Vendée Globe rollercoaster for Pip Hare as she makes mid-ocean rudder repairs

Yachting World

Pip Hare has won many fans during the Vendée Globe for her determination, resilience, and brilliant communication. Her last week of Southern Ocean sailing had one final, enormous test – we share her story

The Southern Ocean is renowned for its relentlessness. By the time they reach the final stages of the South Pacific, the Vendée Globe solo sailors have been at sea for two months and covered some 18,000 miles. Both boats and skippers are tired, and the cracks are – quite literally – starting to show.

After a tough start to the year, during which Pip Hare experienced wind instrument issues on Medallia and had to constantly monitor and update her autopilot, the leading British skipper in the 2020/21 Vendée Globe exhausted.

The final straw seemed to be when Pip discovered a large crack in the port rudder stock of Medallia, potentially ending her race. But Pip, remarkably, managed to swap her rudder for a spare, mid-ocean, and resume racing. In an inspiring extract from her blog, here’s her account of a memorable week:

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January 6

I said these last days in the Southern Ocean would be challenging and so far the experience has been incredibly intense. It’s a full-on experience that has every part of me working hard. There is no respite and Cape Horn doesn’t seem to be getting any closer with each new routing that I plot.

Right now it is just starting to get dark, this is the only definition in the sky today. The daylight hours have been of uniform grey for the full 18 hours of daytime. This heavy oppressive sky adds to the atmosphere of menace that has been hanging over this part of the Southern Ocean for the last couple of days.

It is a deeply unsettling place to be right now, there is not one sign of comfort or good times. Every feeling I have with every sense in my body tells me to be alert, this is not a place to relax.

Medallia racing in the Vendée Globe on December 17, 2020. Photo: Pip Hare

The sky is grey, with swathes of black clouds, the sea is almost black as well, save for the white crests and the foaming spume that streaks from the top of the waves. There are still albatross circling the boat but even they seem to have lost their colour.

I think it’s blowing 40 knots. It’s hard to tell but I would be surprised if it was less. The seas are still building but I think the waves are around 6m at the moment, though I am surprised by how short the wave length is, I was expecting longer. When Medallia picks up one of these waves we head off surfing at 22 knots and all I can feel is raw power. These surfs are driven by the ocean, not by me. The noise is a deep rumble and the vibrations come straight through the hull, into my bones. I am feeling every part of this.

Medallia is hard work in these conditions especially without the wind information. To check the sails, and do any trimming requires a trip on deck out into the elements. I am trying to do this every couple of hours at least. The main concern is that my course is downwind VMG so I need to steer Medallia as far downwind as the sail plan will let me.

Christmas Day aboard Medallia. Photo: Pip Hare

This means that I can’t really sleep for long at all as the pilot is steering on compass mode and if there is a slight shift in the wind Medallia could crash gybe. I have the pilot remote in my hand permanently and am making small course alterations depending on what apparent wind angle I can see on the instruments below and what the mainsail looks like through the window in the coach roof.

I am managing with 10 minute dozes, walking just the right side of my red line, very focussed on just keeping it all together to get through this bit of breeze.

I can’t say that sailing at the moment is fun. It’s hugely demanding, it’s stressful and I am asking a lot of myself both mentally and physically. Do I wish I wasn’t here? Well that is a difficult question. I don’t think anyone would say that this kind of sailing is something you enjoy, but it in the context of being on an IMOCA in week nine of the Vendée Globe Race and with 1400 miles to go to Cape Horn then I am exactly where I want to be. But I cannot wait for this particular weather system to be over and I would really like to see the sun again at some point.

7 January

Yesterday lunchtime, while doing my routine checks onboard Medallia I discovered that my port rudder stock is cracked and so I have had to suspend racing.

The crack is in the stock between the deck and the hull, just underneath where the quadrant attaches and every time the pilot was going to move the rudder the crack was getting a little bit worse. I have no choice but to change the port rudder.

If I continue sailing hard the stock will fail under load in a matter of hours. Naturally I am completely devastated about this failure and what it means to my race but the only thing to do right now is to put the racing on hold and focus on solving this problem to keep both me and Medallia safe.

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Photo: Pip Hare / Medallia

I have been lucky. I noticed the failure while I was on a port tack, so the rudder was not the one under load, which immediately allowed me to disconnect all of the steering linkage, but keep control of the boat with the starboard rudder. This has prevented any further damage to either the stock or the steering gear.

I am also lucky that I spotted this damage as I was due to gybe back onto starboard and sail hard in 30 knots of wind in the next three hours and it is certain that the rudder stock would have failed at that point, with the boat under full sail and fully loaded up. I have a spare rudder onboard and so we can fix this problem.

My main objective now is to find suitable conditions to make the switch. This is challenging in this location as the sea state needs to be relatively calm.

Naturally I am devastated. But I am also accepting. This has happened and it cannot be changed. I had a few tears but not many because this problem is a big one and there is only one way to deal with it – which is a total focus of energy on solving it and staying safe.

