Where did all the seamanship go?

10 Apr

There are times when things have to be said and if no one else is prepared to say them, I will and yes I am fully aware that some people are not going to be happy but that just too damn bad. Let me start by saying that I am a fan of the Volvo Ocean Race (even though some would beg to differ). I have been around this race since 1975 when the boats came through Cape Town and I have always been in awe of the sailors who put it all out there in the name of adventure. Well sorry, no more.
There has been much praise heaped on the US/Danish entry Vestas 11th Hour Racing as they departed the Falkland Islands with a jury rig heading for the leg stopover in Itajaí, Brazil. Well done lads – after 8 days on land and with a full crew of “professional” sailors you managed to rig some kind of stove pipe and flew in a delivery crew to move the boat. Give me a break – seriously?
Ceramco New Zealand
Let’s go back to the 81/82 race then known as the Whitbread Round the World Race. The late great Peter Blake showed up with a brand new Farr design Ceramco New Zealand and the best wishes of most Kiwis in his pocket. Ceramco was cutting edge but they cut it a bit close to the edge when it came to mast engineering and halfway down the South Atlantic enroute to Cape Town the mast came tumbling down. What to do one would ask? Well Blake, or Blakey to those who knew him well, was not about to cut the rig away and motor to the nearest port. That’s not what a proper seaman does. No, he had the cook pass up the wooden cutting board from the galley and he and his crew stepped what was left of the mast. The rig was small but adequate. They changed course to dive south of the South Atlantic high, picked up the westerly winds and roared into Cape Town. By the time they arrived they had every single person in New Zealand supporting them. Seamanship and an astute PR move catapulted Peter Blake into Whitbread legend.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the Whitbread is now the Volvo Ocean Race. Ken Read and his crew are sailing in the South Atlantic when their mast dropped over the side. They managed to salvage most of it and all the sails and made for the small island of Tristan da Cuna some 700 miles away. So far so good but then the wheels came off. Instead of sailing the boat to Cape Town they had a freighter pick it up and deliver the boat and the crew to Cape Town.  OK before you fill my inbox with hate mail – and I am a fan of Ken Read so don’t shoot me – I realize that with the modern format of the Volvo Ocean Race the layover time is very limited and that’s probably the reason why a ship was involved, but it’s great pity. It could have been an amazing story of seamanship.
Probably the greatest example of seamanship was carried out by the French sailor Yves Parlier. Parlier was competing in the Vendée Globe when his mast came down west of New Zealand. Parlier, alone on the boat, salvaged what he could of the mast and with a jury rig made for Stewart island, a tiny island south of the south island of New Zealand. He anchored, and over the course of 10 days repaired his carbon mast. Because it was cold and he was using resin he fashioned a primitive oven by wrapping the mast with a `Space Blanket’ and pushed in light-bulbs to create the warmth needed to set the resin. He then used his boom to create a derrick and re-stepped his mast. Did I mention he was all alone? 
Rigging the mast on Aquitaine Innovations
Parlier did this not to sail to the nearest port to put his boat on a ship. No he fixed his mast so that he could finish the race back in France. Realizing that the mast was a tad on the short side and his progress would be slow he gathered up mussels and seaweed and caught fish to supplement his food supply. He finished back in Les Sables-d’Olonne 126 days after starting and even managed to beat two of the other competitors. The French, realizing his amazing act of seamanship, awarded him the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur (Legion of honor), France’s highest award. The award, by the way, was established by none other than Napoléon Bonaparte.
I am not trying to poke at the crew of Vestas 11th Hour racing. I was not on boat when the mast came down and I was not there in the Falklands but I do think that one of the most important aspects of sailing offshore – seamanship – is becoming a thing of the past. Perhaps it’s because many modern day sailors grew up sailing in clubs where the coach boat was always close by ready to jump in and rescue any sailor that got him or herself into trouble. I dunno, maybe I am just a grumpy old has-been as one writer referred to me after I dared criticize the VOR boats as being unseaworthy. Maybe I should put an oar over my shoulder and start walking inland until someone asks me what an oar is for. Or maybe not…:)

Note: to watch a terrific documentary about Peter Blake (including stepping his mast on the bread board click here

I hope that you enjoyed this blog.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will not miss a blog post.  You will get a great free gift and weekly sailing related blogs.

Click pic to subscribe

This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog


  1. Nos

    Great work, Brian. It’s sometimes easy to forget seamanship when you are racing. Out on a day sail short handed on a cruising boat and the engine dies. You sail it back through the crowded mooring field (and much more expensive boats) and sail up (heart in mouth) onto your mooring. Because you have to. A couple of Sydney Hobart races ago we had to withdraw after discovering a fuel leak and having earlier destroyed our new no 3 jib. The owner/ skipper – 20 years my junior – didn’t even think about starting the engine. He simply turned the boat around and we sailed the 200 + miles back to Sydney. No problem. Absolutely no doubt we (under his instruction) would have jury rigged the boat, if we had lost the rig. Bring back seamanship!

  2. Clint

    Thanks for these commentaries, Brian! I am very new to the sport, so I’ve been reading extensively about a lot of these yesteryear adventures, and I noticed the disconnect when I follow the Volvo race and see all the outside help these teams get. What they are doing is amazing, but it’s missing some soul. Even a lubber can spot the gap.

  3. Gus van Driel

    Yes Brian, you sound like “a grumpy old has-been” and I love it! Don’t change a thing. I’ll tell you one thing, I’d rather go sailing with you than one of those professional sailing celebrities.

  4. Kevin Reilly

    Good article. Made me think. I guess competitive capability is enhanced by money, and the more competitive it gets, the more money it takes. Eventually it’s all pro and the money flow dictates how the game is played. So then the guys making the decisions are looking at the bottom line and whether or not it will “pay” to (1) put on a show where teams sail and fix their own boats, or (2) put on a show that involves sailing only. Sailing only may work better to bring the advertising dollars in, but for those of us who are actually interested in sailing and seamanship, such a show begins to lose it’s interest. Of course money and pros does result in advances that have a trickle-down benefit for the rest of us, and that’s good, but I would argue that the Corinthian contingent of the sport is huge and has driven just about all of the advances I care about. If the pros want to sail for money…or if they went away completely…hmmm…I think I would vote for an all-amateur, Corinthian sport without all the hooplah. That would be fine for me.

  5. Sam Sabey

    I remember all these incidents, including several Whitbread jury rigs. I’ve been thinking about this today, in particular Vestas. Even their boom would have made a good jury rig… however. I reckon the spares, bits and bobs and related gear they carry aboard today may not be enough to do such a running repair? Minimalism is a curse…

    In my ocean racing career, we would carry a spare main, which came in handy once when what happened to Mapfre happened to us…

    It’s all about contingency planning…

    I do wonder though, if Vestas managed to jury rig, and keep sailing they may well have finished racing, scored points and been in port sooner to step and tune a new mast?

    Though that said we both weren’t there and who knows the actual situation aboard.

    Sam, @samotage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

More from the AIM Marine Group