Barcelona World Race Day 26 - Broken masthead and retirement

by Foncia 
Foncia - Barcelona World Race
Maria Muina
Barcelona World Race day 26 had Foncia’s masthead break clean off during the night in the southern hemisphere, causing Michel Desjoyeaux and François Gabart to set a course towards Cape Town. The damage occurred on Wednesday 26 January at around 0300 UTC at 41°13’ S and 09°0’ E, around 620 miles (1,150km) to the SW of the tip of South Africa. Approaching the Cape of Good Hope, the duo were making headway under solent and one reef in the mainsail, at an average speed of 18 knots in 25-30 knots of SW’ly wind.

Under reduced sail area with the wind on their stern making towards Cape Town
The 27.30 metre high spar broke above the solent mounting plate tang, which is around 25 metres above the deck. The broken section has been kept in place by halyards, the mainsail is still hoisted level with the third reef. Safe and sound the two men haven’t observed any other damage aboard their monohull, which remains highly manœuvrable. They are not requesting assistance to make for Cape Town, which they are set to reach in four to five days time using the means they have aboard and in what are forecast to be fairly favourable weather conditions. 600 miles from the South African port this morning, Foncia was racking up an average speed of 12 knots, peaking at 18 knots, under reduced sail area (3 reefs in the mainsail with no headsail and in downwind conditions).

Disappointment, emotions, retirement
This major damage occurred as Foncia was sailing in difficult but manageable wind and sea conditions, in second position in the Barcelona World Race fleet, a double-handed round the world race without stopovers. Since the start, on 31 December 2010, Michel Desjoyeaux and François Gabart have ranked among the driving forces of this planetary circumnavigation spanning some 25,000 miles. After a pit stop in Recife, Brazil, to repair the sacrificial bow (a section of the bow which protects the hull below the waterline from impact), the pair powered their way back up through the fleet and found themselves at the head of the pack again at the entrance to the Roaring Forties. Battling it out neck and neck with the Dick-Peyron duo, credited at the time with a 40 mile lead, the crew of FONCIA were closing on the boundary which separates the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean, and the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope, which they were due to pass today.

It’s been a very cruel blow for Michel Desjoyeaux. Alongside François Gabart during a radio link-up in the presence of Yves Gévin, Chairman of the Board at the Foncia Group, his voice betrayed tears of disappointment and emotion. Foncia has been stopped in her tracks after a race start marked by total commitment and the enjoyment of battling it out at the very top of their game in some of the most remote seas on the planet.

The crew has already officially announced their retirement. The prospect of battling it out for a podium place has been shattered, as has the satisfaction of seeing a double-handed human adventure all the way through, based on competiveness, trust and complicity.

Impressions: a huge disappointment and a great deal of sadness
Michel Desjoyeaux: 'I feel a massive sense of disappointment. I’m not used to hurting my boat and we never once pushed her too hard. We weren’t irresponsible. We were fighting cat and dog with the frontrunners, whilst remaining reasonable. Despite our stopover, we’d really got back into the action and we were keen to continue battling. We didn’t imagine, and indeed we didn’t want it all to end like this. It’s the first time I’ve suffered a dismasting on this type of boat when racing, and even though it’s very emotional, you have to accept the situation. However, François and I are pretty pragmatic people. There was a crisis situation to be dealt with urgently so, rather than call for help, we initially tried to gather all the broken pieces together and make the situation safe. The damage is done and there’s no use getting everyone else involved. It’s not satisfactory because it’s not what we’d planned. We just have to live with it now and take it all in as calmly as possible. We have four days till we get to Cape Town to digest it and regain our spirits.'

François Gabart: 'I’m very sad about it obviously. We’ve seen albatross for the past few days and I was hoping to see them for a bit a longer, but the boat can’t go any further and that’s how it is. Retiring from a race is pretty hard. It hurts and it’s not nice but that’s part of life. I’ve dreamt of doing a circumnavigation of the globe and sailing in the southern ocean. Since the start it’s been an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps it would have been too easy to go right the way around in one go with Michel Desjoyeaux. I’m putting it into perspective and I’m telling myself that it’s not so easy to circumnavigate the globe.'

