Friday, 29 May 2009

VOR: Casey and co. Save the Day

PUMA Ocean Racing's leward rudder breaks on leg 7 from Boston to Galway. Image copyright Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

It had been exciting but uneventful sailing that evening in the Atlantic on May 21.

The wind was strong, blowing about 28 knots and gusting to 35, torrents of water repeatedly pelting the chests and faces of the five men on deck as PUMA closed within 1,100 miles of Galway. That boat revels in such conditions and had just taken the lead in leg seven, but then, as Craig Satterthwaite drove over and through the three-metre waves, the boat suddenly skidded off course.

The wipe out was not severe, but it had been accompanied by one of those noises that sailors instinctively recognise as something bad.

"We heard a big clunk," says Casey Smith, who was grinding the main sheet and joined on the watch by Satterthwaite, Rob Salthouse, Erle Williams and Ken Read, their skipper.

Down below, among the usual booming of the hull against waves and the groaning of strained ropes, the noise was clearer and louder.

"They thought we had broken the boom or the mast or something," Casey continues. "They reckoned they could hear a solid bang."

All resting hands dressed and came on deck and got the boat stabilised again, but it quickly became apparent that something serious was preventing it from fully regaining its balance.

It didn't take long to work out that the port rudder had broken and was most likely the cause of the wipe out. But, as the rest of the crew dropped the mainsail and A-zero, Rob Greenhalgh went into the aft-compartment and put an endoscope through a valve in the bottom of the boat, discovering that barely six inches of the rudder remained.

A decision had to be made. They could have continued because a wind shift at almost that exact moment meant they could turn and sail on port gybe for almost a day, thus keeping the destroyed rudder out of the water and them in the race. But that was balanced against the risk of sailing a badly wounded boat in the Atlantic in spring.

PUMA Ocean Racing, skippered by Ken Read (USA), celebrate rounding Cape Horn in third place, as a naked Casey steers il mostro! Image copyright Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race.

"We thought it would be a bit unsafe," Casey explains. "We were still in a low and it was not going to get any better. What is the prudent thing to do?"

They untied the spare rudder from under the navigation station and began a mission that would remove the remnants of the old rudder before somehow getting a man under the boat to insert the spare.

It was a procedure they had practiced in Newport back in the early days of the campaign, but then, unlike now, it had been in calm water. This time, in the open ocean, the seas were big, up to three metres high, and the wind was blowing at approximately 30 knots.

Casey was always going to take a leading a leading role in the operation.

He grew up on Australia's Sunshine Coast, born into a sail making family. After turning professional about 10 years ago, he rose through the offshore ranks, sailing the Sydney-Hobart race nine times before getting "a bit lucky" when the Volvo Ocean Race introduced an "under 30" rule. It meant each team must carry two sailors aged younger than 30 on the day of the first in-port race and Casey was eligible by just eight days.

He had worked with Read while sailing on Philippe Kahn's Pegasus 52 and got in contact with the American as soon as he heard a rumour Read was involved in this race. "This is the race I wanted to do," he says. His enthusiasm has survived until this point. As a bowman, and a young guy trying to get the respect of the older sailors, he is the person sent up the mast in extreme weather, and spends a lot of his remaining time getting battered at the bow. It helps that "the adventure, overcoming the hard bits" shape part of his love for offshore sailing, but he has taken enough collisions to leave fluid in both his knees and tendonitis elsewhere. "It's all part of it," he says. "I love the challenge of the whole thing." But he is more to the team than just young brawn.

It was his ingenuity that fixed the water maker on leg one, resolving a situation that had Read considering a diversion to Brazil to make a repair. Ultimately they finished second. Then, on the second leg, the team's longitudinal frames cracked and Casey was at the forefront of the repair.

"Plenty of other things too," Read says. "When we break something, Casey fixes it. A bit of a MacGyver. He's great to have onboard. He brings a lot to the team.

"When the rudder broke, he just took over, assigned everyone positions and we got on with it."

Removing the old rudder post was hard work. "We are sitting there banging on hammers, jumping up and down and the thing won't move," Casey explains. "We couldn't apply enough pressure. Then Shannon (Falcone) has this idea."

They dismantled one of their anchors, placing the shaft on the top of the rudder post, and used a complex network or winches and ropes to apply the downward pressure necessary to force out the post. "We had the post tied to a line so we could salvage it and test it to see what went wrong," Casey adds.

Then came the clutch moment. Before the race started Casey volunteered to be one of the crew's two designated "swimmers on watch", meaning in this case that it would be his responsibility to go over the side and insert the spare rudder with the precision timing needed to avoid severe damage to the boat. He put on his survival suit as the keel canted fully to lift the affected side of the boat out of the water.

"It was a bit of a worry," he says. "It was 30 knots and quite big seas. If you got the rudder only slightly in and then the boat crashes down off a wave you are going to do worse damage; you'll risk tearing a hole in the bottom of the boat or hurting somebody.

"I'm going over the side, thinking ‘don't go under the boat', just get the thing in quickly'."

All the while Salthouse was thinking "this will either win us the seamanship award or the stupidity award".

Casey continues: "With boat lurching up as it was you are going to get one shot. As soon as you line that thing up to pull it in, it has to go in. Not easy."

It wasn't. Television footage of the manoeuvre shows him dunked into the cold water numerous times and at one point he appears to slip under the boat as it comes down onto a rising wave. He laughs. "All good fun.

"It's what I love about this race. One minute you can be on cloud nine and loving life, sailing along in first, and the next you have a broken rudder, you are going over the side with a spare. The extremes you go through are pretty cool."

Casey Smith up the mast, onboard PUMA Ocean Racing, on leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Rio de Janeiro to Boston. Image copyright Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race.

The mission was a success and two hours, 17 minutes after breaking their rudder they were racing again. Their lead had gone, replaced by a 26-mile deficit in fifth. But they fought on and ultimately came second, prompting Read to fire off an email to the race committee.

"The only nudging he needed from me was to change from his foul weather gear into a survival suit for the inevitable dunking while hanging over the side and helping slip the rudder stock into the bearings," it read. "No fear, no hesitation - his help putting this system in place and implementing the replacement saved our race and got us safely home at the same time."

Needless to say, Casey is Read's nomination for the seamanship award.

Volvo Ocean Race

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