8 January

Every part of my body aches. I have bloody knuckles on every finger, bruises all down my legs and muscles I didn’t know I had that hurt but YES!!!!! The new rudder is in and Medallia is back in the game.

Alan Roura had to replace a rudder on this boat, in a fairly similar place, when he was racing it as La Fabrique in the 2016 Vendée Globe. I talked to Alan about this story and it always amazed me that he was actually able to change a rudder in the Southern Ocean, I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been.

On the strength of his story I had a spare rudder built for my race and Joff and I practiced the procedure for changing the rudders over just two weeks before the start in Le Sables D’Olonnes. But there was doubt in my mind as to whether I would be able to do it.

Yesterday I was scared and apprehensive. The conditions were far from ideal, a big swell and a forecast for a light patch between gales. I talked through the procedure with Joff, the main concern was slowing the boat down enough to get the rudder in and then the boat landing on the rudder stock and doing damage to either. Eventually, with a drogue out of the back and under bare poles in 16-18 knots of breeze, I went for it.

I think the whole procedure took about an hour and a half with many hours of preparation and packing up before and after. My heart was in my mouth for the whole time. I ran around the cockpit, winding winches, pulling ropes, sliding over to the back of the boat to grab, yank, manhandle rudder ropes and anchor chain.

Once I was committed to doing it there was nothing that was going to get in my way. There were some tough moments and I had to plead with my boat and the ocean a couple of times but when that new rudder stock finally came shooting up through the deck level bearing, the out-loud whooping that came from me could easily have been heard for miles around…if anyone had been there to hear it.

I’m now back in the game, the breeze has filled in and Medallia is humming along at 15 knots, and I can’t quite believe that I did that.

I have always said one of the things that attracts me to solo sailing as a sport is that it allows me to become the best version of myself. When alone in the middle of an ocean there is no easy option. You must face every problem head on and find the solution from within. This race challenges every aspect of what it means to be a human being; on every level we are forced to perform and do extraordinary things..

Now can I please have a pass out of the Southern Ocean? I think I am done here now.

12 January

Finally it’s done. I have rounded Cape Horn. I had the full experience; close enough inshore for photos and spoke to the lighthouse keeper and his wife. But then I was crawling past the island at about 4 knots so I had time to be a tourist.

Yesterday was one of those Vendée tests. It was a day that ground me down from the very start, a day that started full of promise as the day I would pass Cape Horn, but then quickly descended into something just short of despair at its worst.

The breeze was difficult all day, the sky full of squalls and lulls. I just didn’t have the boat speed to stay in the more consistent breeze and so slowly fell back into the weaker breeze, which in itself was enough to frustrate. But I was battling with bigger issues as well, in the form of a leak from the rudder bearing on the side that I changed, which yesterday rapidly worsened and at its peak saw me in the back of the boat every hour bailing out over 40 litres of water that was washing from side to side.

We think that one of the seals in the bearing may have dropped out when I changed the rudder and so the water is able to come into the back of the boat. All day I have been in and out with a bucket, trying to work out whether the leak was stable or getting worse.

Photo: Pip Hare / Medallia

Just to cap it all off, on one of my expeditions I forgot the remote control for the pilot and a squall came up behind us. We took off fast and I could immediately feel that the wind was shifting as we started to roll to windward. I scrambled to get out of the back but it’s a hard job, crawling through a whole in a bulkhead that is bisected by one of the tiller bars.

I was too late. Medallia crash gybed (my first of the race) as the pilot in compass mode is not able to react to the squall. I was thrown across the back of the boat and then had to climb out of the hatch into the cockpit with the boat pinned on it’s side, mainsail against the backstay, code zero flapping and wrapped around the forestay.

It took me two hours to sort the mess out. Luckily nothing was damaged and I was able to get the zero down relatively easily. In the time it took me to get the boat back on its feet and driving again the back compartment was once again full of water. It’s like someone is repeatedly knocking you over. Every time you stand up another blow comes.

But there is only one way out and that is forwards with positive energy, facing one problem at a time. I have been sailing Medallia fairly conservatively, to keep the pressure off the rudder and make my life easier as I carry out repairs. Then after consultation with Joff and a lot of bailing out I have created a taller and more robust temporary boot to go around the rudder and stop the water from getting into the back of the boat. When conditions allow I will laminate a more permanent solution in place.

Sailing close to Cape Horn after this terrible day was just the tonic I needed. It made me smile despite my exhaustion and disappointment, it reminded me of just what I have achieved so far in this race and the possibilities of everything that has to come. It was incredible to see it up close and I will remember that vision for the rest of my days. For me I think the Capes are named the wrong way round, because this one definitely brought me hope.

For more Vendée Globe updates like this, read Pip’s blog at: piphare.com/blog or follow Pip on Instagram and Facebook.


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