Sailing: Battery fire nearly forced us into life-raft

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The Independent Online

One of a sailor's worst nightmares is to have a fire on board, which may sound ironic when you think we are surrounded by water, but fires can be very dangerous. We were downstairs on Monday and suddenly the boat quite literally filled with smoke, putting our progress in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race under threat.

A bolt had rattled loose out of the battery holder, and it had shorted out between the positive terminal of the battery and the carbon skin of the boat.We were trying to get the battery cover off, and sure enough when we did, we had flames and the whole deal. We got the fire extinguishers out. At one time we were losing the battle with the smoke, but we had to say, "Hey, we either beat this or we're into the life-raft." So it was wet rags over the mouth, and for me the quickest way to do that was to pull off my boot and use my sock over my mouth.

Once we had got the fire under control we had more issues - all the electronics and communication systems went down on the boat as a result of the fire. We have this saying on board that goes: "If Stan can't fix it, it's broken." We had to hope with this one that our navigator Stan Honey could fix it as we were in a lot of trouble if it was all broken. Stan spent most of the day fixing it all and miraculously got it all up and running again. We were all pretty happy when everything came back to life.

So now we have had a bit of time to get the boat back in order - it is not as pretty as when we left Vigo on Saturday but it no longer looks like a complete mess.

Indeed, we had our own problems on that first night. Crew members Jan Dekker and Tony Mutter got swept down the deck in one of the more extreme squalls we saw, and the full force of this ripped the steering wheel and stanchion from the deck. At around 45 knots this is probably not surprising. What is more surprising is that they came away from it basically unharmed.

Another of our crew, Dave Endean, was not so lucky. He also found the rough end of a heavy squall and was swept down off the foredeck and we believe that he has torn, or badly damaged some ligaments in his knee. He also had a corking black eye! He is now back on the road to recovery but he will have to take it easy for a bit.

His confinement to his bunk would usually have put him totally out of action in this type of wind. However, life on board ABN Amro 1 is not usual. It has been an unbelievable ride since we began this race. After the relatively sedate start everything changed pretty quickly as Vigo became a distant memory.

The tension in the air on start day was just unbelievable, there were so many questions that everyone was waiting to have answered - Whose design team would be right? Who has done the best job with the design of the boat? Who has the best sails? I believe that after only a few days at sea, a pattern has already started to emerge. The boats that make it successfully through leg one will have a big advantage just purely from the quality time on the water. Ericsson were very confident before the start that they had built the fastest boat and if it proves to be fast then they will be very tough to beat.

I feel for the guys on Pirates and movistar who are out of this leg but I think the first night at sea showed that none of us are going to get through this unscathed.

Our position now is where we wanted to be and it is no surprise the boys on ABN Amro 2 are close by as we had been talking about this strategy for some time. Now we will just have to see how the rest of the leg pans out, but we expect a strong performance from the boat through the next weeks forecast. Watch this space.

Mike Sanderson will write a regular column for The Independent during the Volvo Ocean race