Earthrace: The man and the machine
The Earthrace boat is a unique concept, with a distinctive design, conceived and hand crafted here in New Zealand. Pete Bethune is the man with the dream, the pressure, the mortgage and the man that will get the glory if Earthrace can beat the previous world record of powerboat circumnavigation due to finish this May. When this magazine went to print Earthrace was due to start on March 29th, which means it's due to finish around early June if all goes to plan, and they beat the record of 74 days, 23 hours and 53 minutes. INTREPID will be keeping an eye on their progress along with the rest of the world and with this article you'll be informed of the history, the present and future aspirations of the Earthrace crew. INTREPID talked to Pete Bethune while at home in New Zealand over the summer before he set off again getting ready for the new race.
"Earthrace has been my life... It's where all my energy and thoughts have been going over the last few years," explains Bethune.
From humble beginnings in a South Auckland workshop to being thrust into the media spotlight around the world, and shot at by pirates on the high seas; it's understandable Bethune and his team feel absorbed by the project. Their voyage in 2007 has seen trials such as broken propellers, being detained in a foreign army camp and hitting a small fishing vessel, resulting in a man's death. Not to mention the painstaking process of making a boat from scratch that's worth three million on bank loans, sponsorship and donations. This has been their life since the dream got underway in 2005.
Bethune is the pioneer, who began his out of this world adventure when a friend showed him a video of a VSV (very slender vessel), a wave piercing boat that would literally slice through waves, with water at times covering the windscreen. At the time these boats were only used by the military and not for recreation. He then dreamt of uses for a boat of his own using this technology that he could take out diving or fishing. He thought, "how much faster would it be to slice through swells on the way to my favourite fishing spot?" One day when checking out circumnavigation records by powerboat on the internet, Bethune remembered the VSV boat and put two and two together. "I'm lying there awake one night, thinking about all this, when it just dawns on me. Build a wave-piercing boat to attempt the round the world speed record, but fuel it with biodiesel, and run the whole project as a promotion for renewable fuels. How cool would that be?"
"How much will this cost?" Asks Sharyn Bethune, his wife.
The current record is 74 days and was set by UK boat Cable & Wireless Adventurer' in 1998, which is longer than most yachts take, and with the wave piercing technology the record is surely one for the taking. Bethune then researched people who had built wave piercing boats before, and luckily there was one man in Auckland, Craig Loomes. Craig had a team of boat builders who were perfect for the job. Loomes came up with a fantastic six-metre wave-piercering prototype, looking like something James Bond would drive. Bethune took it to the north shore of Auckland for a test run, it didn't seem overly impressive in the flat water of the harbour. But when Bethune took it past the sheltering reef, and through its first wave in which the vessel pierced with ease, he realised it was perfect. "In that instant I knew that I'll make the record attempt in a wave-piercer." Bethune spent the next hour in search of bigger waves to see how far he could submarine the boat.
Thanks to the prototype, Loomes and his team set to the task of designing the final race boat that was to take Bethune around the world piercing through waves in record time. The meticulous and tiresome task saw the final boat designed and refined to a masterpiece. The building process set in Albany took months of hard work, by dedicated volunteers, while Bethune organised sponsors from around the world to fund the expenses. Thanks to an index of supporting sponsors Earthrace was made possible, and there have been many miracle stories along the way; from engines being given to him, to old friends and random eccentrics donating $100,000 to the cause, after meeting them at various docks around the world. With all the arduous efforts from hundreds of people poured in to the project, Bethune was finally able to stand back and admire the final product.
"I stood there shocked, admiring what surely must be the coolest-looking boat in the world. Earthrace has an effect on people. Most see it and are just stunned."
To promote the name, the idea and biodiesel, Earthrace toured New Zealand's coast accompanied by dolphins as Earthrace stopped in all the major ports. Once docked, people were invited on board to check out the boat's interior, talk to the crew and purchase merchandise. While travelling on tour, Earthrace endured a couple testing and ferocious storms, which prepared them for the race ahead. One storm was near the entrance to the Manakau harbour, and the other on the notorious Raglan bar. The coastguard had to assist in both cases, fortunately they made it out alive, but not before having the strength of the boat, and the wit of the crew severely weathered as the lightweight fibreglass Earthrace was bashed by breakers.
