A Voyage For Madmen

In 2002 Peter Nichols published the book entitled “A Voyage For Madmen” about the Golden Globe Race in 1968. It was the first round-the-world, single-handed, nonstop sailboat race and the forerunner of today’s Vendee Globe. Of the nine entrants in the Golden Globe, only one finished— the British sailor Robin Knox-Johnson— who became the first person to sail around the world nonstop. It took him 312 days whereas the leader of the Vendee Globe today, the Frenchman Armel Le Cleach, is expected to complete his circuit of the globe on January 19, 2017 a mere seventy-five days after the race began.

My interest in the Vendee Globe stems primarily from the time I spent in the Southern Ocean when I was a doctor aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker, the USCGG Glacier. After sailing between South America and Antarctica six times, I could not imagine racing in these same waters in any kind of sailboat, much less the 60 foot yachts now used in theVendee Globe, particularly after the 300 foot long Glacier almost capsized in waves as tall as an eight story building while we were in the Southern Ocean.

Although the yachts racing in the Vendee Globe have the advantage of satellite imaging and sophisticated GPS navigation that we did not have aboard the Glacier in 1969, we at least had a thick   steel hull design for breaking sea ice instead of a fragile carbon hull, as well as someone constantly at the helm to watch out for icebergs. Solo sailors in a nonstop spend a good deal of time in the Southern Ocean sailing north of the Antarctic Exclusion Zone (AEZ) where, according to sophisticated satellite tracking techniques, Antarctic icebergs could be present. However, these sailors sometimes have to come close to the AEZ in order to avoid storms or to catch the best winds. If they cross into the AEZ they are severely penalized, disqualified, or in the worst case actually hit an iceberg.

Vendee Globe sailors need to rely extensively on autopilot systems since they obviously cannot spend all their time at the helm. Five of the twenty-nine initial entrance in the 2016/17 Vendee Globe were knocked out of the race after striking and Unidentified Floating Object (UFO). Three of those events occurred while sailors were in the Southern Ocean and could have been caused by “growlers” (car-sized pieces of an iceberg) that could have escaped detection by modern tracking techniques, although one of these collisions probably was with a container that fell off of a container cargo ship. The skipper of this latter ship had to sail 220 miles in stormy seas and was on the verge of sinking before he was rescued.

Another skipper was not so lucky. The UFO collision he experienced tore off part of his keel and hull. By the time a cargo ship was able to rescue him, the water was over his floorboards and his yacht could not be saved.

Three Vendee Globe sailors had to abandon the race after losing their masts during violent Southern Ocean storms, but all of them were able to safely make it to ports with makeshift sails or with the assistance of another vessel.

Given the conditions some of the sailors experienced between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn it is surprising that even more sailors have not been knocked out of the race. For example, New Zealander Conrad Coleman’s boat Foresight Natural Energy was on its side for several hours in 60 knot winds and according to him “being dragged sideways across the tops of the foaming crests with the keel pointing skywards” before regaining control of his yacht. And his potential disaster occurred when he was near Point Nemo—a place that marks the midpoint between New Zealand and Chile and the Pitcairn Islands and Antarctica—the most isolated spot on the planet.

Eleven of the twenty-nine sailors who began the Vendee Globe have had to drop out. And four sailors have yet to round Cape Horn and head up the Atlantic for the last portion of the race. How many more will be forced to abandon the race remains to be seen.

Although it has been tough for the sailors in this Vendee Globe race, it was much tougher for those in the 1996/1997 race. Winds in excess of 80 knots hit the race leaders while they were in the Southern Ocean. One sailor capsized, lost his mast and remained on his upturned hull for thirty-six hours before he was rescued by a fellow competitor. Two others capsized and had to wait four days before they were rescued by another ship.

The sailor in second place at the time of thestorm, Canadian skipper Gerry Roufs aboard Groupe LG 2,  told the Race Directors, “The waves are not mere waves they are the Alps.“

I had not seen Roufs’ quote until shortly before I wrote this blog, but it made me shudder because his words so closely mirrored my experiences aboard the Glacier. In my book about my experiences aboard the Glacier that I essentially finished several months ago I wrote about how the U.S. Navy described waves taller than 40 feet as being ‘Mountainous’. But I felt that term was more akin to smaller mountain ranges like the Berkshire Mountains, whereas the kind of waves that we faced in our final crossing of Drake Passage were “more like the Alps.”

Rouf reported that his boat capsized three times. On January 7, 1997 his radio beacon stopped emitting. The upturned hull of his boat was spotted six months later. The wreckage of his boat was formally identified on August 29, 1998 off the coast of Chile.