master of disaster

It was a pleasure to watch Kiwi Conrad Coleman cross the finish line to complete his Vendée Globe. He lapped the planet without using any kind of fossil fuels; just wind and solar to power an array of instruments as well as the all important (and power hungry) auto-pilot. He became the first New Zealander to complete the Vendée and I hope that he will get a hero’s welcome when he returns to his home country. He did get a hero’s welcome when he finished in Les Sable D’Olonne but that was not because of his nationality. It was because two weeks earlier Coleman had been dismasted and while that was certainly grim news Conrad took it in stride. H

e fashioned a jury rig and with his sails cut down to fit he made slow but steady progress to complete the race. The French love a story like this and they came out in droves to welcome him home. It didn’t hurt that it was a weekend and a sunny day but they would probably have been there anyway.

That sudden disaster so close to the finish brings to mind some other mishaps that have occurred in the Vendée Globe and left the race with a rich history. The first that comes to mind is when Mike Golding lost his keel 50 miles from the finish. Through some luck (there always has to be luck involved) and some extraordinary seamanship Mike was able to sail his boat the remaining distance to finish 3rd overall.
Other sailors have not been so lucky. Take for example British sailor Tony Bullimore. He was making his way across the Southern Ocean when the keel snapped off and his boat immediately turned turtle. Tony is a friend of mine and he tells this story so well. He is a former night club owner and knows how to spin a good yarn. As he relates it the interior was full of water and he had no way to pump it out. It was  also pitch dark in the upturned hull and although he had sent out a Mayday he had no idea if anyone had picked up his distress signal.
For five long days Tony lay in a makeshift hammock grabbing bits of food that floated by while the water slowly rise leaving less and less oxygen. “I was getting ready to meet me Maker.” Tony told me. “Just watching the water get closer and closer to my hideout and thinking that I was really a gonner this time. Then all of a sudden I heard this banging on the hull and I thought that I must have lost my mind.” Turns out that his mayday had been picked up by the Australian navy who sent out a plane to investigate. They found the boat drifting upside down but had no way to know if Tony was onboard or if indeed he was alive.
They also had no way of boarding. Instead they diverted a ship to his position. The ship first rescued another competitor, Thierry Dubois, whose boat was also sinking. Dubois had to step up from his partially submerged hull into the boat that was sent to rescue him. They then took off to rescue Bullimore. “It was five of the longest bloody days of my life,” Tony told me. “I had no idea there was a rescue party on the way and I was preparing for the worst.”
While the rescues of Bullimore and Dubois are gripping, one of the best acts of seamanship was carried out by Yves Parlier in the 2001 Vendée. Parlier had been leading the race until he pushed too hard and a sudden, violent wipeout brought the rig crashing down. He was able to salvage the pieces and with a jury rig made for Stewart Island, a remote island on the southern tip of New Zealand.  Parlier spent 10 days completing an ingenious repair that involved joining the shattered mast in two places and then re-stepping it using the boom as a derrick.
To get the resin to set he created a primitive oven by wrapping the mast with a `Space Blanket’ and pushing light-bulbs inside to create warmth. During the repair work he supplemented his rations by collecting mussels from the rocks and then set off to sail more than halfway around the world. He survived on fish and seaweed and finally made it back to France after 126 days. Since he had received no outside assistance he was regarded as a true finisher.
There are many more stories of sailors overcoming brutal adversity to make it to the finish. Broken boats, masts, bones and bodies were dealt with and those stories are the fabric of the race. They give it a rich history of lore and legend. Perhaps one of the most radical recoveries was when Bertrand de Brock bit his tongue off and then proceeded to sew it back on again. Sometimes you do what you have to do to make it around. Which is probably why the Vendée Globe is no longer on my bucket list.
Brian Hancock.