"When piercing a monster seven metre wave, the boat shudders and groans under the immense energy being transferred through it, and we're jolted around as the wave bursts past. As the trailing edge rolls by, the windscreen miraculously opens up with a clear view of the next big breaking wave racing towards us," explains Bethune.
Despite the daunting fact that the gigantic waves faced in New Zealand might only be a small taste of what was to come, Earthrace headed across the Pacific Ocean to start their tour of the US coast. With an amazing stop over at Palmyra atoll, one of the best kept secrets of the pacific, with its lush tropical rainforests and crystal clear waters, Bethune remembers how his crew were spellbound with its beauty. "It's hard to get back into the boat after being there; it was one of those magical days."
The tour of North America started in Vancouver, Canada, and headed down the coast towards Mexico. With interview upon interview, Bethune found himself repeating phrase after phrase, as each interviewer would ask similar questions. Finally after the east coast tour, it was time to get to the start line. All the questions, predictions and pre-race hype could now be cast aside; the real thing was about to start.
Bethune remembers the importance of the moment, "It's taken millions of dollars, thousands of hours work and hundreds of volunteers to get us here, and finally the start has arrived." In March 2007 with a nervous crew, eager and hopeful to make history, Earthrace set out from Bridgetown Barbados, towards the Panama Canal. From the starter's gun as the first leg got underway, it took until dinner to realise the journey was cursed, there was an oil leak and the propellers had started to fall apart. This dampened the excited crew's spirits as they made it into Panama with repairs a priority. Bethune found a bunch of bananas aboard, and figured they must have triggered the bad luck. "Who the hell brought bananas on board?" Bethune yelled frustratingly at his crew. On the second leg of the race from Panama to Alcapulco Mexico, the smell of bananas must have lingered as nobody was prepared for the tragic incident that was to come.
"We were all woken by a deafening series of crashes." Bethune knew instantly they'd collided with something. What lay behind them was the wreckage of an eight metre fishing skiff; Earthrace had completely ploughed over the top of it. Crew member Anthony was the driver at the time, and didn't spot anything in their path, or on radar. The skiff didn't have the necessary lights to identify itself in the bleak night and the three men aboard were asleep. It was panic stations, as moans and screams came from three injured fisherman in the water. Bethune dove in and rescued an older man, Gonzalez, who was gasping for air, and in obvious pain. The youngest of the three, Carlos, clambered aboard, but the third remained unseen. Bethune dived back in, to where he remembered the last cry coming from, but swum in circles to find nothing but debris. The third man vanished, and Gonzalez is in need of hospital treatment. With desperate mayday calls to the coastguard and surrounding fishing vessels, nobody comes to help; the lost fisherman seems as good as dead in the turmoil of night, as sharks are seen cruising the wreckage for the dead fish spilt overboard. With a bent prop, one engine in serious need of repair and a Guatemalan fisherman loosing blood pressure, they backtrack south for eight hours to the nearest city, Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala.
Eventually Earthrace arrives, Gonzalez is rushed to hospital and makes a full recovery in the following few days. Regrettably the Earthrace crew is detained at a naval base while being accused of reckless driving resulting in a man's death. What more could go wrong?
Eight days later...
After translators and lawyers convince the judge Earthrace had no way of seeing the skiff they destroyed, they are released from the army base and allowed to continue on their way. "The race didn't cross our minds until after the court case," says Bethune. He worked out that if they didn't have any more unscheduled stops they might still be able to make the record. Grateful to be on the water again a storm looms ahead, and the engine once again plays up with shudders felt throughout the boat, Bethune wonders if any luck at all is going to come their way. The crew can only speculate as to why so much has gone wrong, and why when doing the tours around New Zealand and the US the boat was fine.
"Maybe it's so we'll have such enormous odds to overcome that we'll then sneak the record by one hour in Barbados, which will make for an unbelievable TV series. Or maybe it's to pummel us into submission and we'll crawl back to New Zealand with our tails between our legs," muses Bethune.
The scheduled stop of Alcapulco Mexico was straight after Guatemala, and then on to San Diego USA, before crossing the Pacific Ocean. In San Diego they had to replace a 150 kg gear box, the propeller shaft and some engine mounts that had been battered to bits. All these problems continuing to compound against the team made Bethune feel like he was digging a hole. "...All we seem to be doing is making the hole deeper. And yet there is still a quiet optimism among the team that we will do it, despite the ever-mounting odds stacked against us."
