fleet is made up of amateur sailors each paying a substantial amount of money to be a crew on one of the ruggedly built boats. They are in stark contrast to the Vendee sailors who are professionals sailing on some of the most high-tech sailboats in the world. Still the ocean is the same for all sailors, as is the personal satisfaction of sailing a boat around the world powered only by the wind.

— Brian Hancock

Brian Hancock is a veteran round the world racer who has parlayed that experience into a career as a writer and is author of five books. His latest are: “The Risk in Being Alive” and “Maximum Sail Power.” “Risk” is an autobiographical account of his sailing and travel adventures. “Maximum Sail” is a definitive guide to sails and sailmaking and sail technology.


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