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11/10 - 00h01

Humphreys How it Happened

Conrad Humphreys has taken time to write and explain what happened before his rig came down on Cat Phones. He is heading to Cascais under engine, shattered that his race is over

It's difficult to type as I sit here cocooned inside  being tossed around by the wind and waves outside. A boat without a mast is like a bird without a wing. Even with ballast, the boat is rolling around violently and down below requires care.

Yesterday evening (Friday) my hopes for a top result in the  were dashed by a rigging failure. At the time, I was skirting around the Azores high pressure, making great inroads to the leading group who were further south trying to get through a light pressure ridge. At around 17:45UT I heard a large bang as I wound the running backstay on and then the gut wrenching sound of carbon splitting as the mast folded like a taco shell.

The wind was from the north-west, 15-17 knots and I was reaching with the Code 3 at a wind angle of around 120TWA. Cat Phones was lit up in the smooth water, bow up and arching spray covering the helm.

The previous day, I'd decided to head west and punch through the front to get into the freshening north-westerlies. Going upwind in 25-30kts in a class 40 is hideous, but as the front approached, the wind increased to 35-40kts and the sea state was large and confused. It was time to bale! Whilst the wind was still in the SW, neither the boat nor I could take any more punishment. I put the helm down and tacked over onto starboard and headed south.

Questioning my situation and wondering if I'd been a bit foolhardy sailing into the front with now 4-5m seas and winds gusting to 40 knots, I wondered if anyone had come with me.  After a few nervous hours helming continuously to nurse the boat over the worst of the waves, the final rain squall passed and signed the arrival of the front. The wind quickly started to go around to the west and then north-west. Initially, I couldn't put the bow down as the sea state was still too rough, but by late evening, Cat Phones was surging along with three reefs and the staysail at 15-16 knots.

Outside, the spray whipped over the boat which is poorly protected for power reaching, so I spent most  of the night down below, catching up on sleep as the pilot steered Cat Phones  at phenomenal speeds with peaks of 18 knots.

At first light, I got the chance to check the sched and saw that I was one of the furthest west. When Andi Robertson (Route du Rhum reporter) called me at around 10:00am and told me I was up to 14th, I punched the air with delight. There was more to come and I was sure that in the coming 24 hours I would be right back in the game.

During the day, the boats to the south and east were trying to get west; those in the south were very slow. Meanwhile, I was still in 10-12 knots of wind reaching with the large hybrid Code 3 sail developed by Brian Thompson as a reaching weapon for the TJV. The sail is 115sqm and I had a similar set-up on my open 60, Hellomoto. The sail is perfect for sailing around high pressure areas, where you want to reach at 110TWA in 10-12 knots of wind.

At lunchtime, I called Hugh (my boat Captain) to say things were going well.  I felt confident with the weather files and would maintain the leverage I had on the leaders. At 17:30, I was checking the sched and felt the boat power up as the wind increased slightly to 15 knots. As I wound a little more runner on, I heard the crack.

The rig fell over to port, it looked like it had broken in two places; certainly there was a break at the first spreader. It had taken out one of the stanchions and damaged the coachroof. I called Hugh to say the rig was down, before starting to cut the rig away. I tried desperately to keep the boom, but the gooseneck pin was so bent, I couldn't get it out. Fearing that the rig might punch a hole in the side of the boat, I pulled the pins on the rigging and watched it disappear into the blue below. As the sun set, I finished clearing up the mess and considered where I could head for without any sails.

With 385 miles to Cascais, Portugual, and approx the same to the Azores, the closest island was Madeira at 350 miles. All too far for the 40 litres of fuel I had on board.

I called MRCC Falmouth to see if there were any ships in the area that may be able to assist me with a fuel supply. Two hours later I got a call from MRCC Delgada saying that a cargo ship had agreed to come out to meet me and would assist or pick me up. Their ETA was 5 hours, or approx 02:00UT. I cut the seal on my engine and got the boat ready.

Now, I have never done a transfer at sea before so when the skipper of a 200m  cargo says that he will motor at 3 knots into the wind and wants me to come  alongside in his lee, I had massive reservations, particularly being  single-handed. How was I going to be able to drive the boat alongside, take his lines from a 10m high platform, secure the boat and at the same time avoid both boats colliding? The thought was just a nightmare.

He wanted me alongside whilst his crew threw over two slingshot lines with which to pull down the mooring lines. I put the boat on pilot and run forward to tie the lines around the bowsprit. With the stern line on, his crew then pulled me alongside, despite my resistance and fear that the boat would get trashed alongside. Opting to keep some distance by helming with my knees, the crew then sent a further slingshot with which to transfer the fuel.

Landing one or two 20-litre jerry cans from the side deck 10m would have been fine, but he had mustered 10 cans and the transfer took all my skills to keep the boats apart for the duration. Transfer all done, I released the lines and with huge relief pointed my bows away. We'd not touched once, not even in the 2- 3m swell.

So, with 10 jerry cans of diesel on board and a makeshift funnel, I'm now motoring to Cascais, eta Tuesday am. It's been an emotional 24hrs. The reality has now sunk in this afternoon that I'm not going to get the chance to catch the leaders and drink some Rhum.

It's painful, not least to everyone in my team who have worked so hard to make this happen and to our new sponsor, Cat Phones, who pride themselves on getting the job done right. At least I can console myself on board with my Cat phone looking at the pictures of my girls, Katelyn and Izzy playing on the beach in Saint Malo.

Happy times, which I'm sure when the pain subsides in the coming weeks, will return.


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