Chris Nicholson: In his own words

Published on December 14th, 2014

Competing in his fifth Volvo Ocean Race, Team Vestas Wind skipper Chris Nicholson was not supposed to be home in Australia. But with his boat now sitting on a reef in the Indian Ocean, the result of the team’s grounding on November 29 during the second leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi (details), Chris now has some unexpected family time. With his kids chatting in the background, Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck recently caught up with Chris for an update….

What made the grounding such a phenomenal moment was that your onboard reporter, Brian Carlin, never stopped working.

It was good that we were recorded; it was a conscious decision to tell the story. We kind of knew that it leaves us open for a lot of criticism, both good and bad, but I think it needs to be told, as painful as it is.

I’m more of an advocate to share both the good and the bad. I think the public likes to see the tough times just as much as the good times, possibly even more so, because everyone can relate to making mistakes and trying to fix them. And these were big ones, but it’s all part of life.

I’d have to say there’s far more good at the moment than bad comments out there. We have got to give some time for people to understand, or for us all to understand, hopefully what happened a bit better.

Any updates on the why the grounding occurred? I understand the navigation laptops are inoperable.

In terms of details, we are trying not to hold anything back. There’s obviously a couple of still sensitive issues that we need to deal with, but as far as the facts and the reasons why, nothing’s been withheld, and nothing can ever be withheld when the stakes are this high.

As for the laptops, we didn’t have anything special on them other than the standard information, and all that information is there on the tracker. We could recreate the scenario using the same navigation software, but still when trying to understand the reasons for us being where we were, and the information that we were operating on, it doesn’t have any effect.

Is there any updates on the recovery of the boat?

Well, that’s still getting very close, hopefully, to getting finalized. But the boat won’t race again, that’s agreed by all parties. The damage is too far for that. As for removing the boat, recovery crews may have a different view on it, but I certainly don’t think you can get a barge anywhere near it; it’s too dangerous on the deep water side. There’s almost always too much swell, and it’s pushing you straight onto the reef. The damage to drag it to the deep water site now would be enormous. This would be basically, just to recover the bits and pieces and clean up the reef; that’s what the plan is.

Does this mean cutting up the boat for removal?


Any updates on if the team can re-enter the race?

No, we still don’t have a final answer on that. We’re just trying to work out the cost and timing to build a new boat. For it to work, it’s obviously got to come in at a reasonable time. At the end of the day, even though they’re one design boats, they’re still complex and relatively difficult boats to build. The guys are working hard on that, but the one thing is that there’s so much goodwill out there to try and make this happen, from the builders, to the suppliers, to the people who will do the laminating, so I’m really hopeful that something can happen.

It’d be one thing if it was just building the boat, but having to build it to the exacting one design specs, that’s probably got to really slow down the ramp up.

Yeah, it will for sure. You can imagine, when they’re into the swing of things, to build seven of them, it’s pretty fast and efficient. But as I said, so many people want this to happen, so I don’t know. When you’ve got so many committed people to it, you tend to think, “Right, it should happen,” but I don’t know, it’s still too early to call.

When do you think that decision will be made?

We’re hoping that would be before the Abu Dhabi start, and it needs to be. If it’s going to happen, it has to be decided soon.

What would be the latest in which it would still be worth re-entering the race?

That we don’t know yet. That’s one of the big questions we don’t have the answer to. That involves investors and sponsors. At the end of the day, they’ve still got to get benefit out of it. That’s one of the questions, there’s a lot of them, but that’s certainly one of them.

So what is your plan in the interim?

If it happens, then we’ll be fairly keen to help with the build of it. You know, say Coxy (Neil Cox, shore crew manager) and myself, we’ve built them before. So we’d be all part of that, plus hopefully along the way, have some benefit and interaction with our sponsors and stakeholders.

Will you be in Abu Dhabi?

The whole team will be going back up there on about the 29th. We’ve got other stuff we want to — we want to do a full debrief in regards to all the safety gear we used, and go through all that process as well.

With regard to the grounding, everyone remarks at how everything was done correctly after the initial mistake. Has this happened before? What experience did you draw from?

It certainly hasn’t happened before. I’ve never run aground before this time in my life. As for handling the situation, you kind of draw on bits and pieces of the safety courses, and I guess, previous life experiences. This is something so out of the ordinary in terms of sailing. It wasn’t as if it was extremely windy or big seas, which is, normally in the past, when your boat breaks or something like that. This is well removed from anything that I had experienced before.

