Ellen in trouble ...

Mark Chisnell reports as Ellen MacArthur reveals that three days ago she hit what she thinks was a container

Friday February 2nd 2001, Author: Mark Chisnell, Location: United Kingdom
In an interview with Richard Simmonds early in the morning of the 2nd February, Ellen MacArthur revealed just how she lost those eighty or so miles to Michel Desjoyeaux, after being so close to holding the lead:
Ellen MacArthur; "I was sailing along, the sun was starting to set, and everything was fine, conditions were quite stable, and then all of a sudden there was the most almighty crunching sound and the boat felt like she had hit land. As I glanced behind the boat to see what I had hit I saw part of the rudder and the daggerboard floating away. It was a gut wrenching moment. I imagined I might have ripped the bottom of the boat out, the noise was so loud. So I immediately ran through the boat, checking in all the watertight compartments that there was no water in there. There was obviously a big risk of having ripped the bottom of the boat open. The hull was fine, and it appeared that it was just the appendages [daggerboard, rudder] that were damaged.

Richard Simmonds; "What did you hit?"

EM; "I think I hit a container, its difficult to say as it would have been floating just below the surface. But I think it was a container...

RS; "At that stage, were you thinking about the race, or more about survival?"

EM; "Well you kind of think half and half, you’ve been working out here for 3 and a half months to try and keep your position and your initial reaction is ’are we going to sink?’ and then when you realise you are not, your mind goes in to overdrive as to how you can solve all the problems that you have."

There followed the most frantic two days of work, as Ellen fought to save her Vendee, the Race Office have pieced together the schedule of events:

On Tuesday evening an hour before sunset, Kingfisher collided with an unknown object, the boat stops, and the port daggerboard is apparently destroyed, with the remains jammed in the board box. The tip of the rudder is also broken off. Ellen checks the watertightness of the boat and that's ok. The keel hydraulics are checked, and the boat is tacked to the east to check the damage by switching the damaged port daggerboard to windward and popping it out of the water. Ellen takes a photo of the rudder and sends it back to her support and design team. They check the damage for safety aspects and Ellen develops her plan of action.

As night approaches on Tuesday, Ellen turns to the south-east (away from the finish) and after a one hour battle with ropes, winches, pulleys and brute force, she gets the remains of the port daggerboard free, it had been jammed in place from the impact pushing it backwards in its box. What was left of the board below the hull was flailing around in the water and putting the brakes on the boat completely. Getting rid of this, meant Kingfisher was back to speed, but was making a lot of extra leeway without the daggerboard. To counteract this, Ellen de-powered the boat a little and swung the keel back towards the centre from its normal windward position. That was intended to provide more lift and less righting moment, she was slower but going on a higher course. It stayed like this for the whole of Tuesday night and most of Wednesday.

This is when she made the big loss, slipping back from the 40 odd mile advantage Michel Desjoyeaux had out of the Doldrums, to nearly 80 miles. We wondered about the cause of this on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Ellen put everyone off the track by blaming a (presumably nonexistent) windshift. She wanted to get the boat back as close to one hundred percent as possible before revealing the damage.

On Tuesday night Ellen reckoned, "I could not get the tearing of carbon sound out of my head," while preparing her tools, ropes, pulleys for the work of using the starboard daggerboard. With over a thousand miles to go on this tack, the objective was to find a way of reversing the starboard daggerboard and all its pulley systems and putting it in the port side.

On Wednesday morning at first light Ellen spends five hours trying to remove the starboard daggerboard. All the time there was water pouring over the deck as Kingfisher continued to beat into 20 knots of trade wind swell. One very soaked skipper is battling away with a daggerboard twice her height and 1.5 times her body weight. But nothing works, and she cannot even get it up on deck. A totally distraught Ellen, desperate to stop losing any further miles, called once again to her support team. Re-motivated, she set about a second time and a very physical hour later she finally succeeded in freeing the starboard board.

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, began the real DIY work - to drill, tap, and fit the pulley and ropes required to pull these big boards up and down in the slot in the deck - having turned the starboard board upside down, she then had to make it ready to be able to be used the other way up. The final operation was then to man handle it on the plunging deck to get it into the snug hole the other side of the deck.

By late evening she'd done it - Kingfisher, apart from a relatively superficial damage to the port rudder, was back at close to hundred percent. Ellen had pushed back her physical limits again, and was totally exhausted, mentally and physically. She collapsed, and struggled to even get the words out to tell the support team.

Even on Wednesday night there was not much let up, as the wind strength changed enough to keep her on deck for much of the night, putting reefs in and out to keep Kingfisher going. The pre-existing sleep deprivation condition was not improving. Thursday became as much of a day of rest as possible - but she remains very, very tired, and recuperation is critical for her to be able to continue at the front of this fleet. But the gap to Desjoyeaux stopped increasing by any significant amount as soon as she had the boat back on its daggerboard.

If this epic repair were not enough, it seems that ten days ago Ellen also managed to complete the repair of the gennaker that was broken after the halyard snapped. The girl's back at a hundred percent - though she isn't going to be winning any tacking battles - and has shown every bit as much resolve as Michel Desjoyeaux did in the Southern Ocean in fixing his engine problems. It's a hell of a race.

Click here for Wednesday morning position reports

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