CYCA celebrating the 70th edition in 2014
It is not just the wind and the waves that can play nasty tricks on an ocean-racing yacht.
There is also what lies beneath.
The latest reminder of this fact came earlier this month when the Volvo Ocean Race entry Team Vestas Wind struck something in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean northeast of Mauritius.
“I assumed at that point we had hit a container or a whale, and in about 10 seconds or so there was all this crashing and grinding,” said Brian Carlin, the crew’s on-board reporter.
In fact, while moving at about 20 knots the boat had run aground on a reef, allegedly as a result of a navigational error.
The incident left a stranded, significantly damaged $6 million yacht and a crew of nine badly shaken but ultimately very fortunate sailors who had to abandon ship and await rescue.
Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind/Volvo Ocean Race, via Getty Images
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, which begins in Sydney Harbor as usual on Dec. 26, will not travel through any part of the planet that is nearly so isolated as that.The race is in its 70th year, and the knowledge and the charts of its route are extensive.
But there are hazards below the surface all the same.
In 2012, a Reichel Pugh 51 named Secret Men’s Business hit what was believed to be a whale.
The boat went from 20 knots to a dead stop in an instant and it was flung on its side, with the mast nearly touching the water.
The bottom section of the rudder was sheared off, although the crew did find a way to finish the race.
Sydney-Hobart overview nautical chart with the Marine GeoGarage
Many other types of vessels are also involved in whale or shark collisions, according the International Whaling Commission.
In fact, according to the commission’s data, the highest number of collisions come from whale-watching vessels.
Overall, the commission reported, a quarter of all recorded collisions lead to the death of the whale, and many result in injuries.
In the Hobart race, Slow-moving ocean sunfish, with an average adult weight of about 1,000 kilograms, or 2,200 pounds, are another problem.
Although they spend much of their lives at considerable depth, the sunfish sometimes bask near the surface, where they can be hard to spot from a fast-moving ocean racer.
Mark Richards, the skipper of the supermaxi Wild Oats XI, said the boat had three separate collisions with sunfish in 2005, one of the years in which it took Hobart line honors.
Other sailors have been forced to retire their yachts from the race after such collisions.
“The sunfish are a large threat because they don’t move, and they are so huge that they always pose a risk,” said Sean Langman, a veteran Australian skipper.
“With the climactic changes, we don’t seem to be seeing as many as we used to, but they are still a threat.”
Langman added that a collision with a shark during the 1999 race sheered off a rudder.
Unlike with sunfish, he said that climate change appeared to have increased the threat posed by whales.
“Even though we’re approaching our summer and most of the sea life has migrated south, there were so many whales around Australia when I brought the boat from Tasmania last month,” he said.
“So now other than the sunfish and the sharks, you also have the added risk of whales.”
A severe storm disrupts the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and destroys several yachts.
Will Oxley, an Australian marine biologist and navigator, has been a regular participant in the Hobart and is now the navigator for the Volvo Ocean Race team Alvimedica.
Before the race began in October in Spain, he sounded a cautionary note that proved prescient about coral reefs that are “quite poorly charted.”
“I can’t really speak to what actually happened on board Vestas, but for us, obviously this is a part of the ocean where there’s only been one previous race, and so there is no history to refer to,” he said in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi last week.
“So in that respect, while of course it is charted, it’s uncharted territory for a yacht race. We were making sure we were going to avoid the shoals successfully when we got the call that Vestas had actually hit it. It’s a terrible thing. They were very lucky to get away without loss of life.”
But Oxley, who has taken part in the last three Volvo Races and whose first circumnavigation was in 2001, emphasized that the hazards now often are found much closer to and are a result of civilization.
“Historically, the Volvo Ocean Race spent the majority of time racing in very isolated places, with albatrosses and icebergs,” he said.
“Now many of the areas we’re going into, we are dealing with a lot more fishing nets and flotsam from the human population. On the last leg, 44-gallon drums were floating in the ocean — the standard gas drum that you find anywhere in the world, but when you get out there, an industrial-sized drum, half full of oil, can do massive damage to your boat.”
Near the coast of Oman, meanwhile, drift nets were a main concern.
“If you happen to be unlucky enough to encounter the middle of a net without warning, then avoiding it may be impossible and apart from the damage they can cause, you can easily get tangled up and have to send a person into the water to clear yourself,” Oxley said.
“We ran into two on this last leg and luckily for us the diameter of the rope on the headline was small enough that the velocity and momentum of the boat broke it. However, understandably, the fisherman in his small boat is not happy about his net.”
“We do our very best to avoid them,” he added, “but at this scale of fishing, the boats — and I use that term lightly — are very small and do not show up on radar. They also do not tend to display navigation lights. The first indication of them is a little hurricane lamp or torch that comes on and starts flashing wildly, and we have no indication from that light which direction we need to head to avoid the invisible net.”
Follow seven international teams as they race 38,739 nautical miles around the world in the 12th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Along with being the foremost offshore sailing competition, the race reminds us about the vastness of our Oceans and what it means to be a modern day explorer.
One of the tools Oxley and Alvimedica have deployed is a night-vision scope that allows them to look ahead and avoid obstacles.
But there is clearly an element of luck involved.
In 2003, the French sailor Olivier de Kersauson and his crew, who were participating in the round-the-world Jules Verne Trophy, said that a giant squid had affixed itself to their yacht, bringing it to a halt in the open ocean before the creature then released it.
Perpetual Loyal, Wild Oats XI and Comanche - SOLAS Big Boat Challenge 2014
“Honestly, whether we’re sailing big multihulls or these supermaxis going incredibly fast speeds, you just go sort of on faith that the odds are in your favor, and sleep with your feet facing forward,” said Peter Isler, an American who is the navigator for the supermaxi Rio 100 in this Hobart.
“Whether you are racing to Hawaii or across the Irish Sea or down in the Bass Strait, you are just going for it,” he added.
“It’s not like in the Southern Ocean, where you are watching for icebergs on radar. There are some things you can’t avoid in the ocean, and you just pray that you do. It may not be the greatest thing to talk about for our sport, but the sad truth is boats do run into stuff. In the last five years, we’ve hit a couple of whales and a shark. It’s sad. These boats go so fast and don’t make any noise. But the things you worry about the most are big, hard things.”
That means things like partially submerged containers that have fallen off ships.
Or things like floating railroad ties or beams.
Or things like a coral reef in the Indian Ocean in the middle of the night.
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