There was just a lot of monitoring the situation, and changing the game plan smartly. We were always working on our exit strategy off the boat, but never wanting to use it, and that was changing a lot.

It must have been tricky in that you really didn’t know where you were.

Exactly. It was just completely, at that stage, 100% unexpected. We had no knowledge that we were heading in anything more shallow 40 meters of depth.

You shot up a flare, so you had a sense that there was some land to get to, right?

By that stage, we knew that there was some sand, as such, about 1.3 to 1.5 nautical miles away. Pretty quickly, even visually in the dark, we could see that there was calm water on the other side of the reef. It was just a question of how to get there.

With only a total of eight crew, how did your watch system operate?

It was basically the same as almost every race I’ve done. We had two watches of three, and then myself and Wouter Verbraak are floating with no fixed times; he and I would be up and down on each watch, in regards to helping them. I’d do a certain amount of driving and trimming on each watch. And then for sail changes, then everyone is up. So I think it’s a fairly standard procedure.

Initially we thought the navigator would end up having to be on desk doing a lot of covering, almost like a standby watch. But as it worked out, and I think it was the way to do it, my skills are much better on deck, trying to manage the sailing of the boat. And Wouter’s strength was on the navigation side of it.

The way we run it is that Wouter can present the weather, the navigational package, and his thoughts, and 99% of the time we are in agreement with the course to take. So that’s how we set it up and I’d be surprised if that isn’t a fairly standard across the fleet. Maybe one or two navigators are active in the sailing, but at the end of the day, usually the trimmers and drivers are – no offence to the navigators – a lot better at that job than the navigators.

How much do you supplement the electronic mapping with paper charts?

We have paper charts on board of which — don’t know, you’d have to ask Wouter, but normally we haven’t been using them very much.

Did you have paper charts for this area?

That, you’d have to ask Wouter. We certainly had them. I knew five days out, we certainly had all the paper charts.

How big an issue is it, in terms of preparing for or reacting to, when the course gets changed? In the first leg you had the ice gate move during the leg, and in this leg you had the exclusion more a day before the start.

Just prior to the legs start, there’s always a lot of things, as you can imagine going on, but a change such as that, in my view, isn’t a major significant change I’s an alteration to the course that you already have in there, and then it’s a matter of doing the homework in regards to the change. But that homework doesn’t have to be done before the start, it can be done, actually, during the race.

What shore side support do you have to prepare for each leg?

We’re using Roger Badham remotely in terms of weather and leg support. And then Wouter would use the time onshore to help prepare for the legs.

It is notable how many obstacles there are on these legs.

Even on leg one, there’s small little islands that really pop up in the middle of, what you think, is in the middle of nowhere.

But in comparison, the third leg is a full-on obstacle course. There are all sorts of concerns going through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.

Yeah, but your awareness or guard is on high alert in those areas. During our incident, we asked the right questions at the right time, but we were given the wrong answer, and that’s what led us into this. When we approached the sea mounts, we asked about the depths, the currents, and the wave state, but just the tragic part of this was that I was told the wrong depth.

You were the last team to enter and had the least amount of training time in the boat. How was your progress in learning to sail the boat?

We were feeling much better about it. So again that’s one of the bigger disappointments when you feel the potential that the team has, and then not to be able to finish that off the way that you wanted to. I hope now we can still finish it off, it may be in a different way, shape, and form, but that would be one of the best things, to try and get back out there and kind of almost repay some of the faith.

How seamless had it been to adapt to the new Volvo Ocean 65 compared to the 70 footer you skippered in the last race?

It had been fairly seamless, I think, in regards to almost going through the motions of getting to the start-line and everything else, but it’d been a little bit more difficult to try and get fast. It was really showing to us that the boats that done most miles, were just that little bit quicker all round, but we were bridging that gap quite fast – faster than I thought we would.

What are some of the areas of development?

The ballast tanks were quite vital, and I think, in all fairness, we were using them a bit incorrectly on the first leg. We were smarter with it on the second. I think there’s fair bit going on just purely just the trim of the sails, whether you almost over-sheet them a little, or they’re quite loosely trimmed.

Is there anything else that you want to get off your chest?

There’s nothing more other than to say we’re just being straight down the line with this in regards to what we believe the mistakes made were. I hope we’re owning up to them and as I’ve said before, as skipper, I take ultimate responsibility for this. It’s a situation, we don’t like it, and we’re extremely regretful to be here in this place.

Editor’s note: During the interview, Chris suggested we speak to his navigator, Wouter Verbraak, for additional information. However, the team has not yet permitted access to Wouter.



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