Keel issues approaching Cape Horn
Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski is today facing a nervous rounding of Cape Horn after developing keel problems on his Eco 60 yacht Operon Racing in the Velux 5 Oceans. The 36-year-old Polish yachtsman reported hearing dull knocking sounds as his yacht smashed through huge Southern Ocean waves on the approach to Cape Horn. On closer inspection he found to his horror that one of Operon Racing’s keel pins was moving.
It is suspected that a composite part covering the pins that hold the keel in place has broken, allowing the four-tonne keel to move around 3mm at the top of the keel blade. The movement makes a knocking noise as Operon Racing accelerates down waves.
“When sailing with very strong wind, the boat was unnaturally loaded by the waves. Suddenly I heard a strange sound, a dull one. I was thinking it was something on deck and couldn’t localise it. Then I noticed one of the keel rams moving. I thought that something just loosened and I was trying to screw it back with a boat-made tool, but it kept moving. Later, when the boat hit the water strongly, I noticed the keel was moving too. I was really scared and decided to inform the race management about my problem. I managed to block the keel in a way that keeps the swinging side-to-side at the minimum and not knocking.
“The noise depends on the force of the boat when it hits the wave. The boat stops and then keel hits it with a loud bang. It’s better when the boat is on its side, then the keel is loaded, and when it is straight down it’s just hanging. It’s not a metallic sound, more a dull one. The hard knock gives the impact on the ram and on nearest bulkhead, so I can just feel it in my legs.
“I don’t know what the reason for the failure is, maybe hitting the tree the first night after leaving New Zealand. It was a big hit. All that system is complicated and the reason could be just because of age of that part.”
Weather conditions approaching Cape Horn have not helped Gutkowski’s situation. While struggling to solve the problems on board, Operon Racing endured a storm bringing with it 75 knot winds and 15m waves. Operon Racing came close to being rolled on two occasions.
“I was really scared at first,” Gutkowski said. “We are so close to Cape Horn, the hardest part of this leg, after more than 4,000 miles sailed. I almost cried. But I have had many words of hope and encouragement, and I also got some opinions from the architect who built this keel. It’s made in such a way that it should hold.”
It is thought the problem may be related to an incident just a few days after leaving Wellington where Gutek hit a submerged tree. At 19 years old, Operon Racing is the oldest yacht in the Velux 5 Oceans and has been round the world three times previously.
The Velux 5 Oceans race management are in constant contact with Gutkowski and will be monitoring his situation closely as he makes his rounding of Cape Horn. The Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC) are also aware of the situation. Third-placed Derek Hatfield was this morning just 30 nautical miles behind Operon Racing and on standby to assist if needed. The race management have also been in contact with Operon Racing’s designer as well as a hydraulics specialist who has advised Gutkowski to keep the keel fully canted to reduce movement.
Race Director David Adams said: “As soon as we were notified of the keel problem we in turn notified the MRCC in Chile. We told them we were monitoring a yacht with keel problems but that there were no major concerns. We have put Derek Hatfield on notice and we know he could be with Gutek within five to eight hours if needed. The situation is a tough one for Gutek but one he is dealing with professionally with safety being the priority.”
At 1200 GMT Operon Racing was 68 nautical miles from Cape Horn. Her skipper plans to continue on on leg three to the finish line at Punta del Este, Uruguay, around 1,300 miles north of Cape Horn.
“I’m not thinking about racing now,” Gutkowski said. "I would like to get my boat to Punta in one piece. I hope the swell in the Atlantic will be not as huge as here and it will be easier. It's not the first trouble on my way, but I am in touch with a race committee and MRCC and my team, and that cheers me up. Now the most important thing is to round Cape Horn”.