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The war of attrition in the Global Solo Challenge has not come to an end yet

by Marco Nannini / Global Solo Challenge 22 Feb 18:37 GMT
Kevin Le Poidevin – Roaring Forty - Global Solo Challenge © Royal Australian Air Force

A circumnavigation by sail is one of the most extreme and difficult sporting feats to bring to a successful conclusion and less than 200 people ever managed to do it solo and non stop. Of the 16 starters in the Global Solo Challenge half have retired and only 5 are the boats that have not had to stop for emergency repairs. The statistics appear terrible, and it may be tempting to think that something is not right. Unfortunately, a 40-60% success rate on a similar voyage is pretty normal.

In recent years only the top pro category of IMOCA 60 footers sailing in the Vendée Globe has managed to raise the bar in terms of completion rate, thanks to years of work within the class that led, for example, to standardised keels and masts for all boats, greatly reducing the number of dismastings and keel losses.

An event like the Global Solo Challenge does not have boats all conforming to a set of Class rules. The event has a set of regulations which very closely mirror the World Sailing best practices contained in the Offshore Special Regulations for Category Zero events, the highest framework available. IMOCA embraces the same framework and enhances it with additional class rules which apply to all boats, which are homogeneous in overall design. Within the framework of the Global Solo Challenge we cannot recreate this additional set of rules as the boats can be very different from one another and only by restricting entries to a single class of boats could we take a similar path. However, it would negate the spirit that was behind the launch of the event itself, which strives to provide a framework to complete a competitive circumnavigation on a boat type that is not imposed by the organisers.

Before the collective efforts of the IMOCA class to raise the completion rate of the Vendée Globe, the reference event for monohull solo circumnavigations, the success rate was historically a number hovering around the 50% mark, and as organisers of the Global Solo Challenge we are not at all surprised by seeing similar numbers in our event. Unfortunately a higher completion rate has also at least some degree of proportionality to budget. In our case it is not a simple case of lack of rules that we could implement, it has also to do with a very simple parameter such as boat size, a 60 footer is certainly preferable to a smaller boat in heavy seas but raising the eligibility to such big boats would mean the minimum budget for a participation would grow exponentially killing of the attempt to create a more affordable alternative to the top pro circuit.

Now, to be clear, we are not trying to make comparisons between the fantastic and exciting modern age of the Vendée Globe and the new format of the Global Solo Challenge. I think we did the right thing in including the word Challenge in the naming of our event, as the it is clear that the first difficulty is completing, in face of the many adversities, some general to all, some specific to each individual boat choice, preparation and level of skill of the skipper.

A skipper facing a problem does not find solace in the historical statistics and expected success rate. Therefore, each retired entry has to deal with the weight of emotion after the tremendous effort and investment in mental, physical and financial resources to participate in the event. It is therefore always a very difficult and sad moment when we learn of a skipper dealing with technical issues or accidents and or retirement. As much as we can repeat these are to be expected, each separate episode becomes heartbreaking when thinking about the human effort and disappointment.

Last week we saw just how quickly things can change. Ronnie Simpson lost his mast just hours ahead of the arrival of a heavy storm. His boat had all new rigging, the mast was unstepped and reinspected in A Coruna after the delivery from Maine to Spain and before the start. Ronnie had been conducting a conservative boat-preserving navigation throughout the event and especially in the days ahead of the dismasting which occurred with nothing at all that could be attributed to the boat handling. Unfortunately rigging can fail and only in some circumstances a specific reason is found. In most cases equipment fatigue is the only explanation that can be given.

Rigging problems have caused the dismasting of Ronnie Simpson on Shipyard Brewing and Ari Kansakoski on ZEROchallenge. Alessandro Tosetti on Aspra had suffered the rupture of a lower diagonal shroud, miraculously without losing his mast. After sailing halfway around the world he stopped in Hobart for repairs. The broken shroud and its twin on the other side were replaced, the rest of the rigging was inspected and no indication of stress was found. Alessandro set off from Hobart and decided to sail conservatively for several days, to build confidence that nothing had gone unnoticed in the inspection. After sailing more than two thousand miles including a fairly severe storm all was in order and Aspra's bow was firmly pointed towards Cape Horn.

Today, in relatively mild conditions, another part of the rigging, one that normally is not specifically subject to the most severe stress, suddenly broke with a loud bang. Disaster was again avoided and Alessandro now finds himself 850 nautical miles past New Zealand having to decide the best course of action to reach once more a safe port whilst seeing his chances of completing the event vanish as suddenly as the bang he heard.

Despite not having insurmountable problems, Kevin Le Poidevin had to head for Hobart as his autopilot arm attachments were fatigued and at risk of breaking. Under normal circumstances he could have restarted in a matter of days but his delay in starting from A Coruna due to medical and technical problems mean he is late on the schedule to sail to Cape Horn with the risk of arriving too late in the season. For this reason he had to retire.

