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Oliver Heer completes Transat CIC after ‘nightmare’ transatlantic ordeal

Yacht Racing Podcast

It was with a huge measure of relief that the Swiss German solo skipper Oliver Heer brought his Transat CIC solo race across the North Atlantic from Lorient to New York to a satisfactory conclusion today at 22:19:32hrs UTC (18:19:32hrs local time NYC), finishing in 25th place and keeping alive his hopes of qualifying for this year’s Vendée Globe.

“I am happy, so, so happy. My main emotion is relief. There were times when I was not sure we would make it, so being finished is really special. It feels good to be done. The lesson is to never give up, there is always a way to get the boat to the finish line. But there are many learnings from this, some of them about redundancy but we will debrief in a couple of days.” Smiled a delighted Heer who now faces a 100 miles upwind sail to Newport.

Heer’s IMOCA Oliver Heer Ocean Racing was knocked down when his autopilot failed and his boat made a massive, unexpected gybe. Hit by a big wave he was all but rolled in 40kt winds and big seas, plunging him into a power blackout. Unable to power his autopilots with 1300 miles to the finish of the 3500 miles course he spent six days glued to the helm, taking only cat naps trying to fight his way towards New York. At one point he was so tired he fell asleep for five hours straight, sailing in the wrong direction.

After a rig failure early in last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre forced him out of that two-handed race to Martinique meaning he also missed the solo IMOCA race back to Lorient, Heer needed to finish this historic race across the North Atlantic to keep his hopes of qualifying for his first Vendée Globe alive.

Now, after finally completing his Transat CIC, more than six days and seven hours after 24th placed Belgian Denis Van Weynbergh, Heer is determined to have his boat and damaged sails repaired on time to compete on the return race to the Vendée which starts 29th May.
“I went through a nightmare.” Said Heer as he finished, “For six days I just had to be glued to the helm. That was not very nice at all. At some 1300 miles from the finish I was in a very, very hard place.”

He was knocked down on the night of May 5th whilst racing in winds of 35 – 40 knots and big seas. Despondent, it took him several days to be able to rig up a rudimentary power system, his solar panels feeding his engine battery to allow him to use his autopilot. But it was only after a discussion with his mental preparation coach who advised him to literally ‘embrace the shit’ and devote his energy only to solving his many problems rather than waste his mental energy on emotions such as anger, and disappointment.

The knockdown – and then carnage

Heer recalls, “When I was knocked down here I still had 1300 miles to go with no power at all and some very serious weather to contend with. I was sailing in about 38 knots of wind, downwind with the main and J2 for hours. I was not overpowered, I was quite comfortable. I was at the nav station when suddenly the pilot went into a Chinese gybe, I was sailing at 145 degrees TWA. I don’t know what happened. But if you gybe with full stack, full keel, full ballast it puts you over quite quickly. And then a big wave hit me and put me over even more. I looked on my log files (later) and I was at 128 degrees heel, so I was properly over. That was carnage. Worst of it was that after 10 seconds I had a complete blackout, no power nothing. Then, so at 0300hrs in the morning, in 40 knots, that is not a very nice position to be in. I flew across the inside of the boat and have a badly bruised elbow and sore neck. The first 24 hours then were full crisis mode. I had no power and somehow had to get the sails down safely. The J2 furler was broken, so I really struggled getting it furled and there is a lot of damage.”

Embrace the shit
He continues, “I was then licking my wounds for a day or two. Then I managed to set up this basic electrical system, the most basic important things to run with my solar panels feeding the engine battery. And so when I had sun I could run the most important things on the boat, satcomms, basic pilot, download GRIB files, and so slowly I got going again. But up there on the Grand Banks it is grey, foggy, miserable. The first couple of days I could do nothing much. I had no AIS and I was in the shipping lane and I saw ships around me and so that was not vey nice either. But I am still in one piece, but the boat has some sail damage specifically.”

On his call
“I am normally quite resilient, positive and creative. But I really did not know where to go. I was at completely rock bottom. It was the first time on a sailing boat I just did know what to do or how to do it. I still had those 1300 miles to do. I really was overwhelmed for a day or two. And then I spoke to Dr Wolfgang Jenewein. He is a brilliant guy. His core message was ‘Ollie there is no other option you have to …embrace the shit, embrace it.’ And also I had a couple of thousand litres of water in the boat, the diesel tanks leaked, it was shit everywhere. And he said ‘look Ollie you just have to embrace this, any other way you are wasting your mental energy and you need all of it. I wrote in on the wall inside the boat and got on with it. I had a list of priorities, I had to prioritize all the work I had to do on the boat.”

Heer says he reached rock bottom and struggled to emerge from a dark place:
“It was such chaos after the incident, it was just overwhelming to consider all the jobs, all the problems. He said ‘embrace it’ and then prioritise the most important things, what is most important things to do, focus on the most relevant things, make a list such as make water – I was almost out of drinking water, getting the satcomms working, drying the boat out, securing the sails, I started to try and wire up the autopilot, and so I slowly started to work through the jobs. It took me a couple of days with every job I ticked off it became more and more realistic I can finish the race. Once I had these jobs I said ‘Look Ollie you have a boat that works, you are not really racing any more, but it is safe enough to get these 1200 miles done and get finished.”

Recent days were better. With sunshine he had a working autopilot and regained most of his good humour, although an extra 12 hours fighting light winds to the finish line, added a final challenge. But as soon as he reaches Newport RI tomorrow his shore team will be ready to swing into action to get the boat ready for the return race. Heer meantime was looking forwards to a delayed birthday beer and a good cup of coffee before returning to boat preparation.

“The boat has many issues and problems to fix in Newport. We have quite a big team out here and I have a good friend from England who basically offered to come out and help, so the shore team already know all the jobs, I have electricians lined up and sail loft is standing by, I am very confident I’ll be on the start line for the return race but having said that I will not be in a competitive position. The same as with this race, with the Vendée Globe selection going on it is still about making the miles and getting to the finish. So fingers crossed I will be off on my merry way to Europe again in two weeks time……”

Oliver Heer’s elapsed time for the course is 18d 10h 49m 32s and he finished 10d three hours 56m after winner Yoann Richomme (Paprec Arkéa). He sailed 3954.8 nautical miles, his average on the great circle 6.66 knots, his actual average 8.12 knots.

Main image © DR

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