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And Then There Were Six

By Tim Zimmermann

Billy Black
Ship shape: Grant Dalton was the only skipper able to get his boat (Club Med) to the Prologue in Monaco

December 15, 2000

The December 31 start of The Race, off Barcelona, is rushing toward the competitors with the all the implacability of a fast-moving weather bomb. And simply getting the boats to the start line is providing as much drama as is expected from the competition itself.

In the sailing world the Southern Ocean gets all the hype, but the North Atlantic in mid-winter can be every bit as ornery, dangerous and unpredictable. This harsh fact recently put a tragic end to British skipper Pete Goss's Race campaign, and to his revolutionary "wave-piercing" catamaran. On December 10, Goss and his crew, fearing their lives were in danger, decided to abandon Team Philips approximately 800 miles west of Ireland. They were picked up by a German container ship, the Hoechst Express, and late in the week finally arrived in Nova Scotia to tell their tale.

Having survived hull failure last spring, and mast failure this fall, by early December Team Philips was finally sailing as sweetly as Goss and designer Adrian Thompson had intended, powering through a range of conditions at speeds up to 35 knots in the midst of a shakedown cruise that ultimately was supposed to deliver Team Philips to Barcelona. But as the star-crossed catamaran and its seven-man crew tried to make the turn south toward the Med, after sailing counter-clockwise around England and Ireland, the Atlantic dished up a succession of hammer-fisted storms that sent Goss and his team into survival mode. The first depression, with winds gusting up to hurricane force, according to Goss, turned the Atlantic into a "cauldron of very confused seas leaping up with these rogue waves jumping around like trains." "I have never seen a storm like this," Goss said in Nova Scotia. "The waves were easily 60 feet and at some points Team Philips' transoms were 20 feet under water." Despite Goss' desperate efforts to pick his way through waves as big as apartment blocks coming at the boat from three different directions, three rogue waves finally smashed into Team Philips from behind, cracking the accommodation pod and the cockpit that joins the two hulls. With the steering damaged, the sheared pieces of the pod ominously grinding away, and another monster depression bearing down on the boat and threatening to push it even further from shipping lanes (and the possibility of rescue), Goss decided on the morning of December 10 that the lives of his crew were at stake and issued a "Mayday." Hours later, "Hoechst Express" was alongside, and Goss and his battered team made the dangerous transfer to safety, jumping across the frigid waters onto netting hanging from the side of the container ship and scrambling to the deck.

Team Philips, which banged repeatedly against the side of the Hoechst Express during the transfer, was snugged down and left drifting on the open Atlantic to fend for herself. Satellite interrogation of Team Philips' transponder has so far indicated that Team Philips is still afloat and still upright, albeit battered. Goss and his shore team are hoping to salvage the six million dollar boat (although any other vessel that gets a line on Team Philips first will be able to make a salvage claim), and if they succeed Team Philips may yet sail again. But all chances to sail in The Race were smashed by the North Atlantic, putting an abrupt end to Goss' quixotic campaign to prove his revolutionary catamaran design during the round the world sprint. Acutely aware that Goss was heading from one storm into another, Team Philips designer Adrian Thompson weighed in with a mea culpa on the Team Philips website: "The boat, which has stretched emotions, budgets and credibility over the last two years, did not, I'm sad to say, provide the basic safe environment for survival it should have done and was designed to do."

While Goss and Team Philips were fighting for their lives at sea, three other competitors—Steve Fossett's PlayStation, Tony Bullimore's Team Legato and Roman Paszke's Warta-Polpharma—remained safely holed up in English and French ports despite a December 15-17 pre-Race Prologue scheduled for the swank Mediterranean port of Monaco. Cam Lewis' Team Adventure made a bold bid to get to the Mediterranean from France for the Prologue, but ended up hove-to for 24 hours in a 40-knot gale in the dangerous Bay of Biscay. When Lewis got word that the Monaco Prologue had been cancelled for lack of boats, Team Adventure immediately headed for the Spanish port of La Coruna to wait for better weather to round Cape Finnesterre. "We bore away on a reach," co-navigator Larry Rosenfeld reported. "The true wind was 42 knots and the boat was doing 18 knots with just the storm jib and the sail area of the wing mast. It created an apparent wind across the deck of 55 knots. We were sailing along the wave trains of the cross-seas. The boat just smoothed out and took off like a rocket." The experience at least had the virtue of boosting the confidence of Lewis and his crew in their new boat. By Thursday the weather had improved enough for Team Adventure to put to sea again, and she is currently headed for Barcelona.

Team Legato, Warta-Polpharma, and PlayStation also took advantage of the brief end-of-week weather window to put to sea and head for the Mediterranean. PlayStation's departure was watched with particular interest by The Race organizers and the other competitors, worried that the record-hungry Fossett, with Goss now out of The Race, might at the last moment abandon The Race in favor of a round-the-world record attempt (which, according to the World Speed Sailing Record Council, must start from the English Channel). The loss of PlayStation, recently lengthened to 125-feet and a leading contender for the winner's podium, would be a major setback for The Race. So Fossett's whereabouts, and tendency to play his cards very close to the chest, became a major preoccupation among Race organizers and competitors as the weather cleared. Fossett's departure Thursday from Falmouth was cause for many sighs of relief.

Grant Dalton was the only skipper to get his boat to Monaco in time for the Prologue, and after months of training the Kiwi skipper and Club Med's 12-man crew are itching to go racing. Dalton says that more time to work the boat up would improve Club Med's reliability quotient for the 60-plus day round the world race, but having added around 500 kilograms of structural reinforcement to the boat inside the bows and at the connection between the main beam and the hulls, Dalton and French co-skipper Franck Proffit are cautiously confident. Club Med has a new Spectra racing mainsail that is about 50 kilograms lighter than the old main, and a total inventory of 8 sails. During recent training off the coast of Portugal the boat hit a top of speed of 37 knots, and Profitt says that it would be easy to drive these boats above 40 knots if the strategy for The Race required flat-out speed instead of the high average speeds that will allow both boat and crew to survive the regular pounding of a round the world race. Given more time, Dalton says that Club Med would have started working on fine-tuning, such as reducing the windage of the rig. Even so, Club Med is a light year ahead of her sister ships, Team Adventure and Loick Peyron's Innovation Explorer, which have fewer than 30 days of actual sailing on their clocks. "We are pretty far up the learning curve," Dalton says. "The other boats got about 75 percent of what we learned, one way or another, including all our structural refinements."

Down the coast a few miles, in Antibes, that 25 percent gap was strewn all over the decks of Innovation Explorer. Peyron, and American co-skipper Skip Novak, had also managed to slip into the Med before the Atlantic slammed the weather window shut last week. But short on time and short on money, Innovation Explorer's crew was scrambling to use the few extra days granted by the Prologue cancellation to try and better prepare their catamaran for the upcoming round the world ordeal. "I'm not worried safety-wise, about loss of life," Novak says. "But it's a very complex machine and we have very little time on it. In terms of performance we are not even to square one. We are just trying to make it function as a sailboat right now." Despite the chaos, Novak and Peyron are remaining impressively relaxed about their chances. Peyron, a champion multihull racer and race organizer Bruno Peyron's brother, is counting on the fact that The Race will test durability and good judgement more than high speed. "To win a race like this, the best way is to finish it," Peyron says. "The best drivers in the Indy cars are probably not the guys who know how to go fast, but the guys who know how to brake, and when to brake." That may or may not prove true. But as all the boats head toward Barcelona to line up together for the first time next week, the ultimate arbiter of the myriad theories regarding who will win The Race and why—the competition itself—will begin its evaluation December 31.

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