Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is a round-the-world sailing legend, but the saga of Saga’s problems, in the Velux 5 Oceans, can scarcely have been the sort of swansong that he would have wished for.

Following the loss of Hugo Boss and the dismasting of Ecover, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Saga Insurance finished leg 1 of the Velux 5 Oceans in third place. It arrived with a host of problems though, including broken sail battens, weather reception difficulties and malfunctioning autopilots, not to mention exhausted stocks of Scotch and Gentleman’s Relish, which at times had seemed to concern Sir Robin most of all.

Sir Robin has a good sized shore team, contacts and reputation, so getting hands on deck to fix up the boat wasn’t a problem. An ex-Bill Green employee repaired keel damage caused by a fishing line and dealt with an enlarged gap around the keel entry into the hull. Simon Clay (seen up the mast) and Pete Cummings, who lead the shore team, were backed up by Huw Feenie and Tim Ettridge from the UK and Dilip Donde from India. The veteran sailor said “We have a good, experienced and strong team at work.” and went to spend a few days with friends.

It wasn’t just the shore team working to put the boat into tip top condition. David Swete, from North Sails NZ, fixed all the tears caused by broken battens and added a fourth reef to the mainsail. Replacement instruments were installed by Tom Green of Raymarine.

The first problem of leg 2 occurred the day before the re­start. Returning from a final sail, a rope got caught round the propeller causing the sail drive to shear, necessitating some midnight oil burning.

Sir Robin made it to the line, but during the night both auto­pilots, whose problems he had thought resolved during the stopover, failed and refused to re-start. He returned to Fremantle and said, shortly afterwards “We had specialists onboard this morning who identified the problem. The wiring to the auto­pilots wasn’t big enough to take the power. It was like pushing lots of water through a tiny pipe. Now that we have identified the problem it explains a lot of the issues we had in the last leg, so finally we know.”

Whilst Saga was in port, Duane Hand came down from Maxsea and re-programmed their weather programmes. “So, hopefully, I won’t be sailing blind this next leg.” said Sir Robin. It was not to be, within a few days, the veteran sailor reported “I am hampered by the fact that the new Iridium phone has switched itself to internal use only, so cannot make outgoing calls. This means I cannot up­date the weather and I’m having to use, now, a 2 day old forecast. Under that forecast I expected to be headed last night, but in fact it never happened, so I could have borne away and gone faster instead of keeping hard on the wind.” He was scathing about the industry. “Why doesn’t the Iridium phone work now when it worked fine when installed and, initially, after I left? Don’t ask me, just accept it as another example of the electronics industry. Imagine what would happen if washing machines failed on the same scale as these electronics I have do?”

Three days later, foresail problems added to his woes. “This morning I went to unravel the broken furler line,” he reported “but found the furler itself damaged. Its central disc has been bent, torn out and is now jammed. This means no reachers for the rest of the voyage I’m afraid, as there is no way I can get one down on my own. They are just too large.”

He added “Frequent attempts to get the Fleet 77 satellite system up and running resulted in much groaning from the dome and a message about the motor, which I can believe. I doubt we can get this working before Norfolk and I am, certainly not, trying to take the dome off to look at it down here. We know the antenna to the new Iridium works as it is working with my spare, but I cannot connect that up to get the weather so am now dependent on the Australian text maritime forecasts, which have nothing like the detail of the info I did have.”

That same day, he lost his main liferaft. He was setting more sail when, in his own words “I noticed a line trailing aft and went back to pull it in only to discover it was the liferaft painter. Some time during the night the raft had been swept from its alcove in the stern. I think it was about midnight as I felt a slight tug then and wondered, for a second or two, whether we had caught another fish net. The rules require us to carry two life rafts, but that is my big Solas one lost. The lashings are intact so suspect they may have slipped off the ends, a small lashing holding the two together would have avoided that. My concern then was the inspection hatch from inside the boat to the liferaft alcove. It is protected when the raft is there, but vulnerable on its own. I have lashed a spare grab bag filled with all the banners into the alcove; they break up any following sea that tries to hit the stern and hope it will be good enough to break their force.”

