Vendee Globe update: one punch knock out

After writing previously that my strategy with the big depression had worked out as planned, that I had stepped in front of a bus but managed to run away without being hit, I received one final reminder that mother nature plays by her own rules.
The barometer was rising, the wind was steady and matched the forecast and I had set the boat up with a more than conservative sail plan for the conditions. Running in 25-30 knots of wind with nice surfs on the swells with two reefs in the mainsail and the solent jib, I was keeping watch and was happy with how I had played my hand when.... WHAM! The boat went over onto its side, a deafening roar of wind preceded the sharp metallic pinging of shredded high tech sailcloth. As suddenly as it had come, the gust was over in less than a minute but had spiked at 50 knots and just those few seconds of extreme pressure had ripped the jib from luff to leach (front to back). A kung fu master couldn't have delivered a one punch knock out with more surprise or authority!
The solent jib doesn't use a halyard to stay in place, it is lashed permanently in place so when it ripped the  majority for the sail slid down the forestay and I cut its ties and stuffed it below. The top of the sail fluttered defiantly in the now tranquil breeze, its ragged arms flashing in my headlight (oh yes, I didn't say. It was pitch black and the middle of the night. Of course!) It was out of the question to climb  at night so after deciding that no more harm could come to the boat I unfurled a smaller sail and continued on my way.
Day brought beautiful conditions and less wind but the sea was still highly agitated from the storm, 3-4 meter swells  with wind chop on top that did nothing to smooth the route. As soon as I prepared to climb the man halyard (reserved for servicing the mast and not for a sail) the flailing tentacles of the broken sail wrapped themselves around it and jerked it violently in all directions. Even my body weight on the rope couldn't calm it so I hoisted another rope to the top of the mast and used my climbing equipment to inch my way up.
As I climbed my height off the water increased the amplitude of the shocks on the boat and I often had to use the full force of my arms and legs to cling to the mast, koala style, to avoid being flung into space. Heading for the top of the sail, 25 meters off the sea, lower parts of the sail captured my new climbing rope and started pulling me from below. As my climbing gear requires a certain amount of slack in the line, I was now stuck, unable to go up or down and far from being able to appreciate my unrivaled view of the storm tossed frothy sea below. Eventually I was able to pull in enough slack to move up again, but each gain in height was now accompanied by a fight with the line, work that became exhausting and shattered my nerves.
Finally at the top of the sail, I was able to cut the lashing, and the repaired pocket that had taken so much of my effort on a previous climb, to liberate the sail. Climbing down was easier  even if I had to cut thorough several flailing tentacles of tenacious kevlar sail cloth to free my climbing rope and the entangled man halyard.
Beaten by the dangerous effort it has taken me the day to recover from the double insult of the loss of the sail and the mission to recover the remains. With my cuts and bruises tended to and my mental resolve fortified by soup and sleep I'm happy to still be in the race... Stephane was taken out earlier while also sailing safe and a similar knock out punch dismasted Mike Golding in the south in the 2008 Vendee. I am happy to have the thousand mile buffer to the guys behind as in some conditions in the coming weeks I'll be slow as molasses! Still, I'm into the final slide down to Cape Horn and with one hand tied behind my back the race is just getting interesting!
Originally posted on Conrad Colman's official blog:
Conrad Colman is currently sailing the Foresight sponsored Vendée Globe entry boat Foresight Natural Energy.