Monday, 24 November 2008

Out but not down...

Alex reflects on the Vendee

It's been a strange time since my retirement and return from the Vendee Globe, weird to be on dry land, driving in a car and sleeping in my own bed, when I should be out there deciding where to cross the doldrums and working hard to win the race.

The last month has been one of the most challenging of my life. I felt so proud to be arriving Les Sables with a boat that we knew was ready for the race and with every eventuality planned for months in advance. It begs belief that our dreams were shattered when we were holed and dismasted by a fishing boat on arrival at Les sables. At that moment in all of our minds , we were out of the race , but that was short lived. The idea to fix the boat at the beginning was really just talk, an impossible idea but the commitment from my team was outstanding and that is what made the impossible, possible.

The attitude change from being out of the race to 'we are going to start the race' happened within hours and the support from other teams, Team Origin, our suppliers and local support from Les Sables was unbelievable. I am quite sure that it would have been impossible to do what we did in the time frame anywhere else in the world but because it is the Vendee Globe, and because of the associated passion and emotion, everyone pulled together and made a miracle happen. There are so many people to thank for their efforts it would take up pages, so for now you know who you are, and I am eternally grateful for making the impossible possible and doing it with such dedication and good humour. To be clear it was nothing short of a miracle that the boat started the race on time and in good shape.

It was very important from the outset that we reset our goals and the goal was to make the start line of the Vendee globe and on time. That was achievable and I am sure a clear understanding of what the new goal was helped the situation enormously. I also knew that the enormity of the repair and the inevitable teething problems were going to put me on the back foot in the race but once repaired the new goal really was just to finish.

The forecast for the start of the race was not filling anyone with confidence, Force 7 on the first night and a Force 9-10 on the second evening. No matter how well prepared you are the start of the race is very daunting, its the first day of 90 and with so much time, effort and money gone into this one moment it is difficult to focus on the job in hand. I started the race completely exhausted I thought I was in good shape but within hours of the start i had serious instrument and pilot problems and although i was muddling through it, i was not racing the boat, simply surviving! Sleep was virtually impossible with so many boats around and the dangers of shipping and fishing boats very prevelant on my mind. Hearing that Bernard Stamm had been hit by a ship made me feel sick, and i felt so sorry for him as this was his third Vendee in a row where his dreams had been shattered. The first night was not made any better when one of my ballast tanks carrying 1.5 tons of water discharged itself into the boat, over the engine, generator and other important 'dry pieces'. In fact the bilge pump could not work as that was under water and i had to use the speed of the boat and a ballast scoop to control it. In normal conditions it would not take too much time to clear up but in a Force 7 beating upwind it was a four hour slog whilst already shattered.

The following day brought a brief respite before being clobbered by Force 10 winds and six meter waves but to honest i felt in the groove then and was making back the few miles that I had lost. When the weather front went through and I tacked the sea was awful and for hours I had to keep the speed down and the storm sails up. Even at four knots of boat speed the boat was crashing heavily over the waves. It sounds horrendous I know and it was, but these were by no means the worst conditions that i have faced in this boat and I was comfortable with what was happening, and despite my continuing instrument and pilot issues I was confident that the conditions in the coming days were going to suit HUGO BOSS and we would 'light up' and make some miles.

Six hours after tacking and with the sea calming down, i went below and noticed some water on the leeward floor. I assumed i was having a similar issue with ballast and could not understand why it kept coming, it was then that I saw a small fountain of water coming from what appeared to be a crack in the floor. Emotion was short lived because immediately I had to stop the boat, investigate and get on the telephone. I knew it was bad and I felt so gutted for all the work that so many people had put in to get us to the start line, it felt so unfair and so harsh but that was where we were. It was quickly decided that I should sail back to Les Sables and look at repairing and getting back in the race, and I felt so useless in that 36 hour period getting back to Les Sables. I had also found strips of six meters of carbon streaming out the back of the boat and my mind was awash with the potential damage underneath.

It was strange to motor back into Les Sables, it was not the return I had imagined at the end of the race, but I was met by a team that despite working 24 hours a day for the last three weeks was ready to fix and send me out again. The emotional and physical pain that my team had gone through - and they were there ready to do it all again. Simply amazing!

You will see that I often flick from 'I' to 'we' in my reports and that is because although solo sailing is considered an individual sport it is in fact a team sport and i consider myself to be a small cog in a huge wheel. The wheel was in motion but when the boat was lifted out it was immediately obvious to the boatbuilders, designers and engineers that there was not a quick fix and I knew I was out. We were all so desperately disappointed, we had all been through so much, and my body gave up and I slept.

Four years of hard work down the drain, wasted, destroyed in an instance, or is it? No not in my eyes, I know we made some great decisions with our boat, we were well prepared and I know I work with some of the most dedicated people in the world. I am proud of what we have achieved and despite being presented with these awful situations we have worked through each issue with grit and determination. My sights are already firmly set on the next Vendee Globe which currently feels a long way away but it will come around quickly and we will be there in better shape and even better prepared than last time. Our planning starts now, we have not left the last month behind, but with positive thoughts and a strong achievable goal the healing process will be quicker.

HUGO BOSS have been brilliant and so supportive throughout this difficult month and were on site continuously in Les Sables. They saw the dedication and the passion of so many people from every angle and they really understand what it takes to get to the start line of the Vendee Globe and I am very grateful for their unwavering support.

We tried our dammed hardest, we achieved the impossible but this time it was not to be. 2012 is a different matter.


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