Thursday, 19 March 2009

Cape Horn Tales

I didn't want to tempt fate previously, but now the Volvo Ocean Race fleet are as good as round Cape Horn, I thought I might tell my favourite Cape Horn story. It dates back to the first Jules Verne season in 1993. Both ENZA (Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston) and Charal (Olivier de Kersauson) had hit Unidentified Floating Objects south of Cape Town, and returned to South Africa manning the pumps.

And that left Commodore Explorer – the old Jet Services V, a 23 metre catamaran - the last man standing in the Southern Ocean. Skippered by Bruno Peyron and assisted by, amongst others, Cam Lewis. I first came across Lewis’ account of their circumnavigation in a Seahorse article written shortly after they got back. He later published a book about it, Around the World in 79 Days, which I read way back in the day, and dug out again recently to get myself in the mood for the Volvo Ocean Race.


Back in 1993, Cameron Carruthers Lewis was the kind of character I wouldn’t have dared to make up for a novel. He was a blue-blooded WASP with a Ford agency model for a girlfriend. The ancestral line included Revolutionary War generals; the explorer, Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd; and good ol’ great-uncle Leverett Saltonstall, the Governor of Massachusetts during the Second World War.

Lewis had an undeniable talent for racing sailboats. He won back-to-back World Championships in 1979 and 1980 in the single-handed Finn – an Olympic boat then as now – and he was more than just a favourite for the gold medal in Moscow. It wasn’t to be; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan intervened, the US team stayed at home and a disillusioned Lewis started to look elsewhere for a buzz.

It wasn’t a half-hearted search either, when Cam Lewis wanted excitement, he wanted it spelt in capitals with lights and bells on. He had always had a whiff of the six-shooter about him – back in my Mirror sailing days, I remember hearing that after crossing the finish line to win one of those Finn titles, he’d returned to the sailing club as naked as the day he was born - another story that’s too good to spoil by establishing its truth, or otherwise.

So for followers of Lewis’ career, it really wasn’t that surprising to find him as watch captain and cook to four Frenchmen on an old catamaran, mortgaged to the hounds and trying to beat an imaginary English gentleman in a race around the planet. But with Blake, Knox-Johnston and de Kersauson out of the game, by March 24th all that stood between Lewis, his mates and glory was the 28 and a half days of sailing they had left to complete the 80 day lap - and Cape Horn.

Commodore Explorer was closing on the great cape from the west, with Chile to leeward and a perfect weather forecast – eight to twelve knots from the south-west. But when Cam Lewis came on deck for his watch at 2.00 am, it had already built way past twelve knots. They changed down through the sail plan like a driver going through the gearbox at the end of the straight. No sooner had they reduced sail than the wind increased and they had to peel off some more. Peyron was on the radio trying to figure out where the hell all the wind was coming from. The most likely explanation was that a powerful new low pressure system had unexpectedly spun off the Antarctic continent. And with the wind building to 55 knots and the barometer in free-fall, the weather system was heading their way.

Their options shut down quickly. Even with all the sails on the deck, the boat was still being driven forward at 25 knots by the 31 metre tall wing-mast, with its 22 square metres of wind resistance – that’s about the same as the sail area on a nice little cruising boat. The waves and wind would let them steer just one course with any safety, and that heading was taking them closer to the coast – evident from the way the continental shelf was reaching up to the 40 foot waves and starting to lump them into 60 footers. Lewis was below making pancakes (seriously – when in trouble, cook) when Peyron realised that ‘parking this beast’ was the only remaining option.

If they’d been aboard a nice little cruising boat it would have been a piece of cake. Sails down, lash the tiller to keep her head up into the wind, then retire below and keep your fingers crossed. But they weren’t, and no one had ‘parked’ or heaved-to in a 26 metre catamaran in a Southern Ocean storm before, or in any storm of this magnitude, anywhere, ever.

With the wind now shrieking across the deck at 65 knots, they started work. With one man on the helm, it took all of the rest of them to drag the headsails aft, one at a time, moving the weight to the back of the boat to keep the bows up and out of the waves. Then Lewis went forward and retrieved a halyard, took it to leeward and fastened it to the daggerboard. It sounds simple, but even if you ignore the waves, the motion and the spray, then just the windage on the rope was enough to drag Lewis off his feet, off the boat and into the torrent flushing by to leeward at 25 knots.

But he got it done - albeit with the halyard twisted around another part of the rigging. Once it was fastened, they hoisted the daggerboard out of the water, and then repeated the process with the board in the windward hull - the idea was to reduce the catamaran’s resistance to wind and waves, allowing it to slide sideways, going with the flow, rather than fighting the storm’s energy.

There was one final preparation before they tried to turn the boat into the wind. Everyone got their knives out, so they would have a chance to cut their lifelines and swim out from under the wreckage. Then, after studying the waves, Bruno Peyron called the moment and Marc Vallin swung the wheel.

There were many possible outcomes - a straight-forward capsize was most likely, which in a catamaran almost 14 metres wide is an event of considerable violence for anyone standing on the top hull. But they could have ended up going backwards down a wave, snapping the rudders off, and then maybe pitch-poling with a reverse summersault for the full ten-point manoeuvre. None of that happened, Commodore Explorer turned towards the wind and slid gracefully to a halt, waves washing harmlessly past.

Leaving a man on deck on watch, everyone else retired below and got ready for a capsize. It would take just one rogue wave. Now they were the fish in the pork barrel; the mighty catamaran helpless before the non-linear maths of wave generation. The crew dressed in survival suits, stowed away anything made of glass or with a sharp edge, and dug out the emergency gear. Then they sat and waited it out – except for Jacques Vincent, who, in what might easily have become a Captain Oates moment, went back outside and proceeded to untangle the halyard that Lewis had left wrapped around the rig.

When the halyard was released, the daggerboard was able to slip back down into the water. Immediately the resistance allowed the waves to start breaking aboard, rather than washing past. If Jacques Vincent allowed too many of those carbon-jarring impacts, the boat would just break up. It took him three hours to do a job that would have taken a couple of minutes under normal circumstances. And Lewis had to watch the whole thing from the inside of his cabin.

But that was only one danger in circumstances of multiple jeopardy. If you look up desperate in a sailing dictionary, I think you’ll find: Commodore Explorer, Cape Horn, 24th March 1993. The five men were as isolated and exposed as a climbing team camped in the death zone on Everest, pinned down and waiting out a storm. The ticking clock was no less lethal than a lack of oxygen - the remorseless drift towards the rocks and crashing surf of Tierra del Fuego would kill them just as effectively. They had reached a point where the choices were all made, and there was nothing more to be done, except wait.

Bruno Peyron and his team were some of the best big-cat sailors on the planet. But they had no more control over their fate than a gladiator in the coliseum, waiting for the imperial edict - the thumbs up or the thumbs down. The storm would abate in time and allow them to sail clear, or it wouldn’t. A rogue wave would capsize and crush them, or it wouldn’t.

The wind stayed over 60 knots for the rest of the 24th March, with one gust topping the anemometer at 85 knots. That’s well in excess of the 64 knots required to officially register as hurricane strength - Force 12 on the Beaufort Scale. In his book, Lewis described it as the longest day of his life. But finally, 24 hours after he had first come on watch to find they needed to reduce sail, it started to ease, and by 3.00 am on March 25th it was down to an average 45 knots.

They hoisted the storm jib, started sailing and reached the Horn a little under 12 hours later. And on April 20th 1993, Commodore Explorer crossed the finish line off Ushant in 79 days, six hours and 15 minutes to set a new circumnavigation record – and win the Jules Verne Trophy.


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