William MacBrien's collision with an unidentified floating object feels somehow like an even more cruel fate, as it was beyond any possible level of control or action. The cards William was dealt were horrible, not just abandoning his dream, project and the boat, but enduring two days in cold water watching the boat slowly but inexorably flood, despite all his attempts to contain the water ingress in a fight that lasted for 48 very long hours before he was rescued. His fingers were so cold as he desperately tried to bail out water with a bucket that when he tried to turn on the satellite phone he could not press the small power button.

Eventually, when all power was lost on the boat and the electric pumps were put out of service, William had to make the most of the additional layer of safety provided by the watertight compartments. Despite the boat already severely flooded, he found some shelter from hypothermia in one of the cabins behind a watertight door whilst waiting for rescue. Just enough shelter to live to tell the tale, when he was rescued and the watertight doors opened, the compartments flooded and the boat sat so low on the water that I felt a knot at my stomach seeing the pictures.

Ari Kansakoski's odyssey to reach Durban from where he dismasted north of the Crozet Islands was also an incredible act of seamanship, 25 days spent at sea to reach the safety of land with a jury rig. Ronnie did not have the option to save his rig when it came down. It was hitting the hull hard and there he had to act quickly to save the integrity of the hull. Even so, a fast approaching storm made him assess that staying with the boat would have represented a danger for him. When he had to abandon his boat he was devastated.

Edouard de Keyser on Solarwind broke one of his rudders and sailed 600 miles to safety with his remaining rudder. His retirement was due to lack of time and budget to affect fast repairs to restart within the time limits permitted by the rules.

Two skippers in the event had to deal with a very painful medical situation when they found themselves passing a kidney stone at sea. David Linger was in the south Atlantic when it happened, with zero option to head to land. He had to endure the experience and recover from it at sea, and luckily was able to continue his circumnavigation. That is until a wave knocked down his boat before Cape Horn and broke his boom. He is now in Ushuaia making repairs and hoping to set off again in the next few days.

Pavlin Nadvorni, who had had a string of technical problems on his boat had just left New Zealand after a technical pitstop when he too found himself too dealing with a kidney stone, the situation escalated quickly when he lost his balance and badly strained his right shoulder. In pain and in no condition to safely carry on Pavlin returned to New Zealand where his doctor advised him against setting off again for the risk of permanent damage to his shoulder.

Dafydd Hughes and Juan Merediz retired due to autopilot issues, something that I would in general have expected to see more of, the overall reliability keeps improving over time despite the difficulty of avoiding issues with electronics in a marine environment.

The war of attrition therefore continues, Philippe Delamare is fighting his final battle with a winter storm that is howling in a Coruna as I write. He has 350 miles to go in heavy seas and strong winds, he still has a window of opportunity to change his mind ahead of the longitude of Cape Finisterre should he decide the conditions are too harsh to arrive safely. He can still gybe and go south, either sheltering in Vigo or simply drawing a big circle back in the north Atlantic. Alternatively he can try to time his arrival in Coruna for Saturday when there is a temporary drop in wind but certainly the challenge is far from over for him as the sea state will remain very significant even by delaying his arrival, with waves in the 8-9 meter range. The potential dangers are real given the forecast and expected conditions, but Philippe has all the skills and information to assess what course of action he will choose to follow.

Cole Brauer, further south, is beating north in the north east trades. Although the winds are stable and conditions typically pleasant at those latitudes, the boats are fatigued after a whole circumnavigation and sailing upwind is always stressful, the skippers must find the right balance between sailing close to the wind and avoiding excessive loads on the rig and slamming on the waves. For this reason the safe route, all considered, arches to the west so that boats can be kept flatter and faster and not hitting waves dead on.

Andrea Mura, who is still south of the equator, tacked yesterday and has started his very long starboard beat in the wake of Cole Brauer. For Andrea as much as for Cole the same considerations apply, sail as fast as possible to the north but without stressing rig or slamming excessively. I will spare you the many stories of boats in other events that were this close to the finish and lost masts or keels or even run aground with a knackered skipper falling asleep.

Francois Gouin and Riccardo Tosetto are still dealing with the painful transition from the south Atlantic weather systems and their entry in the belt of trade winds. High pressures have moved around especially to the disappointment of Francois who had made a big investment to go east which does not seem to yield the desired results.

The enormous challenge these sailors have faced will only end when they dock safely and step off the boat as things can change at any time, for anyone, and faster than you can say bang. It's a reality that every skipper has to live with, adding apprehension to physical and mental fatigue of the journey. Bon courage to all skippers.

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