By day 31 they were travelling across the Pacific Ocean on the way to Hawaii; they were 4,000 nautical miles behind the time they had to beat. A whale is spotted surfacing by crew member Ryan as Earthrace arrives at the islands of Hawaii to a welcoming Maori Haka, and a swamping from the media eager to find out if they can still get the record. Within a few hours the crew has done their chores, the boat is refuelled, Bethune has talked to the media, and they're off again heading for the Marshall Islands. Hawaii was by far the best stop they'd had on their journey so far; maybe this is their change of luck.
Next stop, the Marshall Islands, rough seas make the surrounding coral reef a hazard. At each stop they refill Earthrace with $10,000 worth of fuel which sinks the boat by 45cm. In some respects Earthrace is a giant moving fuel tank which gives it an amazing range, crucial for the race. Koror Palau is the next destination before Singapore in Southern Asia and they have more major engine troubles with some of the pistons in the engines needing to be replaced. Regrettably a week goes by while waiting for these to be fixed, so half the crew explored the beautiful unknown islands. They dived on an old World War II wreck and free dived some astonishing underwater caves. The islands of Koror were stunning, and the team were treated to some world class free accommodation in the Palau Royal Resort.
After the wasted but enjoyable time in Palau, Earthrace rolled out towards Singapore, dodging countless logs, possible pirates and made an unscheduled stop in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Bizarrely they were escorted by the Navy to the port and then warmly greeted by the locals and media, who presented them with spears and shields.
Through Asia Earthrace stopped in Singapore and suffered a near puncturing of the hull when they hit a log. Not good when funding was at an all time low. With a burst fuel tank and sheared engine mounts they arrive in Cochin India, with more repairs to make. Huge waves from the monsoon jarred the bolts holding down the engine completely off, not to mention making it impossible to get sleep in the rocking, diesel reeking, mosquito infested cabin. With the fuel being delayed by customs and the engine mounts having to be made up in a local engineering workshop, they're docked in the polluted waters of Cochin for another four days, now putting them behind the record time by four days. Bethune decides the revised start and finish line should be San Diego, but they're still behind the mark, needing a miracle.
Salalah, Oman was the next stop and they changed the propellers, refuelled and to Bethune's surprise, found out some anonymous rich guy from the US had donated a huge amount of money. The money was to help pay off Bethune's home back in New Zealand that he had mortgaged for the trip, plus help fund the rest of the trip. Calm conditions lingered for two days as they traveled up the Red Sea, maybe some prayers had been answered, or maybe this was the calm before the storm.
The later was correct; high seas began to rock the boat violently and yet again, strange vibrations are heard from the engine bay. To Bethune's horror the same engine mounts that had been replaced twice already have been sheared off again, leaving the engines as sitting time bombs. They slow to five knots and make some make-shift repairs. "Will it last to Suez?" Asks Ryan who was driving at the time. "Well if it does, we'll make our canal crossing OK, and if it doesn't, I reckon we're screwed" replies Bethune.
Finally they reach Egypt and manage to fix the engine mounts and wangle a deal with the canal crossing authorities. They were able to pass through by themselves instead of in a convoy which would halve their speed down the 200 mile long canal. Bribes helped and were a daily occurrence in this part of the world. $500 later they hit the Mediterranean in which they catch calm waters and have high hopes of making up time. They still have a chance of getting the record.
A titanic storm from the north, whips up the Mediterranean crashing violent breakers over the already bruised boat; this is a freak storm big enough to cripple all hopes of finishing the race. Crew member Brian who had just joined them is extremely sick, with blood in his urine from bruised kidneys. The sea had been tossing them all around like rag dolls. Bethune has the wheel and a light comes on indicating the bilge pump is operating. Not a good sign. A crack in the bottom of the boat is letting in water and the constant pressure of the waves is only producing more cracks and softening up the carbon. After slowing down to half speed they crawl into Malaga, Spain, with the bilge pump working over time.
A patch-up repair job gets underway, but the boat has become severely weakened. If they were to properly repair the leak, it would take at least three days. Bethune has worked out that they will get the record by a day if they just keep moving and the patch holds. They were clutching at straws, but they decided to give it a shot. "If a tropical storm looks at all likely we'll have to abandon the attempt," Bethune tells his team.
