The 68-foot racing yacht California is currently in the South Atlantic Ocean racing on Leg 2 from Rio to Capetown in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. The morning of Sunday 8 November started will great news: they had overtaken Edinburgh and were hot on the heels of Qingdao and a mid-fleet position. They were in quite an intense weather system, with winds averaging 40 knots, and were taking full advantage of the bigger waves and winds of the Southern Ocean.
At 2300 hours, California was reaching speeds of 15 to 16 knots. Morale was high as the crew knew they were gaining on the middle of the fleet. Taking no quarter, until the unthinkable happened, the wheel fell off.
For the last several days, the steering wheel kept coming loose, and each time the helmsman was able to just tighten the wheel nut. However, during this particular watch, the boat took a sudden strange gybe-like turn and, as one crew member, Emma Bosworth recounts: “I was sitting further back from the helm when all of a sudden it felt as though we were going to gybe, Warner and I hit the deck and were literally clinging on for about 10 minutes. I looked up and it didn’t seem as though there was anyone on the helm. . . . Then we saw the wheel being moved down the boat – very bizarre!”
Oakland’s Quannon Au was at the helm when the wheel fell off. It became a bit wobbly, then more wobbly, then completely freed itself. He tried to push it back on to the shaft in hopes of regaining control. No such luck. At this point the boat lurched to port and then gybed by itself, everything seemed a bit out of control. The boat was then sailing at 6-7 knots going West, totally the wrong direction.
To add insult to injury, while dropping the main (which took over 40 minutes to lash it to the boom due to the high winds) the staysail halyard snapped. Part of the staysail went into the ocean but was quickly retrieved by crew. The crew lashed down both the staysail and main with every last bit of sail tie and spare piece of line going.
Another part of the crew retrieved the Emergency Tiller from the lazarette and attached it. In heavy weather, it must be steered with lines that run through two of the winches. It now takes 5 people to steer instead of 1, with the helm shouting orders every 30 seconds to the 4 others working the winches.
As reported by watch leader and RTW-er Elaine Kirton; "The freed steering wheel wouldn’t fit down the companionway, so now it lives in front of the Helm rail. There is something wrong with this picture! Whoever stands helming by the emergency tiller appears to be a preacher, looking down to the compass shouting commands of "Port" and " Starboard" depending which way they want the tiller to be winched. You just can’t make this s*** up! The epic saga continues."
The Staysail halyard has been repaired and the sail is back up. California is now racing along at about 7 knots in the proper direction toward Capetown. California is still well ahead of sister yacht Cape Breton Island, but the distance is narrowing.
The boat has had a series of bad luck since the race started on 13 September from Hull, UK. Due to limited weather forecasting provided by the Race Office to the boats (not even close to what you can see on the Race website), they were stuck in windhole after windhole from the Canary Islands to the Equator. When there was wind, the boat took miles off of the competitors, but the maddening lack of wind pushed them into last place. When it came time to start the engine near Rio, the fuel pump failed. While there was a spare fuel pump onboard, the custom tool needed to remove the pump was on a container to Capetown. A part was fashioned by the cracker Clipper shorebased repair crew, and a mechanic was sent out by RIB to perform the 4 hour repair.
Boat morale remained high for the entirety of Leg One despite the repeated set backs. In port with the help of all crew and crew from other boats, the boat and sails were amazingly repaired, cleaned, inspected, and re-provisioned within 24 hours. Despite spending the last 32 days crossing the Atlantic together, the California crew and skipper were inseparable, always seen as a whole unit, working and sharing meals.
Current reports are that the part required for a proper fix is (once again) not on the boat. Several crew have spent many watch hours and off watch hours fashioning some kind of jury-rigged fix to get them to Capetown a bit faster. However, spirits are still high on California. You just can’t knock down this crew and skipper. They are laughing and still having a great time. Already a tight crew (from day one), they are even closer after having weathered this emergency promptly and without injury. The evening’s events are something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
Rumour has it, that if you listen closely to the wind, you can hear the crew of California singing a little Monty Python tune "Always look on the bright side of life. Always look on the light side of life. ." www.clipperroundtheworld.com.
Shana A. Bagley