Last night there was another fatality on the Clipper Race. In the twenty year, nine race history there were none until this race. In this, the tenth edition of the race, there have now been two. The scant details that we know state that it was a man overboard. She was recovered within the hour, but had already gone either from drowning or hypothermia. I cannot imagine what the skipper and his crew are going through. Not only is this the second fatality of the race, but they have both been on the same boat – Ichorcoal. There are no words that can express how this had made everyone on Danang feel. Numb would be probably the nearest.
It happened last night, in waters very close to us. The following is how those hours and the time leading up to them were for us.
The low pressure system that had given us the big winds and seas had passed, and we were in very sloppy seas. Rolling about, without going terribly fast. We knew that we had more to come. The huge swirling red circle on the weather map started behind us, and gradually overtook us. We were then in the middle of it for about twelve hours, waiting for the outer circle at the back to hit. It was the sting in the tail. As afternoon approached, we could see it coming.
The call was made to prepare early. We got the yankee down, and replaced it with the ginger ninja. We then attempted to put a reef in, but the track that the main sail comes down on had issues. A screw had come loose, and the sail would not come down. It had to go back up again, whilst Marc and Craig got out the toolbox – and the mallet! It took a good half an hour to do a repair that would allow the sail to drop, and to therefore be able to put in a reef. During this time, the wind was gradually picking up. We put in a second reef, and then a third. It looked on the weather map as if we would have the effects of this low pressure for about twelve hours.
It was also getting considerably colder. You could see your breath once again below decks. The shifts were rotated on deck to half an hour slots so people would not get too cold. You still lost the feeling in your fingers, and those of the slimmer variety were chilled to the bone. The seas were beginning to build. Sitting in the cockpit – it was too cold and wet and dangerous to be on the rail – every few minutes a wave would break over the boat causing a deluge of water. Looking into the mighty Pacific Ocean, I can see why it is one of the great oceans of the world. It is inky black, with the white froth of water boiling on top of the swells as the only other colour. Swells that were becoming bigger and bigger. During the afternoon, we had water spouts passing by the boat. Around 300 metres away – close enough. Everyone was ordered off deck for safety except the helmsman. The poor helmsman who was hanging on for dear life rather than steering the boat. By the time we came back on for the night shift, the stay sail had been taken down as well.
At night, you can’t see what’s coming until it hits you. Sitting looking into the water, the white froth is full of phosphorescence. Pretty, in the right circumstances. And in the boat with you when the waves break over. As the water drains away and the waves undulate the ropes in the pool the phosphorescence light up again. As the waves come over, the phosphorescence are like stars falling down from the sky. Cold, wet and a little scared. Thoughts go back to home – the body is on the boat but the mind can be wherever you want it to be. Just as we were going off shift, we saw Ichorcoal on the AIS very close to us, coming towards us. Everyone had thoughts of damage or worse, but no one wanted to voice them.
As we prepared for the morning shift, there was talk of a giant wave bigger than all the others. Bigger than the mast. Exaggerated? Probably. But pretty big even so. Looking over into that vast ocean, the wind is blowing spray off the top of the water. Sometimes it even flattens it. But not for long. The boat has taken a real hammering. And still is. The wind may have died down, comparatively, but the ocean is continuing to show us who is boss.
Wendo broke the news to the crew at shift change. There was a stunned silence. What words are of use at this time? A fellow victualler, a friend, a daughter, a girl friend of Jim, the original Unicef skipper. Our thoughts are with all of her friends and family, and all the friends and family of all crew on all boats.