Conrad Colman is in recovery mode. The Kiwi skipper in ninth place in the Vendée Globe is recovering physically after three epic days battling to keep alive his ten year dream to complete the famous solo round the world race.
Rest is the best medicine for his cut hands, his strained and bruised limbs and battered body and the 34 year old solo skipper, who is on his third racing circumnavigation, has enough experience as a sailor and endurance athlete to know he can deal progressively with that requirement. But at the same time as his relief is palpable that his strength of character and the toughness of his boat and rig proved enough to keep him in the race, so too it is impossible for him not to reflect on the miles lost while he was in his fight with the elements.
Keeping his Foresight Natural Energy on the race track, heading east towards Cape Horn since yesterday evening, when he came within a hairsbreadth of losing his mast, should feel like a triumph in itself. But to the hard bitten competitor who has been punching above his weight since the start, the 350 or so miles he has lost to Nandor Fa in front of him and now with Eric Bellion just some 203 miles behind, the miles lost to his exhausted mind have the feel of a knockout punch.
Colman told today how his IMOCA 60 was held on its side for several hours in 60kt winds and huge seas after he ended up in the most violent part of a vicious low. The situation was precipitated by the loss of a mainsail batten which, he reported, broke the intermediate fixings holding his mainsail to the mast. Because he slowed to fix this problem he ended up in the storm which turned out to be much worse than initially forecast. “I was sailing in 50-60kts of wind and it was gusting higher. And 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 and 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 it was not held at the bottom any more, it unfurled and was whipping the forestay about. That was in 50-60 knots of wind. And on that point of sail with the sail flying like a flag from the top of the mast it pulled the boat over, almost capsized,” Colman said today. “And 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, totalling six hours, up his mast in 30kts of wind, trying to cut away his knotted headsail. “And 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, “That was a whole day to separate it off the bottom of the stay. Finally the wind reduced, now I was able to put a new pin in and to put a lashing in place to secure the forestay. The mast stayed up. It is secure. I can keep sailing but as far as my race goes. I am down three sails now and I have lost eight hundred miles on my lead on the guys behind me. It will be really difficult to maintain my position in the race. But having seen my race coming so close to ending, I am pleased to be still floating, to have a mast, and the ability to keep on going. Physically I am shattered. 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. It is disheartening to see my position in the fleet come under risk as a result of a couple of really, really hard days. I just need to look at it relatively and say I have had a really good race. I have been punching above my weight for most of this race. I am now down three sails. And I have lost most of my lead on the boats behind. But if I can get round Cape Horn in this position, then if I lose places coming up the Atlantic then it will be inevitable. I no longer have the ability to fight against other boats which are in better condition.”
Miles are coming more easily for Alex Thomson and Armel Le Cléac’h as the top duo extend into SE’ly trade winds which have built to be closer to 20kts now. Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire VIII has less than 400 miles of Southern Hemisphere sailing left. The Doldrums are enlarging, becoming more active as they approach, but it is the North Atlantic ascent to the Bay of Biscay which is taxing their minds right now, looking ahead. Thomson, back sailing at even speeds with his rival who is 340 miles ahead, said this morning: “By this afternoon I should be matching him. And then on the approach to the Doldrums I might be able to catch up a little. Things are not too bad. Everything is good on board. These are easy miles to make and I am quite comfortable. The only thing I can think about right now is the Doldrums, once get across that I need to look at the strategy for the North Atlantic which looks quite daunting at the moment. It does not look very normal. And so that is where I am looking at the moment. I am looking at how to get to the finish as fast as possible, not thinking at all about the finish.”
In fifth and sixth places Yann Eliès and Jean Le Cam were racing half a mile apart this afternoon. Irish skipper Enda O’Coineen who lost his mast on New Year’s Day has arrived in Dunedin this afternoon, towed the final miles there. And Sébastien Destremau is expecting to leave the haven of Port Esperance, Tasmania tonight (daytime local) after checking his rig and repairing a spreader, now ready to take on the Pacific.