Shipwrecked! Team Vestas Wind Crewman Peter Wibroe Discusses High Drama During the Volvo Ocean Race

by Owen James Burke

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This is what a carbon fiber hull looks like after colliding with a coral reef at 19 knots (22 mph).
Photo: Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind/Volvo Ocean Race

Crossing four oceans, 11 countries and 39,000 nautical miles throughout nine months, the Volvo Ocean Race is perhaps the most challenging and perilous race a competitive sailor can enter, and those who even attempt it are held in a regard within the sailing community. Can call it bravery, insanity or whatever you like, but the character of these sailors and their dedication to the sport is nothing short of astonishing. Since its start in 1973 as the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, five lives have been claimed and 19 boats have failed to finish. Team Vestas Wind — at least the vessel — may make it twenty.

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Photo: Volvo Ocean Race

On November 29th, the nine-person crew of Team Vestas Wind, a 65-foot, six-million-dollar carbon-fiber sloop, were ten days out into the 5,185-nautical-mile second leg of the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race between Capetown, South Africa and Abu Dhabi, UAE. They were in fifth place (of seven) skimming above a remote stretch of coral reef covered by a mere four feet of ocean along the Cargos Carajos Shoals in the Saint Brandon archipelago, 268 nautical miles off the northeast coast of Mauritius. It was just after sunset and 29-year-old trimmer, data processor and cook Peter Wibroe was lying his bunk getting what little rest one does while racing a sailboat around the world when he awoke to a sound he reckons he’ll never forget…

The 65-foot sloop strafed a stretch of coral rock at 19 knots (22 m.p.h). She spun 180° and came to a halt amidst the sickening, grinding crunch of carbon on reef. The general rule aboard any a boat is not to abandon ship until it is absolutely necessary, and so there they remained in the pitch black through most of the night. In the wee hours of the morning, the scale of the damage was revealed. The hull had taken a devasting blow. Captain Chris Nicholas decided to lead the crew ashore.

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Photo: Brian Carlin/Team Vestas Wind/Volvo Ocean Race

Team Vestas Wind is sponsored by Vestas Wind, a Danish wind-power company. They have 12 million dollars invested in the race, and their crew,with a half-dozen plus Volvo Ocean Races behind them, shares 300 years of collective sailing experience. Each and every hand aboard was seasoned and practiced, and in spite of the chaotic crash, everyone kept calm. For the two Danes aboard, Peter Wibroe and Nicolai Sehested (the youngest Dane ever to compete in the event), this was a first Volvo Ocean Race. With any luck, it won’t be their last. What follows is our interview with Wilbroe – currently he’s safe and sound, back home in Copenhagen.


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Above: Peter Wibroe, asleep in his bunk. Photo: Getty Images Europe via Zimbio

Can you recall where you were and what you were doing when you first realized something was going wrong?

I was on my off-watch and asleep in my bunk when we hit the reef. With the noise from the first impact, we all knew that something was wrong and rushed on deck; for us below we still didn’t know the full extent of the situation. Initially I thought we had issues with the rig, but shortly after coming up on deck, we all realized what had happened.

What a horrible noise it must have been. Can you describe the sound, and whether panic set in? Pages from Steven Callahan’s Adrift come to mind.

I don’t think I will ever forget that sound. After weeks at sea, you get familiar with every sound on the boat. Everything from the spark ignition in the galley, ease of the outhaul, cavitation of the rudder, every gear in the different winches; there are no surprises. The sound of carbon breaking apart is quite a big surprise though.

What was the first thing everyone did once the vessel came to a halt on the reef? 

In the first seconds, you are still in race mode and think about how you can handle the damage, get the boat back under control and minimize the loss to the competitors. The realization from a race-mode mentality into a survival-mode mentality was hard, but there was no panic to sense on board. Mainly because of great team work and the way the situation was managed by our skipper Chris Nicholson (Nico).

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Photo: Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race via Sailing World

What were your personal thoughts, as the reality of the situation set in?

In the situation, I was aware of all the risks and dangers associated with the situation, but I wasn’t afraid at any stage; which I believe is a symptom of excellent team work and a solid leadership from Nico.

Team Alvimedica put the race on hold to come to your aid. How did you feel watching them sail off after your team sent them back on their way to finish the leg?

We had contact with Alvimedica during the night we were on the reef, and they stayed in position until we were approached by the Coast Guard – a great support for us. For sure, I know who to cheer for during the next legs!

How were the Mauritian Coast Guard?

Both the Coast Guard and the local fishermen were very helpful. In the days after the incident, they took good care of us and assisted in the clean-up of the boat. In return, we gave them some of our food, clothes and emergency equipment.

Do you think this has been your most terrifying experience at sea? If not, what has?

Yes, indeed. No comparison!

Did any dark thoughts cross your mind as night set in while you were listening to the hull break up on the reef? Was there ever any sense of doubt as to whether or not you might be rescued?