They head off towards the Atlantic, keeping a close eye on how much water they have in the bottom of the boat. They had only just reached Gibraltar when everything came to a halt. The repair job had fallen to bits, and it was worse than before. "We're going to have to turn back," Bethune says with the tone of finality in his voice. He couldn't believe that this could be it, it could be all over.
The team has a meeting back in Malaga, and Bethune makes the executive decision. "If we get the repairs done they will only be good for flat conditions or a following sea. If we get into a storm I reckon we'd be buggered. ... So I think we should call it off." Silence penetrates the team as the reality sinks in. Tears start down the cheeks of some. Over the last few years, Earthrace had been their life. It was all finally over. The stress, the repairs, the constant pounding from the sea had all come to an end. They didn't make the record, but they could still hold their heads up. They set out to promote biodiesel and they'd made countless television interviews around the world and been in numerous papers. Their bodies were ragged, their emotions were feeling the weight of it all, and now it was time to go home.
A sad end gave way to new hopes, as Bethune set about preparing for attempt number two. Between the 2007 attempt and now, Earthrace has again been touring. This time around Europe, stopping in various ports to let people check out the boat, along with promoting the name and cause. Earthrace was in Edinburgh and Wales for the All Blacks world cup games. Bethune explains, "When it comes to touring the trick is to get the media coverage right and then you get lots of people turn up, which becomes a real buzz. If you don't get any media coverage you only get around 20-30 people visiting the boat, which can seem like a waste of time and be very tedious, ...Preparing for the race, Earthrace is in Valencia, Spain, and there's a team of people fitting new equipment like gear boxes, electronics, software updates, and repainting the boat as we get ready for this years race." reveals Bethune. After bashing around in the bottom of Earthrace through storms the world over, the old engines have been biffed, with two brand new ones to be refitted. 18 people have been working away on the boat, all staying in a flat in Valencia. "They come from diverse backgrounds and get along surprisingly well which makes this a satisfying project to be involved with," says Bethune.
Bethune has assured INTREPID that Earthrace in 2008 can definitely gain the elusive record. Bethune is ready for the challenge. "We're better organised, and we've learnt from our mistakes. We know what we're up against and our logistics team are better prepared, as that's where we let ourselves down last time. We should have had spare parts ready and waiting last time. At the time it seems like bad luck and the fishing boat accident certainly was, but all the other problems were our own doing."
Since 1998 not one boat has finished the gruelling record attempt out of five attempts. "Boat canals are dangerous and the South China Sea is full of logs plus the Mediterranean is full of floating containers waiting to take out your bow," explains Bethune. The odds are against them, but he believes this time round is their chance to re-write the record books.
Earthrace is making small changes to the previous route with the Atlantic crossing being 350 miles shorter. The new route includes the island of Azores in the Atlantic Ocean, which will make fuel easier to get and will save around a day. "We're making little savings where we can," says Bethune. San Juan in the Caribbean, and Manzanillo, Mexico are also new stops along the way, hopefully they offer better luck than the previous destinations of the last attempt.
Alongside the pressure of the race, of investments and sponsorships, family pressure makes things tough, as Bethune was only home in New Zealand for two to three months of 2007. Bethune explains how he misses his family while on the water, "It's friggin hard mate, probably the hardest thing about Earthrace ... I can't back out of it though, I owe money everywhere. It's been a very tough year for me and Sharyn." While Bethune and his crew spend another 70 plus days at sea on a noisy boat, crashing through waves and hoping like hell they don't hit anything hidden in the vast ocean, the rest of the world gets to sit back and watch. Earthrace.net has live satellite updates and blogs available each day to let you know where they are on their epic adventure. Be sure to follow their progress, as they represent renewable fuels and New Zealand worldwide.
Bethune sums up his time so far with Earthrace since 2005, "It's a rollercoaster ride, you'll have fantastic days and then crap ones when your stomach curls up and you can't eat and cook. But all-round I love it, it's way better than the usual nine till five; I can't imagine myself going back to that." Bethune does admit that if he doesn't get the record this time, it'll be his last attempt. He hopes the boat will then be on display somewhere in New Zealand, "I don't want to just sell it to some wealthy businessman." When asked what he will eventually do once Earthrace is all over with, he says, "I wouldn't have a clue mate, I haven't even thought about it, first things first."
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