HIGHER AND DRYER, TEAM VESTAS

Off the rocks

Text by Jonno Turner
Photos by Shane Smart

 

“Nico’s out over the other side of the reef now, giving it the once over, making sure there’s nothing left behind.”The Aussie voice crackling through the Inmarsat iSat phone is that of Team Vestas Wind shore manager, Neil ‘Coxy’ Cox.

“I’m sitting here and the sun has just disappeared on the horizon,” it continues.

“And the ship that we’ve just loaded on to is probably about seven or eight miles away from us now.” Incredibly, the Team Vestas Wind boat is off the rocks – damaged – but in one piece.

Not bad for a boat which ran into the reef in St Brandon at 19 knots (35kph) and ended up grounded, high and not very dry, just over three weeks ago.

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

You can almost feel the trademark Coxy grin down the line as he recounts the events of a momentous few days’ work.

“We were able to get the boat across the lagoon this morning on the high tides, and it went well enough that we could pull it straight out of the lagoon,” he adds.

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

“Then, we were able to bring a Maersk ship in, not even a mile away from where we were – it showed up at about 2pm this afternoon.”

“We loaded the boat at about 5pm tonight.”

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

Three hours, 180 minutes. It seems like a pretty short amount of time – but it was a tense few moments for Neil, skipper Chris Nicholson (Nico), and the local workers.

“We spent the last three days getting this boat off this reef – it was beyond delicate,” Coxy admits.

“We have a pretty well-rehearsed method of picking these boats up – but everything that we would normally just set ourselves up for, we had to think about it, look if it was okay, and then acknowledge that certain things just weren’t.

“We had to bounce slightly and re-invent the wheel, we just needed to be very careful and just make sure that we finished the job swiftly.”

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

It was a job which was always going to be fraught with difficulty – but even more so after three days of working around the clock to clear the area and ensure the structural integrity of the boat.

“We’ve been really lucky that from the minute the incident happened, we’ve developed a relationship with the guys who actually live on the island here,” he says.

“We’ve employed the workforce that already exists out here, and without it we couldn’t have done the job, full stop. There’s probably a work force of 10 guys.” “They’ve been standing knee deep in water with waves hitting them all day, they’ve been carrying oxygen bottles for us to be able to cut the keel off, they’ve been helping us re-anchor the boat otherwise things would start moving across the reef.

“They’re fantastic.”

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

Pure relief flavours his words. This is a major step, complete. And it’s been an incredibly charged emotional rollercoaster for the pair of old friends, Coxy and Nico.

“I think when we initially motored back out there a couple of days ago, there were butterflies in the tummy. For me it was going into the unknown.

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

“Fortunately you’re so involved in this that your mindset is on really wanting to get this done, and do it right. We came here hoping to be able to get the boat off the reef and hopefully be able to bring the boat back, so that nervousness kind of subsided with focus.”

Shane Smart/Volvo Ocean Race

The next step? “Well, it’s now a 28 hour motor to get back to Mauritius,” says Coxy. From there, they’ll transport the boat to Malaysia and then to a destination yet to be confirmed in Europe.

MAERSK

“We’re just getting everything tidied up tonight and leave probably about 3am in the morning.”

And what about looking a little further ahead? Well, Coxy is still cautious – but hopeful.

“A week ago the light at the end of the tunnel was getting smaller and smaller, but what we’ve been able to retrieve off the reef is substantial.” He pauses. “I’m not going to say it’s great by any means, but it’s the first stepping stone, and it’s enough to shine a light and to work hard to put things back into place. “

 

TEAM VEASTAS ASHORE

The unshaven, exhausted, uninjured team were holed up, incommunicado, for three days in the remote archipelago after their boat ran into the reef on Saturday afternoon at 1510 UTC.

“I’m really disappointed of course,” said Chris Nicholson, their 45-year-old skipper from Australia, shortly after arriving at dockside in Mauritius.

“On the other hand, we have to realise how fortunate we are for everyone to be here in one piece, and to be healthy. It’s pretty amazing, so there’s a lot of emotions at the moment.”

Marc Bow/Volvo Ocean Race

“The past four days have been very challenging for all of us, and I am extremely proud of the whole crew’s professionalism, composure, and endurance.

“It’s clear that human error is responsible for the shipwreck, there’s no avoiding that. And as skipper, I take ultimate responsibility.” 

They had smashed into the coral rock at 19 knots – the equivalent of 35 kilometres an hour – in their 65-foot boat, spun 180 degrees and crashed to a halt, grounded on the reef.

They remained on the reef until the small hours of the following morning, before abandoning the boat in pitch darkness and wading in knee-deep water to a dry position on the reef, led by Nicholson – aka Nico.

Marc Bow/Volvo Ocean Race

A small boat from the local coastguard then took them early on Sunday to a small islet, Íle du Sud, which is known as a favourite with shark-watching holiday-makers.

Their blue vessel, caught underneath breaking waves, is badly damaged, but the crew decided to remain for an extra 24 hours to complete a clean-up operation around the area.

“The bad things had to come off,” said the skipper, having just stepped off the local fishing boat, ‘The Eliza’, that transported his crew back to the mainland.

“We had a clear list of removing that equipment, and once we had all those off the boat it came down to removing things that were expensive.

“We’ve done a really good job in clearing it all up.”

Marc Bow/Volvo Ocean Race

Experienced New Zealander sailor Rob Salthouse was also keen to focus on the positives.

“It’s just good to be back on dry land,” he said.

“I think the team has grown strong with what we’ve been through.”

Danish sailor Peter Wibroe, white shirt stained yellow by sand, sweat and sea salt, was full of admiration for his leader.

“I must say that the team worked really well together, especially Nico, the skipper, who led the whole situation in a very professional way.

He continues. “We all felt extremely safe despite the situation.

“We were conscious about what was going on and we all had our responsibilities.” 

“We worked really well as a team, and that’s why we’re all here today.”

Marc Bow/Volvo Ocean Race