Zeitblick / Das Online-Magazin der HillAc - 15. Januar 2009 - Nr. 32

By John Allen, Earthrace Operations Manager, Feb '06 - Oct '07

Part 4

The World Record Attempt

In Parts 1 to 3 of this series, I have covered the story behind the Earthrace Project; the launch of the boat; and the subsequent promotional tours around New Zealand and North America.  In this, Part 4 of the series, I intend to summarise our attempt to break the world record for a powerboat to circumnavigate the globe.

Main Race Rules

  • You must start and finish in the same place
  • Your boat must be less than 150 feet in length.
  • You must go through the Panama and Suez Canals
  • You cannot refuel at sea
  • The clock starts when you leave and doesn’t stop until you get back

Current Record

75 days, set in 1998 by the British boat Cable & Wireless. This equates to traveling an average distance of approximately 320 nautical miles per day and/or traveling at an average constant speed of approximately 18 knots, for the entire duration of the attempt.

Proposed Race Route

Barbados  →  Panama City (Panama)  →  Acapulco (Mexico)  →  San Diego (USA)  →  Hawaii (USA)  →  Marshall Islands  →  Palau  →  Singapore  →  Cochin (India)  →  Salalah (Oman)  →  Port Said (Egypt)  →  Malaga (Spain)  →  Canary Islands  →  Barbados.

- - -

Race Summary

After three years in the making, the Earthrace record attempt commenced on March 10, 2007 starting from Carlyle Bay, Barbados and heading for Panama City – a distance of 1450 nautical miles.  The boat initially performed brilliantly, traveling at an average speed of 22-25 knots.

However, just 16 hours into the record attempt the boat was almost forced to abandon the attempt.

Earthrace was running new kind of carbon propellers that were originally developed for submarines, and they were supposed to offer reduced vibration and better efficiency compared with conventional blades. However, they started to delaminate and indeed failed on the very first race leg.

Boat speed was dropped to 12 knots and the crew nursed her to Colon, on the northern side of the Panama Canal. The ground crew in Panama had managed to source replacement propellers in the USA and these were flown under urgency to Panama where they were fitted. All in all, Earthrace only lost 2 days because of the problem with the initial propellers. The photo below is of one of the propeller blades and the delamination can be quite clearly seen.

© Earthrace Ltd

The Earthrace boat then had a great run through the Panama Canal, taking only 8 and a half hours to transit the canal. The photo below shows Earthrace tying up to a tug in the Panama Canal during the record attempt.

© Earthrace Ltd

However, not long after she began her journey to Acapulco, Earthrace cracked a lube oil cooler cover on its starboard engine. Speed was slowed from 22 knots to 16 knots and she continued running on just the port engine.

In the early hours of March 17, tragedy struck.  Earthrace collided with a small fishing skiff approximately 14 miles off the coast of Guatemala. Two people were rescued from the fishing skiff, one seriously hurt, and a third fisherman was missing, presumed drowned. The fishing skiff was fibre glass (and therefore did not reflect any noticeable radar signal) and did not display a solid white light as required under maritime law – and to further compound matters, the 3 fishermen were all asleep in the boat at the time of the collision.

The boat and crew were detained under armed guard by the Guatemalan authorities for approx 10 days whilst they investigated the incident. The photo below shows the boat being guarded by a local Guatemalan soldier.

© Earthrace Ltd

The photo below shows the damaged fishing skiff after the accident.

© Earthrace Ltd

The crew were well looked after by the local Guatemalan authorities. Ultimately a judge cleared Earthrace of any wrong doing and ordered that the boat and crew be allowed to leave. The local Guatemalan media covered the story extensively, and the photo below is of a major local newspaper – which went to some trouble to come up with the graphics shown.

© Earthrace Ltd

Just before the boat left however, the Earthrace crew requested a meeting with the families of the deceased and injured fishermen - to which they agreed. The meeting turned out to be a very emotional meeting with tears flowing from both sides and it allowed a certain amount of healing and closure on the incident. It was a satisfying conclusion to an otherwise tragic experience.

