'Total dedication'

Text by Jonno Turner
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'Total dedication' Text by Jonno Turner
 
Team Vestas Wind skipper Chris Nicholson stands on the bow of his blue boat, as it enters familiar waters.

He smiles, and waves as the Alicante sunshine hits his face. “It’s good to be back,” he says.

It seems almost an eternity since the Danish team was last docked at Volvo Ocean Race headquarters, in the shadow of the city’s famous Santa Barbara castle.

In fact, it’s been just nine months – but the experiences of these sailors have changed their lives forever.

“Walking into the office today, it feels like the race is starting again - but it's not,” laughs Nico, enjoying a drink in the shade after overseeing the delivery of the boat from Gothenburg, Sweden – the race’s final stop – to Spain.

“We're here cleaning the boat up. It's a bit strange. - after the interesting and difficult trip around the world…”

Well, where to start on the ups and downs of this inspiring campaign? As the last boat to the start line in October, Chris always knew it would be a challenge, but he could never have been prepared for what was about to happen.

“It's funny, you actually don't even get to think too much,” he shrugs. “It literally has been a race where we haven't had enough time to reflect and to think about things.

“That's the Volvo Ocean Race - it never seems to stop, and it's always at a pretty hectic pace.”

Then, a pause. “I think that will happen for me in the next few days, or weeks, or months ahead.”

Despite the late entry, things started pretty well for the Danish-backed team. They won Leg 0, a short sprint around the Mediterranean, and that gave Nico real reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, they could surprise a few folks.

“We looked forward to becoming a really popular team,” smiles the Aussie, reflecting.

“One way or another, we generated a huge amount of support. That made a huge difference to us.”

The first leg was a positive one, as the blue boat secured fourth place, sailing into South Africa on young Dane, Nicolai Sehested’s 25th birthday.

With cheeky Irishman Brian Carlin behind the camera, the mix of older, more experienced Kiwis and Aussies with the young rookies – Peter Wibroe, Tom Johnson and Nicolai – saw Vestas quickly becoming fan favourites.

And then, on November 29, 2014, sailing Leg 2 from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, it happened.

“Mayday, mayday” came the call from Team Vestas Wind navigator, Wouter Verbraak.

It was serious – the boat had become stricken on the Cargados Carajos shoals, some 200nm from Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

As the boat was battered and bruised by the breaking waves, skipper Nico led a pitch black evacuation of his crew, through shark-infested waters.

Miraculously, no-one was injured.

And then, the biggest challenge of all – to salvage the boat, transport it halfway across the world and rebuild it in time to rejoin the race.

It was a delicate operation, a battle against time, a logistical nightmare.

“Let me be really clear, the boat is a mess,” admitted Shore Manager Neil Cox, as the vessel set off from Malaysia to Genoa, to be rebuilt.

“Almost everywhere, key structures are broken, and this will not be easy.”

Indeed, it wouldn’t. It meant working around the clock, under huge pressure and stress.

But with the help of sailors, shore crew, experts and locals, they did it. And that itself is a miracle.

“Everyone did a fantastic job, showed total dedication to the project,” adds Chris.

“I must also thank Persico – I don’t think many other shipyards would have accepted such a challenge.”

And so it was – in May, the blue boat made its big return in Lisbon, to complete the final two legs of the race.

Even with two new crewmembers – Simeon Tienpont and Tom Addis replacing Tom Johnson and Wouter Verbraak - it was like they’d never been away, storming to grab a runner-up spot in Leg 8 to Lorient, France.

“When I look at what we had to get through to get the boat on the water, I was kind of hoping we would do fourth or fifth,” admitted Nico, stepping onto the pontoon in Lorient.

“But second – I’m over the moon!”

And now he’s had a chance to breathe, and catch up with his family and friends, it’s fair to say that Nico feels like he has unfinished business.

“Do I want to do another?” he ponders. “Yeah, absolutely – and that's been stronger since getting the boat back on the water.

“There's a hole there in the middle of the race for us, but since having time to appreciate the race more, for sure, that's my goal.”

“In fact, I'm pretty certain that everyone within our team would love to do the race again. One of the big things that helped us back into the race was the support we had from everyone.

“And the amount of people who helped us is far larger than your usual Volvo Ocean Race campaign. It wouldn't have happened without them all.”