The epic 12,000 mile Southern Ocean leg of The Ocean Race has been underway for just a few days, but it's already a survival of the fittest test, with one team out of the race stage after 72 hours
Leg 3 of The Ocean Race was always expected to be an punishing test for the five IMOCAs and their crews, but it’s been a particularly tough start for the teams since the 12,000-mile stage from Cape Town, South African to Itajaii, Brazil, began on Sunday 26 February.
Two boats picked up damage even before leaving Table Bay at the start of the leg.
Then, after just 72 hours of racing, Guyot environnement – Team Europe announced they had to bow out of the rest of the leg after what team team believes to be structural damage to the hull, and yesterday Malizia suffered serious mast damage. Boris Herrmann‘s team has been frantically making repairs today to try and keep themselves in the race.
Meanwhile, Kevin Escoffier‘s team on Holcim-PRB has marched to a substantial lead.
Leg 3 starting problems
During a two-and-a-half lap inshore race off Cape Town before the boats set out offshore, Paul Meilhat‘s Biotherm suffered a broken mainsheet strop during a gybe in strong breezes. This caused further damage to the kicker which forced the team to head back to the dock to effect a repair. They then needed to wait for a minimum two-hour period for receiving assistance.
Just minutes later it was revealed that 11th Hour Racing Team had also suffered damage, having broken two mainsail battens. Though the team could fix the repair onboard they elected to have new battens sent onto the water so they could keep their spares onboard for the leg ahead. They too would need to serve a two-hour wait period before they could get their race underway again.
After a 24-hour period of lighter winds, which at one stage saw the five IMOCAs drifting facing in five entirely different directions on the tracker, the leaders began to pick up stronger breezes as they made miles to the south, while both Biotherm and 11th Hour Racing Team were working hard to hunt down the other three teams. With the increasing breeze and plunge south the sea state also increased and the damage reports began to file in.
Guyot environnement – Team Europe announced on the morning of Wednesday 1 March that they had suffered damage. While the boat was racing in winds of 20-25 knots, the crew on board heard two consecutive noises. After an inspection of the boat, they discovered abnormal movements in the hull bottom in the living area.
“The sea state wasn’t easy but it wasn’t too bad conditions, and we were happy with the position of the boat in the fleet,” explained Benjamin Dutreux in a satellite call from the boat today. “When Annie was inside just going off watch she heard two big cracking noises, and then said: ‘Ben, I want to show you – the floor’s moving’.”
After a discussion with the design and technical team, the team came to the conclusion that it was a hull sandwich failure.
“Given the current position of the boat and the distance to the arrival in Itajai, unfortunately it is better for the crew and the integrity of the boat to turn back to Cape Town.” said Thomas Cardrin, the technical director from GUYOT environnement – Team Europe.
Instead the crew are cautiously making their way back to Cape Town, whilst trying to effect some temporary repairs to stop the damage spreading.
“We need to get back to Cape Town slowly, sailing at not more than 10 knots,” said Dutreux.
“It’s too risky to try to fully repair it, but we’ve tried to make a reinforcement with some battens to stop the floor moving such a lot and breaking more parts of the boat.” On the video call he showed where the crew had glued two carbon battens to longitudinals, while the rest of the sole was dotted with marks showing areas of damage.
“Our aim is to get back to Cape Town with no more damage, to repair the boat as soon as possible and rejoin the fleet… I don’t know where right now, but for sure by Itajaii.”
Mast problems for Malizia
Meanwhile Team Malizia has had serious problems of their own too, first losing their Code Zero sail over the side, which then became wrapped around their keel and one of their foils leaving the team’s only option to cut the sail in order to free themselves.
They managed to get the shredded sail back onboard, but it will need the repair team at North Sails to ‘work a miracle’, explained team manager Holly Cova today.
But the Code Zero is the least of the team’s worries as Boris Herrmann explained in an update on the morning of Thursday 2 March:
“A very strong metal part holding a sail up broke the evening before yesterday at nightfall [the Code Zero halyard lock].
“When the sail fell down its halyard ripped a 26 cms long hole in the face of the mast at the top (ripping through the carbon fibre structure). With reefed sails we can now continue to sail. And once we have managed to put carbon over the crack we can sail almost back at 100%.”
The team have been working flat out on effecting a repair today. “Will Harris has been up the rig grinding away the damage to create smooth surface, Boris and Rosie have been working on laminate, while Nico’s basically been driving the boat,” explained Cova.
She reported that Harris was exhausted from working at the top of the IMOCA mast, using power tools to grind the shredded carbon back to a smooth area. Whilst the wind is light, the sea state is messy, and the team have had to partially hoist the main to stabilise the boat.
The next stage is for Harris to go back up the rig this afternoon to laminate the repair patches onto the mast, which will take around an hour and a half, and the team will then leave the repair to cure and dry for around 12 hours to see if it is strong enough to continue racing – and if they’ll be able to return to hoisting their full height headsails and unreefed mainsail.
“We are pretty confident at the moment that we will be able to continue, maybe even in full race mode,” commented Cova.
If the repair does not hold, clearly this double points leg could be over for Herrmann’s team, but the larger issue may well be finding a spare for the remainder of the race. The one-design masts for the IMOCA 60 are in very short supply. It was reported before the start that 11th Hour Racing Team had a spare, but there are no others available anywhere in the world, and mast build slots are all pre-sold to teams with new IMOCA 60s currently in build.
11th Hour Racing Team have also had damage to repair, with a video yesterday (advisory: some swearing) showing the frustrated crew trying to fix a critical control line failure.
Holcim-PRB march to solid lead
Having charged south immediately out of Cape Town, much of the racing has thus far has seen teams trying to work out how much risk they are willing to take. There has been a significant low pressure system lying just to the south of the fleet which likely would offer conditions that are closing in on the limit of being too extreme for these boats – certainly at this stage in the race.
The key concern here is not so much the wind but the sea state that will be kicked up by the storm. The semi-foiling IMOCA 60s sail at their fastest in relatively flat water so one of the main routes to fast passages is to try to find decent, but not huge winds in relatively flat water.
Gone are the days of more wind = more speed.
So despite the teams being well north of the ice boundary, few are risking heading too far south. The team that did dip furthest south (probably experiencing the worst of the waves) was Guyot, who have since retired with hull damage…
There is also the factor that it’s easy for the IMOCAs to be pushed harder by the fully crewed teams, than when the solo Vendée Globe skippers are racing in the Southern Oceans.
Guyot sailor, Robert Stanjek explained: “You’re never putting the boat into that a halfway easy mode to find sleep or rest, there’s always some one on deck trying to find the optimum performance. But that’s part of it: the boats are very quickly over powered and if you want to break a boat you can do that very quickly here! You have to tread a very narrow path.”
Winner of the first two legs of The Ocean Race, Kevin Escoffier’s Holcim-PRB have been leading this leg since day 1 and show no signs of slowing down. On video link through The Ocean Race HQ’s comms system earlier today, Holcim-PRB was flying along at 19 knots in sunshine, with Escoffier and team looking relaxed and confident (sadly they were just going too fast for the audio link to let us speak to the crew onboard today).
Escoffier’s team have now a near 300-mile advantage over their next closest competitor, 11th Hour Racing Team and are expected to be able to extend that to 500-600 miles as they hang onto the tail of the low.
It’s going to be a case of the rich getting richer in the coming days – the question for PRB-Holcim will be how many miles of advantage do they need to feel comfortable enough to take their foot off the gas and sail in a more conservative mode?
Keep up to date with the race via The Ocean Race live tracker. And see all our latest stories at our The Ocean Race homepage.
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