Day 28: Fire on board!
It's amazing how quickly things can get out of control. In such a big safe boat it's pretty easy to survive, pleasurable to cruise along at 10 knots but to be able to race, to push and be thinking about performance and strategy, well turns out that's a pretty fragile state!
I saw Arnaud on the horizon and was happy to gybe away from him in nearly 30 knots on a shift to improve my age to the east. Then inside I started to smell a feint plastic smell. Thinking maybe that the batteries were having a problem I ran my hands over all the electrical system and ran diagnostics on the computer. Everything was fine... maybe it was just a figment of my imagination! I went outside to take a reef and when I came back inside I saw black smoke and yellow flames leaping from behind the chart table. One of the solar charge controllers was burning and was in the process of taking down the entire electrical system as several important cables pass close by. I took the fire blanket and smothered the flames, ignoring electrical shocks and the burning heat in my desperation to save my boat. When the flames were gone I heard one beep from the autopilot and my world turned upside down.
The burnt cables next to the charge controller had short circuited the auto pilot and the boat bore away from the wind and did a crash gybe with me still inside, hands full of molten plastic. The copious ballast tanks and canting keels that make these boats some of the fastest in the world also contribute to them being very unstable when things go wrong because all of their weight is on one side and after my crash gybe the boat was actively trying to capsize itself. When I poked my head out from the door the boat lying heeled over at 80 degrees, the tip of the mast only a couple of meters way from the water. As you have seen in the video I shot, I stood on the side of the cockpit to furl the gennaker and arrange the mainsail and stays so I could right the boat.
With the boat righted, I was still in a tight spot. The wind was increasing, I had a poorly furled gennaker that could flap itself to pieces and no instruments or autopilot. I had to drop the gennaker before I could secure the boat so I could start to repair the electronics. Unfortunately, the bad furling job I had done when the boat was on its side, combined with the strenghening wind, meant that it started unfurling backwards and thrashing around so that I was afraid it would take the mast down. It took me a long time to try to furl it again while sailing downwind with the helm between my knees so I could use the pedestal to control the winches but eventually I had to resign myself to dropping the twisted mess. I managed to tangle the sail around the other forestays and stop it from falling in the water. However with the sail down it still took me two hours of solid effort to control the writhing inflated mess as the wind gusted 40 knots, spray blew horizontally off the tops of the mountains heaving under, and over, boat as I danced on the foredeck with sail ties and pocket knives.
With the boat finally secure I came back inside to find everything swimming. Because the boat had spent so much time on its side the keel box had leaked hundreds of litres and I found my food bags, carefully packed spares clothes bags dripping wet or actively floating. My team and I had vacuum packed most of the equipment on the boat in thick plastic so the damage was minimal but some cold weather clothes, spare boots and sleeping bag were soaked.
I was eventually able to dig through the ashes of the fire and splice important cables back together and get the autopilot back online. I screamed with joy when the little lights danced across their screens again because the alternative was to hand steer to Cape Town and abandon the race. Now, as I write this we're back in action, surfing at 25 knots down the thundering wave crests that looked so foreboding when the boat was suffering a blackout.
Bad days happen, especially at sea! What counts is how you get back up and into the fight. I lost a valuable sail that will handicap my performance for the rest of the race and a couple of hundred miles to my group but they'll have bad days too and I'm now in the position of hunter rather than running scared in front of them. I would like to express my condolences to Kojiro who lost his mast last night. His enthusiasm for ocean racing is infectious and I will miss him in the group as we continue the tour.