How To Recover From a Shipwreck
Engineering at sea
Two hundred and sixty-eight miles off the coast of Mauritius, the ocean is warm, tinted a blue that can make it difficult to distinguish sea from sky. Last November 29th, during the time of night when the horizon seems to distance in the dark, a sailboat was weaving a course through a maze of reefs called the St. Brandon atoll. As the stars emerged, there was a sudden crunch. Then a second later, a crash. The sixty-five foot boat shook. A crew member stumbled across the deck. “It’s a rock!” he screamed. Then, “Oh, fuck! What is this?”
The nine members of Team Vestas were racing the six-million-dollar boat from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi in the Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world sailing competition that circumnavigates four oceans, six continents, and eleven countries. Vestas’ skipper, Chris Nicholson, was an experienced sailor. He knew the race’s dangers: Since it began in 1973, five athletes have died, and nineteen boats have been too damaged to finish.
Vestas had collided with a shallow reef covered by a few feet of water. It was a matter of seconds before the gravity of the damage was clear. The coral had torn a hole in the hull, and seawater poured through. The electrical system short-circuited, plunging the ship into darkness. “It took a massive, massive pounding,” Nicholson said later to race control, according to transcripts provided by Volvo. “I was amazed what was getting thrown at it.” The crew were uninjured, but they were in the middle of the Indian Ocean, on a boat filling with water, with no rescue in sight.
In the first few minutes, Nicholson got on the satellite phone with ground crew in Alicante, Spain, and decided his best bet was to try to stay on board until daylight, rather than trying to navigate their small life-rafts through the surf in the dark. Nicholson said later, “When you talk about the tough decisions you have to make in life, I have to say that was number one for me.” Their closest help was a competitor, Team Alvimedica, who immediately changed course for the crash site.
While the team waited, waves crashed over the bow. Although there was calmer water nearby, the men would have a hard time getting to it through the surf. “Basically,” Nicholson said, “the boat has to destroy itself to end up more on the rocks and out of the breaking waves. I can’t begin to describe how hard it was literally just to hang on.” Team Alvimedica arrived about two hours later, and hovered a mile away, unable to offer much assistance in the shallow water.
As the night stretched on, Vestas deployed one of the two inflatable life-rafts they had on board. The men practiced drills to leave the boat, still hoping they wouldn’t be necessary. Then two hours before sunrise, the weighted keel tore off. The whole boat immediately listed hard to starboard, the deck cracking, and the stern breaking off altogether. In the chaos, the crew realized the surf had carried their deployed life-raft out of reach. During the course of the night, they lost all communications, even their satellite phone coverage—as Nicholson said, “The old snowball thing was happening.” Alone in the dark, the crew had to decide what to do.
With few options, Nicholson reluctantly decided to abandon ship. The nine men gauged the current’s speed and direction, finally slipping into the water with whatever they could carry, wading into the blackness.
As the sun rose on the 30th, the nine men huddled into their remaining life-raft, which they’d tied to a rock near the crumpled shell of their boat. Finally, the local coast guard from the nearest Mauritian island arrived. Rescue at first simply meant a ride in old Evinrude outboards, not much better outfitted than the life-raft, to a nearby archipelago. In a transcript of a phone call Nicholson made from its sandy shore, the skipper sounded shell-shocked. “Mate, I’m ah, I’m sitting here on a, on a, I guess a ship-wrecked island,” Nicholson said. “It’s beautiful.”
But the real adventure was yet to come—saving the boat, and getting back to the race.
The nine men, exhausted after their night in the sea, spent the following two days ferrying back and forth between the archipelago and the foundered boat. They retrieved hydraulics. They disconnected electronics. They removed sail lines and hardware. They stripped it of everything they could.
Then the team started making phone calls. “Everyone around those islands said you’ll never be able to retrieve the boat,” Nick Bice, head of the boatyard for the Volvo Ocean Race, said. “It’ll be smashed within the week when the next storm comes.” But from the beginning, the team hoped to get back to the race. Because the Volvo Race has nine legs, starting from nine different cities, the sailors dreamed of recovering their boat and joining the starting line at the stopover in Lisbon on June 7th.
Their hopes rested on saving the deck. “We could have just tied a towline to it and dragged it out over the reef and let it sink,” Bice said, “But that doesn’t leave any parts to rebuild.” The army of engineers and boatbuilders the team consulted determined a new hull could be built in time for the boat to return to competition, but a new deck could not. Two different salvage companies, Subtech and Svitzer, were hired, insurance companies notified, expenses authorized. Two weeks passed and still the boat sat, getting knocked around by the waves and the tides. Finally, all the logistics were squared away and the team was ready to go back to the reef.
The salvage began in Port Louis, a day’s sail from the wreck. The men and equipment were carried on a chartered yacht, a ninety-foot liveaboard usually used for birding and fly fishing. The salvagers had to come prepared for anything. They didn’t know what kind of shape the boat would be in, or how the operation would go. They were also on a schedule with no room for error: One of the Volvo Ocean Race’s sponsors was Maersk, the international shipping company. Maersk happened to have a container vessel passing the region and agreed to divert course to pick up the wreck, an opportunity that wouldn’t come again. So the team only had two and half days to inspect the boat, figure out how to refloat it, and tow it to the rendezvous site. To make things worse, it was soon clear they’d only be able to work on the boat during low tide. If they didn’t move fast enough, they’d miss their ride—and lose their only chance at re-entering the race.
