|Austrian sailors have made their mark in Olympic sailing in recent years, winning medals in the Tornado, windsurfer and Laser classes, but Norbert Sedlacek set a new ocean racing record for the landlocked nation when he became the first Austrian to complete a solo non stop round the world passage when he finished the epic sixth edition of the Vendée Globe in 11th place.
After 126 days 5 hrs 31 mins and 56 secs at sea Sedlacek crossed the finish line off Les Sables d’Olonne at 17 hrs 33 min GMT ( local 18h33), the delighted soloist - who started his sailing career on a six metres boat on the shallow waters of Vienna’s Neusiedler See as leisure diversion from his life as a tram driver - was simply ecstatic to finally complete the race among an excited flotilla of well wishers and spectator boats on a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.
Sedlacek’s sheer pleasure this afternoon is doubled by the fact that this is his second attempt at the race. He had to retire in 2004 after just less than a month of racing, sailing back into Cape Town bitterly disappointed after suffering a mechanical failure with his canting keel system on his aluminium hulled boat which was built in 1996.
Aboard his Joubert-Nivelt designed IMOCA Open 60, the Austrian skipper has shown the same grit, drive and determination throughout his race that has propelled him from the dissatisfaction with his life between the rails, driving a tram in Vienna, to sailing round the world on a 28ft Wolf boat which he built himself in a parking lot in 1998 and which he sailed around Italy, the Mediterranean and Gibraltar, before sailing around the world. His longest period at sea until this Vendée Globe had been 93 days sailing from Cape Town. In 2000-01 he took part in an Antarctic challenge on a Garcia 54 to become the first Austrian to achieve this feat. He is an almost entirely self-taught sailor who knows every centimetre and every fitting on his boat which was built for the 1996 Vendée Globe, but which Sedlacek has extensively remodelled and rebuilt. Of all the skippers in the race there is little doubt that Sedlacek spent more hours steering his boat, sometimes to feel more in control in the conditions, sometimes simply to challenge himself to see how many hours he could do, and sometimes just to enjoy the pleasant weather.
His story is an appropriately uplifting and inspiring one to safely draw to an end this epic sixth edition of the race. His has been a race which should prove as much of a focus to galvanise the adventurers and the dreamers to get going for the next race, or the one after that, as was the amazing win of Michel Desjoyeaux who finished
Throughout it he has proved his excellent seamanship, but he has regularly admitted that he has enjoyed every day of his race, sometimes relishing the tough conditions. While he has pushed on prudently he was hit by one of the biggest storms of the race in the South Atlantic after the Falklands Islands when he was struck by a violent depression which hit Nauticsport-Kapsch with gusts of over 80 knots. While others may have, at times buckled or strained under the many different challenges of this race, Sedlacek has positively thrived and has always delighted in ticking them off, reporting back a few days after, typically describing storms as ‘a bit sportif’ or ‘stressy’
Preservation of skipper and his boat were always the primary concerns of Sedlacek in the first weeks after the start. He spoke regularly of looking forward to the Southern Ocean and keeping everything intact to get there rather than pushing particularly to gain miles against his nearest rivals. He paced Raphael Dinelli for some of the time and caught up miles when the Les Sablais skipper diverted to the Isles Trinidade off Brasil to try and repair his halyards problem, and by Tristan del Cunha he had caught up to be just 60 miles behind. That was the start of a close partnership with Dinelli. The pair having been berthed alongside each other in Les Sables d’Olonne, adopted as Norbert’s home port for his Open 60, one of the high points of his race was when he and Dinelli sailed within a matter of metres apart in the Pacific. At the first security gate they were just 18 miles and the distance between the two ebbed and flowed. Indeed Sedlacek was ahead up to 250 miles ahead in late December and early January.
It was on 17 January that the pair saw each other in benign, gentle conditions sailing together for most the day and the following day, but at the West Pacific gate Dinelli went a little further south and managed to get away while Sedlacek was stuck in the lightest winds, letting his friend and rival slip away.
Sedlacek has never made more of his troubles than necessary, dealing with them as best he could and rarely complaining. Four days after he broke his forestay he lost his genoa overboard in a storm on 16 December and spent more than four hours trying to wrestle it back on to the deck, which he accomplished but not before losing the head of the sail.
After completely re-engineering the head of his keel and the canting mechanism, beefing it up since 2004 - he was emotional to finally pass the point that he reached in the last race, but subsequently showed confidence in his engineering when the keel mechanism slackened in the Pacific. He made a temporary fix which has lasted well. His other keel trouble was when the cable which cants it became badly jammed on the winch in late January.
He lost the use of his wind instruments on 23 January and has sailed without them since. Two days later his mainsail luff track was further damaged near the top of the mast, and it was the Doldrums nearly a month later that he could climb the mast when he was only able to consolidate the damaged track rather than repair it. While he was up the mast he discovered some cracking to the top of the mast, almost certainly the result of the strain on the topmast when the headsail went in the water.
On 31 January he was hit by a big, very active low pressure system in the South Atlantic which he rode out, seeing winds of over 80 knots in some white-out gusts.
Completing the race brings to an end a remarkable chapter in his sailing career. As a teenager Norbert was more into his football and other active sports. He trained formally and worked as a waiter in the Vienna Hilton before taking a job driving trams in the Austrian capital city. It was while in his early 20s and he was doing this that he took up sailing on the shallow lakes. He read voraciously of the adventures of Tabarly, of Austria’s first circumnavigator Wolfgang Hausner, and many others, regularly missing stops and forgetting to start from the tram terminus because he was so engrossed in his sailing reading.
Sedlacek has been consistent when he has said he intends to go forward and do the next race in a better boat, but at least this time he will return to his marine chandlery and clothing business in Vienna a satisfied skipper, even if it proves his thirst for adventure has been heightened just as much as it has been quenched by his first successful Vendée Globe.
More photos on page 2....
Vendee Globe 2008-9 Final results: