22 May 2017

Hell and high-water: Conrad Colman's epic solo adventure

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 22 May 2017

Kiwi skipper Conrad Colman became the first New Zealander to finish the Vendée Globe round-the-world solo yacht race in 2016.

He finished 16th, and a month behind the two front-runners, but his achievement was nonetheless remarkable.

The 33-year-old Aucklander, who lives in France, overcame fierce storms, an on-board fire, a broken mast, running out of rations, and falling overboard before he crossed the finish line.

Completing the Vendée Globe race was the culmination of a 10 year dream.

He says the fight to get to the start line was all consuming, from finding his sponsors to physically and mentally preparing for the race.

Colman found his race sponsor just 48 hours before the race started, a moment he says was incredibly exciting but also stressful.

His packed schedule ahead of the race barely gave him time to think about what he was getting himself in for – something that may have been a blessing in disguise.

“If I had known how hard it was going to be at the start I may not have gone,” he says.

The race took Colman around the world, but he was unable to touch land at any point or would face immediate disqualification.

The course starts on the west coast of France and sees the yachts head out and around Spain, all the way across the Atlantic, skim the Brazilian coast before heading underneath Africa, Australia and New Zealand, before tackling the swells of the south pacific and reaching Chile.

Then they go all the way back to the start.

Colman was racing on an 18.28m mono-hull – a boat almost the same size as those used in the Volvo ocean race and usually crewed by eight or ten people.

“This is a truck, it goes extremely fast.”

He says it was an incredible effort to get all the provisions he would need for the race on board, as he was not allowed any assistance while racing.

Colman had taken 100 days’ worth of food for what was expected to be a 90 day race, but he still ran out.

He was supposed to be consuming between 5000 and 6000 calories a day while he was crossing the South Pacific, he was instead limited to 700 calories a day.

Colman lost 11kg over just a couple of weeks and says there wasn’t a crumb on board by the time he finally touched land 110 days after he had begun the journey.

“I was slowly starving as I crawled my way to the end.”

It wasn’t just limited supplies that put Colman to the test – he was unable to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time and reckons he only managed to get about five or six hours sleep a day throughout the whole race.

In addition to the physical challenges Colman faced, his boat also ran into trouble, with the entire mast falling overboard during a storm off the coast of Spain, just 1100kms from the finish line.

“I was stranded with no mast…I thought that I was finished.

“I’ve made it 97 percent of the way around the world and I think that’s it.”

Colman says he was on the verge of giving up, but the storm happened at night and dawn the next day brought him new motivation.

It took him four days to glue the boat’s boom back together and design a new set of rigging to get across the finish line.

Colman eventually had to put all the rigging on his shoulder and physically put it into position.

Conrad Colman

Conrad Colman Photo: Supplied

He says it was an incredible moment when he pulled it off and realised he would sail on.

During the early part of the race Colman says he had developed into the person he needed to be to overcome that challenge, and had extra motivation from his brother, who had recently died from suicide.

“I had not seen his death coming and had not been able to contribute to his moment of need.”

Colman says he wanted to be able to hold his triumph up as an example of success for those who may be struggling.

“The way that I found my, sort of super-human motivation was to prove to him and to myself and to anybody else who is going through a real period of strain of stress, of depression, of struggle, that these are transitory periods in our lives, much like the ocean that I was in the process of traversing on my boat.

“These periods are sort of bumps in the road rather than destinations in and of themselves.”

When Colman finally saw the land come into site on the race’s final stretch he says there was an incredible sense of euphoria.

“I certainly danced a jig in the cockpit all by myself there when I saw the smudge on the horizon.”

Colman had one of the oldest boats at the start of the race and felt he was punching above his weight, but managed to make it other finish in spite of all his difficulties.

He now feels he has unfinished business with the race and is now looking for new sponsors for his next adventure.