SAN DIEGO — Sailing through the darkness in 20 knots of wind shortly after midnight on Jan. 20, just an hour and a half from pulling into Hong Kong in second place at the end of the 5,600 nautical mile fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, Vestas 11th Hour Racing was monitoring nearby vessels on radar and the Automatic Identification System.
Without warning, the racing yacht collided with a fishing boat.
The fishing boat sank and all 10 fishermen were thrown into the water. The impact punched a large hole in the port hull of the 65-foot racing yacht and spun it into a port tack the crew wasn’t prepared for. It took 20 minutes to get the boat under control, and then the crew then had to heel the boat to starboard to keep water from pouring into the gashed hull.
While nine of the fishermen were rescued by another boat, the Vestas 11th Hour crew spent the next two hours searching for the 10th fisherman. After several attempts, they got him on board and began CPR. The fisherman was airlifted to a hospital, but he couldn’t be revived.
Six weeks later, Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s American co-founders Mark Towill and Charlie Enright are speaking publicly for the first time as they prepare to rejoin the round-the-world race after missing the last two legs while their boat was repaired.
“Anytime you’re in in a situation like this, that involves the loss of life, everybody was pretty shaken up,” Mark Towill said by phone Friday afternoon in Auckland, New Zealand. “Time has passed and we’ve taken the appropriate time and measures to make sure we’re dealing with that properly. Now we’re onto the next chapter of this evolving adventure called the Volvo Ocean Race.”
Towill said the crew has refrained from commenting until now because of investigations and out of respect for the dead fisherman and his family. The damaged yacht had to be shipped to New Zealand, where it was fitted with a new bow section that was built in Italy. They hope to relaunch it in the next few days and then spend time practicing, perhaps even doing an overnight sail. There’s an in-port race on March 10 and the 7,600-nautical mile Leg 7 around Cape Horn to Itaji, Brazil, starts March 18.
Towill said Hong Kong police interviewed the crew after it arrived in port following the accident. He said the sailors were free to leave and they returned to their homes for a few weeks. Both Towill and Volvo Ocean Race director Phi Lawrence said investigations by the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities will be closed shortly with no further action taken.
The Volvo Ocean Race also announced Friday afternoon New Zealand time that it has commissioned an independent report into ocean racing at night in areas of high vessel traffic in order to establish how race organizers might reduce risk.
The effort will be led by retired Australian Rear Admiral Chris Oxenbould with help from Stan Honey, an American who was the navigator on the winning Volvo Ocean Race team in 2005-06, and Chuck Hawley, the former chairman of the U.S. Sailing Safety at Sea Committee.
“Understandably, there has been a lot of reaction to this incident in the sailing community, but the fact is, it takes time to make a responsible assessment of what could be done differently to minimize risk and increase safety,” Lawrence said in a statement.
Towill said he was at the yacht’s navigation station watching three vessels on AIS. He said they were the only ones identified in Vestas’ vicinity.
Among them was a well-lit fishing boat that the crew was preparing to cross, “and all of a sudden there was an unexpected collision,” Towill said.
Towill said the crew was doing everything in a seamanlike manner just before the collision.
“There were so many factors to it and believe me, we’ve gone over all the what-ifs in our heads,” Towill said. “At this point we’re ready to move forward. Without taking anything away from the situation, I think the team’s in a place where we’re ready to get back into the water in a few days and rejoin the race.”
Towill was the skipper on Leg 4 because Enright had to tend to a family medical emergency. Enright arrived in Hong Kong just before the finish of the leg.
Towill and Enright praised the crew for the way it conducted the search and rescue mission while handling a structurally compromised boat.
Enright said the crew will rejoin the race with heavy hearts while looking forward to a leg with significant meaning. In the previous edition of the race, Towill and Enright led Team Alvimedica, which was the first to round Cape Horn.
Despite retiring from Leg 4 and missing the next two legs, Vestas 11th Hour Racing is tied for fourth in the seven-boat fleet. It won the first leg and finished third in the next two legs.
“There are plenty of points left,” Towill said. “This is a big leg here, back into the Southern Ocean where we had a lot of success with Alvimedica. We were the first to Cape Horn. We’re thinking enough time has passed where we can start to get to a place where we can focus on what we know how to do best, sailing.”
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