The circumstances of the breakage
Michel Desjoyeaux: 'The sea where we were sailing was being subjected to a depression system. We were on a broad reach with 2 to 4 metre waves, but the boat is designed for these sailing conditions and should be able to withstand them… Right now I don’t have an explanation for what happened. When you manufacture a boat, it’s not done to see it break. For now we don’t have the broken sections to hand, so it’s hard to understand why the damage occurred. We had no warning signs either and the mast was adjusted for the conditions as usual. The two sections are 24 metres up, still hooked up with the rigging. The seas are too big to risk climbing to the masthead. I hurt my thumb a little when I tried to pull the solent into the boat. A small piece of skin has come away but it’s nothing compared with my disappointment.'

François Gabart: 'I was at the helm. We were sailing on starboard tack in 25/30 knots of wind in the gusts. We were on a broad reach and got hit by a slightly bigger wave which caused the boat to broach. I then saw that something was up and I saw the mainsail drop. As Michel was waking up, we understood that the masthead had broken. We made the whole rig safe, especially the solent which had gone all limp and was about to fall into the drink. In situations like that you don’t have the time to think, you have to just act. Right now, we’re having to try to draw some positives from the situation: we’re both in good health, we’re not too far from South Africa and we’re in a position where we can get the boat safely into port.'

The retirement
Michel Desjoyeaux: 'We had no other choice and there is no sense or appeal in considering effecting repairs when we haven’t yet been able to identify the reasons behind this breakage. Between here and Cape Town, we’re going to wait for the sea state to become a little calmer so we can clean up, recover the broken pieces, get a hold on what’s happened and free up the mainsail halyard which is stuck just above the third reef right now. As regards the idea of heading back into the Southern Ocean and putting ourselves in danger with a weakened mast… no thanks.'

Yves Gévin, Chairman of the Board within the Foncia Group: 'We fully understand your great disappointment and we share in that with you. We know that you and François have given your all and that it’s bound to be hard. We’re very admiring of how much work you’ve put into this so far, with the episode in Recife, a repair operation which was handled with great precision, and your fantastic comeback to the head of the fleet. We were captivated by the battle you were having with Virbac-Paprec 3, which was contested with a great deal of energy, keenness and sharpness. This breakage has been a cruel blow dealt by fate, but that’s what sport is all about and you just have to accept it. We are right behind you and François. We have a fine season ahead of us with the launch of the MOD 70 in the spring. Sailing is essential to the FONCIA group which has every intention of staying on this course. We’re not calling anything into question and have every confidence in you.'

Jean-Paul Roux, Director of Mer Agitée: 'The Foncia Team learnt that the boat was retiring in a pretty abrupt manner early this morning. The whole team has been touched by this news and are thinking of the even greater disappointment felt by Michel and François. The project to design and build the new monohull has called for a great deal of work, energy and personal investment on the part of every member of the team, but we know that breakage is one of the risks in our game. Michel and François are still at sea so we’re already right back in the thick of the action and our mission will only be complete once the boat gets safely into port. Initially we’re organising the logistics to accommodate the sailors in Cape Town, at which point we’ll arrange for the boat to be returned to her base in Port-La-Forêt.

One ‘consolation’: the numerous messages of sympathy from our whole entourage, the other Teams and the many offers of help and networking to help us in our task. Thank you to everyone.'

Jean-Pierre Dick (Virbac-Paprec 3) at today’s radio link-up: 'It’s very bad news. Loïck (Peyron) and I have lost our playmate and travel companion. The race is going to be different for us now. We’re really sorry about what’s happened to Michel and François. Breakage in mechanical sports is the hardest thing to deal with.'

Foncia website