Front Rudder - May 2018

The Meaning Of Life

We will never know the thoughts and feelings that John Fisher had when he went overboard in the middle of the Southern Ocean during a ferocious storm with gale-force winds and seas. It is reported that he was perhaps unconscious. Giving the terrifying reality that even our thoughts and prayers will not be able to provide comfort to his family, as well as the other competitors, we live in the realization that hopefully he did not wake up, alone, frightened with little or no hope of rescue.

When the Volvo Ocean Race teams left Auckland, New Zealand for the start of Leg 7 to the industrial port city of Itajai, Brazil it was a well-known fact that this is the most treacherous, perilous leg in the around the world race. Team Vestas 11th Hour Racing returned to the action after sitting the last two legs out as repairs to that boat were being completed in Auckland after its own fateful fatal collision with a fishing boat on their approach to Hong Kong earlier this year.

Now Team SHK/Scallywag is left pondering its fate for the remaining legs as the crew comes to grip with the loss of a popular teammate. The team made way to the western coast of Chile to regroup and assess their future.

Fisher, 47, was about to untangle a sail when he was swept into the Southern Ocean by a swinging boom on Monday. The impact is believed to have knocked him unconscious before he hit the water. After a relentless search, he was declared lost at sea.

The pictures that I have featured in this magazine over the years from the VOR, the Vendee and other ocean races are pretty compelling with crews being pounded relentlessly by waves and water, their eyes stinging with the salt spray as they grip onto the wheels and winches with all their might as the seas tower over them and the boats rise and fall sometimes twenty stories at a time. I was reminded in an Anarchy post that racing legend Sir Peter Blake called it the Green Room and on a racing yacht it is where you work, it is your office cubical.

We want to mourn, but we are still drawn into the specter with awe, and I can’t imagine what Fisher’s loved ones are going through right now. The hope of recovering his body is infinitesimal. There would be better odds finding a needle in haystack.

Fisher was originally from England’s south coast however his family now resides in Adelaide, South Australia. He was a long-term member of the Ragamuffin and Scallywag super maxi crews. Fisher has plenty of big boat experience and has sailed with skipper David Witt for many years. A Sydney-Hobart veteran, he makes the step into the Volvo Ocean Race world for the first time in 2017-18.

Unfortunately, on Monday, March 26, 2018, Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag reported that John Fisher had been lost overboard in gale force conditions whilst the team was racing through the Southern Ocean, some 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn. Despite an exhaustive search lasting several hours in challenging conditions, the Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag team was unfortunately unable to recover their teammate.

Their skipper David Witt posted as we went to press that “Scallywags never give up! When you’re feeling the pain and you’re sick of the game, but you’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright, you pick yourself up and dust yourself down, Cos [sic] it’s the carrying on that’s hard. Scallwags will continue!

“Our delivery crew have arrived and we are now in a race against the clock to make the start in Brazil for the next leg.” wrote Witt. “We are all hurt but we are not out! Scallywags never ever give up! We will make the start we will look after each other we will finish the race and do the best job we can for all Scallywags in John’s memory and honor. On behalf of all the team I would like to thank all our supporters for all the messages of support it has helped us enormously in this difficult time.”

I guess that is what we do in times of tragedy. Put on a brave face and carry on with living. Tragedy is a familiar but fortunately somewhat infrequent scene in international yacht racing. The VOR has had its share of loss in previous races.

Sailing has had its losses over the last several years. Thankfully deaths are few and far between. We have all read the accounts of the tragedies of the 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race where 15 souls were lost and the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race when 6 sailors died.

In the 2011 Chicago to Mackinac Yacht Race, Wingnuts flipped over during a sudden storm and 2 crew were lost. The America’s Cup family lost Andrew “Bart” Simpson five years ago when Artemis “Big Red” broke apart while practicing on San Francisco Bay. The previous year Low Speed Chase while racing in the Full Crew Farallones Race lost 5 crew members when their skipper allegedly “cut corners” when he sailed into a dangerous area that other boats avoided and the boat crashed into the rocky shoals. Alexis Busch, Alan Cahill, Jordan Fromm, Marc Kasanin, and Elmer Morrissey were lost at sea.

For me I always associate the plights of these brave adventurers as having a lust for life, dying doing what they love, but that doesn’t diminish the loss or the terror that anyone of them felt as they perished. The sports I am most drawn to personally and professionally are motor racing and international yacht racing. Car racing certainly has its share of death. Usually in horrible ways.

I was young when I first started following the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One. In the early ‘70s the death toll was enormous. But still, there was the fascination with speed and technology. America’s Cup and yacht racing tragedy was less prevalent, however whenever a long-distance race takes place, or now with the incredible speeds the modern foiling catamarans and now monohulls are attaining, it will be only a matter of time before we are reading about the next if it “bleeds, it leads” news in newspapers and magazines.

Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag has already incurred a man overboard (MOB) back in January during Leg 4 when crew member Alex Gough was washed overboard by a wave during a sail change. The team swung into recovery mode, and Gough was back on board within seven minutes, unharmed. Scallywag resumed racing immediately. The Scallywag team sailed back to Gough, and then used the engine to slow the yacht down as they approached him. Gough was able to swim to the boat and climb back aboard. “He went out on the outrigger, I was driving, and we went off a big sea and it picked him up threw him off, like a horse,” skipper David Witt said. “The main thing is, we got him back on board. He’s safe. But I think it’s shown everyone how hard it is to see the guy in the water. Even on a sunny day, 18 knots of wind. You wouldn’t want to be doing this in 20 knots in the dark.” Unfortunately, the last quote was a cryptic foreshadowing of what was to come. Gough wasn’t wearing a harness or a lifejacket. Witt says he should have been tethered, or at minimum have told the helmsman what he was doing, before he went outside the lifelines on the outrigger. “I was pretty stupid, but luckily the guys were on to it. They turned around bloody quickly,” Gough said. “I’m good. I’m fine. It was a bit scary. But off we go again.”

Volvo Ocean Race crews are equipped with a Spinlock Deckvest lifejacket that has been specifically re-designed for the event with extensive input from sailors. It has been modified for wearing for extended periods, such as when grinding on the pedestals.

The crews also each have a Spinlock “bum bag” or waist harness, known as the personal equipment pack, which carries a second MOB 1, PLB1 and emergency strobe light. But the safety equipment is not compulsory during daylight and moderate conditions, with crews applying their own judgment on when to don lifejackets or waist packs.

Like any safety equipment, it is basically useless unless worn although the waist harness is also designed so that it may be thrown to an MOB, with the safety devices placed in Neoprene pockets for extra buoyancy. If conditions allow, there is instead potential for the onboard reporter to launch the drone to provide an aerial view and help find or monitor the casualty.

In the dark, the crews would be reliant on the AIS device, although as Bouttell explains, the boats will normally make a dramatic bear away or similar course change which gives a good indication of the MOB’s position on the navigation software, assuming they are spotted going overboard immediately.

Along with the custom lifejackets for the crew on board, each Volvo Ocean 65 will also be equipped with Spinlock lifejacket harnesses, safety lines, carry equipment packs and PLB/MOB device.

The presence of five fixed HD cameras and two onboard microphones on board means that every moment is captured. A crash cam on the stern records the action on deck 24/7, keeping four minutes either side of an incident to ensure that nothing is missed.

Additionally, the Onboard Reporter has access to slow-mo, night vision, POV and wide lens cameras, while drone and 360-degree cameras will be in regular use. The onboard media station features a video editing suite, a camera and a mic controller. Each piece of hardware can be operated remotely from Race HQ if necessary.

The other essential application of communications equipment is safety and safety is at the heart of every design and build decision in the Volvo Ocean 65 yachts. There is also a long list of other safety equipment that includes life rafts, Jon Buoys for man overboard recovery, extensive medical equipment, flares, a man overboard alerting and positioning system and of course, lifejackets and harnesses.

Unfortunately, even with all this technology and exhaustive search efforts, Fisher was not found. We can only hope and pray that he was happy doing what he loved and that his tragic death will give meaning to solving future MOB’s.

Leg 7 is definitely one of the hardest, most challenging legs in the race. The teams sail through towering seas, freezing temperatures, and 30-50 knot gale force winds, deep into the Southern Ocean, around the unpredictable wild seas off Cape Horn, and down in the “Furious Fifties,” not the ‘Roaring “40s,” south of 50 degrees latitude.

“It’s going to be bloody cold,” said Bouwe Bekking, the skipper of Team Brunel, who is on his eighth lap of the planet. “It’s probably the best sailing you can get. We know the boats so well at this point in the race, we will be pushing 100 per cent. And going around Cape Horn is a big psychological boost as you know the Southern Ocean is behind you, every mile you go north it gets warmer. So it’s a funny thing, there will be moments when you hate it, but you know better times are ahead and when you arrive in Brazil, you forget the bad parts and the good parts stay with you.”

The Ice Exclusion Zone for Leg 7 is set very far south, at points diving as deep as the 59-degree south latitude line. In theory this will shorten the distance the boats need to sail, and speed up the leg. But it comes at a cost. More bitter cold and towering seas in wind and waves that circle the planet unimpeded. The challenge is not lost on the sailors.

“You can’t ignore where you’re going and the responsibility that lies with the skipper,” said Dee Caffari, the skipper of Turn the Tide on Plastic. “But we have already had Leg 3, from Cape Town to Melbourne. Everybody has had a taste of how wet, cold and windy it can be. We’re not going down into the unknown, which gives you a lot more confidence.”

Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier can speak first-hand about how challenging this part of the world can be. “It’s a difficult leg for sure. Sometimes you have to forget the race and take care of the boat and the crew,” he said. “I know this very well. I’ve done this leg twice and never finished with the mast up! And Pascal (Bidégorry) did this leg twice and he’s never made it past Cape Horn! So that is one of our goals, make it past Cape Horn and finish with the mast up!”

Re-joining the fleet is Vestas 11th Hour Racing after missing the last two legs with damage sustained in a collision near the end of Leg 4. Skipper Charlie Enright says his team is eager to get racing again and resume challenging the leaders.

Prior to the accident at the back of the fleet, SHK-Scallywag was sailing conservatively with some equipment damage as well as at least one uncontrolled gybe. Witt says the goal is to get to Cape Horn safely and then make an effort to catch the fleet. Given the forecast of compression after the Horn, that might be a sensible strategy.

“Make sure we get to the Horn intact and we may have a chance,” said Witt. “We may not, but we need to get from here to the Horn and at the moment we’re struggling so we just have to get there safely.”

The team, along with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), has been conducting a search and rescue operation to recover the missing crew member, John Fisher (UK), who was wearing survival equipment when he went overboard. The remaining crew is reported safe. The incident took place approximately 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn. The wind in the search area is a strong 35-knot westerly, with accompanying sea state. Water temperature is 9-degrees Celsius. There was daylight, but weather conditions are forecast to deteriorate in the coming hours.

Given the gale force conditions it is not an option to divert any of the other six Volvo Ocean Race competitors, who are at least 200 miles further east and downwind of SHK/Scallywag, to assist in the search operation. The MRCC has identified a ship approximately 400 nautical miles away and it has been diverted to the scene.

Scallywag has thus made the difficult decision to turn downwind and head towards the South American coast, the nearest safe landfall, approximately 1,200 nautical miles away. Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag is heading towards the coast of the Chile, as the team attempt to recover from the devastating loss. At this point, the team has not confirmed its plans, but the west coast of Chile represents the closest landfall and a relatively safe passage for the strong conditions the team is still facing.

The rest of the fleet continues to push on towards Cape Horn. The loss of Scallywag’s Fisher is still weighing on the minds of many sailors. Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper, Dee Caffari, offered this moving tribute, describing the atmosphere on board after she told her crew what had happened to her friend “Fish.”

“Many tears were shed both openly and privately. Fish was a friend, a fan and a true supporter of our project. He was a gifted sailor who was doing what he loved and that gives us solace at this difficult time. We now look to the skies above and sadly see another spirit of a lost sailor take flight in an Albatross watching over the rest of us out here. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends and even more so to Team SHK/Scallywag and the rest of the Volvo Ocean Race family that have lost a loved one.”

“This is the worst situation you can imagine happening to your team,” said SHK/Scallywag Team Manager Tim Newton, who has spoken with skipper David Witt and navigator Libby Greenhalgh about what happened. “We are absolutely heart-broken for John’s family and friends. I know for David Witt, he has lost his best friend. It’s devastating.”

Newton says he asked the crew to put together a timeline of events to ensure accurate reporting on the incident and it follows here:

  • On Monday, 26 March, SHK/Scallywag was racing in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil, approximately 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn.
  • Weather conditions were 35-45 knots with 4 to 5 metre seas with showers reducing visibility. It was 15 minutes before sunrise.
  • The team was sailing with a single reef in the mainsail and the J2 jib. The Fractional 0 (FR0) sail was hoisted but furled.
  • At roughly 1300 UTC SHK/Scallywag surfed down a large wave leading to an accidental crash gybe.
  • John Fisher was on deck, in the cockpit. At the time, he was moving forward to tidy up the FR0 sheet and had therefore unclipped his tether.
  • As the mainsail swung across the boat in the gybe, the mainsheet system caught John and knocked him off the boat. The crew on board believe John was unconscious from the blow before he hit the water.
  • He was wearing a survival suit with a wetsuit hood and gloves and a lifejacket.
  • The JON buoy and the horseshoe buoy were thrown off the back of the boat to mark the position.
  • It took some time to get the boat under control and motor sail back to a position near where the man overboard occurred.
  • At 1342 (UTC), the team informed Race Control, by email, that there was a man overboard and they were returning to the MOB position to start a search pattern.
  • With input from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and Race Control in Alicante, a search and rescue operation was carried out for several hours but there was no sign of John, the horseshoe buoy, or the JON buoy.
  • With weather conditions deteriorating, a difficult decision was taken to abandon the search and preserve the safety of the remaining crew.

