Navigational error turns big lead into end of line

On The Outdoors

January 10, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

On New Year's Day, British sailor Mike Golding appeared to have it made. He had perhaps a two-day overall lead in the Around Alone Race and had Team Group 4 making 15 to 17 knots with 200 miles to go to the finish line of Leg 2 in Auckland, New Zealand.

And then, while a helicopter carrying a film crew hovered above the 60-footer as it rounded Cape Regina, the bottom dropped out.

After nearly a month at sea and a fast, rigorous sail across the Southern Ocean from Cape Town, South Africa, Golding's Team Group 4 grounded hard three times on a sandbar or reef off the tip of North Island. The collision dislodged a canting keel at its root and holed the hull.

Within 24 hours, the veteran ocean racer had withdrawn from Leg 2 and, as a consequence, lost the chance for any overall prize in the race.

"It's as clear as day. I made a mistake. That's it," Golding said in Auckland last week. "I can't really hide that one. If I could do it again, I'd do it a different way, I promise you."

According to the transcript from his news conference, Golding said he misjudged the currents and made an error in navigation as he set up his approach to Cape Regina, where the Tasman Sea meets the South Pacific Ocean.

"I had spent half a day actually plotting way points for the approach down the coastline, which I knew to be difficult," said Golding, a former fireman who has raced around the world several times. "I had rested myself well. I took precautions with the boat slowed down to some degree, and I really thought I was in good shape."

The pilot book, Golding said, states clearly that the Cape Regina area is strewn with shoals marked by seas breaking over them. Golding said in the hour before the first grounding, he had seen breaking seas but thought they were caused by the meeting of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific.

Some 30 minutes later, the helicopter and film crew arrived to film Team Group 4 rounding Cape Regina.

"Regardless of what was going on I still went below and made a plot," said Golding, who in the previous hour had changed from spinnaker, to gennaker, to headsails, to gennaker and back to headsails. "I made two plots, one manually and one electronically, and both showed me to be in clear water on a good course."

Both plots showed Team Group 4 to be at least two miles offshore, and the navigation charts showed clearance of 1.75 miles from the nearest shoal. However, Golding said, after rounding the cape with a fair current, the tide turned foul and moved him toward shore and the shoals.

An advanced GPS navigating system on board had been broken for weeks, and the backup unit was inadequate, said Golding, adding that he was sailing mainly by compass course without the radar running.

"The fact of the matter is that the responsibility of the boat and the navigation profoundly lands fairly and squarely in my ball court, and that's it," said Golding, emphasizing he wasn't mugging for the cameras as he approached Cape Regina.

"I was racing the boat. I was navigating, and I don't feel taking any serious risks as far as corner cutting was concerned. I feel that if there was an error this was quite possibly brought on by fatigue. But at the end of the day, I felt I was well prepared for rounding the corner."

Minutes after completing his plots, he said, Team Group 4 grounded the first time while making 15 to 17 knots, and grounded hard twice more before sailing into deeper water.

Once clear, Golding lowered the sails, went below to find the hull flooding and called the coast guard to report he was "in imminent danger."

Golding's immediate assessment was that the hull was holed at one of two canting keels and the damaged keel was close to falling off.

With darkness an hour away, the batteries flooded and discharging rapidly and the boat very much in danger of capsizing, Golding packed it in.

"I knew at that point I could not sail the boat safely to Auckland, even though I was only some 150 to 200 miles from the finish line," Golding said. "There comes a point where competitive desires are exceeded by seamanship, and seamanship was the prevailing issue."

The New Zealand coast guard issued a distress call, and a fishing boat, Happy One, responded, eventually towing Team Group 4 to a small coastal bay near North Cape. Once anchored, Golding and the boat's designer and builder assessed the damage and agreed to take a tow into Auckland.

Taking a tow for more than 10 miles automatically results in automatic disqualification from a leg under race rules. Boats that do not finish all four legs of the circumnavigation are ineligible for overall prizes but can rejoin the race on ensuing legs.

Golding said he hopes repairs will allow him to rejoin the Race for Leg 3.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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