After leaving Guatemala on 28 March, the boat made very good time up to Acapulco where she refueled and headed off after only a 4 hour stop. Again, the boat made very good time from Acapulco to San Diego despite encountering big head-on seas off the Baja Peninsula - they did the "Baja Bash" as they say in nautical circles. During this trip up the Baja Peninsula the boat covered 580 nautical miles in one day – which shows just what she can do when things run smoothly. The San Diego stop was also supposed to be about a 4 hour stay but ended up being 6 days as mechanical problems with the boat kept arising (the boat actually left 3 times only to have to turn back each time due to various problems). This was a very frustrating time. The main problem was a small vibration that was apparent in the drive shaft and it took many goes before this problem could be properly identified and remedied. The photo below shows Earthrace skipper Pete Bethune looking along the troubled drive shaft during a brainstorming session on how to fix it.

© Earthrace Ltd

Finally however the boat got away again on Saturday April 7 and headed to Hawaii. The boat made good time, traveling the 2250 nautical miles in just over 4 days. The refueling stop in Hawaii was about 3 hours 50 minutes which was excellent - and testament to the excellent ground crew we have working on this project.

From there the boat headed to Majuro in the Marshall Islands and again the boat made good time arriving on Tuesday morning 17 April. Another quick turnaround ensued.

When the boat left San Diego we were more than 4000 nautical miles behind the world record pace. When the boat left Majuro on 17 April we had made up 1000 nautical miles since the boat left San Diego, which gave us hope that we could still beat the record if we had an excellent run for the rest of the way.

But unfortunately this wasn't to be.

About 500 miles east of Palau the starboard engine encountered serious problems, which ultimately resulted in a piston having to be replaced. The boat therefore limped into Palau on one engine on 22 April. Palau is a very remote place, and probably the worst place you would want to break down as far as getting service technicians and parts to. And so it proved to be. The boat was stuck in Palau for 9 days while the repairs were completed – finally leaving for Singapore on 30 April. The photo below shows the damage to the piston.

© Earthrace Ltd

Unbelievably, the boat encountered further engine trouble on route to Singapore, this time with its port engine. The problem was initially diagnosed as another piston replacement and so the necessary parts and technicians were found and were waiting for the boat when it pulled into Singapore on Sunday morning 6 May. The problem took 2 days to fix – but enabled the Earthrace boat to be used as a backdrop to the Miss Earth Singapore beauty pageant. The photo below shows Earthrace skipper (left) and the author with the winning contestant.

© Earthrace Ltd

Given the time lost in Palau it was apparent Earthrace would not be able to beat the record as too much time had now been lost. However, when the boat left San Diego, another official start time was taken, given the time we had lost in Panama and Guatemala. This allowed us the option of finishing the race in San Diego if necessary – a precaution which ultimately proved wise and which we took advantage of.

Hence, after leaving Singapore, Earthrace was aiming for San Diego as its finish line.  The boat left San Diego on 7 April and so had to finish in San Diego before 21 June if it was to beat the current record.

The boat left Singapore bound for Cochin, India and had more frustrating delays in India, this time caused by the fuel truck being delayed at the border of the neighbouring province. This resulted in a delay of approx 3 days. The boat finally got to leave India bound for Salalah in Oman and made excellent time on this part of the trip.

After leaving Oman the boat headed for Suez and for a transit through the Suez Canal. We were aided by the support of the NZ Embassy in Cairo that contacted the Canal Authorities on our behalf and gained permission for a special canal transit. The boat exited the canal and headed for Malaga in Spain. However, about 100 miles out from Malaga the boat began taking on water due to a crack that had formed in the main hull and ultimately the boat was not able to proceed further as the crack required a substantive repair job. The photo below shows the Earthrace boat entering Malaga Harbour.

© Earthrace Ltd

And so our brave and event-filled record attempt was over. It was a disappointing time but we all felt we had given it our best shot and we took as much satisfaction from that as we could.

© John Allen, Auckland, New Zealand, 2009