In the Southern Ocean, just as GUYOT environnement – Team Europe dipped into the zone below 40 degrees south, the scenario happened that sailors fear and should never happen. Around 600 nautical miles from the start of the third leg of The Ocean Race, the crew of skipper Benjamin Dutreux, Robert Stanjek, Sébastien Simon, Annie Lush and onboard reporter Charles Drapeau noticed cracking and movement in the hull structure below the laminate. The first analysis showed that the damage was so serious that a safe continuation of the stage from Cape Town/South Africa to Itajaí/Brazil was not possible.
In consultation with the technical team, the yacht designers and the team management, it was decided to return to Cape Town and the race management was informed that this leg had to be abandoned. However, this does not necessarily mean the end of The Ocean Race for GUYOT environnement – Team Europe. In Cape Town, a decision can be made about the possibilities of repair and a possible re-entry into the next stages. The crew is now working its way back to Cape Town, where it is expected in three to five days, at a reduced speed so as not to put any strain on the yacht. All arrangements for a possible evacuation of the yacht have been made. Despite the deep setback, the mood on board is hopeful of getting the boat back to Cape Town and possibly re-entering the race.
“I was just coming off watch and trying to get out of my clothes. But it was quite hard because we were in pretty big waves and going fast. I was just about to get into my bed. I could see on the opposite side of the boat a case tied to the basically to the floor and I could see him moving and then I was thinking maybe I’m a bit paranoid. But I saw it move like that before. So I went over to check it and then I can hear the noise of delamination. Then I alerted Ben and woke up Charles to see if they can hear it too. They could hear it. I put my hand on the floor and I could feel it really moving up and down,” Annie Lush recounts the moment she noticed the damage.
“It’s pretty sad because that’s quite a time no problem. We spoke to the architect – and yes, unfortunately: there’s no way to fix it out here. So now we have to go back to Cape Town and fix the yacht there.” Commenting on the mood on board, Annie Lush said, “For Ben and me, it’s the first time we’ve ever had to return home in an offshore race. It’s a new feeling and it doesn’t feel good. It’s a big leg and we were looking forward to it. We were in a strong position and the mood on board was very good. We enjoyed the race. There is nothing we can do now except try to get back as quickly and as safely as possible and assess the damage and see what happens next. But luckily it’s not the Vendée Globe, it’s a race with several legs. We will come back – as soon as we can.”
So the fighting spirit in the team is still alive, even if it is a big setback, as skipper Benjamin Dutreux also explains: “This morning we were heading east. We were carried along by low pressure, which allowed us to move quite quickly. We were well positioned compared to the fleet. There was a very good atmosphere on board. Suddenly Annie saw the ground move and Charles heard two cracks. We immediately slowed the boat down and tried to see what had happened. Sure enough, I saw the ground on the port side at the bottom of the hull was moving a lot. We furled the sails and tried to find a calm position. But it was not easy because the boat was moving a lot. We had a swell with waves of six to seven metres. We contacted the technical team, who called the boat architects to see what they thought.”
At this point, the crew had not completely given up hope of continuing the leg: “We continued slowly east. But there were still many days at sea until Australia, so it didn’t seem sensible to continue like this. Because we can’t fix it at sea. We have to take the boat out of the water, cut it open, repair it and glue it back together. So we decided to sail back to South Africa, probably Cape Town. We are going slowly so as not to move the bottom of the hull too much, and we are still 3, 4 or 5 days away from Cape Town. We will try to do a makeshift repair.”
For co-skipper Robert Stanjek, who is sailing his debut in The Ocean Race, the return to Cape Town is a bitter experience, the shattering of a dream to circumnavigate the globe in the Southern Ocean: “It’s very disappointing to have to give up this king’s leg. We sailed very well. The team had a good positive concentration. Especially after the first two legs, we had hoped that the bad luck had run its course and that we could finally show our potential. Then it went crack twice and within seconds the plan was reversed. We waited for the call from the tech and design team. But it was actually clear pretty quickly that you can’t play in Southern Ocean with that kind of damage. It’s a tough blow both sporting-wise for the team and the whole team. Everyone has worked so hard and for so long. But it also shatters a personal dream that has driven me for years. I wanted to sail this sea and this leg successfully. And then the end comes so quickly. Sport is so brutal sometimes.”
Despite all the disappointment, the focus is now on the current situation: “We weighted the delaminated area heavily with equipment so that the sandwich bottom does not have such strong play and is pushed through by the waves. We are sailing at a reduced speed of 8 knots towards Cape Town. All the bulkheads in the ship are closed. Everything is ready to hand in case of an extreme situation. We remain in the watch system.”