The evacuation plan was well-planned and I believed that it could be executed with relatively low risk. However, I did think of what would happen if for example the boat tipped over or disintegrated quickly, and we all got dispersed either into the water or trapped under the boat – a sudden and uncontrolled abandonment so to say.

Do you feel discouraged? Have you sensed any discouragement among the crew?

No discouragement to sense from the crew. In fact, we are all keen to get back in the race again. The way the crew acted during the night matured the crew and brought us closer. It was impressive to see how the crew functioned in this pressed situation, so I wouldn’t hesitate to sail with all the same guys again. I believe we have more to show, so I hope we get the chance to prove that.

The latest news reports were that a new boat might be built to finish the race; does this still look to be the case? If so, are you ready to get on to the next leg?

Both Vestas, VOR (Volvo Ocean Race) and Powerhouse are doing everything they can to keep us in the race. A new boat may be an option – they are currently looking into whether it can be done, and if so in a meaningful time scale to re-enter the race.

Where are you, and what are you doing now? Have the team all disbanded? I imagine, or hope, that you’re all probably tending to some much needed R&R.

Right now, I am back in my home town Copenhagen over Christmas. We will enjoy Christmas with our families, before meeting again in Abu Dhabi with the crew and the Vestas team to have another debrief and assess plans for the future.

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Peter Wilbroe aboard Vestas Wind. Photo: Brian Carlin/Musto

How did you first start sailing?

I started with The Optimist at the age of 7.

Your responsibilities include trimming, data processing and food; what’s the most difficult or grueling part of your job onboard?

You need to be able to do a bit of everything in this race. You trim, you drive, you grind, you maintain and repair the boat, and additionally you have various responsibilities when you are on shore. Firstly, it’s a challenge to push the boat performance 24/7, always trying to improve, while trying to neglect the lack of sleep, poor nutrition, pains etc. In particular, I found the driving at night challenging, where you only have to rely on the instruments. You suddenly realize how much you unconsciously use your balance and vision while driving, and when you switch that off in favor of some slightly delayed numbers, it can be quite a challenge to keep the boat on a fast track.

How has it been being one of the younger members of the crew?

Being one of the young crew members on board has been an amazing learning process. There has been a great mentality on board where the experienced guys have put a huge effort into sharing all their knowledge and experiences. And there is plenty of experience to be passed on from these guys. I believe that one of the strengths of our team was the attitude from all crew members to share knowledge and being open-minded to new ideas and approaches.

 What’s your favorite thing to have aboard with you while sailing?

The equipment that I enjoyed the most, was probably to unpack a set of dry socks. On a wet and cold night after weeks at sea, it is amazing what a set of dry socks can do to you! A good head torch is also invaluable. In terms of safety, life jacket, tether line, strobe light and a knife is the obvious safety equipment, that of course only work if you wear it.


Watch a video of the crash caught on camera:

Next comes the recovery. On Wednesday evening (December 17th), crew manager Neil Cox (‘Coxy’) met with skipper Chris Nicholas (‘Nico’) in Mauritius to reassess the damage and see what they can do about floating Vestas Wind enough to either tow her back to Mauritius, or pull her onto a larger ship. Only the two team members are returning because there is a need for a sizable salvage crew — 9 people, including the cameraman — and there’s no way they can pot enough water for the rest of the crew out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, though they all offered their assistance.

Meanwhile, inhabitants of the nearby island, Île du Sud, have been keeping an eye on Vestas Wind and sending photographs back with a supply boat to keep the team updated. She doesn’t appear to have moved or accrued any more damage so far.

How bad is the damage? “It’s a case of how structurally sound the boat is, and what we can utilise to get it buoyant again,” says Cox. “And anything that floats, float tanks, buoyancy bags, you name it, is coming out with us.”

“The ultimate plan, the gold-medal prize we’re reaching for,” Neil Cox explained to the Volvo Ocean Race Press, “is to get the boat buoyant enough to float it across the lagoon to get it into more protected water.” Cox, Nicholson and the salvage crew will be stationed on a mothership two and a half miles to the lee of the reef in the lagoon, chartering local fishing boats to take them across to the wreck each day.

“That would stop it disintegrating out on the reef, and at the same time, once we get to the other side of the reef, it gives us the chance to set it up in a controlled fashion to either be able to tow the boat back to Mauritius, or there is a Maersk Line ship coming on Monday and we’re hoping to use their derrick to get it on the ship.”

Here’s hoping Vestas Wind can make it back to report for repairs, and that the crew are able to have another boat outfitted for leg 3 of the race, which kicks off in Abu Dhabi on January 3rd for Sanya, China, a 4,670-nautical-mile journey. Best of luck to both Team Vestas Wind and their guardian angels, Team Alvimedica, and if anyone has a spare Farr Volvo Ocean 65 they’d like to donate to the team, feel free to let us know! — OJB

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