“Our final night at sea was as dark and as wild as any we had encountered during the preceding 73 days. With screaming hail squalls and huge cross seas of an estimated 50-60 foot, we sailed for survival only.”
– Sir Peter Blake
As sailing technology improved and as the multihull community, the French in particular, pushed the limits ever further, thoughts began to turn to just how fast one could sail non-stop around the world. Taking existing performance data into account and overlaying that with the course and distance to sail, a theoretical time of close to 80 days seemed feasible. Combine that with Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, and the ingredients of an intriguing race against the clock was born.
Blake had long been dreaming of making a record attempt and his plans had been enshrined in the triple Steinlager programme. Because multihull sailing was primarily the domain of the French, Blake ventured into the heart of France to throw down the gauntlet. In October 1992 at the Yacht Club de France in Paris, he and British adventurer Sir Robin Knox-Johnston announced a joint bid for the Jules Verne Trophy would start early in 1993.
The New Zealand Apple & Pear Marketing Board, under the trade name ENZA, took up the sponsorship and Blake acquired an aged, but very well built catamaran formerly known as Formule Tag. Blake’s challenge was taken up by French sailing ace Bruno Peyron and on January 30, 1993 the ENZA catamaran and the French catamaran Commodore Explorer set off from the port of Brest on the French Atlantic coast.
Twenty-six days later, south of Cape Town at latitude 41°31’S and longitude 56°E Blake had to radio his support crew ashore to say their attempt had been abandoned. ENZA had struck a submerged object and the starboard hull was badly holed. For 16 days, Blake, Knox-Johnston and their crew of five nursed the stricken boat back to Cape Town, pumping the damaged hull every 10-15 minutes. Peyron went on to circle the globe in 79 days, becoming the first to break the magical 80 day mark.
Initially, it seemed this would be a dream unrealised for Blake. He was, by now, committed to an America’s Cup campaign and the logistics of adding another Jules Verne attempt to his workload seemed overwhelming. But, giving up was contrary to Blake’s ethos and, having laid the groundwork for a New Zealand America’s Cup challenge, he announced he would indeed try again.
Blake had to radio his support crew ashore to say their attempt had been abandoned. ENZA had struck a submerged object and the starboard hull was badly holed.
ENZAwas lengthened by 3m and a new accommodation module – later nicknamed the ‘god-pod’ – was built into the centre main beam. The improvement in performance was estimated at 15%.
In January 1994, in atrocious conditions, ENZA once again crossed the imaginary start line between the Creach Lighthouse on Ushant and the Lizard lighthouse on the other side of the English Channel. On board were Blake, co-skipper Knox-Johnston, along with crewmen Barry McKay, Don Wright, Ed Danby, David Alan-Williams, George Johns and Angus Buchanan. Once again, there was a French rival, Olivier de Kersauson with a giant trimaran Lyonnaise des Eaux Dumez,to make a race of it.
From the start it was clear that ENZA’s adjustments had enhanced her racing capabilities by at least 15%, clocking 411 miles on the first day’s run. This increased to 517 miles in 24 hours on day 6 which became a new world record.
ENZA was sustaining an average of around 440 miles per day with ease until day 24 when the wind picked up and there were huge waves and 55 knot gusts. Alan-Williams recalls: “You could see him coming up through the hatch just when we buried the boat – bows under and ENZA grinding from 25 knots to a 6-knot stop. We could see it and could brace but Peter couldn’t. He was shot forward the whole length of the God Pod to slam backwards into the edge of the chart table, severely hurt” (Sefton, 2004).
The outcome of this was suspected broken ribs and a badly bruised back and pelvis for Blake which meant that he was confined to his bunk, under the care of crew medic Buchanan. ENZA eased up a little to reduce the hits the boat was taking to lessen the impact on Peter but still achieved between 450 and 470 miles daily.
Just five days after his accident, Blake was back at the helm for 30 minutes stints, clearly unable to stay away for too long. That same morning ENZA was passing Cape Leeuwen and clocking up world record times, meanwhile La Lyonnaise was passing the Kerguelen Islands, making her roughly 1400 miles behind.
Despite this significant progress, bigger challenges lay ahead as ENZA was on course to collide with a cyclone. As navigator, Rice reckoned that making it down to 60° South would protect them from the worst of the storm. In this time La Lyonnaise closed the gap by nearly 400 miles (ibid.). On day 36, a helicopter from the Royal NZ Air Force’s search-and-rescue located ENZA in order to receive video footage from George John which would then be broadcast on TV stations around the world.
Unfortunately the high pressure system continued to chase ENZA allowing La Lyonnaise to catch up even further. Alan-Williams described the waves: “It’s always hard to measure waves but they were big… In this case they were the size of a rugby pitch – just white water. They were 17- to 18-metre “Greybeards” and when they broke, you wondered if you would survive. It was like walking through a minefield and we were fortunate that we didn’t get hit by a big one… We couldn’t just keep drifting further because there was land not far away to leeward. All we could do was minimise the losses and survive it.”
After 48 hours, the wind finally eased up and ENZA finally passed the longitude of Cape Horn. By this time La Lyonnaise had caught up to be within 367 miles. Despite travelling in record time from Ushant to the Cape, the Southern Ocean had lost her precious time. It wasn’t until day 52 that ENZA began to regain good speeds, hitting over 20 knots. Alan-Williams noted: “These are the first big miles in nine days and only the third 400-plus mile day since Tasmania. We did 40 miles more than Lyonnaise. The French are claiming they are only 90 miles behind, which may be the case in a straight line to Recife but, from Bob Rice’s latest forecast, they are driving straight into the high and an area of less wind.”
On day 60, ENZA clocked 383 miles in comparison to Lyonnaise’s 202 and had gained a day on their rival. After a period of quiet from the French, on day 70 Lyonnaise revealed that she was 600 miles behind ENZA. The crew was also feeling jovial as they were 1200 miles ahead of Commodore’s time and they looked set to beat the 75-day mark.
Alan-Williams wrote on day 73: “The finish is less than a day away, but the opera most definitely isn’t over until the fat lady sings, and you are not safe until you’ve left the auditorium, gone home and closed your front door. With “The Boss” at the wheel, the bows tipped down a big steep hole and we buried the hulls back to the main beam… We hurriedly reduced sail down to a triple-reefed main only. Then, as the nerves recovered, went gradually back up to a winged-out staysail and double-reefed main. The forecast now is for storm Force 10 winds later today or tonight, so it will be no easy finish. Just over 300 miles to go at 0700 hours. It could just as well be 3000.”
ENZA reached Ushant in the early hours of Friday, April 1st while she was still under bare poles and towing her warps and chains to try to slow her down. Escorted by a French naval vessel and a search-and-rescue helicopter, ENZA reached the end of her journey. Blake crossed the finish line of the Trophée Jules Verne in a world-record time of 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes and 22 seconds.