Secrets from the Southern Ocean

Published on February 26th, 2017

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Conrad Colman

by Matthew Sheahan, Sunset+Vine
When Conrad Colman arrived in Les Sables D’Olonne on Friday afternoon (Feb 24), battered and bruised flying a jury rig, the crowds turned out in their thousands to greet the Vendée Globe skipper.

Touched by his engaging descriptions of a journey that had started with a fight simply to get to the start line, he was stopped and congratulated by passing strangers everywhere in the seaside town..

Yet there was one tale no one was expecting, not even his wife.

“I haven’t told anyone this yet,” he said at his press conference. “I fell overboard.”

There was silence in the room. He stared out at the audience and swallowed as his gaze shifted momentarily to his feet; this was no PR stunt.

To a silent and dumbstruck audience he then described how at night, in a breezy Southern Ocean he had been on top of the boom, cradled by the mainsail lazy bag as he rearranged the sail when the lazy jacks broke.

“In a split second, the boom dropped into the water, I had no time to grab onto anything and was dumped into the sea. Fortunately, I was hooked on leaving me trailing behind the boom.

“I was too far away from the boat to get back on board, but eventually one of the waves swept me in sufficiently that I could grab hold of a stanchion. The trouble was that my harness was still clipped to the boom, preventing me from getting back aboard the boat.

“The only way to get back on board was to undo my harness, hang on to the stanchion with one arm and try to scramble back onto the boat. Fortunately I did it.”

The following day during a one to one interview with Conrad he expanded on his dark secret. ‘Had the incident spooked him,’ I asked.

“I don’t think so although I did tell one person, I had to, I had nearly died and I needed to tell someone about it. But the fact is that it had happened, what was I to do? I was still many miles from anywhere in the Southern Ocean. Even if I had decided enough was enough I still had to get back home.”

Was there any point at which he didn’t think he would make it?

“Yes, plenty,” he replied.

Conrad’s Vendée struggle is a fascinating one, not least because he is so disarmingly open about the trip, his emotions and what it all means to him. But his tale is also fascinating because of the way he tells it and the number of times he say things that you really don’t expect. Going overboard was one such example. His wife Clara told me the next day that she was pretty cross when he declared this in the press conference.

“When he said he hadn’t told anyone I though uh oh, this won’t be good,” she said. “I had no idea. But he’s back, and while I understand why he didn’t tell me, he’s back and that’s all that matters.”

But there were other Conrad declarations that stopped us in our tracks. He was asked about the Voiles des Anges logos on his boat. He described that this was an organisation set up by a mother who had lost her child and wanted to help others struggling with the same predicament. He went on to describe how he felt a close association with the group after his younger brother had committed suicide just a few years ago.

Close to tears, he described how he wanted his trip to be an indication to all those who endure dark days that there was always something to fight for. He received a standing ovation in the press centre.

“I had plenty of dark days myself out there,” he told me the following day.

And then there’s the influence of his father who was killed in a sailing accident when he fell from the top of the mast. Conrad was just 11 months old, but it is clear that growing up without his father is something that has gnawed away at him on occasions and has provided another source of motivation for the 33 year old skipper.

So having been through so much and having bucked against the odds in his 110 day voyage you might think that he had formed a close bond with his boat.

As they approach the finish, most Vendée Globe skippers talk of longing to get home. Yet when they do, it’s not uncommon for them to be reluctant to get off their boats when they finally arrive. Some talk of suddenly realizing that life within the guard wires is their world, a safe world and one that involves a close bond between them and their boat. Bending down to kiss the decks in public is familiar behavior in Les Sables D’Olonne as they make a public display of the partnership between man and machine.

But there was no such bond between Conrad and his boat. In fact, as he came up the famous canal to the harbour he hailed a RIB to take him to a pontoon where supporters had hung an array of welcoming banners.

“I couldn’t wait to get off the boat,” he said. “I had been to hell and back with that boat, battling to keep it going around the world. I saw all those supporters and banners and I just wanted to be with them. They were the people that were keeping me going.”

Yet they were the also people who had themselves been inspired by his trip around the world. Touched by his honesty, bravery and commitment, Conrad Colman was their hero.

And while he may have finished a month after Alex Thomson and Armel Le Cleac’h, his time around the world didn’t matter. But his story did and is one that will go down in the Vendée Globe history under the heading of dogged determination.

Having spent a good deal of time with him and his wife after the finish, ashore and aboard the boat, there is no doubt in my mind that Conrad will be back and the sport will be all the better for it, thanks to a skipper that can tell a captivating, candid tale, as well as keeping a secret.

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Background:
The eighth Vendée Globe, which began November 6 from Les Sables d’Olonn, France, is the only non-stop solo round the world race without assistance. Twenty-nine skippers representing four continents and ten nations set sail on IMOCA 60s in pursuit of the record time set by François Gabart in the 2012-13 race of 78 days, 2 hours and 16 minutes.

For the first time in the history of the event, seven skippers will set sail on IMOCA 60s fitted with foils: six new boats (Banque Populaire VIII, Edmond de Rothschild, Hugo Boss, No Way Back, Safran, and StMichel-Virbac) and one older generation boat (Maitre Coq). The foils allow the boat to reduce displacement for speed gains in certain conditions. It will be a test to see if the gains can topple the traditional daggerboard configuration during the long and demanding race.

Retirements (11):
November 12, Day 7 – Tanguy de Lamotte, Initiatives Coeur, masthead crane failure
November 19, Day 14 – Bertrand de Broc, MACSF, UFO collision
November 22, Day 17 – Vincent Riou, PRB, UFO collision
November 24, Day 19 – Morgan Lagravière, Safran, UFO collision
December 4, Day 29 – Kojiro Shiraishi, Spirit of Yukoh, dismasted
December 6, Day 31 – Kito de Pavant, Bastide Otio, UFO collision
December 7, Day 32 – Sébastien Josse, Edmond de Rothschild, foil damage
December 18, Day 43 – Thomas Ruyant, Le Souffle du Nord, UFO collision
December 24, Day 49 – Stéphane Le Diraison, Compagnie du Lit – Boulogne Billancourt, dismasted
December 24, Day 49 – Paul Meilhat, SMA, keel ram failure
January 1, Day 57 – Enda O’Coineen, Kilcullen Voyager-Team Ireland, dismasted

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Source: Vendee Globe

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