Drake Passage

Vendee Globe- The Everest of Sailing

Some of my blog posts are more urgent than others and this is one of them. The Vendee Globe is undoubtedly the hardest and most demanding sailing race in the world. It is a single-handed, non-stop race around the world in 60 foot sailboats. The race is now in its thirty-ninth day and this posting is urgent because the leaders are soon approaching Drake Passage – a passage that I crossed six times when I was a doctor aboard the USCGC Glacier. I know the kinds of conditions these built-for-speed sailboats could end up facing and pray they are not confronted with anything like the mountainous seas we faced aboard the Glacier during our last crossing.

The Vendee Globe race was founded by Phillipe Jeantot in 1989. Since 1992, it has taken place every four years. The race is open to 60 foot monohull yachts conforming to the Open 60 criteria. The race begins in Les Sables d’ Olonne, France, then down the Atlantic and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and South America’s notorious Cape Horn before heading back up the Atlantic to the French port where they began. Competitors in this race are not allowed to receive any outside assistance, nor are they allowed to draw alongside a dock, quay or another vessel, but they may stop at anchor. Many of the sailors choose to withdraw from the race.

In the 1996-97 race one of the sailors, Gerry Roufs from Canada was lost at sea. His boat was found five months later off the coast of Chile. The sailors are often far from any normal emergency response, particularly during the long treacherous stretch of the race in the Southern Ocean, although two capsized boats were rescued by Australian rescue teams in the 1996-97 race. A third capsized boat in this same race was rescued by one of the participants, Raphael Dinelli, who was later awarded France’s Legion d’honneur.

During the 2000-2001 race 24 -year-old Ellen MacArthur almost won the race, but ended up second after striking a semi-submerged container and being delayed in order to make repairs. Yet she arrived to great fanfare as result of being “the youngest ever competitor to finish, the fastest woman around the planet – and only second solo sailor to get around the globe and less than 100 days.”

Sebastien Josse finished fifth in the 2004-05 race in spite of hitting an iceberg—a constant threat while sailing in the Southern Ocean. The 2008-09 race was won by Michel Desjoyeaux, who set a new record of 84d 3h 9’ 8”. This record was eclipsed in the 2012-13 race by François Gabart, who completed the circumnavigation in 78d 2h 16’ 40”.

The race is fascinating to follow on the Vendee Globe website where you can see video footage of segments of the race while it is happening. Some of the sailboats exceed speeds of 25 knots and can sailmore than 500 miles during a 24-hour period. Videos taken off the stern of the boats give one a very good sense of the speeds they can attain.

I’m looking forward to more excitement and incredible feats during the remaining portion of the 2016-17 race.

Shackleton's Voyage: Part One

Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea icepack on November 21, 1915. He and his twenty-seven man crew subsequently lived on the icepack that continued to drift in a northerly direction somewhat parallel to the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. When the icepack finally melted beneath them, they took to their three longboats. They rowed continuously for several days in these open boats before finally reaching Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton spent less than two weeks on the island. Midwinter was approaching. There was no time to waste.

     On April 24, 1916, Shackleton and five of his crew sailed for South Georgia Island, 650 nautical miles (1,050 kilometers) away. There was a whaling station on this island, which Shackleton and his crew knew about because they had stopped there on their way to Antarctica. It was the closest outpost of civilization. And a razor-thin hope for salvation.

     Elephant Island was a remote island, far away from any shipping lanes. No backup ship would be coming to rescue them and they had no radio to inform the world about their plight. The only ship available was the ship they lost. Even if there had been a plan for a rescue ship to come searching for them, they would have been almost impossible to find. All any potential rescuer would have known was that they probably were somewhere within the million square miles of the Weddell Sea.

     The craft that was going to undertake this desperate voyage to South Georgia Island was the James Caird, one of the longboats converted into a makeshift small sailboat by the ship’s resourceful carpenter, Harry McNish. He reportedly did carpentry work using only ‘eyeball’ measurements. Shackleton chose five men to join him: Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, served as navigator, with McNish, the Bosun, John Vincent, and two seamen, Thomas Crean and Tim McCarthy. The remaining twenty-one crewmembers remained on the island—with little hope that Shackleton and his small crew would ever survive.

     The worst danger the James Caird faced on this voyage was colliding with a large piece of berg ice. Such an event would have likely sunk them. Consequently, Shackleton immediately turned north and tried to get as far away from the icepack as he could, before turning east towards South Georgia Island. Luck was with them. They never hit any significant ice. But then they had to deal with the terror of Drake Passage in a twenty-two foot, double-ended boat. (To be continued in subsequent blog postings.)