After slamming into the Cargados Carajos Shoals at about 19 nautical miles an hour on the night of 29 November 2014, some 230 nautical miles northeast of Mauritius, it seemed that the Vestas Wind was out of the 2014-2015 round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. But in an exceptionally smoothly run salvage operation ­­– a joint venture between Subtech and Svitzer – a team consisting of Neil Scott-Williams, Morgan Castle and Morne Uys of Subtech and Mike Smith and Rob Hare, veteran salvors from Svitzer, was mobilized from South Africa to refloat and recover, intact, the yacht’s remains. The main objective was to salvage the deck for installation in a new boat in an attempt to re-enter the race.

Pressed for time

Through the efforts of a major sponsor, arrangements were made for a container vessel, to divert course and rendezvous with the salvage team off the Cargados Carajos Shoal. The salvage team had just two and a half days to inspect the vessel, confirm the method of salvage and execute the plan to be floating and ready for the container vessel. In Mauritius, the Subtech/Svitzer team joined forces with Team Vestas Wind: team manager Neil Cox, skipper Chris Nicolson and shore skipper Tom Kif. Local knowledge and support was provided by Raphael Fishing. Equipment and personnel were mobilized on board the Raphael Fishing charter yacht, Gryphon, a 90-foot liveaboard normally used for birding and fly-fishing charters to the area.

Initial inspection of the grounded vessel showed that the entire starboard quarter was missing from the transom through to the forward keel bulkhead. The teams kicked into immediate action, with Subtech/Svitzer tackling the keel and re-establishment of watertight integrity of the hull, Team Vestas Wind preparing deck equipment and rigging and Raphael Fishing supporting all activities through their team of able and willing mariners.

Racing against the tide

It quickly became apparent that the operation would be very tidally dependent, with the teams unable to work over the high tide. During the next two low tides the keel was cut 80%, a four-point anchor spread was established, cross hauls provided on the mast to create stability during the cut, buoyancy introduced to the missing starboard quarter and internal bulkheads re-established to allow maximum buoyancy. The next high tide was significantly higher than expected and shifted the vessel about three metres, but the four-point mooring held strong and true. Only the exceptional effort and competence of all parties involved ensured that by the turn of the tide all was ready for the refloat.

In the pitch black of a moonless night, all hands were required to navigate the yacht between the exposed coral heads all around. But within a couple of hours she was floating safely in calm water, out of reach of the breaking waves. Next morning, the team mobilized to recover all remaining articles from the reef including keel, mast and salvage equipment. With the incoming tide, the Vestas Wind was towed out and brought alongside the Gryphon to stand by for the arrival of the container vessel. Once the vessel was at anchor, the Vestas Wind was handed over and within the space of an hour securely lashed in place. The container vessel was able to sail only 15 minutes later than scheduled.

Team Vestas Wind had won its shot at re-entering the race, thanks to an unusual combination of skills, meticulous planning and outstanding effort from all parties involved. 

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