Thursday, 28 August 2008

A New Theme and Michel Desjoyeaux

It’s been a busy summer getting ready for the Volvo Ocean Race (and have we got some cool stuff coming for you in the Race Data Centre), but here I am, finally, back on the blog…

Sadly, nothing that’s happened since I wrote the last Cup report has convinced me that the AC’s immediate future is any brighter than the interior lighting of a New York Court room. So, I’ve been casting around for a new theme, and I think I’ve found one – it’s time to pull up a stool, crack open a beer and tell a few stories…

There are so many good tales that will never make a book of their own, often about people that will never make headlines, but who, when their moment came, were more than up to the challenge. Together, these stories form the mythical backdrop to the world of sailing – for Gordon Banks’ save from a Pele header in the 1970 World Cup, read Cam Lewis and Bruno Peyron’s 1993 rounding of the Horn.


These stories are the new theme for this blog - I’ll be trying to dig out a few contributions (stand up, Jerry Kirby) over the next ten months, going around the world with the Volvo Ocean Race. I’m after stories as told and as remembered - be it badly, inaccurately (and preferably not libelously) but, I hope, entertainingly. Remember – never spoil a good tale with the truth…

In the meantime, I’m going to kick if off with a few personal favourites. And the first one demonstrates very sweetly that this round the world racing thing isn’t just about who’s got the biggest cojones on a black night in the Southern Ocean. I originally heard it when I was writing daily reports on the 2000-01 Vendee Globe for a website called madforsailing.com – now The Daily Sail. And this is how I remember it…

That Vendee was the race that made Ellen MacArthur famous. It would have been hard to believe if you’d read the British headlines at the time, but she didn’t actually win. She came second behind a yacht called PRB, sailed by Frenchman Michel Desjoyeaux, also known as Le Professeur for his analytical, intelligent approach to the sport. But it was a close run thing, and it was never closer than on the approach to Cape Horn, when PRB reported that the starter motor on the Professor’s generator had given out.

As you may (or may not) know, the generator is absolutely essential aboard these boats, as they don’t carry enough water to complete the voyage. Instead, they carry a desalinator to make the water as they go along. These machines are run off the electrical power in the batteries, and the batteries are charged by the generator or engine. No generator or engine means no water, and since pretty much all the food on board is freeze dried and needs to be rehydrated, nothing to eat either. And that’s before we’ve got started on all the other systems that go down when there’s no power on the boat – navigation, communication, lights... although the toilet should still work.

And the Vendee is non-stop, no assistance – for Desjoyeaux, a stop at Cape Horn for spares meant that he was out of the race, handing our Ellen (or l'anglais, depending on your viewpoint) the lead. As the hours ticked by, Desjoyeaux and his support team ashore racked their brains for a way to repair the motor with what was onboard. The boat held north, heading for Chile and retirement, while everyone watching (via the internet) held their breath.

Then, PRB dived south towards the Horn - alone in the Southern Ocean, Le Professeur had worked a fix. How did he do it? It was breathtaking in its ingenuity. Desjoyeaux had a hand crank for his generator, at first glance useless, because he wasn’t strong enough to turn the engine over… but there are other sources of power aboard a sail boat.

Desjoyeaux had set PRB up on a beam reach, then pulled the mainsail in as hard as possible, making it fast with the sail ridiculously over-sheeted on the centreline of the boat. He then guided the rest of the mainsheet down below, through a series of blocks, until he could wrap it around a drum fastened to the hand crank on the starter motor. The set up was just like the starting cord on a manual outboard engine, or petrol lawn mower.

With everything in place, Desjoyeaux climbed back on deck and, warily I suspect, let the mainsheet go. The load on the over-sheeted sail pushed it out at huge speed, hauling the mainsheet through the blocks all the way back to where it was wrapped around the hand crank on the starter motor, spinning the drum and… Bingo. One engine, running – this was creative genius on the level of the guitar riff out of the instrumental in Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love. And it saved the race for Michel Desjoyeaux.


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