The crew found the wreck still sloshing on the reef, the mast silhouetted on the horizon. Their first challenge was to cut through the rest of the keel, which was forged tool steel. The group had brought Broco thermic lances, torches that burn at 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon sparks were flying over the crystal water. But too soon, the men had to abandon ship in front of the rising tide. When they returned, they decided they’d have to sacrifice the mast to stabilize the boat, a difficult decision. Masts are expensive, and rebuilding one would be hard. But Bice explained, “In such a remote place there’s no cranes,” so the crew had no way of extracting it. They attached cross hauls, attachments to hold the mast so that it could be cut, and set up four different anchors to keep the boat still. The whole starboard side was damaged, from the transom to the forward bulkhead, so they also had to install flotation equipment.
On the next high tide, while the men were eating lunch, a radio call from the wreck brought alarming news: The boat had moved twelve feet. The crew would have to redo some of their previous work, and time was running short. As night fell, the men carefully lowered the mast and rigging, getting the boat ready to be towed. Then they had to wait for the water. “As any salvor knows, when working to beat a tide it seems to come in like lighting,” wrote one of the crew. “But when waiting for the tide, it seems not to move.”
Finally, lines were attached all around the wreck and tow boats begin to pull. “We all expected some dramatic banging on the reef as the waves started to roll in,” one of the salvors wrote. “But nothing, just gentle movement.” In darkness, the wreck drifted past pale ghosts of coral heads. They were ready for the the container ship, the “Jula S.” When it arrived, it dwarfed the puny sailboat. As the wreck made its way up the ship’s towering sides, it looked more fragile than ever. But when the Jula S set off with its precious cargo, it was just 15 minutes behind schedule.
*** The sailboat was now bound for the Port Klang shipping terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the dock, it took an engineering feat just to unload the boat. The pieces left on the reef reduced the boat’s structural stability, so the shore manager, the captain and crew of the Jula S, and the shore crew set up a complex system of attachments to lift the 17,600-pound wreck.
It was then loaded onto a different cargo ship bound for Genoa, Italy, where it was delivered to a flatbed truck and finally driven the last part of its journey, over hills and along narrow winding roads to the Persico Marine boatyard in Bergamo, where it arrived at the end of January, almost two months after the crash. That’s where a new set of difficulties began.
The seven sailboats competing in the Volvo Ocean race were all One Design boats: identically designed, made from the same materials, and even constructed in the same boat yards. The goal was to level the playing field, and control the costs of entering the race. In some ways, that helped Team Vestas. According to Pat Shaughnessy, the designer of the boat the teams were racing, the design’s comparative sturdiness was one reason it survived the accident at all. But that also meant the team couldn’t just scrap the wreck and start fresh: Their boat would have to continue to meet the stringent requirements that kept the teams standardized, making it next to impossible to start from scratch. “Producing a repaired boat is a challenge.” Shaughnessy said, “Producing a repaired boat as a One Design is a big challenge. You have to go back to the suppliers, who aren’t necessarily all available, and they don’t necessarily have the materials in stock.”
Persico Marine, the One Design boatyard where Vestas was delivered, had just four months to make their repairs, so the boat could be shipped to Lisbon in time to enter the next leg of the race. “To start with,” Bice said, “You had to take your head out of your hands. Then the next step was to determine what could be reused.” To do so, they hired a technical company, QI Composites, to perform Non-Destructive Testing Analysis, essentially running an ultrasound over the entire boat to discover where the carbon fiber was damaged. Then the great rebuild began. Twenty-four people worked on the boat full-time for the next four months, sawing, sanding, painting, running up a bill close to six million dollars. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of what had to be done: The majority of the hull was rebuilt, and vast swathes of the deck were repaired. A new mast and a new keel bulb were waiting in Lisbon. Six months later, it was basically a new boat.
“Every single instant is a new challenge,” Nick Bice said. “But you have to start with passion. That’s what makes a good boat-builder. Not someone who’s doing it for the wage or to get dental treatment.” Although few go into boat-building now, there’s still a need for talented people who are good with their hands. Bice said, “My boss always said, ‘You can have a world full of rocket scientists, but you still need someone to build the rockets.'” He continued, “Some trades are gone. They’ll never be back. There’s no real solution. But hopefully the Vestas story will create the passion for someone to want to [build boats]. This is going to be one of the biggest comeback recovery stories in yachting for a very long time. Not only in yachting, but in concept technology.”
On May 27th, after months of being sidelined, the sailboat was delivered to Lisbon, just in time for the sailors to be on the starting line for the eighth leg. On its first day back in the water, the blue hull shone and the bright orange keel lifted out of the ocean in a fresh breeze. Neil Cox, the Team Vestas shore manager, looked out and smiled. “It’s a massive hurdle to have overcome,” he said. “The work list [now] is all about going forward. It’s no longer a boat building race—it’s a boat race.”