Outside Online Archives

Week One of A Wild Ride

January 8, 2000

By Skip Novak

American Skip Novak, 48, has sailed four Whitbread Round The World Races, survived 300,000 bluewater miles and helped set two ocean crossing records. For The Race, Novak is co-skipper aboard the 110-foot maxi-cat Innovation Explorer. While he and the crew of Innovation Explorer (which includes his wife, Helena) race one of the fastest boats ever built through the sticky calms of the equator and the howling storms of the Southern Ocean, Novak will post regular updates to Outside Online.

Aboard Innovation Explorer, January 8, 2001

For a boat that was designed for reaching and running at speed, up until yesterday we have had precious little of it. It is day seven of The Race and Innovation Explorer has broken out into a 30-knot trade wind after laboring for five days against persistent headwinds. We are currently just north of the Cape Verde Islands running hard with the reacher and having doused the big gennaker an hour ago when the steering became tricky in the building sea. Eleven thousand square feet of sail out of control usually ends in tatters and tears, so we got smart. An average over the last six hours shows 28 knots and we are regularly seeing 30-32 knots on the speedo! The sun is shining, snow white spray is continually peppering us aft from both bows searching the waves, and well, I can't imagine where in the world I would rather be. But it's a relief to be running free at speed after what was a brutal pounding. This unfavorable condition was well predicted and no one was relishing the prospect in Barcelona. It is hard on gear and hard on the crew both above and below decks, literally a bone-shaking exercise as 33 meters of catamaran pitches and slams into the headseas with the helmsman trying to keep the speed down to a safe 10 to 12 knots. Twelve knots may sound like a lot to a monohull sailor (you could leave Cowes, England after lunch and be in Cherbourg, France for dinner for example), but when you are used to reaching along comfortably at 25 to 30 it's simply demoralizing.

The start on Sunday was a beautiful crisp winter's day off Barcelona and everything went according to plan for Bruno Peyron's organization. After all the problems and doubts that have always been associated with this project, one can only imagine and hope that he is now sleeping easier with the fleet on its way.

The raw speed Team Adventure showed off the line was incredible, and we must assume all other things being equal that her sail wardrobe of Cuben Fiber fabric was worth the extra couple of hundred thousand dollars! She literally marched away from the fleet, pointing higher and going faster as they say, and although we were amazed it must have given Grant Dalton and Co. on Club Med a bigger shock. Having the time and cash to experiment with some lighter and higher tech 3DL fabrics for their fore and aft sails, they thought twice, left them ashore and returned to the proven Spectra suit, although somewhat lighter than what we are carrying.

After 36 hours of thrashing our way along the Spanish coast with Club Med and Playstation in and out of view, we managed to more or less keep up with them through some favorable tacking angles. Then, on the night of January 2nd just before dusk, we saw Playstation pass us well astern with a deep reef in the mainsail and a storm jib, heading for shore. It turns out they had ripped their Cuben Fiber mainsail at the first reef. Heading for Gibraltar they were already dispatching their old Spectra mainsail to the rescue. But as the race rules say, if you stop for any assistance at all, you are obliged stay 'in the dock' for 48 hours. This incident, so early in a race around the world must have given the lads on Team Adventure food for thought. As Grant Dalton said, and he knows racing around the world better than anyone: "This race will be a war of attrition." Little did we suspect this would be manifest so soon.

So while Fossett and crew were licking their wounds in Gib, the three big Ollier cats left standing (with Warta Polpharma and Team Legato trailing far behind) slipped through the Straits for the first lung full of Atlantic air and ocean swell—again on the nose by the way. A small high was blocking our logical path through the Canary Islands forcing us to beat around its northern and western sector in order to establish ourselves in North East Trade Winds. Team Adventure and Club Med had chosen a more southerly option and were therefore further ahead in miles to the finish by end of day four, but our persistence in favoring the port tack to the west eventually paid off. A day later we were 100 miles ahead of Team Adventure and only marginally ahead of Club Med. So quickly can things change travelling at these speeds! These short term results are in the hands of collaboration between navigator Roger Nilson and our on shore weather 'routier' Pierre Lasnier. Skipper Locik Peyron and I throw our two cents in, but we and our crew have our hands full keeping the boat in one piece. Score so far by day five: one broken padeye, two broken battens on the Solent jib and one tear along the leech in same (I won't elaborate on the blocked toilet, it's a sore point). When Bruno Peyron beat the Jules Verne record in 1993 having circumnavigated in 79 days, he claimed to have broken one piece of equipment every other day on average. At this rate we will run out of existing equipment, so already we have adopted a more prudent philosophy regarding when and how to change sail.

Just north of the Canary Islands things changed again. Team Adventure took a flyer out to the west taking our stern (we suspected rig damage as who in the their right mind would beat into a 30 knot headwind when you could glide off to the south?) while Club Med played a consistent middle-of-the road course. Our own weather guru tried to be too clever by sending us well east through the islands, expecting a northerly on which we could gibe back west to consolidate our position with Dalton. Instead, the wind swung into the east forcing us to play the African coast on port gibe—a trap that we only extricated ourselves from last night by taking our loss and radically gibing across Club Med's stern and converging with Team Adventure, who came roaring down on the outside, not looking so bad after all.

At midnight we heard an almighty crash forward and I rushed on deck, sure in my mind the gennaker sheet block had exploded. Turns out we hit an object, most likely a whale or a big fish, and whatever it was it appeared to be impaled on the starboard dagger board. We sent Loick Lemignon over the side with a mask and wetsuit and he reported that whatever it was it had fallen off leaving only flesh behind. A broken board could have meant the end of the game for us—we got off lightly this time, but we can't say the same for that poor creature.

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