Newton says the team is distraught but has a clear focus on getting the crew and boat back to shore. “This situation isn’t over yet for our team,” Newton said. “The conditions are extremely challenging, with strong winds and a forecast for a building sea state over the next couple of days. Our sole focus, with the assistance of Race Control in Alicante is to get the team into port safely. Once we have achieved that, we have time to de-brief more fully and ensure that any lessons that can be learned from what happened to John are incorporated by the rest of the fleet going forward. That would be a tremendous legacy for John, who spent so much of his time passing the learnings from his lifetime of experience at sea onto the younger sailors on our team.”

“The crew is very, very, very tired,” said Skipper Bouwe Bekking from Team Brunel. But even with a successful passage from the Pacific into the Atlantic Ocean, the mood on board during the approach to Cape Horn was subdued. “Even though we are leading, there is no ‘hurray’ feeling on board. The loss of John is sitting way deeper than people like to admit: I think of him several times in an hour.”

He’s not alone. As the sailors have some more time to digest the news about the loss of Scallywag’s John Fisher, the impact is sinking in. “This leg has claimed a good man in Fish,” said Team AkzoNobel’s Chris Nicholson. “We’ve all been very deeply affected by it and we offer our thoughts to his family and friends.”

Chasing Team Brunel to Cape Horn is a group of five boats led by Vestas 11th Hour Racing. “I can speak for everyone on board to say we’re all really, really looking forward to getting there,” said navigator Simon Fisher. “It’s the hardest of the great Capes to take on and this has probably been the toughest Southern Ocean leg on record for quite some time. I’m on my fifth race now and I don’t remember one as hard. As usual it’s blowing about 35-40 knots; so really, there’s just been no let up in the last week and half to these conditions. We’re certainly taking stock to think about what it means to get around Cape Horn and also to pause and think about John and the Scallywag guys who have been through a terrible ordeal and this will be a good moment to pay our respect to them.”

 

Team Brunel Wins

Leg 7

“I think how tired we are as a crew now shows us how tough this leg was, and it’s been incredibly grinding on everyone,” said Peter Burling ETNZ’s America’s Cup winning helmsman and a valued part of the Brunel crew. “Everyone kept fighting, kept pushing on, and to eventually manage to hold off DongFeng for the win is incredibly pleasing. It’s great to finally take a win as a team... to be able to put it all together this time and come away with a win in the leg with the most points on offer in the whole race is pretty pleasing for us as group.”

It was easily the most difficult stage of the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 and the sailors will almost certainly rank it as one of the hardest in the history of the race.

Bekking used his veteran nous to fight through all the challenges and lead Team Brunel to an incredibly narrow win over Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng Race Team. After racing nearly 7,600 nautical miles over the ground, the margin at the finish was less than 15 minutes. “It’s been an unbelievable leg,” Bekking said. “We are sad in our hearts about the loss of John Fisher (SHK/Scallywag) and that sits very deep with us, but from a sporting standpoint we sailed a very nice leg so we take confidence from that.”

Nominally a 7,600 nautical mile race from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil, Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race took the teams deep into the Southern Ocean, with an amended Ice Exclusion Zone set at far south as 60-degrees south latitude.

Down in the “Furious Fifties” (south of 50-degree latitude) the wind and cold was relentless. Steady gale force winds of 30-35 knots; with 4 to 6 meter seas was a normal day. Squalls could bring gusts upwards of 50 knots and towering seas. The temperature plummeted to just above freezing and snow and hail were common.

The teams jostled for position throughout the first 7 days of the leg, but as the boats gybed along the Ice Exclusion Zone, Brunel slid south from a position slightly further north of the leaders and emerged with a 20-mile lead. 

Bekking and his navigator Andrew Cape were able to hold this advantage past Cape Horn, picking up the first bonus point available on this leg. And apart from one position report three days ago where Dongfeng showed as the leader by virtue of a slightly more westerly position, Brunel has nursed this delicate lead all the way to the finish line in Brazil.

