In what was to be the last race of his offshore career, Philippe Péché's inaugural Golden Globe attempt was thwarted by storms and steerage issues
Philippe Péché, is a veteran offshore sailor, with more than 300,000 racing miles to his name. He has twice won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation with Bruno Peyron.
The Golden Globe Race was his first attempt at a solo event and was to be the last race of his offshore career. He has lived in Australia for 20 years, but is now based back in France where he has retrained as a yacht surveyor.
He was sponsored for the Golden Globe by the PRB, and arrived at the start line with an impressively prepared boat. He had opted for hank-on head sails and all lines at his mast to reduce weight aloft, complexity and friction.
He went out racing hard, arriving at the Canaries gate in first position, despite a navigational error that cost him several hours.
He took a straight course through the Doldrums, and although he was in second position, he was the furthest south competitor when he was caught in a huge storm on 11 August 2018. It was to end his race…
Off to a great start
When my tiller snapped, Jean-Luc Van Den Heede was technically ahead of me in the race as he was closer to the rhumb line to Cape Town, but I was 120 miles further south than him.
I wanted to be the first to hit 40° South and to pick up the strong easterlies of the Roaring Forties. I was pleased with the race so far. It was my first time racing solo and it was a challenge to be racing alone.
For the first part of the race, I was happy with my navigation and decisions, particularly as it was my first time using a sextant.
I won’t say it was easier than I thought, but it was certainly doable. The boat really moves a lot at sea – more rolling side to side than up and down, which was the hardest part of taking a sun sight.
My water supplies were in good shape. The 500 litres was lasting me well and with some of it in jerry cans, as the rules allowed, I could move it from side to side; you’ve got to play with what you’ve got.
With that and the self-steering, it felt like I had two or three people on board – it was going well. Similarly, the food packing was good, and I settled into my rhythm very quickly. I had expected to take a few days to settle down, but really I hit my stride from day one. I never slept more than an hour and a half at a time. I’d wake up, check the log and trim the sails.
That’s one thing that needs to change [in the next edition of the race], the towed Walker log. Every time I went to check it I would find weed wrapped around it. This made calculating a dead reckoning position so much harder. I lost one of my logs, not from a fish strike, but just a huge weight of weed on it that bent the attaching clip completely open.
Then there is the fact that the numbers on the log are tiny and you have to press your nose right up against it to read them – that’s not easy when it’s dark and the weather is bad.
You have to get fully kitted up in foulies and perch on the stern of the boat just to read the thing. An electronic log inside the boat wouldn’t make any difference to the navigation challenge, but would be so much safer.
The approach to the Canaries was rather dangerous. Aiming close in amongst the rocky islands without modern navigation was scary enough, but trying to find a tiny buoy for a turning mark in the middle of the night was really bad.
I saw one lighthouse, and then another, but I couldn’t tell which was which. I thought there might be a bay between them, but didn’t want to get stuck in a bay in the pitch black.
I made contact with the race team on VHF radio and eventually we worked out that the first lighthouse was the right one and I had missed it, so I had to turn back upwind into 32 knots of wind.
I had to change down to my staysail and put two reefs in, all while trying to navigate to the drop gate.
This was very close to shore, so that they could receive our camera films, but this seemed unnecessarily risky. Luckily no one came to harm, but had we had modern technology to transmit our photos back, it could have been avoided.
The biggest difficulty for me was not being able to communicate with family. I found out in a message from my partner that her father was very ill, but I wasn’t able to get any more information than this. Not being able to call her made me feel very guilty, and that’s not right. This was difficult and painful for me.
Similarly for Abhilash Tomy, he found out his wife was expecting, but wasn’t able to talk to her. We’re human, though, and we found a way round via recorded messages over the ham radio network, but it’s not professional so we had to work around when the amateur operators were on air. 50 years ago there was a full-time network of professional stations so in some ways it is harder now than in 1968.
I didn’t prepare enough with my self-steering system and that is what led me into problems.
I should have got out in rough conditions and pushed it to breaking point before the start. I was pushing her from the word go in the race – as I’m used to doing. However, the steering was not customised enough for this – there is a huge amount of movement and therefore a lot of fatigue.
I chose pendulum steering, which acts on the main rudder via the tiller, because it reacts very quickly and the Beaufort system I picked was the most advanced one.
Unfortunately, there was a delay in getting it on the boat; I was meant to receive it from the manufacturer in February but I didn’t receive it until May, which gave me little time to train with it in strong winds.
The greatest strain on the steering system was generated when sailing downwind in big seas. The wave can pick the boat up and move it one way while the wind is acting on the vane in the opposite direction.
The stainless steel tubes from which my system was built began to bend after the Canaries. I then saw some small cracks and decided to put a sleeve over it.
Luckily the tubing of my spare tiller was exactly the same diameter, so I cut a piece from that and slid it over – something I needed to repeat a week later. At that point, I didn’t imagine that I would ever need to use my spare tiller.
Then the conditions built. I had repaired the steering a third time before one of the bigger waves slammed into me. The boat wiped out, snapping the repair a third time and breaking the tiller. With no self-steering, and no spare tiller, my race was over.
It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to continue. The tiller had snapped 20cm from the rudder head where a pair of lugs were welded at the point that the reinforcement ended. Again, I should have questioned the manufacturer about this but didn’t.
I was able to wedge some wood into the stub of the tiller enough to lash the helm, but I couldn’t steer.
I was lucky Cape Town was upwind as the boat is easier to balance on this point of sail, but I was still in the cockpit for 15 hours a day and had to slow down to sleep. Still, I was pleased with how she coped, and one day I managed 160 miles in 24 hours.
Following my emergency, I was disqualified from the event, supposedly for breaching communications rules, which state that you can only use the satellite phone to warn race control.
It was an emergency and I needed to reassure my partner that I was safe. I asked permission from race control before doing this, but it wasn’t Don that I spoke to.
When he saw that I had made the call, he deemed it a ‘comfort call’, decided I had broken the rules and relegated me to the Chichester Class. That meant if I stopped, I would be out.
If I had been allowed to complete the repair in under a week I would have carried on with the race.
I wanted to call Cape Town to get things moving, but it just wasn’t possible with ham radio, so I used my sat phone. If you get cut off and call back, it counts as another call. I was told I made 30 calls, but I don’t think it was anything like that.
When you’ve got people totting up the number of calls you make in the middle of an emergency, particularly if it doesn’t seem that they are treating you fairly, well, that’s why I lost my temper and why I decided not to honour the race. Having circumnavigated before it wasn’t something I needed to do at any cost, so I stopped.
Philippe Péché is now back at work as a yacht surveyor based in Paris and Lorient.
I should have done a lot more training both with the self-steering system and with the boat. Anyone doing something like this needs time on the water in harsh conditions. Bend your equipment, damage it, and repair it, so you know exactly where the weak points are. Really, I think you need two years with your boat to prepare for this event.
I was pleased not to have furling headsails and to have kept the lines led aft to a minimum. Everything was at the mast with winches on the mast and jammers for the reefing lines on the boom. This kept friction and chafe to a minimum and the fewest lines across the deck, keeping wear minimal.
I needed a working spare tiller. It was bad luck that mine broke, but having used the spare tiller for repairing the self-steering already, that was race over for me. If I did it again, I would take two complete systems with me because you need to be able to rebuild it entirely.
I was naïve not to question the manufacturers more on the construction of equipment, particularly the self-steering system and the tiller.
Adapt your boat
The size of boat was good for me, but it is clear that it is impossible to go on such a voyage with a normal cruising boat. You have to modify it.