That wasn’t the end of that day’s troubles though, he went on “Whilst in the lazarette, I noticed the hydraulic ram is still leaking oil from its motor, but I still cannot determine where. You cannot miss the leak; the lazarette is like an ice rink.There were also 3 holes in the transom, where people instal­ing equipment had ignored the proper gland and just drilled a hole. One firm had fitted a gland to one of their wires, but not the other, quite disgraceful. You cannot watch everyone all the time, but those holes have now been Sekoflexed.”

Knox-Johnston celebrated the anniversary of 50 years of sea­going by fixing an electronics problem. “I’d had a small problem with the Maxsea dongle, but after some careful surgery with a clasp knife on its terminals succeeded in getting it working again.” He added “This success warranted the declaration of a headland! I can now, at least, see where we all are, although I still cannot get any weather.”

February 7 was the date of his worst problem yet. The head­board car, attaching the top of the mainsail to the mast track, broke. He reported “When I got it down I discovered it had sheared one of its lugs. It came apart, because its connecting pin dropped out. There are bits of it up the mast, bits broken and bits missing, not an encouraging situation. So now I can’t hold the top of the mainsail to the (mast) track. I put a spare slide on as a stopgap, but it did not survive the first gybe and came off the track, hopefully doing no damage on the way. After some 6 hours of various attempts, lengthened by the sails bolshy determination to get caught behind the lazy jacks and runners at every available opportunity, I have some main set at the moment, a fathom or so short of the 3rd reef, but it is baggy because I don’t want to put too much pull on the leech and wouldn’t get me to windward and will be a critical handicap if I cannot fix it when we get lighter conditions. If the slides don’t drop down I may have to go up and get them, but not in these conditions.”

He went on “I always said this was a test of equipment and boat as much as the sailor and so it is proving. The failure of this fitting will cost a lot more miles than we’d lose if I slept 6 hours on the trot. I do not have a spare for this fitting since you don’t expect it to fail, and in any case, you cannot carry a spare for every single item as you’d never move through the extra weight.”

Approaching the Horn, Sir Robin made a decision to stop for repairs “I am going to pull in to Ushuaia, the southernmost port in Argentina.” he said “I don’t want to stop, I’m into a good routine, but have thought it through and this is the right move. Saga Insurance may have moved up to 3rd and this will mean dropping back to 5th again, but the rationale is as follows: I cannot be competitive without weather information. Neither of my satellite systems that would give me this is working. We can fix them with the right spares we hope. This is the main reason for pulling in, bloody electronics that don’t work. You only have to look at the way Koji has slowed, as he hits the variables, to appreciate how vital this weather info is; I can get a new head car for the mainsail and fit it; I can get a new furler for the reachers; I can fix the ballast tank valve.”

Simon Clay flew out to Ushuaia with spares, the locals pitched in to help and the work was done. After taking the helpers out to dinner, Sir Robin motored off to restart the race where he left off. We could scarcely believe it when, within hours of Sir Robin starting to sail again, we got yet another report that something was wrong. “I am underpowered at the moment as the lazy jacks are the wrong side of the mainsail and I need daylight to sort it, so I can only put up the 4th reef.”

What caused this saga of failures and misfortunes? To use Sir Robin’s washing machine analogy; the first thing that a household electrician does, before fitting one, is to make sure the wiring is up to it. So, how could any marine electronics specialist have failed to notice that a wire to the autopilots was too small? Yet this went unobserved both during the UK refit AND during a Fremantle investigation as to why the autopilots had malfunctioned on leg 1. I guess that, if you were to ask Bernard Stamm, who finished leg 2 about 5000 miles ahead of Sir Robin, to comment he would say “Incroyable!”
This veteran sailor has had a series of problems that he has taken in his stride, but if they had occurred to someone who did not have his vast experience, that sailor could have ended up in serious Southern Ocean trouble. Whichever way you look at it, this saga is an indictment of either the standards of preparation, or the equipment fitted to a yacht which, previously, had a tremendous track record.

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