The Southern Ocean is a cruel mistress who lets few past and extracts a toll from all those who attempt. Some make it through her waters with only minor ailments and a new level of respect for Mother Nature. Those are the lucky few. The rest only hope to leave her waters on their own bottom with their bodies intact.
As Armel Le Cléac’h passes Cape Horn and escapes the clutches of the Southern Ocean, we look at the toll taken by this cruel mistress on the boats and the bodies of the sailors. Le Cléac’h passes the final cape on the podium for the third race in a row and has had an incredible run of making it through the Southern Ocean mostly intact. Those behind however are not so lucky.
Thomas Ruyant – Le Souffle du Nord pour le Projet Imagine
Rookie Thomas Ruyant has perhaps the most harrowing tale to tell. Around 300 miles west of New Zealand, Ruyant was awoken abruptly as he was thrown violently from his place of rest. Items in his boat flew as far as thirty feet as a car crash sized impact stopped the boat dead from over seventeen knots of boatspeed. The size of the impact and damage point to a wayward container as the culprit. Much like iceburgs, lost containers float near the surface barely visible.
Rattled, the Vendee rookie quickly dropped sail and hove-to to inspect the damage. Carbon Fiber is a strong material but is not built for impact. The cracks stretched from the port hullsides and spidered across the foredeck. Two to three inch gaps opened in the hull as Ruyant’s race changed from a challenge against his competitors to a race against the boat splitting in two and sinking.
260 miles of open ocean separated the exhausted skipper from the west edge of New Zealand. Sails were stowed and the engine was fired up to start the race against time. With an escort from the New Zealand Coast Guard, the skipper and boat made it to the island nation in a surprisingly uneventful trip. Two members of the Coast Guard boarded the boat with pumps to keep her afloat. Both skipper and boat are still intact though not without lasting memories of the dangers of the open ocean.
Kito De Pavant – Bastide Otio
Not all who find an unexpected collision with floating objects make the journey home on their own bottom. Kito de Pavant found his date with destiny 120 miles north of the Crozet Islands, much nearer to the entrance of the Southern Ocean than Ruyant’s abandonment. The story however is similar. De Pavant was sailing under two reefs in over 40 knots of wind and seas of 20 feet. A sudden shock stopped the boat dead in the water despite the huge energy of the wind in the sails. The keel proved to be the recipient of the punishment this time as the large pin holding the heavy fin and bulb in place was rocked loose due to the collision with an unidentified object.
The boat quickly began to take on water as Mother Nature continued her relentless pound of wind and waves on the boat. Soon the conditions made sailing to dry land an unlikely proposition. Only the hydraulic ram for moving the heavy keel held it in place and threatened to give way at any moment. Fate was on de Pavant’s side as the cargo ship Marion Dufresne II was close enough to reach him before the water took the boat under or the keel gave way. De Pavant’s rescue is a testament to how fragile life in the Southern Ocean can be, as the Marion Dufresne II only travels that part of the ocean four times a year. An early morning rendezvous with the cargo ship successfully ended Kito’s ordeal and his race.
Stéphane Le Diraison – Compagnie du Lit – Boulogne Billancourt
Unidentified floating objects are not the only menace taking out competitors. Good old-fashioned gear failure from the constant abuse of the Southern Ocean took a toll as well. Parts of all sorts are exploding at the least opportune time leaving skippers scrambling for solutions and safety. Stéphane Le Diraison fell victim to such a failure in the most spectacular way. Le Diraison was blasting along at close to thirty knots while trying to sleep. The boat however decided sleep was not in the cards. A loud bang quickly brought the exhausted skipper back on deck. The boat greeted Le Diraison with a sight he never expected.
The mast had simply gone over the side. No pieces, no splinters, over the side, broken right near the base. The loads on the running backstays tore one of the massive blocks holding the mast up in two. The mast did not have a chance with nothing holding it from falling forward. 950 miles of open water separated Le Diraison from the nearest port and the mast threatened to sink the boat. Hours were spent cutting and removing the mast, sending the broken structure to the bottom of the ocean along with three sails. With a severely handicapped jury rig, at least seven to ten days of slow sailing lie ahead for the exhausted sailor before he reaches the safety of Melbourne, Australia.
Paul Meilhat – SMA
Less dramatic though equally race ending catastrophes fell two of the top teams. While sitting in third place and leading the non-foiling contingent of the race by a wide margin, Paul Meilhat heard a strange noise as the boat started to feel amiss. Quick inspection of the boat led to a puddle of hydraulic fluid under the keel rams. The powerful rams which rotate the keel from side to side were now severely handicapped. A fifteen inch crack opened up on one of the rams, preventing any pressure from building up to move or stabilize the keel. Now unsecure, the keel was free to swing from side to side as the boat sailed in dangerous Southern Ocean conditions.
Safety forced Meilhat to retire from the race and seek immediate shelter. The boat is not out of the woods yet however, as Point Nemo, the furthest point from land, loomed just miles from the incident leaving yet another long sail to safety. The latest update shows hope, as the team has secured a replacement part from a competitor. Accepting outside assistance will end Meilhat’s race, but the new ram will allow for a complete circumnavigation without a finish. 2000 miles of sailing on a wounded boat and complications of a difficult repair weigh heavily on the team as progress is slowly made.
Sébastien Josse – Edmond de Rothschild
The final dropout nearly had one of his highly effective foils torn off the boat not by a floating object, but by the unrelenting pounding of Mother Nature. Sébastien Josse was sailing in rough seas and thirty five knots of breeze when the bow of the boat went under and cut the speed in half. The port foil was no longer responding to its controls and the boat began to behave abnormally. The attachment which held the foil to the boat had been ripped loose and only two screws prevented the board from coming free.
The situation threatened to escalate as an ejection of the foil could potentially sink the boat with collateral damage. To top it off, Mother Nature dropped two days of horrendous storms on Josse before a full assessment and repair could be carried out. Fortunately Josse survived the storm but a permanent repair was out of the reach of a solo sailor. Australia greeted the stricken boat and uninjured crew shortly thereafter.
Every four years another batch of sailors poke the bear by sailing solo through the Southern Ocean on the most technologically advanced monohulls in existence. Each time Mother Nature shows the power of the Southern Ocean to remind the sailors that they are merely visitors in her icy playground. Of the twenty nine skippers who have tempted mother nature this year, eight have fallen victim to her assault. Only a single skipper, Armel Le Cléac’h has escaped the Southern Ocean via the treacherous pass at Cape Horn. The rest remain at the mercy of the Southern Ocean hoping to complete the journey in one piece.
Note: since the writing of this piece, Alex Thomson and Jérémie Beyou have both made it around the horn. Thomson is nursing a shattered starboard foil which sheared off on a UFO early on his Southern Ocean adventure.