It hasn’t been easy. In the final 48 hours they have had Dongfeng close to within one mile, and over the final hours, in the lighter, shifty conditions near the finish line, it was an open contest; either team could win. For Brunel, the victory means the team has collected all 16 points available for this leg (14 for winning the double-point scoring leg, a one-point bonus for Cape Horn and a one point win bonus) and nearly doubled its point total from 20 to 36 points. Bekking and Brunel are back in the game.

“We always wanted to aim for the maximum points this leg, as it means we would most likely be top three,” Bekking said. “From now on it will be a matter of just chipping away. We’ve seen stranger things happen in the past in this race so I think we’re now in great shape to go for the finish in The Hague.”

It was a spectacular start to Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race on Sunday afternoon, as the fleet left Auckland in perfect conditions.

The sun was out, the wind was near 20 knots, and as they have for 10 stopovers, the Auckland fans took to the water by the thousands to farewell the fleet. It wasn’t a surprise as over the course of the Auckland stop over; over 500,000 fans came through the Race Village at the Viaduct Basin.

The Kiwi spectator armada consisted of foiling kite-boards, windsurfers, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, sailing dinghies, as well as hundreds of power and sail boats, along with the former Whitbread Round the World Race winner, Stein lager 2.

But, with the tragedy of losing John Fisher two other teams faced adversity as well. MAPFRE suspended racing to deal with damaged mast track. As the fleet passed Cape Horn a section of the mast track came unglued from the mast however the team had done a good job of limiting the impact of the damage on its performance through various jury-rig solutions.

But now, with 2,000 miles of racing left to the finish line in Itajai, Brazil, skipper Xabi Fernandez has elected to suspend racing as of 18:32:20 UTC, and just six miles west of Cape Horn, to make a more effective repair to both the mast track and mainsail. Three members of the shore team are in the area to assist the sailors.

Under the rules of the Volvo Ocean Race, a team that suspends racing may use its engine, get outside assistance or take on equipment to make a repair.

The penalty for suspending racing is that you must remain out of the race for a minimum of 12 hours, and return to the same location where you suspended before resuming the race. Given the speed of the other boats, this latest development has the potential to knock the overall race leader back significantly.

The forecast, however, works in MAPFRE’s favor. A ridge of high pressure is expected to slow the frontrunners and allow the trailing boats to catch up.

The move, which cost MAPFRE nearly 13-hours when they suspended racing, leaves the Spanish team 260-miles behind the fleet, with the leader, Team Brunel, just over 1,600 miles from the finish line in Itajai, Brazil.

While the team had prepared for the possibility of a stop to repair the mast track by having shore support on stand-by near Cape Horn, the pit-stop became mandatory when the mainsail split into two pieces, torn from luff to leech, just before the Horn. “We’ve been lucky in a way that we broke it so close by and that we can repair it now with the shore team,” said watch captain Pablo Arrarte. “The repairs always take longer than you would like,” acknowledged skipper Xabi Fernandez. “It is not so easy because the repair of the mainsail has to dry well, but we will start sailing towards Brazil, not at 100% but working as hard as we can to lose the shortest time possible.”

Up ahead, the fleet charges on, pushing east-northeast, and passing just south of the Falkland Islands, where conditions remain fierce.

“The Southern Ocean just doesn’t want to let us off the hook and keeps us fully in its grip,” wrote Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking. “The wind direction is such that we are still not really heading north, we’re tight reaching in 28-35 knots in very cold water. It is also painful to see we will lose in every position report, with the boats behind getting better breeze.”

Vestas 11th Hour Racing dismasted while racing in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race. The team is safe and reports there is no immediate danger to the crew. The team reported that the mast broke and Race Control was informed of the situation.

The crew was forced to cut away the broken mast to avoid damage to the hull. The boat is approximately 100 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands and was motoring under its own power towards the islands.

At the time of the dismasting, Vestas 11th Hour Racing was sailing in a 25 to 30 knot northerly wind with 3 meter waves. Other boats in the fleet are in the area and have been informed of the situation in order to render assistance if needed. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was advised of the situation, but the team anticipates no outside assistance will be needed to make landfall at the Falkland Islands. The Vestas 11th Hour Racing team is currently working through several logistical scenarios to re-join the fleet in Itajai. “It’s a challenge. The whole thing is a challenge,” said crew member Stacey Jackson. “Whether you are racing the weather or the elements or setbacks like this. I think it just tells the story that this race is about overcoming difficulties...”

I will be in Newport, RI in May to greet the fleet. Send your thoughts, comments and letters to mark@yachtsmanmagazine.com H


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